It’s less than 24 hours before her MTV Video Music Awards performance, and Rita Ora is all nerves—but you’d never know it. The U.K.-bred singer on the brink of a U.S. takeover is still in her pj’s, lounging poolside on the sun-drenched patio of West Hollywood’s famed Sunset Marquis hotel. She’s wearing reflective shades to disguise sleepy eyes and sipping lemon tea to recover from another whirlwind workday: a fashion shoot, back-to-back performances in two states with Aussie rapper-of-the-moment Iggy Azalea, and an after-party where the “Black Widow” duo got to meet J.Lo.
Worthy of note: Her rolled-out-of-bed look is cooler than any you’ve ever seen. She’s barefoot and barefaced—not a stitch of makeup and still preternaturally gorgeous. No over-the-top hairdo, just bleached-blonde strands peeking from under a backward leather cap that she designed for her Adidas Originals collection, which launched this fall. Oh, and those pj’s I mentioned? Well, when you’re Rita Ora, even a silk Agent Provocateur nightgown punctuated by skin-exposing lace cutouts reads more red carpet-ready than woke-up-like-this.
If you’re one of the 3 million-plus people following @ritaora’s meteoric rise through Instagram, you know her life has all the trappings of pop stardom, from famous friends like Cara Delevingne to fantasy mentors like Beyoncé and Jay Z, the latter of whom signed her on the spot to his Roc Nation label in 2009. As the face of Roberto Cavalli’s fall campaign and DKNY’s latest scent, MYNY, she even has A-list designers on speed dial. But in a world where being famous for being famous isn’t exactly uncommon, perhaps the more surprising takeaway about the girl who’s racking up major endorsement deals left and right is that she has serious talent.
“When people come to my shows, they’re like, ‘I can’t believe you can actually freaking sing!’” she says with a chuckle, admitting that her voice is often eclipsed by an array of extracurriculars, which include a line of nail polishes she created with British beauty brand Rimmel London (her signature blonde hair and red lips are even featured on the bottles). Isn’t that frustrating for someone who’s so much more than just a pretty face? “Honestly, no,” she says. “I don’t blame them. I haven’t released an album in the States. All the hype is from what’s online. But I’m a musician before any of that. I’ve always been a musician.”
While Rita has enjoyed chart-topping success overseas with four number one singles, she has yet to release a major crossover record that solidifies her in the American consciousness as the bona fide powerhouse she is. Which, of course, raises the stakes on tomorrow’s performance, when she will take on the same world stage Miley exploited during last year’s notorious twerk seen ’round the universe. But Rita’s secret weapon isn’t a gimmick. It’s simply showing the American public who she really is.
For starters, she’s the kind of refreshing celeb whose authenticity shines through in every scenario. She opens up, she goes off-script, and she doesn’t only talk about being the face of a new fragrance—she extends her wrist so you can take a whiff right off her skin. “I choose to let my fans in,” the singer says earnestly.
Case in point: A few months prior, during an intimate acoustic performance of her hit “I Will Never Let You Down” at Teen Vogue headquarters, she announced to a conference room packed with staffers that she was hopelessly in love. “I met this guy, and he just changed my life,” she told us with palpable conviction and sincerity, instantly recruiting us all to Team Rita. “He inspired me to make an album about love and dance around about it.”
She was speaking, of course, about then boyfriend and repeat hitmaker Calvin Harris, 30, whom she had reportedly collaborated with for her American debut album. Within weeks, the couple of about a year would endure a painfully public breakup. But the song would live on to become her second single to make the Billboard Hot 100.
Back at the pool, I ask what the hardest part of fame has been. She responds thoughtfully: “Without complaining, without being moany, because this is what I have wanted to do all my life, I think it’s that people may forget I’m just a 23-year-old girl who wants to be in love. And even though I live and breathe my job, I still want someone to want me. That’s how every girl feels.” Like any other lovesick teen or twentysomething grappling with the aftermath of a breakup, she ponders, “It’s like, Will I ever love someone as much as I loved that person?” And then she answers her own question: “You will. You won’t forget how you felt, but you will love someone else again.”
To read the rest of Rita’s interview and see all the pics (plus scoop our special flip issue all about campus style!), grab our November issue on newsstands October 28.