What happened when I met Rihanna

Even on the Super Bowl stage the billionaire Barbadian star remains relatable, just as she was when Michael Odell spoke to her for London’s The Times.

It’s an image worth a thousand National Childbirth Trust leaflets on “new mum confidence”: Rihanna, the mother of a nine-month-old boy, revealing her second pregnancy from what looked like a gigantic flying iPad suspended above the pitch during the Super Bowl’s half-time show. Dressed in bright red and attended by a legion of dancing munchkins in white romper suits, Rihanna patted her new baby bulge before executing a full range of crotch grabs and booty shakes.

There was even a cute momentary make-up check in a compact, a nod to her cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty — one of the businesses that has made Rihanna a billionaire and the wealthiest female artist in the world. Sunday night’s performance was rapturously received and will have been watched by an audience estimated at more than 100 million, not that it seems to have worried her.

“When you become a mom there’s something that just happens where you feel like you can take on the world, you can do anything,” she told a press conference before the show.

I met Rihanna in London in 2009, at another challenging moment in any artist’s career: the moment their manager tells them it’s no longer safe to go outside. The Barbadian singer, who was 21 at the time, had become a global superstar with her third album but still believed, in London at least, that she might slip out for Caribbean food unnoticed. However, security explained to young “RiRi” that this was no longer possible. Word was out. Fans had surrounded her location, a photography studio.

“That is one of the strangest things about success,” she told me. “You think your world is going to get bigger when really it’s just getting smaller.”

Her nine million-selling album Good Girl Gone Bad had sent Rihanna into the stratosphere, but even so she was fretting about her future. “I’m still planning to go to college and study psychology, and I could still be a soldier,” she said. “You never really know what’s going to happen in this industry and I want something to fall back on.”

She showed me her biceps (she was still proud of her days as a cadet in the Barbadian army) and claimed that she could strip, reassemble and fire a rifle.

This sweet, small-town artlessness was exactly the quality that worried the rapper Jay-Z when he first heard a Rihanna demo tape in 2005. The megastar and president of the Def Jam record label was reportedly unconvinced by the teenage singer. But he invited her to audition in his office, liked what he heard, then kept her there until 3am while he had a six-album contract drawn up. Good Girl Gone Bad was so named for good reason.

“You know that movie Grease? Where the girl [Sandy, played by Olivia Newton-John] goes from cute good girl in pink to someone super-sassy? That was kinda me,” Rihanna told me.

Her 2007 single Umbrella (originally written for Britney Spears) made her a global phenomenon. However, Rihanna was forced to cancel her appearance at the 2009 Grammys after being beaten up by her boyfriend, the singer Chris Brown. Confronted by Rihanna with suspicions that he’d been cheating, Brown assaulted her. The photos of her bruised face and split lip made headlines around the world.

“One of the reasons I need to be good at psychology is so I can read people better,” she told me (it was just a few months after the incident). “I want to have a good relationship, and to do that you need those special insights.”

She eventually found love with the New York-born rapper A$AP Rocky, and the pair welcomed their first child (not yet named publicly) in May last year. They met at the MTV Video Music awards in 2012, during which Rocky performed on Rihanna’s track Cockiness (Love It), a prescient choice of duet given what was about to happen. Mid-song, Rihanna was taken completely by surprise when Rocky grabbed her buttocks. “That was not part of the performance,” Rihanna later told Vogue. “I was like: ‘What are you doing?!’ ”

However, they became friends, and fell in love during a road trip from Los Angeles to New York in the lockdown summer of 2020. The two stars travelled incognito, making stops so that Rihanna could grill lunch by the roadside while Rocky tie-dyed T-shirts. “I just feel I can do any part of life by his side,” she said.

You don’t hear about Adele or Taylor Swift grilling burgers at the roadside. But it’s exactly this mix of superstar hauteur and girl-next-door familiarity that makes Rihanna so appealing. In 2019 British fans were astonished to discover that she had been living among them in plain sight. While holed up in a £32 million house in St John’s Wood, north London, she was spotted browsing in a market in Brixton, eating ice cream in Shoreditch and ordering Caribbean food in Shepherd’s Bush. “When I go walking, I try to keep it a little incognito,” she told The New York Times.

According to Forbes magazine, Rihanna’s music, plus her Fenty Beauty cosmetics and Savage x Fenty lingerie businesses, have accrued her a $1.7 billion fortune (her fashion label Fenty closed down in 2021). The fact that she was once snapped with a Sainsbury’s bag for life in shot was, for some fans, taking the humble act too far.

Keeping it real hasn’t stopped people exalting her further. In 2021 Barbados removed Queen Elizabeth as its head of state, declared itself a republic and designated Rihanna a national hero (she was given the lifetime honorific “the right excellent”). However, it seems likely that Rocky will help to keep her feet firmly on the ground. In May he marked the birth of their child with a new single, D.M.B. (an initialism for “Dats Ma Bitch”), widely seen as a love letter to Rihanna. He praises her for cleaning the house, keeping the fridge and freezer well stocked, not to mention her financial acumen (“She got bank accounts too/ With big amounts . . .”). However, the vibe wasn’t all Good Housekeeping. He also commends his love for loading his gun and seems to take a pot shot at her abusive ex, Brown (“I don’t beat my bitch/ I need my bitch”).

Motherhood has clearly been inspirational for Rihanna. She contributed two new songs to last year’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, but all thoughts now turn to her long-rumoured new reggae album, code-named R9, her first album since Anti in 2016. She made her name with R’n’B-tinged dance, and this is being looked at as a return to her Caribbean roots. “I will always be an ‘island gyal’,” she told me, and R9 looks like proving it.

Before Sunday night she had not performed live for five years (since she performed at the Grammys in 2018; her last full tour was in 2016), and Super Bowl LVII was a daring choice of comeback. In 2019 she’d turned the gig down in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who knelt during the national anthem before NFL games in 2016, protesting against police brutality and racial injustice in the US.

“I couldn’t dare do that,” Rihanna said of her refusal to perform in 2019. “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout.”

Now she is a new mother with a second baby on the way, most would have excused her declining the invitation once again. However, she has clearly been studying her psychology.

“The Super Bowl is one of the biggest stages in the world, so as scary as that was, there’s something exhilarating about the challenge of it all,” she explained. “It’s important for my son to see that.”

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