Even by global megastar standards, Rihanna has had quite a week. As creative director of the sportswear company Puma, she staged an epic New York fashion week show, complete with motocross stunts across pink glitter mountains that delighted her fans and charmed the critics. The Washington Post said: “Rihanna has figured out how to sprinkle just the right amount of her stardust on the sportswear brand without overshadowing the brand itself.
The launch of her Fenty Beauty range in the same week set a new standard for catering to all skin tones, with 40 shades of foundation. That the darker shades were sold out within days is a marker of Rihanna’s power in the marketplace and the appetite for diversity in beauty that she taps into.
Earlier this summer, while her single Wild Thoughts was topping charts worldwide, Rihanna travelled to Paris to discuss global education with Emmanuel Macron and went from there to Barbados, where she partied in a diamanté headdress, fishnet tights and little else. She will not be pigeonholed, and her refusal to comply with the expectations of young black womanhood has made her a potent and unpredictable icon.
In the early days of Instagram, Rihanna’s penchant for posting selfies in which she was smoking marijuana caused frequent outrage. Eventually, as it became clear that Rihanna was either not listening to or was unmoved by the condemnation, the outrage ebbed. Rihanna’s music is pop, but her spirit is punk. She told Essence magazine in 2015: “Everyone’s cool with a young black woman singing, dancing, partying and looking hot. But when it comes time to negotiate, to broker a deal, she is suddenly made aware of her blackness.”
Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born in St Michael, Barbados, on 20 February 1988. Her childhood was marred by her father’s addictions to crack cocaine and alcohol, which contributed to her parents’ divorce when she was in her early teens. Singing was a teenage hobby until the summer of 2003, when the girl group she had formed with two friends scored an audition with the music producer Evan Rogers, visiting the island on holiday with his Barbadian wife.
Rogers later recalled: “The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist. After hearing her Rihanna sing estiny’s Child’s Emotion and Mariah Carey’s Hero, he set about arranging for her to make a demo tape. This made its way to Def Jam Records, where a newly appointed chief executive, a rapper called Jay-Z, heard it, and signed Rihanna to a six-album deal.
In 2007, first Britney Spears and then Mary J Blige turned down a song called Umbrella, and Rihanna’s world changed as a result. That single turned her from a middle-tier, urban-pop artist into a megastar. The undisputed soundtrack of that summer, it crashed iTunes the day downloads became available.
Rihanna’s next four studio albums all went platinum. Her songs Disturbia, Take a Bow, Only Girl (In the World), S&M, Diamonds, We Found Love and Stay have joined Umbrella in the ranks of the world’s best-selling singles. She is the youngest solo artist to reach 14 No 1 hits and has done it faster than anyone else. Rihanna has won eight Grammy awards and has a net worth estimated at $230m (£169m).
As Rihanna’s profile grew towards the end of the previous decade, her image became increasingly arresting. With Umbrella and the album Good Girl Gone Bad came a fetish-shaded new look: leather, bra tops, bondage straps, thigh-high boots and a distinctive, provocatively sexual, heavy-lidded, head-thrown-back stance. Whips and riding crops became familiar on-stage props.
The violence of the imagery was uncomfortable viewing, in the context of her abuse by her boyfriend, Chris Brown, in 2009. It reached its peak in the video for S&M, in 2011, in which Rihanna wore a dress with the slogans “whore” and “slut” while bound against a wall with layers of clingfilm. The video was banned in 11 countries. Rihanna told British Vogue that the look was “not me. That’s like a part I play. You know, like it’s a piece of art, with all these toys and textures to play with.”
Rihanna’s shift from sweatpant-and-sparkles popstrel to edgy, controversy-baiting sex symbol caught the attention of the fashion industry. Within six months of the S&M video, she had appeared on the covers of US and British Vogue. At that year’s Grammys, she wore semi-transparent Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture. In Time magazine in 2012, Stella McCartney described Rihanna as “one of the coolest, hottest, most talented, most liked, most listened to, most followed, most impressive artists at work today”.
But even as her fashion connections grew to include an ambassadorship with Dior and a collaboration with Manolo Blahnik, Rihanna was pursuing yet another burgeoning career, as an actor. She starred this summer in the sci-fi film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and will appear alongside Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway and Mindy Kaling in the hotly anticipated female heist movie Ocean’s Eight next year.
Tom Ford has described Rihanna’s style as “daring, fearless, and constantly evolving”. In the past five years, that style has evolved beyond the sledgehammer sexuality of S&M into an exuberant take on fashion that combines a willingness to experiment with a strong sense of self. Where other celebrities stick doggedly to the look a stylist has deemed right for their “personal brand”, Rihanna has fun with her clothes.
In 2014, she wore a Swarovski-crystal fishnet bodysuit with matching turban to the CFDA awards, accessorised with a nude thong and a white fur stole. The following year, her yolk-yellow Guo Pei dress for the Met Gala prompted an omelette meme. (Fashion observers, however, noted that Rihanna was one of very few attendees to have honoured the Chinese theme of the exhibition by wearing a dress by a Chinese designer.) She has embraced the man-repelling style of Vetements with oversized puffa coats and high-necked, luridly floral dresses, and helped turn Princess Diana into a hipster millennial crush by wearing her face on a T-shirt.
The past year has marked Rihanna’s transition from fashion plate to fashion leader. A year ago, she moved her Puma show to Paris, with a collection entitled “Marie Antoinette Goes to the Gym”. This was followed, in March, by sending her models walking down the tabletops of the National Library of France in collegiate-themed streetwear. The late-night Paris fashion week event, which had the aura of the world’s most glamorous after-school detention, garnered Rihanna’s most favourable reviews to date. Meanwhile, her influence has been evident in how other designers have followed her lead in casting her favourite model, Slick Woods, who has appeared in every Fenty show and is the face of Fenty Beauty.
At the launch party for Fenty Beauty Rihanna, dressed in a custom-made Oscar de la Renta ensemble in her now-signature shade of sunshine yellow, Rihanna emphasised the importance of inclusivity in the beauty industry. “There needs to be something for a dark-skinned girl, there needs to be something for a really pale girl … you want people to appreciate the product and not feel like: ‘Aw, that’s cute, but it only looks good on her,’” she told editors. Alongside the strikingly buzz-cut, gap-toothed Woods, Rihanna has chosen the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden as a Fenty Beauty ambassador. Rihanna “makes me feel hopeful for the future of the beauty industry”, enthused one reporter who attended the event.
Three days after the gravitas and business clout of her beauty launch, Rihanna took her catwalk bow after her Puma show on the back of a motorbike, with one hand in the air and her tongue sticking out. The world is taking Rihanna seriously now, but girls still just wanna have fun.