After a steep learning curve, Rita Ora is back in control with a new album and a new attitude. Stylist meets the singer on the eve of the release of her latest record.
Let’s start with a quick pub quiz question: which UK female artist has had the most top 10 singles since records began in 1952? Adele? Dua Lipa? For those of you who answered Rita Ora, give yourself a gold star.
The 27-year-old is a history-making singer. Yet often when she’s talked about in the public arena, the focus is on the tired old clichés of who she’s dating or what she’s wearing. But her latest single, Let You Love Me, is her 13th top 10 – adding to a collection that also includes the number ones I Will Never Let You Down and How We Do. Let’s quickly put that into context (which is very different from competition – we have zero interest in pitting Ora, or anyone else, against each other): Adele has had eight top 10 hits; Dua Lipa has had six. With this song she bypasses the previous record holders Petula Clark and Shirley Bassey.
Ora is a bit poorly when she arrives at Stylist’s cover shoot, but in front of the camera she comes alive – she’s very good at being Rita Ora the performer. Later that evening, she’s going on to host two events and in the 12 days between our shoot and this subsequent interview, she has dashed between London, Berlin, New York – where she performed at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show – and Los Angeles for the People’s Choice Awards.
Since releasing her debut album Ora in 2012, she has expanded her CV beyond music with roles in the Fifty Shades film franchise, judging on The Voice, The X Factor and America’s Next Top Model, as well as working with Rimmel and Adidas. She is also constantly under the eye of the tabloids and social media.
Ora, who came to the UK at the age of one when her family fled her native Kosovo, is a woman who is clearly powered by momentum and a fierce work ethic. She also refuses to stay in her lane, like women are so often expected to. And yet her second album has been six years in the making – six years in pop land might as well be dog years, although some of the wait can probably be attributed to a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, which eventually saw her filing a lawsuit in 2015 asking to be released from her contract. Ora was also stopped from featuring any songs written with ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris on her own album.
The arrival of Phoenix is a chance for Ora to take back control and tell her own story. And that’s what I’m curious about: who is Ora away from the headlines, the social media scrutiny and the 21 million monthly Spotify listeners? I want to know what makes this unquestionably ambitious, sometimes divisive, thoroughly modern popstar tick. And that’s what I’m going to try to find out…
What has been the biggest thing you’ve learnt in the last year?
I’ve learnt how to get in tune with my feelings, how to speak about my feelings, how to ask for help when I think I need it. I think that’s a big step for anyone, whether it’s calling a friend or a helpline. It’s so important to not be ashamed to ask for help – that was a big eye-opener for me.
How did you get to the point where you were able to get in tune with your own feelings?
I think it was writing the album; that has really been my therapy.
The album has been six years coming, how are you feeling as its release approaches?
I wanted it to feel like a fresh start which is why I called it Phoenix. I wanted it to inspire people [to realise that] you’ve always got another chance when you think that you’ve messed it all up. There’s always something lurking around the corner, you just have to keep believing. I’ve never put so much truth in something. It was really difficult to really tap into my vulnerable side and actually say it’s OK [to be open].
You come across as quite raw in lyrics like, “I think I run away sometimes whenever I get too vulnerable” in Let You Love Me…
Let You Love Me is a way of me saying it’s OK to not be perfect. It’s about that time when all you can think about is having a good time and you don’t realise you’re spending time with someone who actually likes you and could have been the one; all those missed opportunities. But everything happens for a reason. This is me owning up to… I guess owning up to myself.
Earlier this year, there was a lot of strong reaction to Girls [in the song Ora came out as bisexual but was criticised by those who felt it was problematic for perpetuating bisexual stereotypes with lines like, “Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls”]. Can you understand the reaction?
That was a really sensitive subject for me; it was my story and I knew it was going to be a bit of a shock for people because I’d never spoken about it in public before. I don’t think I would be doing this today if it wasn’t for the LGBTQ community and I would do anything for them as well as all my fans. This was a moment in time when I wanted to give confidence to girls who are trapped and feel like they can’t tell their parents that they are gay. I wanted to give people that bit of hope to get through it. It was my story and my truth.
Were you scared to come out publicly?
I wasn’t scared. I waited for a reason, because none of the times before felt right. I’m an adult, I felt like this was something I needed to do to move forward. I’m very proud of who I am and my journey to get here – everybody has to go through these things to learn about themselves.
You recently posed naked for a magazine cover, why was that an important thing to do for you right now?
Whenever I do something that shows my body, I look at myself in the mirror and ask, ‘Am I ready to do this? Am I confident in myself? Do I want to do this?’ I am solely responsible for the decisions that I make, and that cover for me was, just like the album is, trimming all the past away. The phoenix, new life, new era, new world, new me. I was reborn.
Do you think women’s sexuality should be celebrated rather than held over us, which it so frequently is?
I think it should definitely be celebrated. Women should be allowed to express themselves as they wish and do so without being afraid of the backlash that could come with it. We should all support each other, both women and men.
What are conversations you hear about the #MeToo movement? Is the music industry at a point where it can be talked about?
I think everyone should always be able to speak out and be honest, knowing that they have support around them, no matter what industry they are a part of. Every industry is involved. I think it’s incredibly important that it is spoken about and I commend the bravery of everyone who has spoken out. Things need to change in all walks of life, across the world. Hopefully the impact of the #MeToo movement will allow others who are afraid to speak out to do so.
You come across as very comfortable in your own skin. Is that an accurate reflection of what’s going on internally?
I’m like every other girl. I have things that I don’t like about my body. I’m insecure about things. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh gosh, did I say the right thing?’ You know how you always overthink everything? There are times where I am not completely confident but then I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. As long as you’re content in yourself and true to who you are.
You’re someone who is put under immense scrutiny and often held to account. How do you stop that from changing how you think and feel about yourself?
Don’t get me wrong, it can be hard to be under scrutiny sometimes, but I’m also the luckiest person in the world to be doing the thing I love the most. It comes as part of the job. I’m happy in my own skin and I try to always remember that my friends and family love me for exactly who I am.
Do you worry about whether people like you or not?
It’s something I expend a lot of energy on… When I was at school I was a bit of an outsider, I wasn’t the popular kid, I was the kid eating cheese toasties in the back. So, the liking thing for me has always been less of a factor; I just wanted friends. As long as people understand my craft and that all I’m trying to do is make people feel good. I never hold grudges, I don’t have the energy. I just try to move forward.
Reese Witherspoon has talked about the importance of women having as many opportunities to fail as they do to succeed. What has been your biggest failure and how has it got you to the place you are today?
That is such a great comment and something I 100% believe in. Failure is sometimes where we learn the best lessons in life and shouldn’t be something that we’re afraid of. It’s well known that my early days in the music industry weren’t the easiest, but without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What’s your biggest hope for women?
I hope women can follow their passions in life and be whoever they choose to be – knowing they can achieve anything they set their minds to. That we learn to support each other through life and respect each other.
You recently did a campaign with Cara Delevingne about online bullying and also spoke about your own anxiety. How does that affect you day to day?
It came and went for me, I just thought I was stressed, I never thought of it as a problem. Speaking about it is so helpful.
How do you feel about the world at the moment? We are going through a lot socially, politically environmentally…
When I look at the world or read the news it’s hard to not see everything but I always try to see the positive in things. Sometimes my friends are like, “Rita, can you stop making a joke out of everything.” I don’t want to sound like I don’t care about what’s going on because I do. But I’m not a politician and I don’t always know how to word things. I definitely feel like the one thing I do have is what I’m doing, which is being creative – hopefully that can lift people up.
You’re always on the go, how do you keep your energy levels up?
It’s consistency. When I work, I work, and when I party, I party. It’s like two separate people, I don’t mix the two. It’s really important to stay focused, get as much sleep as you can, not get distracted. The show must go on. But if I figured out [how to cure] jet lag I’d be a billionaire [laughs].
Do you like travelling?
I love exploring, eating food, seeing different cultures. I like to experiment a lot. I’d love to visit India, I’ve never been and I love Indian food. I’d like to go totally off the grid.
What does being Kosovan mean to you? How has it shaped you into the woman you are in 2018?
There are almost no words to express how proud I am of my heritage. I performed earlier this year at the Kosovo 10-year Independence Day show and it was such an incredible experience not just for me, but for my family too.
Do you speak to your family in Albanian?
I do, it’s incredibly important to us to keep that.
Is there a book that has changed how you think about the world or yourself?
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks [a true story written by Rebecca Skloot about an African-American woman whose cancerous cells were taken without her consent for medical research in the Fifties]. I was absolutely absorbed in it, it made me think a lot about what [Henrietta Lacks] gave us and what she left behind, but also how unsettling it is that she is still so largely unknown. It’s a book that, although it is about science and medicine, is also largely, and most importantly, about racism and class. It’s intriguing and thought-provoking but also very frustrating.
I know you used to be a big Spice Girls fan, what does it mean to you that the band is reforming?
I am so excited, the Nineties child in me is freaking out! Their message of girl power – well actually, ‘people power’ as they now put it – is still so relevant today. They stand for everything I believe in and were such trailblazers. As they said, “Every boy and every girl!” It’s always been about equality for all.
Rita Ora’s album Phoenix is out on 23 November. She comes to the UK on her global tour in May 2019, playing London’s O2 on 24 May.
Images: Simon Emmett, Getty