Sorry—Sofia Richie does not want to talk about Justin Bieber.
Sitting in an outdoor booth at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s luxurious Polo Lounge, Richie’s manager, Alex Avant, is setting the terms of her impending interview. Hollywood handlers are typically overprotective, but his chaperoning will prove to be extra oppressive: He’s a longtime family friend and has been personally tasked by Richie’s father, Lionel, to take care of his baby.
Whatever Richie wants, she gets. And what she wants is no Bieber questions.
“There are just so many rumors and lies,” Avant says. He waves at Russell Simmons across the room.
Avant is told this interview is a great way to clear up those rumors and lies.
He shakes his head.
So, Sofia and Justin, are they still…?
He nods, then shakes his head, somehow confirming and denying at the same time. “Just no questions,” he says finally.
This is unfortunate, because at the present time, Sofia Richie, 18, is known for three things: her famous family (singer and father Lionel and former reality star/current fashion-plate sister Nicole), walking in Kanye West’s most recent Yeezy Season fashion show (the one whose casting call was for “multiracial women only”), and, yes, dating Bieber. Though her circle includes Hollywood royalty from the Houses of Jenner and Hadid, and she has vague plans for a fashion line, Richie hasn’t yet built an empire capitalizing on her beauty and social media clout, like Kylie and Kendall Jenner or Bella and Gigi Hadid have. In fact, she (with the help of her manager) mostly refuses to talk about any of her famous relations, including her family and friends—even though these very relations are the source of most of her fame. Richie has been lumped in with Hollywood’s newest crop of “It Girls,” but she’s actually a church girl at heart, and one of the few young rising stars in our celebrity-obsessed, social media-fueled Age of Overshare who refuses to trade personal privacy for a greater share of the limelight.
But, in August, when Richie popped up in paparazzi photos holding hands with Bieber in California, and then hanging out with him in Tokyo during his Purpose World Tour, she was pushed into the spotlight, ready or not. Her appearances on Bieber’s Instagram sparked a now-infamous incident involving the deactivation of his account, the Beliebers, and Bieber’s ex, Selena Gomez. Rumors swirled that the relationship was a debutante ball of sorts, a strategic partnership to boost Richie’s public profile. The situation became even more complicated when Bieber started spending time with other “girlfriends,” as gossip rags insist on calling any girl in close proximity to him. Soon after Richie and Bieber were proclaimed an item, he was spotted in London with model Bronte Blampied. All hell broke loose on blogs, but Richie simply responded by becoming best buds with Blampied, who is breezing across the restaurant with Richie right now.
Though Blampied is taller than Richie, it is Richie who commands your attention. Maybe it’s because, in a scene full of bright and sunny flower-printed brunch frocks, she’s wearing a black leotard and elastic-waisted workout pants slouched low enough to reveal little half moons of hip—“dressed down,” as the Daily Mail loves to deem outfits that look like they were picked up off the floor from the very spot they were thrown to the prior night. Her hair has been raked into a fast ponytail, and several delicate, gold strands circle her neck. She’s in that not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman phase of her life: Her cheeks look downy soft, and a smattering of tiny pimples on her forehead is noticeable only due to the smear of foundation trying to disguise it. If she’s wearing mascara, it is not smudged; and it looks as if a professional may have already done her makeup this morning. The richest person in the room never looks like the richest person in the room.
Most likely, it’s that attitude that keeps stealing Polo Lounge patrons’ attention away from their $34 salads, even after they determine Richie is somebody famous. She walks like someone who grew up with everyone looking at her.
“Hi,” she says in a husky voice, taking off her rose-tinted granny glasses and leaning in to kiss cheeks in one fluid motion. Scooting into the booth next to Blampied, she smells of cigarettes. She looks young but has an older air about her—until she orders a milkshake of a coffee, a blended French vanilla latte. Still, the touch of world-weariness is too casual to be practiced.
“Sometimes you just want to walk out of your house and look ugly and get a coffee and wear your sweatpants all day. Like, I left the house, like, ‘This is perfect,’” she says of her look, sarcasm tingeing her voice. “Honestly, I might’ve thrown that together in 30 seconds. I might’ve slept in that. And shit, someone’s going to photograph me, and everyone’s going to say I’m a mess or I look depressed, when really I’m just not wearing mascara.”
Even though there has only been a scrap of news interesting enough to tantalize TMZ into following her 24-7, it was a juicy scrap, and they’ve managed to eat off of it for months now. Turning 18 years old in Hollywood is not much of an occasion, but Richie’s birthday was pretty memorable. A few weeks earlier, she and Bieber became the subject of many frenzied tabloid stories, with reports veering from “casually seeing each other” to “inseparable” within a matter of days.
By the time blogs panted that they were “Instagram official,” Beliebers and fans who couldn’t let go of “Jelena” (Justin and Selena) had descended on Richie’s social media pages, posting snake emojis and much worse under her photos. Bieber threatened to make his Instagram account private if they didn’t “stop the hate.” But then Gomez herself egged them on, writing on his Instagram, “If you can’t handle the hate then stop posting pictures of your girlfriend lol—it should be special between you two only. Don’t be mad at your fans. They love and supported you before any one [sic] ever did.”
For her part, Richie disabled comments on her Instagram posts for a while. She eventually reactivated them. But after taking a quick glance at her feed, no one could blame her if she got rid of them permanently. “Go fuck your mother, stupid,” one user commented under a selfie Richie posted.
“This shit is crazy! I was laughing about my life, like, oh my god, people are so psychotic. Some girl I don’t even know commented on my picture a week ago, ‘You should go kill yourself,’” she says. “I just had to say something. I commented back, ‘I just want to understand the sadness in your heart.’ A lot of people say they know me and my life, but no one really does. Except for, like, my family and Bronte. It’s frustrating. My whole thing is I’m trying to spread love to everyone. Some people don’t see that, but I really am trying to spread positivity to people.”
What she’s not trying to spread is any information about her personal life. She only recently has begun doing more intensive interviews, although she seems more media-savvy than her experience suggests. She remains silent on Bieber. During a follow-up phone interview for this story, she texts her manager and informs him that the no-fly zone extends to the Jenners, Paris Hilton, and, well, relationships in general, leading to an impasse.
When was the last time she hung out with the Jenners or the Hadids? What did she do?
“We don’t need that question,” Avant interjects. “Let’s just go to another question.”
Has she ever been in love?
“She doesn’t want to talk about this,” he jumps in again. “She doesn’t want to talk about that, Jenner questions, her friends, Paris Hilton. She doesn’t want to talk about this stuff.”
Perhaps Richie’s reticence comes from watching her dad (who declined to be interviewed for this story) watch Nicole, 17 years her senior, battle heroin addiction and DUIs, stumble in and out of clubs and the tabloids, and then traipse across the country with Hilton on their hilarious reality show, The Simple Life, in the 2000s. When asked how Nicole’s fame affected her, Sofia does offer a vague comment: “As a family we all just got through everything together. We’re all really supportive of each other.”
Whatever her strategy is, it’s arguably smart, and certainly novel. With paparazzi outside and iPhones inside every restaurant, club, and shop, Richie’s generation is already overexposed. “There will be times you’re like, shit, I don’t know if someone’s watching right now,” Richie says. You can control your image by constantly playing to the cameras à la the Kardashians, or you can control your image the Old Hollywood way.
Sofia and Hilton did make fans of The Simple Life do a double take this fall when they were spotted out together in L.A. multiple times. “She’s like another sister to me,” Richie says. And Richie is not unfamiliar with nightlife—photos of her holding drinks and looking chummy with 1 Oak club co-owner Darren Dzienciol dot her Instagram. But don’t expect a Hilton and Richie 2.0. Sofia and her peers are far too business- and brand-minded to screw up publicly. “Eh, sometimes [we go to clubs],” she says. “We try to stay out of it as much as possible because we don’t want to be seen as those girls.”
Is she straight edge?
“No. Straight edge? Define that,” she asks.
No drinking, no drugs.
Avant, listening intently, tries to shut down the question, but Richie answers.
“No—I’m a beast! I’m kidding,” she says.
But Richie’s challenge isn’t to avoid being seen as “those girls,” a.k.a. the bad girls of Hollywood. It’s simply to define herself as something other than just another pretty girl with a famous dad who shops by day, clubs by night, and dated Justin Bieber for a few weeks.
Sofia Richie is a true Hollywood baby complete with an E! True Hollywood Story-worthy history. Her father, Lionel, started his career in the late 1960s as a member of the R&B group the Commodores, best remembered for late ’70s hits like “Easy” and “Brick House.” He went solo in the ’80s, writing wildly successful sweet-sappy ballads like “Hello” and “Say You, Say Me.” His reported net worth is now over $150 million.
Lionel married his college sweetheart, Brenda Harvey. But they divorced after she allegedly discovered him in a Beverly Hills hotel room with former dancer and fashion designer Diane Alexander by knocking on the door and announcing she was “room service,” leading to a physical confrontation and Harvey’s arrest. Lionel eventually married Alexander, and they had two children, Miles and Sofia, before divorcing in 2004.
Growing up, Richie was very close with her mother. “I spent pretty much every minute of my life with my mom,” she says. The two bonded over fashion, but Richie was also a tomboy. She played on an elite soccer team until she was 16, when she crashed her Segway and broke her hip.
“I was the most reckless little kid,” she says. “I only had guy friends. I had a Nintendo and, when I went to normal school, I used to tape it under my desk and then pull it out and play on it. I still mainly only have guy friends; Bronte is, like, my only girlfriend.”
Family friends were people like the Jenners and the Hadids. Nicole was pals with the Kardashian sisters, and Sofia was thrown together with Kendall, Kylie, Gigi, and Bella. “We all grew up the same way, so we all kind of had that understanding of everything. Just a looking-out-for-each-other kind of sense—sisters,” she says. “Everyone’s like Gigi Hadid! And I’m like, ‘Oh, Gigi? Oh.’ I’m really proud of all them, though.”
At home, she was constantly surrounded by musical legends, from her godfather Michael Jackson to Pharrell Williams. But her father, who’s from Tuskegee, Alabama, made sure the kids stayed grounded. Well, as grounded as it’s possible to be when the King of Pop regularly drops his daughter off at your mansion for play dates. “You get to see places kids don’t normally see, and meet people that are not normal,” Richie says. “[But] there are pluses and minuses to it. You don’t really get the quality time you get with a normal dad. I feel like I grew up kind of fast, but I love my life and the way I grew up.”
Richie eventually started spending more time with her father, traveling on tour with him and switching to home-schooling. But first she attended a Christian school—albeit one nicknamed “Celebrity High” that cost almost $30,000 per year.
“I went to Oaks Christian, if you’ve heard of that? It’s in the Valley,” she throws off casually. “I went there for two years, and that’s where I got my sense. My family wanted church to be a place where we all went together. My dad was always traveling and my mom was always working. School is where I did Bible classes and studied God.”
Richie’s really serious about God, calling her faith her “main ground” and “the most interesting thing in my life.” She ticks off a list of books she’s reading, including The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, a best-selling guide to communicating with your partner, and Emotions: Freedom From Anger, Jealousy, and Fear by Osho, a self-help book. “I went to the bookstore and I was like, this is all so deep! So the least-deep one I found was Emotions.”
Which brings up the question on every tabloid’s tongue: Are Richie and Bieber together, or are Blampied and Bieber together? How are Richie and Blampied best friends if they’re both with the Biebs?
“No Bieber questions,” Avant repeats.
I ask about her love life instead, and this time she answers, sort of.
“Love life...,” she says, trailing off. She sighs.
“Me!” Blampied, still sitting next to Richie, jumps in excitedly.
“Honestly, Bronte and I just love each other,” Richie says. “[My] love life is interesting. I’m trying to stay focused on my career and my family and give as much love out. I’m trying to do the best I can with L.A. and travel and everything that’s happening around me.”
It’s also important for her to find someone who shares her very traditional belief in God—for what it’s worth, Bieber also is an avid churchgoer.
“One of the key factors of life is love, and the key factor of God is love, so having that understanding is really important in a relationship,” she explains. “Having someone that genuinely respects you and understands your life and is open to hearing about your life is really cool. Having someone to just open up to and talk to when shit is bad and when shit is great.”
For the record, that person for Richie right now seems to be Blampied—not Bieber. In fact, Blampied seems to be some sort of spiritual guide. When asked if she’s a feminist, Richie defers to Blampied, saying, “I feel what you feel!” At one point, Blampied nearly takes over the conversation, as if she’s the one being interviewed. Perhaps they’re discussing Bieber in veiled terms—they never mention him by name. But the only way he seems to figure into this equation is that he brought them together. They seem genuinely delighted to have found each other.
“Bronte and I were watching this Bible study the other day about loving your neighbor, and we felt that was really cool and important,” Richie says. “First of all, you need to love yourself, ’cause that’s the only way you’re going to get by and be OK as an individual. But it’s important to make other people feel loved because you never know what they’re going through.”
Blampied chimes in and gives a condensed version of the speech that your girlfriend who hated your boyfriend gives post-breakup.
“We definitely are surrounded by lots of girls who need to realize they are worth a lot and need to be strong, independent women. Both of us agree that we don’t want to take anything negative from anyone,” she says, and I wonder if she’s talking about Bieber and his alleged flings.
“If you’re going to be in a relationship,” Richie adds, “it’s important to be stable with yourself first. You’ve got to love yourself a lot to love someone else.”
“’Cause if you’re in a bad place, it’s going to be hard to love someone else,” Blampied finishes.
Richie laughs and looks at her. “It’s a messy world. There are a lot of terrible intentions—misleading intentions. It’s really important to be open-minded, but at the same time be close-minded, when it comes to giving your love and affections.”
“You have to be careful about who you trust,” Blampied says, and both girls chortle. “Especially in L.A. We see a lot of girls our age getting kind of lost and allowing people to treat them badly. You just have to be aware of what peoples’ intentions are.”
“It’s hard to find people in L.A. that you can actually trust. So when you find that, you really need to hold onto it and savor it,” Richie says.
It seems like they have—in each other. Was this whole conversation really about their experiences with Bieber? They won’t say.
“The tail went straight into my vag!” Richie squeals. It’s the day before her meet-up at the Polo Lounge, and the snakes who’ve spent all night wrapped around Richie’s various body parts are seeking respite from the blazing heat of photographer lights. Earlier, an orange and black milk snake becomes a necklace before slithering across Richie’s baby-bottom-smooth cheek to rest an inch above her eye. Its tongue darts out and I shudder, a good 15 feet away.
When news of Richie began spreading in supermarket rags, everybody, including Richie herself, assumed she’d embark on a music career.
“I wanted to have a music career for a long time. Music is my life and it speaks to me—Rihanna, a lot of Frank Ocean, I love Shawn Mendes!” she says. “But I don’t want my own music career. I’m Lionel Richie’s daughter. When I do this I have to be 100 percent good, and it was too much pressure for me. I just want to have my own direction and be free with it. I don’t want anyone to have a hold on me because of my dad.”
Yet it remains to be seen if she can carve out a career apart from her father. From the outside, inheriting wealth and fame seems like the easy life, but even then there are hurdles. Richie, who is 5'6", has booked shoots in magazines like Elle and Vanity Fair, but her casting has rankled some people in the fashion industry. She shrugs it off.
“It’s not like I called and begged these designers to work with me. They felt my vibe and we were cool and that’s that. People obviously don’t respect some of the shoots I do because I’m short and this or that, but I really don’t let that stuff get to me.”
Hollywood prejudice, though, is a different story. She hasn’t encountered any overt racism in the fashion world in particular, but discrimination is plentiful in Los Angeles. When the topic is broached she gets flushed with anger for the first and only time.
“I’m very light, so some people don’t really know that I’m black. I’ve been in situations where people will say something kind of racist and I’ll step in and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, you’re light,’” she says, her eyes flashing. “That still doesn’t cut it, buddy. It’s 2016—you better get your shit together before you get slapped out here.”
She insists she won’t be a socialite—and her devoted Christian faith and her refusal to answer questions about her A-list circle of friends seem to reaffirm that goal. But details about a fashion line she hopes to launch are nebulous, and she’s fuzzy on anything concrete other than being excited to “work hard.”
“You’re a socialite because you’re born into it. That’s not what I want. I actually really enjoy work ethic,” she says.
Richie stands, anxious to wrap things up. She has a busy schedule today. She and Blampied have a SoulCycle class to catch.