Photto by Mariano Vivanco
A Very Revealing Conversation
The author and filmmaker Miranda July asks the pop superstar what turns her on, how she handles the pressure of public scrutiny and why she’s been Googling childbirth. (Then they become best friends.)
by Miranda July
I DRESSED VERY CAREFULLY for her, the way I would for a good friend, thinking hard about what she likes. What I think she likes. I ordered Uber Black — the highest level of Uber I’ve ridden. The driver said it would be about an hour and a half to Malibu, a long time to resist telling him where I was going.
‘‘I’m going to meet Rihanna,’’ I finally yelled over the radio.
He turned the radio down.
‘‘Rihanna. I’m going to meet her, to interview her. That’s where we’re going.’’
‘‘You kidding? That’s my girl,’’ he said. ‘‘I love her. She’s so down-to-earth. She always keep it cool with her friend and her family. Her and Melissa, I think they are the best celebrity friends. I always say that.’’
‘‘Melissa Forde,’’ I said, to show that I knew who he meant.
‘‘I took a picture with her! Look!’’ He handed back his phone and I took it skeptically. But there he was, in a tux, with his arm around Rihanna. She was smiling. ‘‘She hear my accent and ask me where I’m from. She’s so nice. I knew she would be.’’
‘‘Where are you from?’’
‘‘West Africa, Niger. I come to play soccer for University of Idaho. Oh, that’s the other thing I love about Rihanna — she love soccer.’’
Over the next two hours I interviewed Oumarou Idrissa about how he survived during his first five years in Los Angeles after his student visa had fallen through. He slept in laundromats, sending tiny sums of money back to Niger where his 25 brothers and sisters were starving. This took us through the beach traffic; we grew quiet as the SUV zipped along beach cliffs above blue water. I think we both suddenly remembered Rihanna.
‘‘Do you want me to ask her anything for you?’’ I said.
Oumarou thought seriously about this for a long time. ‘‘Yeah. Here’s my question: When she going to West Africa? Many celebrity don’t like going there because we’re so poor. But I know she have a good heart and I think Rihanna would be the one to open the door to all of them. Also if she needs a driver, or security. Or French teacher.’’
‘‘Or soccer teacher,’’ I said, as we pulled up to Geoffrey’s, a fancy Malibu restaurant. I warned Oumarou that I might be a long time, but he wanted to pick me up when I was done with the interview. He wanted to hear her answer to his question.
‘‘Don’t be nervous,’’ Oumarou called out as I hopped out of the car. ‘‘She’s really nice.’’
I SPENT THE NEXT HOUR and a half with Jennifer Rosales, Rihanna’s ‘‘24/7’’ assistant. We ordered drinks and discussed Jennifer’s reproductive future. Each time I realized I was getting drunk I nibbled some bread, and when I felt my head becoming too clear I drank more. It was hard work maintaining a light buzz for so long, but it paid off. When Rihanna’s manager, Jay Brown, appeared to tell me that this was one of her first interviews in years I just laughed. And then choked. Because here she was.
Her lips were bright red, her long nails were pale iridescent lavender, her mascara was both white and black in a way I didn’t really understand. A rhinestone necklace against her chest read ‘‘FENTY,’’ her last name. Oumarou wasn’t the only person I had grilled about what makes Rihanna great. A lesbian art history professor told me that she’s ‘‘the real deal.’’ Others used the words ‘‘magic’’ and ‘‘epic.’’ But when I tried to get anyone to pinpoint things she had said or done — particular interviews or incidents — everyone became lost in inarticulacy. Yet another friend, referencing an episode of ‘‘Style Wars’’ that Rihanna had appeared on, concluded, ‘‘You could just tell she’s a good person.’’ None of this was all that helpful.
Rihanna hugged me hello and we sat down in front of two glasses of white wine. ‘‘Your eyes are amazing,’’ she told me, pulling her chair closer. ‘‘I’m staring at you and I feel like my eyes are gonna blur because all I can see are those tiny dots.’’
‘‘Well, it’s mutual,’’ I said stiffly. ‘‘Trust me.’’ It was probably the weakest compliment she’d ever received but praising her seemed like a slippery slope. I glanced down at my carefully typed-up questions, looking for an easy opener.
‘‘Do you search the Internet?’’ I asked, ‘‘And if so, what do you look up?’’
‘‘Oh, random things. Like I will be sitting around Googling childbirth.’’
‘‘Could be more random than childbirth.’’
‘‘Childbirth is putting it the not-gross way. I was searching the size of certain things, and how much they expand, and then what happens after. ...’’
‘‘It’s gonna be fine,’’ I said from experience. Also, I wanted to add, ‘‘You have a special body. Nothing you can Google applies to you.’’ I asked her what kind of apps she had on her phone and she mentioned something called Squaready.
‘‘It helps you put an image with any dimensions in the square box on Instagram.’’
‘‘So you do your Instagram yourself?’’
‘‘Yeah, yeah. That’s the only way it’ll actually work. My fans can sniff the BS from very far away. I cannot trick them.’’
On her Instagram Rihanna is often wearing bikini-type outfits — once while cuddling a baby monkey — and she looks great. Never lewd, just alive. I suggested that a body as perfect as hers can never really be naked or vulnerable. She tried to describe what makes a great photo: ‘‘There’s no rule about whether you have to be clothed or not. I want to see a naked woman who isn’t even aware of her nakedness.’’
‘‘Right,’’ I said. ‘‘Just the pure joy of the body.’’
‘‘Yeah. And men are gonna do what they do — and I am gonna do what I do.’’
Suddenly Rihanna threw her hand into the air, making a peace sign. I whipped my head around and saw an older white man trying to sneak a photo of her by taking a selfie — a selfie that was in fact an otherie. She was smiling but I felt annoyed on her behalf and held up my middle finger. That’ll show ’em. ‘‘I’m so sorry,’’ the man said. His whole table of people eating shrimp cocktail looked mortified. ‘‘I’ve never done anything like that.’’
‘‘It’s O.K.,’’ she reassured him. ‘‘You’re lucky I wasn’t eating, ’cause that would have been an ugly picture.’’
Made self-aware, we straightened ourselves. I smoothed my blouse.
‘‘Can I ask you what this is?’’ she said, gesturing to my outfit.
‘‘Yves Saint Laurent, vintage.’’
‘‘Your taste — I mean, I can’t even talk to you.’’
‘‘Thank you,’’ I said. ‘‘I dressed for you.’’ Witnessing Rihanna’s profound enjoyment of fashion is one of the great vicarious pleasures of this era. We all detonated the Met Ball in that giant yellow cape. We were all the first black face of Dior. We were all punk enough to wear the silk-screened jeans of SonyA Sombreuil. Being Rihanna just feels good, at least from the outside.
‘‘Can you describe what it’s like in your head?’’
‘‘You’re a ‘next-moment’ person,’’ she surmised. ‘‘Not an ‘in-the-moment’ person.’’
‘‘Yeah,’’ I admitted, knowing that this is the wrong kind of person to be.
‘‘I’m the same way. Only now are things hitting me, like I’m feeling them emotionally. I used to feel unsafe right in the moment of an accomplishment — I felt the ground fall from under my feet because this could be the end. And even now, while everyone is celebrating, I’m on to the next thing. I don’t want to get lost in this big cushion of success.’’
And this is how you go from being a child with a good voice to selling 54 million albums in just 10 years. Don’t believe the pictures — in between each poolside party photo is an untaken one in which she’s simply working. Almost every night, when you’re asleep, Rihanna is in the studio. She was headed there after our meeting and Jennifer said she’d be there until morning. At that very moment the sound engineer was waiting for her, just as I had been waiting earlier. Rihanna doesn’t have time for extracurriculars right now, and this includes dating.
‘‘Guys need attention,’’ she explained. ‘‘They need that nourishment, that little stroke of the ego that gets them by every now and then. I’ll give it to my family, I’ll give it to my work — but I will not give it to a man right now.’’
I said that it took me a long time to find a guy who wasn’t threatened by my power, and Rihanna quietly replied, ‘‘I’m still in that time.’’
Looking at her, I was reminded that thousands of people search ‘‘Rihanna’s eyes’’ every year. And there they were: a pair of dizzying hazel-green starbursts. I took another gulp of wine. ‘‘What turns you on?’’
She thought about it seriously, running her fingers through her golden lion’s mane. ‘‘I’m turned on by guys who are cultured. That’ll keep me intrigued. They don’t have to have a single degree, but they should speak other languages or know things about other parts of the world or history or certain artists or musicians. I like to be taught. I like to sit on that side of the table,’’ she said, motioning for me to move my chair next to hers and out of the sun, and I did. Now that we were side by side, I felt I could clarify something. ‘‘Hey, you’re not about to get pregnant are you? The Internet will explode when I say you were Googling childbirth.’’ She laughed and assured me she wasn’t having a child anytime soon; her fear was generalized. We wondered if there was a name for this fear, and Rihanna looked it up for us on her phone.
‘‘ ‘Phobia of a big vagina.’ ... ‘Deep.’ ... This is awful. I can’t believe I’m typing this in.’’
‘‘Wait,’’ I said. ‘‘Deep’s not an issue. It’s wide.’’
‘‘Deep is an issue, hello!’’
‘‘Huh. Cause I feel like the — I always feel short-vaginaed.’’
Rihanna laughed. ‘‘Trust me, if they can’t feel the end, it’s like, Cannonball!’’
Cannonball meant sailing into space — into something never-ending, like the cosmos. Men like to know that there is an end to the woman they’re with, that she’s finite. It’s an impossible line to walk. You want to be global, but down to earth. In the moment but also one step ahead of it.
I asked her when she first learned about sex.
‘‘Well, there’s always this human instinct about that, even from a very, very young age.’’ I agreed that we are born with a sort of innate sexuality. ‘‘But by like age 11, girls were talking about what they had and hadn’t done. I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet, so it always made me feel insecure, like I was never gonna be good or ready or know what to do — I didn’t even have boobs.’’
Just five years later, after she got boobs, Rihanna left Barbados for New York to record a demo. She shifted in her chair a little when I brought it up. ‘‘That’s something I don’t think I could ever do,’’ she said. ‘‘Send my only girl to another random country to live with people she’d just met. It had to be God that paralyzed Monica Fenty’s emotions so that she’d say, ‘Yes, go.’ To this day, I don’t know how that happened. But thank God it did.’’
It seemed like some part of Rihanna still couldn’t believe she’d gotten away with it. I thought about being 27; at that age my mom was still hoping I might go back to college and get a real job.
‘‘What impresses your mom?’’
‘‘She’s always impressed when she sees me being a little sassy or sharp, when she sees me defending myself. It makes her feel safe, like she doesn’t have to worry about me.’’
I wanted to ask her about being a young black woman with power in America but it seemed somehow wrong to speak of this; maybe she was postracial now. So I directed my question to a younger Rihanna, and asked if she had suddenly felt aware of race in a different way when she moved to New York.
She hesitated, and when I nervously began to apologize, she interrupted.
‘‘You know, when I started to experience the difference — or even have my race be highlighted — it was mostly when I would do business deals.’’ Business deals. Meaning that everyone’s cool with a young black woman singing, dancing, partying and looking hot, but that when it comes time to negotiate, to broker a deal, she is suddenly made aware of her blackness. ‘‘And, you know, that never ends, by the way. It’s still a thing. And it’s the thing that makes me want to prove people wrong. It almost excites me; I know what they’re expecting and I can’t wait to show them that I’m here to exceed those expectations.’’ She sounded like a young black professional trying to make it in the corporate world, and I guessed she was — just on a very different scale.
‘‘But I have to bear in mind,’’ she continued, looking right at the voice recorder, ‘‘that those people are judging you because you’re packaged a certain way — they’ve been programmed to think a black man in a hoodie means grab your purse a little tighter. For me, it comes down to smaller issues, scenarios in which people can assume something of me without knowing me, just by my packaging.’’
While none of us are only our skin or clothes, we do increasingly expect megastars to deploy their whole being through packaging — a tidy and consistent message. If Rihanna has a ‘‘thing’’ it’s that she changes her thing so often. While a performer positioning themselves in relation to the art world might try to make this into a more overt performance, something that would reassure the intelligentsia, Rihanna isn’t meta like that. She hasn’t created a persona around herself like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna or so many other stars at her level. She doesn’t have to manufacture dimensionality, because she actually is soulful, and this comes across in every little thing she does.
Souls are funny things. They stay constant even when the outside changes, or when the heart makes mistakes. Souls don’t really care about good or bad, right or wrong — they’re just true. Everlasting. It makes you sound dumb to talk about this stuff, which is why no one could tell me exactly what it was about Rihanna. But millions of fans don’t seem to need it explained to them. A soul just knows a soul. I never told you she was pretty because that’s not what I experienced. My understanding, from the moment she sat down, was that we were in love. We were the most in love any two people had ever been. The sun was finally setting. We’d been talking for almost two hours. I just had one more question.
OUMAROU DIDN’T ASK. He didn’t have to. I was dying to tell him how incredible Rihanna was. ‘‘I knew it,’’ he whispered, merging on to the freeway. ‘‘I showed her the picture of you two together,’’ I said. ‘‘She couldn’t believe the coincidence. And she said you were very well-dressed.’’
‘‘Yes. And she answered your question.’’
With a shaky finger I rewound the voice recorder a little bit. Somehow this was the most exciting part of the whole day. ‘‘O.K., here it is.’’ Oumarou nodded solemnly and I pressed play: ‘‘You know what? If I ever go to West Africa, it would probably be for a free concert.’’ Rihanna’s slight Barbadian accent was familiar to me now. ‘‘I would want to do something for the people there. Maybe we can make a whole event, the way Bob Marley would have done it. Just for the people. And if they climb over the gate, let them climb over the gate.’’
Night fell as we drove across Los Angeles. It took hours to get to Rihanna, but I was home in half that time — too soon. Oumarou and I agreed to keep in touch and waved goodbye. Before stepping inside my house, I lifted my blouse to my face; her perfume was still there. The problem with this kind of romance is that it all falls apart in the retelling. My husband and 3-year-old son tried but couldn’t really understand how overwhelming and profound my connection with Rihanna was. And I’ll admit that as the days go by, even I am beginning to doubt whether our time together meant quite as much to her as it did to me. It doesn’t matter. My heart still jumps every time I see her face.