She’s a top ten hit record holder, takes acting classes with Cara Delevingne and has sleepovers with her mum. Sophie Heawood meets the intriguing Rita Ora
‘What do you mean it’s your birthday and you didn’t even say?’ exclaims Rita Ora after we’ve known each other for a whole 45 minutes. We’re sitting in a pub near London’s Portobello Road, and she points at a vintage boutique across the street. ‘Go in there after we’ve done the interview,’ she says, with the confidence of someone who’s lived in this part of the capital since she was a baby. ‘It’s the best shop. Get yourself something nice with my discount. Say I sent you.’
Rita Ora, in case it hasn’t snuck up on you yet, isn’t just the queen of these west London streets, but of pop music in Britain today. Her last single, Let You Love Me, was her 13th UK top ten hit, meaning she has now beaten Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark to be the British solo female artist with the most top ten hits ever, and they started in the 50s. And then there’s the 1.3 billion streams her songs have enjoyed on Spotify alone, her acting role in all three Fifty Shades Of Grey films, and her time as a judge on BBC talent show The Voice. On that Saturday night viewing staple, Ora was larger than life: funny, bold and excitable, and it’s understandable that she’s a bit more chilled in a one-to-one conversation, as we sit in a quiet room with the late summer sun streaming in. The pub is closed – it’s just us here this morning. Even so, I’m surprised when this big personality suddenly admits that it all feels ‘a bit lonely sometimes’.
‘I ask my mum to stay at mine all the time,’ she explains, in a voice that sounds slightly posher than I had anticipated. (Ora was born in Kosovo, but moved to London aged one). Just last night, mother and daughter had one of their sleepovers, with the two of them drinking wine and going through Ora’s enormous clothes collection, deciding what to give away, before snuggling up in bed. ‘Having my mother there feels like a reminder of being safe, of not feeling judged. I’m always saying, “Do you want to come and sleep over?” Because it gets a bit lonely. And I love having my mum make me food, too. I like to be babied, even though I’m, like, grown.’
‘You have to prove you have that staying power, even if you’ve already achieved so much’
Ah, judgement – the other side of fame; the mirror with which every celebrity must win their own battle, or fall into its cracks. But Ora has proved her staying power in what she describes as ‘a disposable industry’, in which she says it is ‘way harder for us artists to sustain ourselves than before’, because fans can switch to something else at the touch of a button. Yet she’s also only 28, and it helps that her mother is a psychiatrist, so understands the psychological pressures on her daughter more than most. In Ora’s line of duty, ‘you can be work, work, work and you don’t see your friends; you lose yourself a little bit,’ she says. Then there’s the public knowing your personal business, since Ora’s relationships, from Bruno Mars to Calvin Harris and Rob Kardashian, have always attracted gossip. None of her recent ones seem to have lasted long. I sense this is an area of her life she wants to understand, but doesn’t fully. On the track Only Want You, she sings, ‘I don’t want another night of tryna find another you, another rock bottom. I don’t wanna wear another mini dress to impress a potential problem.’
‘People love to know about my personal life, and I’ve sort of accepted that,’ she says. ‘But what I’ve learned about love is that it’s not my main priority right now. I don’t think it has been for a while.’ She pauses to think about this. ‘I don’t know,’ she admits. ‘I love hard and fall really hard, all the time. And my fans always say to me on Twitter, “Try not to fall hard this time! Try to take it easy!” And I just laugh because they’re always right.’ She says she’s learned not to put so much pressure on herself, but it’s still tough, because every setback leaves her saying, ‘Muuum, can you come over?’ one more time. Ultimately, though, she feels confident, because ‘I pick and I choose, and when the time’s right it will just happen,’ she says with the sort of determination that either comes from sheer optimism, or reading self-help books. Probably both.
Interestingly, Ora’s first experience of fame didn’t actually happen when she was famous at all, but when she was a teenage girl joining in with the gay scene at clubs and parties where everyone was perfecting the art of being fabulous. ‘I learned a lot from hanging out with the LGBTQ community, seeing their outfits and confidence, dancing and listening to what they wanted to achieve. I felt like a superstar, because everyone was a superstar, as they all had such big personalities. That was my first feeling of,’ she lowers her voice to a confidential whisper, “Oh my gosh, this feels awesome.”’ Her sharp brown eyes widen at her memory of first being seen.
‘I love hard and fall hard, all the time. I pick and I choose, and when the time’s right it’ll just happen’
At that age, Ora would also sing in her dad’s pub in north-west London, and even qualified to be the British act for the Eurovision Song Contest 2009, but withdrew on the wise advice that it could limit her career. Indeed, that same year she signed to Roc Nation, the American record label founded by Jay-Z. Yet, after the success of her 2012 debut album, Ora, came a dramatic fork in the road, with the singer filing a lawsuit against Roc Nation in 2015. She stated that they had improperly taken 20 per cent of her income and only permitted her to release one album (despite having recorded more music), and that she should be released from her contract. A settlement was reached in 2016, and a new deal agreed with Atlantic Records, but all of this meant a six-year gap between Ora’s debut album and her second, Phoenix, in 2018.
She said at the time it was all fine, but today tells me making that second album was emotional. ‘What I went through musically, not to go into it all politically, but I had a lot to get out – desperation, anger, sadness and happiness. It was a mix of emotions, whereas my first album was a party album. It was just happy,’ she says.
Ora is now recording a third, and it’s currently heading in the direction ‘of me being content and able to do what I want, which is really cool’. She starts making each track by going to her producer with a song by someone else that she loves, ‘and I’ll say I love this vibe, or I love the drums, let’s do something like this. And then we have a path. It’s so weird being creative, I don’t really know how to put it into words.’
She has also created a fashion line with Escada, a brand with an 80s heritage of ‘bold shoulders and a small waist; the structure of power’, as she puts it, and she was thrilled when their design team agreed to make an entire collection in her favourite colour. ‘I was like, “Oh my god, yes!” So now everything’s red. There are tracksuits, then there are smart coats, but with a hoodie attached. So it gives you a bit of street with chic, which is what I like.’ The coats also have a label inside them saying, ‘A good man is hard to find’ – a secret message from Rita. ‘It’s about patience, it’s about knowing that you are in control, because you’re finding that person,’ she says. ‘Instead of, like, a man will come to you one day. Because it’s you finding him. Or her – whoever it is.’
Hollywood is calling again, too. Rita has various films in the pipeline, both confirmed and under discussion. She’s excited, as she’s been going to group acting lessons in Hollywood with, you know, Cara Delevingne. ‘Well, there are only a few acting coaches that everyone goes to in LA, so it’s nice to have some friends who’ll do it with me, like Cara,’ she explains. ‘There are lots of well-known people there, actually. It’s more improv than scripted. I was scared the first few times, but it’s so fun.’
As for maybe taking a rest… no chance. ‘Some people are fine with whatever happens in their career – that’s just not in my DNA,’ she says. ‘I think you always have to prove you have that staying power, even if you’ve already achieved so much you think you can’t get any bigger. There’s always that thought in the back of your mind, “Where am I going to be next year?”’ Her parents have been hard workers since she can remember. ‘That’s how I was brought up. It was always work, work, work,’ she says. ‘So I don’t know how else to think. I just don’t know if it’s possible, for me as a person, to take time out. But I’m a girl and I definitely want to have a big family and stuff, so maybe then it’ll be, “Alright Rita, stop for a second!”’
‘The Oscars was basically Madame Tussauds, but in real life. I was overwhelmed’
She does let herself reflect on the highlights of the last decade, though: The Oscars, Glastonbury, ‘big moments that I’m like, wow, that was a really good memory.’ She recalls Sasha and Malia Obama being ‘super excited at the White House. It was a Christmas party on TV. I had to sing and was so nervous. Your throat tightens up, you feel sick, you get pins and needles in your hands – these are all the symptoms I get before I go on stage. But I felt like I deserved to be there.’ She felt the same way singing for Prince Harry earlier this year. ‘Every time we see each other, I’m always surprised how much he remembers about the other conversations we’ve had, because he must meet so many people. But he’s a proper laugh, and he listens,’ she says.
So, you don’t get imposter syndrome? ‘I’m not gonna lie, I’m human, everyone has insecurities. Performing at the Oscars in front of…’ she casts her mind back remembering Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. ‘It was basically Madame Tussauds, but in real life. I can’t tell you how overwhelmed I was. And at the after-parties, when everyone is there and you’re like, “What am I doing here?” Because I don’t have my friends with me at those events. If I had my girlfriends who grew up with me on Portobello Road, I’d be like, fuck it, this is so cool. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m not having a good time. But there’s a party and there’s a PARTY.’
This is what I love about the indomitable Rita Ora – she’s not a party girl, she’s a party woman, and knows how to do it properly. She turns 29 in November and is already planning a huge celebration for her 30th next year, at which point she will not be confessing that her rise to fame was wasted on anxiety and self-doubt, like so many pop stars now do. ‘Oh no, I basked in every fucking moment. I was living life to the fullest. I still am.’
After saying our goodbyes, I nip across the road to the shop. I mean, it’s only polite. And I do as instructed, telling the staff it’s my birthday and that Rita told me to come. ‘Oh, Rita,’ they swoon. ‘You’re the third person she’s sent in here today.’
The Escada x Rita Ora capsule collection will be available in store and online on 1 October. Ora’s latest album, Phoenix, is out now