She works hard, plays harder, and never apologizes for anything. Rihanna is ready for her close-up. Now back up off her.
This feature appears in Complex's February/March 2013 issue.
Rihanna’s moving forkfuls of calamaretti fritti onto her plate at celebrity hot-spot Giorgio Baldi, her favorite restaurant in Santa Monica. Even when she’s eating, her posture stays upright like a ballerina, long and graceful. In between bites, she explains how to take a flattering selfie for Instagram. “Get a good light,” she says, adjusting the Prada Minimal Baroque glasses on the bridge of her nose. Her heavy gold necklace slinks around the front of her black adidas sweatshirt as she turns to order spaghetti semplice from the server. “Get a good angle on what’s working for you that day,” she says with a laugh. Rihanna enunciates every word and hits every consonant, her hands dancing as she talks. “If it’s boobs, make sure you hit that. If it’s face, make sure it’s fierce.”
Today’s a good face day for the 24-year-old singer. After putting in work all week in L.A., including a signing for her new perfume, Nude, a photo shoot for a new clothing collaboration with River Island, and plenty of promo for the Grammy Awards, she’d love a chance to catch her breath. But alas, the life of the third-highest-earning celebrity under 30 offers no breaks. She says she spent the day packing for tonight’s flight to Switzerland.
“Get a good angle on what’s working for you that day... If it’s boobs, make sure you hit that. If it’s face, make sure it’s fierce.”
Rihanna may be tired, but she’s always ready for a close-up. She holds the phone just so to capture her stony demeanor in the small square frame. Slick specs, diamond studs, Cuban links. She selects Inkwell. The black-and-white filter applies a grainy texture to the photo, giving it a rugged feel. This is the mood she wants to display: no smiles. She taps her touch screen and shares the image with @badgalriri’s 4.3 million followers.
Since opening her Instagram account last March, with a selfie of her blowing smoke, Rihanna has posted more than 230 self portraits. “It’s narcissistic, but whatever—everyone does it,” she says. “I’m capturing personality... Everybody has their thing they like or don’t like to see. It’s all in your head. That’s why people take their own pictures, because it’s difficult for someone else to capture what you seek.”
Rihanna is photographed regularly, whether for magazine spreads, album covers, or by the paparazzi. But when it comes to self-portraits, she’s the one in control. She projects the image of someone who doesn’t care what people think, but she's come too far to leave her image to chance. Moving 26 million albums and 45 million singles worldwide has earned her a lot of money—an estimated $53 million last year. It’s also afforded her the freedom to be as wild as she wants to be. Although it’s useful to have a direct channel to reach her fans, social media has been a blessing and a curse.
Some of Rihanna’s more buzzed-about selfies are the ones she takes topless (with arms strategically placed over her chest) or with a blunt between her fingers. And then there is the semi-nude shot she posted in December with the caption, “Who needs fashion when there’s pu$$y.” Provocative, even illicit, these are not the kinds of images a publicist would greenlight. In fact, they may have cost Rihanna her Nivea endorsement. The skincare company broke ties with her last August, explaining that she did not embody their image of “trust, family, and reliability.”
Even more controversial are the shots she posts of herself and Chris Brown, the pop-star boyfriend she broke up with after he assaulted her in February 2009—when he was 19 and she was 21. Despite a stay-away order issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court, the two have remained close friends. The exact status of their relationship remains unknown, but the takeaway from social media has been that they are hooking up again.
The couple became the talk of gossip blogs last June when Brown and Drake got into a fight over her at W.i.P., a club in NYC. In August, Rihanna told Oprah in an interview that she and Brown were “very, very close friends.” In September, they greeted each other with a brief hug and kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards. At the time Brown was dating model Karrueche Tran. In early October, Brown and Rihanna were spotted at various New York clubs and photographed together at a Jay-Z show. The next day, Brown released a statement: “I have decided to be single to focus on my career. I love Karrueche very much but I don’t want to see her hurt over my friendship with Rihanna.” He then released a video in which he asked, “Is there such thing as loving two people?” By the end of October, Rihanna was using Instagram to send subtle signs that she and Brown were growing closer. First she posted a shot of herself wearing sweatpants by Black Pyramid, Brown’s streetwear brand. Later that month she uploaded a photo of herself with a “miss you!” caption and, that same day, reposted a still from Brown’s latest music video.
According to a Department of Justice study, roughly 1.3 million American women are abused by their husbands or boyfriends each year, and one in every four women are victims of domestic abuse at some time during their lives. Rihanna, as we all know, is one of those women—the most famous of them alive today. While many victims of abuse return to the men who abused them, almost none go through that painful process while being scrutinized in public by the world. No wonder Rihanna requires final say over what images she shares. “People take the little bit of information they’re fed, and they draw a picture of who you are,” she says. “Most of the time it’s wrong.”
When Rihanna first opened her Twitter account on October 2, 2009, it looked like any other official celebrity feed managed by a PR flack. This fueled speculation that she was just a pretty face whose every move was controlled by handlers. Around a year later, during the release of her fifth album, Loud, Rihanna got hip to the game. These days she doesn’t just send messages, she also reads her timeline, and she’s not afraid to fire back at critics. When she posted an Instagram shot of herself at last year’s Coachella Music Festival, sitting on her bodyguard’s shoulders and rolling a blunt on top of his head, MTV.com linked to the photos with a Tweet that said “Yikes.” Rihanna didn’t hesitate to tweet back that she “ran out of fucks to give.” That statement was retweeted over 13,000 times.
Rihanna’s not the first sexy young megastar with a hedonistic bent. Madonna did most of her dirt long before the Twitter era, but as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have learned, the Internet is a vicious place that can turn on you with the drop of a hashtag. Somehow Rihanna has found a way to weather all the negativity. The girl isn’t just thick-skinned, she’s fearless—and unashamed to put her business in front of 27 million followers. She makes it work for her. It isn’t enough to prove she’s not a manufactured pop star; Rihanna’s trying to be seen as the realest bitch in the game.