THE SUNDAY TIMES
16 MAY 2018

RITA ORA: THE REINVENTION

She’s the woman who took Jay-Z to court and fought for the right to control her own career. Christa D’Souza meets Rita Ora, the pop star who’s more than just the party girl you think she is.

Poor Rita. She’s not feeling very well. “It’s because of all the flying, I know it,” she says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “At least I’m sick after the craziness, and before it all starts up again, right?”

It’s 4pm on the hottest day of the year and Ora, 27, has just pitched up to meet me in the library bar of the Electric, her local on Portobello Road in west London. In less than a week, she has been from London to New York, to LA, to Berlin, to LA for Coachella and then back to London again via the south of France (a 24-hour treat for her entourage at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat). It was on the PJ from LAX to Coachella when the lurgy started rearing its head. “I had to do my make-up on the plane because I was going on stage almost as soon as we landed. My friends were all so full of energy and I was suddenly, like, ‘Omigod, I’m so tired’,” she says, falling into an armchair. “Anyway, I had a few drinks, which doesn’t exactly make you feel better, but at least it distracts you from how sick you feel. But I try never to complain about being sick. Maybe it’s because I haven’t come from very much, but I have the craziest work ethic. So crazy, it’s scary.”

Welcome to the force of nature that is Rita Ora, or Rita Sahatciu as she was born, the middle child of Albanian refugees from Kosovo who came to this country in 1991. Sam Taylor-Johnson, who cast her as Mia, Christian’s sister in Fifty Shades, described her presence as like “sherbet”, and it’s true — you can feel the fizz as she enters the room wearing a little black cheongsam split to the thigh and box-fresh Prada sneakers. She is friendly and softer than she comes across in public with those buttony Mouseketeer features, but there’s a core of steel underneath. As Liam Payne once joked of her when they both appeared on their friend Nick Grimshaw’s Radio 1 Breakfast Show: “You don’t f*** with Rita.” You can see what he means.

“Did he say that?” she asks, after trying to decide whether to get sea bass or mussels, and thinking she’ll just get both. “Well, maybe not in the work sphere, no. My brand is my baby and you f*** with it, I’m going to go crazy, it’s just the way it is. In my personal life, though, heh-heh, I’m not so bothered.”

With 13.3m Instagram followers and a record number of top 10 hits by a British female artist (her collaboration with Payne, For You, took the tally up to 12 in February), Ora qualifies as the quintessential modern-day pop star. There’s her career as a Hollywood actress (Fifty Shades, Southpaw, and the yet to be released Wonderwell, starring the late Carrie Fisher); a judge (The X Factor, America’s Next Top Model); a coach (The Voice) and big-time brand collaborator (her associations with Adidas, DKNY, M&S and Rimmel earned her in the region of £3m in 2016). That’s not even mentioning her role as honorary ambassador to Kosovo, or her involvement in helping the victims of Grenfell Tower, a stone’s throw from where she grew up. “My best friend’s auntie and cousins lived there — they escaped with her kids, but they lost everything. I landed in from New York the day it happened and I went there with a bunch of clothes. I just hope I did enough.”

Add to this her exhausting capacity to party and rivetingly eventful personal life, and one can’t help wondering if there’s a portrait in the attic somewhere. Although it’s possible that phase of tumbling out of Chiltern Firehouse or Sexy Fish at 4am every night of the week with Cara Delevingne, Ellie Goulding et al might now be history. “I mean, I love having a good time, but I don’t go over my limits any more. I can say no to a night out,” she says in her part urban, part stage-school accent. “As long as I’m not already out, ’cos that’s hard, isn’t it, saying, ‘OK, everyone, it’s 1am, I’m leaving now.’ I’m not very good at that.”

We’re here to talk about her upcoming sellout tour and her new single, Girls, a Cyndi Lauper-esque earworm destined to be the anthem of this summer. It has been plucked off her latest album, out later this year, the follow-up to her 2012 debut, Ora. It’s been a long time coming, this second album, and only happened after a lengthy court battle with Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s famous record label, which signed her up back in 2008, when she was only 18. On paper it was a dream, pinch-me five-record deal — she was fresh out of Sylvia Young Theatre School and still doing gigs at her dad’s pub in Kensal Rise. But although the album did phenomenally well when it came out, it was never released in America and there was no budget for a tour there. (Ora claims she ended up paying for a US tour herself.) The case filed by her legal team was to seek a break from the deal, accusing Roc Nation of neglecting her in favour of other artists and endeavours. Roc Nation then countersued, but the case was settled in 2016.

Ora insists the split was amicable. “I want to find the right word here, and maybe this is my interpretation,” she says of that period now, “but I do feel I got discriminated against because I was a woman. I almost felt — maybe this is just my interpretation — I could have had a better chance if I’d been male.” She has since bumped into Jay-Z and the president of his label, Jay Brown, and “they said hi and were very cordial”. But her business manager is now her older sister, Elena. “To be honest, I’d always wanted to become a household name [not just a pop singer], that was my dream,” she says. “My sister and I, we argue like crazy all the time, but we’re very proud of what we’ve done up to this point.”

Back, if we may, to that rollicking, tabloid-friendly personal life of hers. There’s the string of high-profile exes (Rob Kardashian, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, Ricky Hilfiger, son of Tommy the fashion designer), including a very public break-up with Calvin Harris in 2014, resulting in the record producer forbidding her from performing in public the song he wrote and produced for her, I Will Never Let You Down. “Yeah, I was very young then, though,” she says carefully. “It was my peak of just realising for the first time that I was killing it, and I don’t want to speak for him because we’re in a really good place now.”

And was she or was she not the “Becky with the Good Hair” Beyoncé referred to in Sorry, the song on the Lemonade album, allegedly about Jay-Z’s marital infidelity?

I want to say to that is, dude, if I were BWTGH, wouldn’t I actually have to have good hair? Look at it.” She pulls a peroxide-bleached strand from her scalp to show where the extensions begin. “It’s all weave and extensions. And, I mean, Beyoncé? Omigod. She’s the nicest person, bestest person I have ever met in the whole industry. I’m not just saying that. I’d die for her. Nobody can ever say anything wrong about that woman in front of me. I get emotional just talking about it.”

As for all the celebrity BFs she’s been linked with (Lewis Hamilton, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Conor McGregor)? “Look, I don’t mind being a target,” she offers, “but I think people are sometimes confused by me. They [the tabloids] don’t understand that I might just be a nice person who’s really interested in other people’s lives. They see me talking to someone and they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, Rita’s totally seeing that guy.’ Which is not right and fair. It’s so f***** up, this assumption that I must be hooking up with this guy because we are getting on so well. Hey, how about if the guy is trying to hook up with me? How about that? Why do I have to change my personality just because that is your perspective. Nope, I’m not going to do that.”

She is dating the American musician and songwriter Andrew Watt, 27, who co-wrote It Ain’t Me, which Ora sang at Coachella. The song was inspired by a night the pair spent at the Bowery in New York a couple of years ago — “He called to say why did I tell everyone that, and I said because it’s the truth!” Ora alludes to the plan of them working together on his new label, “producing other people, giving them a platform … supporting other cool, powerful women. That’s the endgame, anyway.”

Though it is far, far too early to talk marriage and babies, it’s as well to note that Ora has already frozen her eggs (and that she has a dog, a maltipoo called Cher, which is always, so they say, the prelude to settling down).

For now, time’s up and Ora has to go, first to view a flat, and then home to bed to sleep off that lurgy. And then it will all start again tomorrow.

© Christa D'Souza 1989-2020