Rita Ora: The Party Girl Gets Serious

Rita Ora’s teacup puppy won’t stop humping things. The dog, which is half Maltese, half poodle, no bigger than a sweet potato, and named Cher, finds plenty of items to love over the course of my hour-long chat with Ora: a pillow, a corner of the couch, and finally, a teddy bear, with which she becomes intimate for about half an hour. “Oh, my god,” Ora says, adjusting the screen on her laptop so I can get a full view of the action. “She like, stares at you while she’s doing it.” I am speaking to Ora via Skype, because I am in New York and she is London, lounging in her posh house. She lives in a northwestern neighborhood called Kilburn, which is not too far from where she grew up, in a bohemian enclave near Portobello Road. The neighborhood has gentrified quite a bit since Ora was a little girl and would sing in her father’s pub, The Queen’s Arms, strengthening her rich mezzo-soprano while patrons got tipsy on shandies and devoured meat pies. Though Ora, now 25, was born in Kosovo, she moved to London at age 1, when her parents fled the persecution of Albanians. (She still speaks fluent Albanian and visits Kosovo often, returning as a kind of shiny folk hero.) She says she considers Britain, where she is very famous, to be her spiritual home. She even put a song about it on her new record. “It’s called ‘Home,’” she says. “And it’s about how I wanted to remind my hometown that I’m still here, you know? I’m always in the States and I’m always on the road, and sometimes when you're physically not here, people don’t think you're here, you know? But I’m here.”

I was only 19 or 20, and I was so excited to be making music and performing live. I didn’t know better. But now I do.

When Ora is home, she is surrounded by an entourage. She looks decidedly casual when we talk: Her platinum hair is free-flowing and messy, she wears an oversized white T-shirt and little makeup, and she keeps contorting into increasingly comfy couch positions and languidly smoking cigarettes. But she has a whole team swirling around her, constantly popping into the frame. There's Kyle, her “stylist and best friend,” who appears as if by magic from behind the couch, wearing a Butthole Surfers shirt. Then there's Damon, “my photographer and best friend” (Ora has a lot of best friends), who photographed her for this story with, as she puts it, “glitter and everything” and who bounds past the computer for only a few seconds to say hi on his way to another room. There’s the assistant who gets Ora a cup of tea and a fresh cigarette, a publicist lurking somewhere beyond the screen, and of course, Cher, humping away. It’s one big messy family, all gathered together like a pit crew to support one of the U.K.’s biggest pop stars as she gets ready to make her official American debut next spring.
Ora has never released an album in the United States. Her new, as-yet-untitled record, set to drop in 2016, will mark her true coming-out party on this side of the pond. It’s difficult to believe that she is still trying to break into the U.S. market, because her name — a household one in England, where her singles top the charts and she is a judge on The X Factor — has been swirling around the American music scene for years now. Her first U.K. single, “How We Do (Party)” was a bona fide club hit around the world in 2012. Her debut album, Ora, released that same year, yielded three No. 1 singles in Britain. She's signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label and considers Beyoncé and Prince to be her mentors. She wore ninja catsuits with Iggy Azalea in the 2014 music video for “Black Widow,” which has racked up more than 350 million views. She sang at the 2015 Oscars wearing elbow-length black satin gloves and a Grace Kelly gown, belting out “Grateful,” the nominated song from Beyond the Lights (a film that, appropriately, is about the rise of a young British pop star who hits the Billboard charts before releasing an album).
You might also recall that Ora was the face of Madonna’s Material Girl clothing line and Donna Karan’s latest New York fragrance. Ora's own design collaborations with Adidas Originals are available for purchase around the country. “I’m the only female since Missy Elliott to do anything with Adidas,” Ora says. “It’s, like, me, Missy, and Stella McCartney.” (She mentions this as a source of pride; during our interview, she alternates between humble and swaggering, the seesaw that a star must balance on when talking to the press.) And finally, Ora's love life is a constant source of fascination. Tabloids and gossip sites have followed her romances with Calvin Harris, Rob Kardashian, and Blink 182’s Travis Barker breathlessly.
By every metric of global pop stardom that exists, Rita Ora has arrived. And yet, here in the States, she is still somehow positioned as an up-and-comer, someone who the industry has been trying to “make happen” for years now. There are memes about it: One features Mean Girls' Regina George posing with the words, “Stop Trying to Make Rita Ora Happen.” Another involves users on Twitter responding “Who?” every time Ora’s name pops up in the press. The masses can be cruel to pop stars, and they are decidedly flippant when it comes to Ora. Her latest singles, “Poison” and “Body on Me” (the latter featuring Chris Brown) reached No. 3 and 22 on the U.K. charts, respectively. But they didn’t chart in the States. She is known everywhere, seen everywhere, but not yet appreciated everywhere as an artist. If the new album changes that, it will have been a long time coming. In 2009, Ora, then just 17, auditioned for Eurovision: Your Country Needs You, but soon pulled out because she didn’t want to earn her fame via a reality show. She continued to sing in her father’s pub and hang around London studios, recording guest verses on songs by U.K. artists Craig David and Tinchy Stryder. She made a few demos, sent them around, and started posting them to the web.

I used to be obsessed with tabloids. But the gossip side doesn’t affect what I do. I don’t expect anybody to understand my relationships, because they're not in my position.

And then, the call from heaven: Roc Nation. At first, she thought her grandmother was ringing her from Kosovo. But it was America on the line, requesting that she fly across the ocean to audition for Jay Z’s executives and meet the man himself. She did — and earned a contract on the spot. Nearly seven years later — an eternity in pop years — Ora is focused on what she wants for the new record. And that is to release it worldwide on the same day. She lobbied her label hard for this, pushing back even when management told her it would be better to focus on her European fan base. “It’s been seven years,” she groans, then asks her assistant for a cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon. “And it has been a bit of a battle. With the first record, we didn’t expand to the United States. Label-wise, they said, it wasn’t the right time. I was only 19 or 20, and I was so excited to be making music and performing live. I didn’t know better. But now I do. I told them, ‘Look, I just want to release my album everywhere.’ Everybody thinks that they know best. But I won the battle.” And along the way, Ora has done everything right to position herself for global domination. She’s become associated with the fashion world, with her signature red lip, Marilyn-blonde locks, and bold ensembles that few other people could pull off (thigh-high PVC boots, abdomen-bearing cutout dresses, leather corsets and mesh bustiers). And she has grown up. When I speak to her, she seems calm and centered, nothing like the wild party girl that gossip blogs keep insisting she is, reporting on her every outing with a new potential love interest. When I ask her about her personal life playing out as a tabloid drama, she says she has moved past caring.
“I used to be obsessed with it,” she says. “I would Google my name and blah, blah, blah. But see, even talking about it now makes it a topic of conversation. The gossip side doesn’t affect what I do. The personal stuff of actually, like, being in a relationship is what affects me. I don’t expect anybody to understand my relationships, because they're not in my position in that moment, in that relationship.” At this particular moment, she is single. “I’m in love with my work,” she says, employing the classic line of famous people begging off nosey reporters. When explaining how she wrote the new album, she makes a casual reference to an unnamed ex who, judging from the timeline, is likely Calvin Harris (with whom she split last year). “It all started when I was on tour in Europe on my last album,” she says. “I wanted to just put out new music, and I was, like, talking about being lonely and then finding a boyfriend at the time and being with that person for, like, a year and then slowly splitting up with that person. Basically, it's life, really.”

It has a darker, more sexual tone to it,” she says of her new album. “And I guess it’s more blunt.

As for how the Chris Brown “Body on Me” collaboration came about, Ora describes it as something akin to happenstance. “Honestly, it was so easy,” she says. “It was unforced. He was next door recording at the same L.A. studio, and I walked in and said, ‘Hey, there's this song I need you to hear, I want you to be involved in.’ It was that simple. It was, like, artist to artist.” I ask her if she ever hesitated to join forces with a person who continues to be polarizing almost six years after his arrest on domestic violence charges for beating up Rihanna. “I didn’t think that far ahead,” she says. “I'm just a fan of his music and I wanted to work as a musician with another musician, really. All that other stuff has nothing to do with me."
Photo: Damon Baker.
“Body on Me” is an upbeat, R & B groove in the vein of The Weeknd, but Ora emphasizes that her new album will have a little something for everyone. It’s got pop, soul, hip-hop, even ballads. She worked with producers and co-writers Dev Hynes, Ed Sheeran, Diplo, Naughty Boys, Sigma, and “these amazing kids from the U.K. called TMS.” She hopes listeners — even her loyal Ritabots — will see the new songs as a kind of rebirth. “It has a darker, more sexual tone to it,” she says. “And I guess it’s more blunt.” As Ora prepares to go out on the road for a year to support the new record, she tells me about a few of the inspirations that have been occupying her brain lately. There’s her love of punk music, which she can never quite shake. “I take initiative from artists like Madonna and Blondie and Freddie Mercury, but I used to really love punk growing up: Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies. I have this massive collection of punk T-shirts, and everyone is jealous of them.” She also talks a lot about a photography book called A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. A 17-year-old named Mike Brodie boarded the wrong train in the American South and ended up riding the rails for six months, taking Poloroids of the transient family he met along the way. "That book was a really big inspiration for this record, creatively," Ora says. "There's this really amazing photo of this kid looking out on the bridge with a backpack on, looking at the railway. Behind him there's this Rolls-Royce, but he couldn’t care less about that. I loved how this little family stuck together and how close they were. That really connected with me."
Along with getting philosophical about train transportation, Rita has started dabbling in sacred geometry, a new-age belief that ascribes mystical powers to certain shapes. “I got this tattoo on my back that is basically the core signs. It has eight points on it, showing that we are all connected.” I have already seen the new tattoo because she put a picture of it on Instagram. Though Ora has a way to go before catching up to some of her contemporaries (she has 7.2 million followers to Beyoncé's 53.3 million, for instance), social media is her favorite pastime, and she does it entirely by herself. Her entourage may hang around her house, but she takes her own selfies, thankyouverymuch. “Social media is like a tumbleweed,” she says. “It just kind of keeps rolling. And if you don’t do anything, people will just, like, almost forget about you.”
Ora is not going to let that happen. She knows how to play the fame game and keep winning. She can walk a red carpet with the best of them, promote products like nobody's business, show up at the right parties in the right dress, and make headlines for a pitch-perfect rendition of Adele's "Hello," which she improvised on the spot during a recent radio interview. And she’s diversifying: She guest starred on an episode of Empire and appeared in the films Southpaw (as a jittery junkie) and Fifty Shades of Grey (as Christian’s sister Mia; she is signed on for the two sequels). Ora’s ambition is clear, and she vows to keep pushing to achieve what she wants. “The goal is to do the timeless thing that Madonna is doing,” she says. “I’m just going to keep going until I cannot go any more.” And with that, Ora turns again to Cher, who is still pounding away at the poor teddy bear. “She is such a horny teacup,” the singer says, smirking. “It’s disgusting. I love it.”

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