Rita Ora is 22 and a pop siren with one foot in street style and the other in couture. Add a core of self confidence and Jay-Z as a mentor and you have an early contender for star of 2013
It’s a modern fairytale. Cinderella, if you like, but with peroxide hair, crimson lips, enough rings to cause an injury and Jay-Z making a guest appearance as the Fairy Godmother. The stuff of X Factor wannabe dreams, basically. Rewind to 2009 and our plucky 18-year-old heroine, the daughter of Kosovan refugees who shares a bedroom with her older sister and a dream of making it as a pop star, is working in a West London shoe shop. She uses the money she earns to buy the odd pair of trainers and to pay a guitarist to play with her in local pubs. She has been plugging away on the scene since she was discovered at a local funfair singing an Alicia Keys song at the age of 14. Since, there has been a vocal on a Craig David song here, an appearance in a Tinchy Stryder video there. Nothing much else. She’s starting to give up hope.
Then, one day, a phone call. The kind after which everything is different. It’s Jay Brown, the co-founder and president of Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s label, which looks after the likes of Rihanna, M.I.A, Shakira, and Mark Ronson. He wants to know whether she can come to New York to meet with the big boss. When? Tomorrow.
And so Rita Sahatciu Ora finds herself flying to New York to meet Jay-Z and Beyoncé. “I’d never even been to America before,” she says in a husky West London drawl. It’s a perfect pop star morning-after voice, the sort that reeks of late nights, screaming over banging music, and too much whisky (or maybe I’ve just consumed one too many tabloid stories about Ora). Perhaps she was just singing. As anyone who has heard her belt out a tune will know, this is a 22-year-old who knows how to make herself heard.
“As soon as I got there everything turned into a rollercoaster,” she continues. “It was crazy. I’m never going to forget it for the rest of my life. It was like walking into your own dream coming true. I knew this one person could change my life forever.”
So how did she cope when she met Jay-Z? “He has a very steady handshake,” she says. “He was so cool. We sat there for two hours playing each other our favourite music. It was kind of like a DJ battle.” Wasn’t she nervous? “I was so nervous I didn’t even go for a shower when I got off the plane,” she bellows. “I’m nervous right now! I’m just very good at pretending.”
Since she signed a contract with Roc Nation at that meeting, the rise and rise of Rita Ora has continued at a breakneck pace. Her first three singles went to number one. Her debut album, Ora – an unrelenting series of big, bold (and you could say brainless) pop/R’n’B floor fillers – topped the UK album charts. Her first tour saw her support Coldplay. She has been a guest judge on the X Factor, won numerous awards and is fast becoming the UK’s latest fashion IT girl thanks to her idiosyncratic street style, larger than life mash-up of Nineties Gwen Stefani, high glamour offset with chunky trainers, 14 tattoos and extreme hair and make-up.
In a recent New York Times profile she was introduced as “Fashion’s Latest Darling” and described as “a particularly flamboyant breed of English rose”.
Today, drinking tea in the offices of her London PR team, she wears baggy leather trousers, a kilt, Alexander Wang boots, a T-shirt covered in squirming snakes, and, as usual, enough gold jewellery to restock Glasgow’s Argyll Arcade.
Incidentally, she employs one of her best friends from school as her fashion advisor, while her sister is on her management team and travels everywhere with her. She comes across as young, cheeky and up for a laugh. Her personality is as cartoonish, in a good way, as her look. She is also supremely confident. Ora knows she has hit the big time and isn’t afraid to say it. Her refusal to be modest or coy about her ambition is actually rather refreshing.
“You have to think big, you know,” she says, sounding a bit like a motivational speaker. She also refers to herself by her own name (or rather “Ree-ah”) and “we” a lot, which is a bit creepy but could just be a hangover from working with Craig David.
“Your options are endless,” she goes on. “Last year was such an exciting time for me. And I think 2013 can only get better. I’m not going to allow it not to.”
Last year, she returned to Kosovo to shoot the video for her single, Shine Ya Light, in which she is mobbed by crowds in her native Pristina, cavorts on top of a building in underwear and bomber jacket and rides a motorbike through the city (licence plate: ORA). “It was my idea to go there,” she explains. “It made everything that I’ve been doing make sense. I realised how many people are out there who I can inspire and help. I had been inspiring and helping them without even realising.” She laughs her head off, apparently unaware that this all sounds a bit evangelical. “It really opened my eyes to what I can do. Imagine having enough power to change one country? It’s great!”
What happened when she got there? “I literally touched down in Kosovo and the president, prime minister and mayor were waiting for me to get off the plane,” she says proudly. “Apparently that’s unheard of. They don’t wait for nobody. It was like Obama being there or something – it just doesn’t happen, does it? I had no idea they were coming so I looked really bad. Suddenly we were in this private room and they were sitting there saying how proud they are as a nation.”
Did she realise she had such a following in her home country? “Nooooo! I had no idea. My mum and dad keep in touch with the Kosovan press but I never really thought it was a big deal. I was like, nah, don’t believe it. But my mum was like ‘Ree-ah, they are going crazy for you in Kosovo’. So I said, OK, let’s go to Kosovo.”
Then she gets serious. “Sometimes I see people writing the most ridiculous things about me. It’s all about me being with this person, or that person, and no one realises ... I’m in Kosovo shooting a video and that’s what matters. The fact is I’m not able to be Ree-ah, the regular 22-year-old girl. I’m never in one place for long enough.”
It doesn’t stop the tabloids having a field day. Overnight, and particularly since Ora started dating a Kardashian (they have now split up), she has become a fixture on celebrity blogs and, for her sins, Mail Online. Take two recent stories, if you can call them that, that ran two days in a row: “Rita Ora hangs out with Snoop Lion as she shows off her beach body in white bikini ...” and “Where’s your broom? Rita Ora heads to Thailand in bewitching glasses and veil…” You get the drift.
“I know, right?!” she groans. “What the f*** is going on?” Does it bother her? “No,” she says breezily and indeed, she does seem to have a backbone of steel. “The only thing that hurts me is when it upsets my mum and dad ... they’re not used to it. People should remember that. I’m fine. My tour has sold out. My album is at number six. I don’t really care. But it affects my family.”
She is, however, getting hounded by paparazzi. “I went to Whole Foods yesterday to buy flowers and vitamins. And there were, like, three paps following me home. I was straight off the plane from New York, really tired, and like ‘come on guys, I’m only buying vitamins and then going home. What’s the big deal?’
“Sometimes I say I’ll give them one picture if they leave me alone. I mean they could at least help me with my shopping bags.” She laughs.
It’s still early days at the top for Ora, but this level of attention could wear thin, and fast. “I’ve never been the type to complain,” she says. “But there are moments when you want to tell everybody to shut the f*** up. I mean, who I’m having dinner with isn’t the most important thing in the world. It’s hard to stay silent sometimes but I do because I know once I say anything it could really get twisted. But I guess it just comes with what you do. Everyone has a living to make.”
She does read what’s written about her though, “just for a laugh”. So what’s the worst lie she’s ever read about herself? “I don’t want to state specifics but we all know the obvious …” she says quietly. She is referring to her very public break-up with Rob Kardashian in December, after which he alleged on Twitter, without naming her directly, that she cheated on him “with more than 20 dudes”. Ora kept her silence but Twitter got nasty and the misogynistic hashtag #RitaWhora immediately started trending. More recently, she has been accused – again on Twitter – of an affair with Jay-Z. “It’s just lies that come out when you’re in a relationship that ends,” she says carefully. “I guess you have to respect how people react to break ups. I acted differently to … well, you know …
“Things used to be different,” she goes on, with all the world weariness of a 22-year-old. “When Beyoncé was in Destiny’s Child people would say whatever they wanted but it wouldn’t be in your face. It used to go away faster and be easier to brush under the carpet. Now it’s a notification on your phone. You can’t forget about it.” Later, at the end of the interview, she makes me promise to write about this, saying she wants to be represented accurately for once.
Ora spent the first year of her life in Pristina, Kosovo’s largest city and capital. Her father was a teacher, her mother a doctor and her grandfather a renowned film director. Foreseeing war between the country’s long-divided Albanian and Serb populations, the family fled for London. “I was really young so I never understood it exactly,” she says. “I never realised how much they had to sacrifice. We were lucky to get out. The airport was closing down and they weren’t letting anyone leave by that stage. We were on the last flight out. It was really scary for them. I think my parents are the strongest people I’ve ever known. They made a life all over again, from scratch.”
Her mother spoke no English (Ora grew up speaking Kosovan) but managed to raise three children, work as a waitress, retrain as a psychiatrist and survive breast cancer. Her father, meanwhile, reinvented himself as a pub landlord and now owns three London pubs. Back in Pristina, her grandparents were evacuated from their homes and, elderly and unwell, forced to walk to the next state, more than a two-hour drive away. “They know to work hard and survive, my family,” is how Ora proudly puts it.
There were no singers or musicians in the family but Ora knew what she wanted to do from an early age. “There was always great music playing in the house,” she says. “My dad has the biggest vinyl collection in the world, covering an entire wall. Every day he would play music, really loud… James Brown, BB King, Eric Clapton, The Supremes. Music was an obsession for me. My earliest memory is singing a Celine Dion song with my dad. He’s going to kill me for telling you that.”
She ended up at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, whose alumni include Amy Winehouse, Emma Bunton and Billie Piper. “I was a bit of a weirdo,” she tells me. “I listened to different music to everyone else. I wasn’t really a musical theatre girl. I was in my own world. I was the one listening to Janis Joplin and choking on a cigarette. My mum was like ‘what’s that smell?’ and I said, ‘mum I’m only doing it because Janis Joplin did’. She said, ‘well you’re not Janis Joplin are you?’” She laughs and laughs.
Fast forward a few years and it’s all lunch dates with Beyoncé, world tours and Vogue photoshoots. But as far as Ora sees it, this is only the start. Oh, and she’s had enough of being branded Britain’s answer to Rihanna, too. “Urgh, that old thing,” she says in mock boredom. “That’s still going on in 2013? Please, let’s think of something else. How about the new Gwen Stefani?” She cackles. “To tell the truth I don’t take much notice of it now. I mean, it’s a compliment, Rihanna is very hot. It’s better than being compared to someone s***. But gradually you do get to the point where… well, my album is out, the tour is out, and it’s all me. Ree-ah. We really need to move on.”
• Rita Ora, The Radioactive Tour, comes to the O2 Academy Glasgow on Wednesday, 7pm, returns only; www.ritaora.com