Rita Ora Is Rewriting The Pop-Star Playbook
“It’s all about being proud of what we deliver,” Rita Ora says, taking a deep breath. “Thinking we killed it.” When Ora refers to “we,” it’s not because she’s British and speaking in the royal sense; it’s because everything she does is a team effort. Most often, the team is Rita and her sister, Elena, who is two years older and one of Rita’s managers. Elena is the one who, on-set for Rita’s SELF cover shoot, keeps the star’s energy up with enthusiastic shouts of “You’re hot!” She’s also Rita’s daily touchstone—especially when Team Ora is jetting from New York City to London, then rushing from X Factor tapings at Wembley arena to fittings with Karl Lagerfeld in Paris. (When it comes to working long hours, Rita says her sister is even more driven than she is: “She’s worse than me!”)
And drive is something the 25-year-old “Body on Me” singer has plenty of. She considers herself a singer first (her next album, as yet untitled, will be released in early 2016), but Ora also designs Adidas Originals by Rita Ora, a sporty-cool fashion line that’s currently rolling out its third season. That’s in addition to appearing in a couple of blockbuster movie franchises (The Fast and the Furious, Fifty Shades of Grey) and starring in ads for everyone from Calvin Klein to Roberto Cavalli.
“This year has been eventful, that’s for sure,” she says. “I finished my album and I’m so proud of it. And this was the first time I’ve done a show like X Factor UK, where it’s all live. I’ve just expanded as an artist.”
Still, music is the thing that really drives Ora. The caramel-voiced Londoner was only 19 when she was signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, attracting attention from critics who saw a major talent in the making. But though Ora was released internationally in 2012 and went platinum in the U.K., Ora the pop star has never had an album come out in the U.S.
“I’m treating this as if it were my debut,” she explains. “It’s like I’m starting from scratch. This is the first time everyone will see who Rita Ora is.” She says the new album mixes pop with the classic belters—Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin—who influenced her. “Artistically, I felt like when I first got signed, it was a race,” Ora says. “I was just trying to please everybody, not realizing that it really should be about knuckling down to who you are as an artist.”
Ora keeps close to the people who remind her of who she is—her definition of the word family extends to her team and friends from her childhood, including her longtime personal trainer, Nora Alihajdaraj, a major source of fitspo for Ora. In the West London neighborhood where Ora is from, “all of our parents had kids at the same time,” she says. “So there’s a group of us who grew up together. Elena’s best friends are my best friend’s older sisters—it’s like generations of friends. And Nora is basically like our cousin; not blood, but she might as well be.”
The Ora sisters were born in a part of Yugoslavia that is now Kosovo. When Rita was 1 and Elena 3, their mother, Vera (a psychiatrist), and father, Besnik (a business owner), moved the family to West London. Besnik bought a pub, the Queens Arms, where Rita sang as a teen. Years later, Ora still spends a good amount of her downtime at home. “When I want to relax, I go home, smell my mom’s food and clear my mind,” she says. Her mother is comforted by the fact that Rita and Elena are together. “My mom is more settled,” Rita says. It’s clear that emotional grounding is a key part of Ora’s strength.
“The values that were important growing up were education, respecting your elders … that’s how we were raised,” Ora says. “I wouldn’t say it was strict, but there are certain things you have to do in our household. It’s a ‘You definitely have to show up for Christmas dinner’ vibe. We’re from a small community, so you’re not only representing yourself, you’re representing your family.”
“You can’t just say, ‘I’m not talking to Mum,’” adds Elena.
Rita laughs. “That does not fly. Our parents taught us to respect the people around us. So my work ethic and the way people perceive me—it’s very important to leave a good impression.” Part of that is showing that she doesn’t take her superstar life for granted, but still enjoys every minute of it. If you’re one of the 6.3 million who follow @ritaora on Instagram, you know her days look like an endless stream of red carpets, selfies and smiles. “If I do have a bad day, I don’t like putting it on other people,” Ora says. “It’s important to be positive.”
Balance is also key—and Ora has worked to find it, even in her 24/7 life. “I feel my strongest onstage,” she says. “I still, to this day, do not know anything better. And when I’ve been really good with my body—no alcohol, no late nights, watching my diet, drinking water … I start feeling like a superhero!”
Keeping pace with Ora isn’t easy. She’s just coming off a string of U.S. tour dates to support her “Body on Me” single. Then, after an appearance on Ellen, she’ll jet back to the U.K. to start work on The X Factor. As soon as that wraps, she’ll go all-in with album promo: TV shows, radio spots, still more red carpets.
“I’ve never been more grateful for sleep than I am at this point,” she says. “I used to hate it. It took a lot to mentally calm me down. But now I travel with a candle and a little lavender pillow. Obviously, I’m like any other twentysomething: I like to have a drink after my show and things like that, but it’s in moderation. It’s one of those things where the band goes out later and gets hammered, and you’ve got to be the one who just goes to bed.”
She accepts the pace, the late nights and the early call times, because she knows this is part of it—this is part of getting exactly what you want. “It’s like you’re an athlete. I’m not running a marathon, but I’m doing it in my own way. You really have to take care of your body so you can survive.” Ora’s role models are stars who are clearly comfortable in their own skin: “Jennifer [Lopez]. Gwen [Stefani]. And you can’t knock Alba!”
But if there is one artist whose career she’s studied the closest, it’s Madonna. Ora was the face of her Material Girl line in 2013 and 2014, and recently appeared in the pop icon’s video for “Bitch I’m Madonna.”
“I didn’t know what to expect, because … Madonna,” she says, incredulously. “Little old Rita, and she’s Madonna. But she flew me out, we shot her video, and she made time to hang out with us afterwards. It was probably one of the best moments of my life.”
Watching Madonna on-set crystallized, for Ora, what it takes to be a cultural force with serious staying power. “She works so hard. She looks at every shot, every angle. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And I was, like, ‘That’s exactly where we’re going.’ There’s a reason things get put in front of you like that. There’s a reason I saw her work ethic that night.”
She looks at her sister and smiles. “I see myself as a 360 artist, not just one-laned. I like to do everything. I have this vision of building an empire and leaving it to my family.” She sits up tall and bellows “Dominaaatttion!” then laughs and settles back into her chair. “I dream big, babe. I do.”