Our August Cover Star Is… Rita Ora!
While Rita Ora’s travelling entourage of hairstylist, makeup artist and manicurist synchronize primping—a “Cinderelly, Cinderelly”–type coordination of brush strokes and cords, puffs of floral scent and sprays—the 23-year-old British pop star and I lament our under-eye circles. “Panda eyes,” she calls them. “I’m the queen of bags; I’ve had them since I was young.” She leans over to pat her thumb on my bare face, just above my cheek, where, on this May morning, the crescents under my eyes are especially dusky. Ora suggests with the conspiratorial authority of an older, cooler friend in high school: “There’s things to do, though.” When I mention that I rarely wear makeup, save for some ineffectually applied drugstore eyeliner, she bolts upright in her chair, a blaze of disbelief sending her freshly bleached brows soaring over her deep hazelnut eyes. “Why!?” she whoops. “It’s so good for us! It’s called GLAMAH.”
In Ora’s strong, throaty West London accent, the word glamah paired with it’s good for us could pass for a tag line. As I soon learn, this sentence functions as an ethos for Ora, who, even on her most blasé days, imbues everything she does with a powerful theatricality, from her high-energy music videos to her trademark bold beauty looks.
The latter make Ora a perfect spokeswoman for Rimmel; following in Kate Moss’s footsteps, she recently teamed up with the brand to launch her own collection. This collaboration and her upcoming, still-untitled sophomore album (Roc Nation/Columbia) are just two of the countless projects heralding Ora’s dramatic entrée into the pantheon of multi-hyphenate pop divas who run the world. She also has an upcoming capsule collection with Adidas, and, next February, makes her acting debut with a supporting role as Christian Grey’s sister, Mia, in the highly anticipated movie adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey.
Ora has powerful people in her corner. Jay Z signed her to his record label, Roc Nation, when she was just 17 years old. Her first tour was opening stadium shows for Coldplay. Following a chart-topping reign in the U.K. with her eponymous 2012 debut, Ora is ready for her North American close-up. The video for “I Will Never Let You Down,” her forthcoming record’s first single—a kicky, upbeat track that was written and produced by Ora’s then-boyfriend, Scottish EDM super-DJ Calvin Harris—has more than 25 million YouTube views and counting, and showcases Ora’s bona fide fashion cred. (Think ’80s Madonna meets Whitney Houston’s vivid chromatic look from the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video.) She skilfully remixes subdued, classic ensembles with her own unique, playful, sporty aesthetic. “Rita never gets lost in a look, and that is a really rare quality,” says designer BFF Jeremy Scott, who met Ora for a green-tea friend date in Tokyo a few years back and now cites her as one of his muses. “Nor does she look simply like a model wearing fashion—she still looks like Rita. She retains her DNA in all her different guises!”
Ora’s it-factor and live-wire personality are, in part, hereditary. Her mother, Vera, is a major beauty inspiration: “When I wear crazy stuff, she’ll say, ‘I need sex. I need glamah.’” Indeed, glamah has been a long-time passion. “I got obsessed with makeup and makeup artists when I was young, with people like Kevyn Aucoin,” Ora tells me as a zebra-stripe pattern dries on her nails. The colours, a creamy eggshell and a velvety royal purple—White Hot Love and Midnight Rendezvous—are part of Ora’s Rimmel collection, which also includes lip pencils in pouty pink shades with names like Boom Chic a Boom. The line is packaged with pop art–style stamps of Ora’s face on the polish bottles, and the bright hues conjure ’90s Versace ads of Naomi and Linda. The dramatic shades also speak to Ora’s fascination with transformation: “I feel like I’m a character already, as in, like, I love dressing up. If I could live in a cabaret, I would. If I could live in Moulin Rouge, I would,” she says, prompting me to imagine, without any trouble, Ora in a redux of the 2001 Aguilera-helmed, lingerie-filled “Lady Marmalade” music video.
“I based the Rimmel collection names on something that I find interesting—the world of sex and intimacy,” she tells me. “They don’t have to be non-approachable subjects.” Moments later, Ora and I scroll through my phone, mesmerized by racy poolside photos from Rihanna’s infamous Lui magazine spread—the same images that may have compelled RiRi to deactivate her Instagram account. “That’s crazy. She looks gorgeous!” Ora exclaims. “It’s a good time for her, she’s an adult. I think starting out, you just have to time it right, when you’re ready to be yourself.”
Timing has been an essential element of Ora’s career thus far. She built her foundation and fan base of “Ritabots,” as they call themselves, in Europe before trying for a North American audience. Ora was born in Kosovo (and named for the screen siren Rita Hayworth), but her family moved to London when she was still a baby. They remain close; Ora’s sister, Elena, works on her management team.
Ora was drawn to singing from a young age: at 16, she appeared on the Craig David track “Awkward,” and she was with Jay Z’s label just a year later. Now, she models her career after Mrs. Carter: “Beyoncé built her f–king foundation from the bottom. I think that’s the exact career every female artist wants to have.” Musically, Ora counts Gwen Stefani as an inspiration; with every loud pop anthem, the No Doubt singer evokes a whole album’s worth of emotions, inspiring Ora to mix her own soulful lyrics with booming hooks that broadcast her bravado.
Still, Ora recognizes that comparisons between women often detract from their individual accomplishments. (Ora, for instance, is regularly likened to Rihanna.) “There’s always competition. I definitely feel it. I thrive off of it. I love it. I don’t look at it as a competition, I look at it as a form of energy.” When I ask Ora whether she considers herself a “boss bitch”—her glam team’s motivating jam lately has been PTAF’s viral hit “Boss Ass Bitch”—she recoils a bit, hesitating. “Uh, I don’t know,” she says. “What does a boss feel like? I can’t say it, I can’t. Because a boss-ass bitch doesn’t say they’re a boss. Everyone knows.”
One boss dear to Ora is pop legend Prince, who recorded a song with her for the upcoming album. Over the course of a week at his infamous Minnesota compound, Paisley Park Studios, Ora jammed with His Royal Badness and his band, 3rdEyeGirl. Together, they paged through her now-tattered songwriting notebook. “It’s been with me for a few years; it’s kind of falling apart. I had to, like, staple it together. We went through it for inspiration,” she says with a tinge of disbelief. “People like Prince don’t have to care about anything, but they care because they want music for the future to be great.” Ora’s energy ratchets up once more, as she hollers, “It makes me feel like, Jesus f–king Christ! They think I can do it! It makes me proud to have a voice.”
The fashion world thinks she can do it, too: Ora became cozy with Karl Lagerfeld in Paris last fall, sat front row at Jeremy Scott’s McDonald’s-inspired Moschino show at Milan Fashion Week in February, walked the runway for Donna Karan’s spring 2014 collection, wore one of Karan’s gilded, corseted gowns to this year’s Met Gala and partied at Cannes in a sparkly, slit-to-the-thigh dress by Roberto Cavalli. Ora’s Adidas collection is sure to sell out, thanks to her sneakerhead-meets-Lichtenstein sensibility, which manifests in glow-in-the-dark tooling, a transparent raincoat and a high-end varsity jacket. When she announced the collaboration on Instagram in May, clad in her fresh take on the brand’s timeless track jacket—now collaged in digital-print roses—the post received tens of thousands of likes within a couple of days. Fans follow her every sartorial step: her Rimmel video premiere scored nearly 40,000 likes from the Ritabots, whom Ora sometimes regrams, sharing photos of fans with her lyrics scrawled around their wrists.
The singer admits she is obsessed with social media, and especially Instagram, where she has 2.2 million followers. “I’m on it as soon as I wake up,” she says. “I scroll with one eye open. It’s like a drug.” Ora’s compulsion for hashtagging her every move is testament to her commitment to her goals. “For me, it’s like, look forward. You don’t have to look side to side. If you start looking from side to side, you get confused,” she tells me. She pauses, grins and reaches for her phone. “That’s a good quote. I might have to tweet that.”
Today, Ora is on the tail end of what she calls her American Takeover, which she describes as an “all-right-let’s-give-it-a-shot kind of thing.” Her nonchalance belies a gruelling itinerary: belting out the new single on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, hanging with Iggy Azalea for an afternoon on MTV and performing an intimate show for friends and family at uber-hip Manhattan nightspot The Box, as well as tackling a head-spinning number of press events. Ora’s overseas debut, it’s clear, is of vital, make-or-break importance. While she waits for a second round of nail art to dry—this time, a technicolour block of geometric shapes—she starts goofing around, pulling cross-eyed selfie faces for her devoted Instagram followers. “YE-AH! We are heeeeere,” she hoots. “We are coming. We. Have. Arrived.”