"I can't believe so many people are here right now!" It was midnight on a Thursday, and I was trailing a shocked Rihanna as she waved to thousands of shrilling fans in the middle of Times Square. That's right: I, a certified, cardholding member of the Rihanna Navy, was behind the scenes as Rihanna welcomed shoppers anxious to get their hands on her new Fenty Beauty collection that just hit Sephora in 17 countries.
So how did I get here? Around 10 PM last night, Rih posted on Instagram that she'd stolen the keys to Times Square's Sephora location and would be arriving to meet the very first shoppers; I was the lucky journalist who got to follow along. By the time I arrived at 11 PM, there were already thousands of people waiting outside, the metal barricades groaning under the weight of the crowd as NYPD tried to keep everyone contained.
Inside the store, Sephora staffers wearing branded "Perfect" shirts were buzzing about, yaaaaas-ing when "This Is What You Came For" blared over the speakers and Instagramming their best booty pops and shoulder shimmies set to "Wild Thoughts." There was electricity in the air on both sides — fans outside straining for a peek of the pop star inside the building, and store employees looking out at the impending wave of hysteria about to descend on the floor.
Honestly, I was on the brink of hysteria myself. I knew as soon as I stepped foot in Times Square that this would not be your typical celebrity appearance — because Rihanna fans (myself included) are not your typical admirers. Sure, the Navy is inclined to losing it when she walks into a room — but it goes deeper than that. Her fans aren't just following her because they love her; they're following her because they love what she represents. This wasn't just about pretty makeup products — it was about Robyn Fenty dedicating two years of her life to a collection that was inclusive of everyone. And she showed up with the product line and campaign to prove it.
While we waited on her arrival, I took a spin through the product section, fingering a candy store-like display of shimmering Killawat highlighters and sparkling glosses; above me, models of various skin tones and styles smiled down from life-size posters that read "Fenty Beauty By Rihanna" in clean, white typeface.
I spoke to Hector Espinal, one of Fenty Beauty's global makeup artists, who was on hand to give a few fans makeovers. He predicted that the Killawat highlighter in Trophy Wife (a sparkly gold that Rihanna wore for the release party) and Gloss Bomb (her universally flattering, pinky-nude lip gloss) would be the two most-shopped products of the collection, and based on early interest on social media, I had a feeling he would be right.
And then, finally: Rihanna arrived. She came through a side entrance of the store to greet Sephora employees first, offering high fives and waves and stopping for a few selfies. And then she headed outside. I've been to hundreds of concerts in both arenas and sold-out stadiums, but I swear I'd never heard shrieking as loud as I did when Rihanna walked through those doors. The barricades were working harder than ever as fans reached out for a touch or a glimpse; it was, in many ways, like a Queen greeting her citizens. Except, for as regal as Rihanna is, she felt much more like a close girlfriend, offering fans hugs, daps, peace signs and selfies.
Perhaps my favorite moment, though, was when she stopped in the middle of it all to look up at the Times Square billboard that was displaying her Fenty Beauty ad. Her eyes sparkled as she drank it all in, genuinely overwhelmed. In that moment, she looked much less like a multi-platinum, award-winning pop star, and more like a girl from a small island in Barbados. Except this island girl just launched a beauty empire that has the potential to change the makeup world completely.
Back in the store, Rih's team let in the first 15 shoppers of the Fenty Beauty collection. I milled through the crowds as they browsed; a few beelined straight for Trophy Wife, but others were slowly running their fingers over a rainbow of cheek sticks, the back of their hands covered in swatches of beige, caramel, and brown as Sephora consultants matched their foundation.
But none of the shoppers were hurriedly tossing products into their bag because they just wanted anything stamped with Fenty on it; I could tell they were actual makeup lovers, carefully testing each shade to see what was right for them. A pair of best friends gasped when they looked in the mirror and saw what the Killawat highlighter looked like on their skin, one caramel, one deep brown, both equally popping. A shopper named Christina Vega, who was a Sephora employee herself a few years back, said she could tell how much thought went into the collection — and that she appreciated how high-quality both the product and the packaging was.
"I'm going to bathe in Trophy Wife, but I'm most excited about the foundations," she said. "As a Black girl, it's always such a relief when a collection has tons of options in various brown shades. That's what I love about Rihanna. She gets us, and she looks out for us."
As much as I would love to report that I kept my cool and acted super casual about being in the same vicinity as Robyn, as I mentioned, I am also a die-hard stan. So when, out of nowhere, I found myself standing next to her in the rare moment people weren't swarming around her, I had to take off my journalist hat for just one second. "Rihanna, I have to ask: Can we take a photo together?" And then, that lilting Bajan accent said the most beautiful words I've ever heard: "Of course, girl!"
After I snapped the selfie, Rihanna squeezed my shoulder, winked, and thanked me before she headed to the register to personally ring up her first customer. "This is a moment," she yelled, as she recorded an Instagram Live story. "What we ringing up? I mean girlfriend, honestly you made my day!" Rihanna asked the customer to share her phone number with her so she could send her more Fenty Beauty products (!), then handed the customer her purchase with a hug. And don't worry: She didn't forget to put the receipt in the bag.
After about an hour of hanging out and mingling with fans, it was time for Rihanna to go. She floated out of Sephora, a trail of sexy floral notes wafting behind her as she waved goodbye. As soon as she was out of the building, Sephora employees headed toward the doors, and the crowd began to scurry in, looking left and right and chattering excitedly as they decided where to start.
That was also my cue to go; there was no way I was going to be able to shop in that crowd. So I walked out the same door Rihanna did, trying to breathe in her essence and channeling that same boss attitude. And then I opened Sephora.com at 2 a.m. and placed my own order.