Glamour: Let’s first talk about life before you made it: You are one of the few pop stars in recent years to come from the islands.
Rihanna: I would have never dreamed that my career would be this successful. I grew up in an average home in Barbados, and we didn’t live in the best neighborhood. But I was never aware that we were poor; my mom never made us feel that way. She loved me unconditionally. She made us feel anything was possible and instilled in me such confidence.
Glamour: Did you sing a lot as a kid?
Rihanna: Always—in the shower, to pillows and stuffed animals, my cousins. But I knew I wanted my music to be heard worldwide. That was my dream. I was able to make demos whenever I had vacation time, but my mom always said, “You are not stopping school until you get signed.” And even when I got signed, she still made me go to school.
Glamour: You auditioned for Jay-Z at Def Jam. What was that like?
Rihanna: I was nervous as hell. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. I was trying on a million different outfits and makeup. I remember seeing Jay-Z and starting to shake. I thought he would be in a suit, sitting behind a desk with a cigar. But he was totally chill, wearing sneakers and a T-shirt. Then I went into audition mode. I knew it was all or nothing. Right away, the Def Jam people said, “You can’t leave the building.” They closed the door, and the lawyers stayed until 1:00 or 2:00 A.M. to do the deal.
Glamour: That literally is the definition of overnight success!
Rihanna: In a matter of weeks, the first single [“Pon de Replay”] went to radio. Then we shot a video, and the song just took off. I was in the Top 10 with huge artists who I looked up to. Jay-Z kept telling me, “This never happens, so don’t get used to it.” I saw how special that moment was.
Glamour: What’s the most valuable piece of advice Jay-Z’s ever given you?
Rihanna: In the beginning of my career, he said, “You must be a good person, because good things are happening for you, but you have to stay humble.” One thing that intrigued me about him was that he was such a huge artist and really down-to-earth. I felt like if he was saying this, it must work.
Glamour: Let’s talk about this past year—you’ve obviously been through some difficult things. How did the people around you help you cope?
Rihanna: My friends and family have been extremely supportive, and everyone has been there for me. But at some point you are there alone. It’s a lonely place to be—no one can understand. That’s when you get close to God.
Glamour: Are you referring to the [Chris Brown] incident?
Rihanna: I am talking about starting with the night [before] the Grammys and then on. That was not the only thing that occurred this year. The picture leaking…it was one thing after another.
Glamour: You’re talking about the photo [reportedly of Rihanna’s injured face taken by police after Brown assaulted her] that was allegedly leaked by cops. You handled that so well; you kept silent in the press.
Rihanna: It was humiliating; that is not a photo you would show to anybody. I felt completely taken advantage of. I felt like people were making it into a fun topic on the Internet, and it’s my life. I was disappointed, especially when I found out the photo was [supposedly leaked by] two women.
Glamour: How has this event changed you as a person, as a woman?
Rihanna: I’m stronger, wiser and more aware. You don’t realize how much your decisions affect people you don’t even know, like fans.
Glamour: Do you think you’ve gotten your strength from your mom?
Rihanna: Definitely. My mom gave us the tools to survive…. My parents separated when I was eight or nine. I helped her raise my [youngest] brother, because my mom was working all the time. He’s my favorite.
Glamour: Do you feel that this experience has laid the groundwork for coping with anything so public again?
Rihanna: It has taught me so much. I felt like I went to sleep as Rihanna and woke up as Britney Spears. That was the level of media chaos that happened the next day. It was like, What, there are helicopters circling my house? There are 100 people in my cul-de-sac? What do you mean, I can’t go back home?
Glamour: If you could offer a message to the millions of young women who look up to you, what would you tell someone who found herself in a similar situation?
Rihanna: Domestic violence is a big secret. No kid goes around and lets people know their parents fight. Teenage girls can’t tell their parents that their boyfriend beat them up. You don’t dare let your neighbor know that you fight. It’s one of the things we [women] will hide, because it’s embarrassing. My story was broadcast all over the world for people to see, and they have followed every step of my recovery. The positive thing that has come out of my situation is that people can learn from that. I want to give as much insight as I can to young women, because I feel like I represent a voice that really isn’t heard. Now I can help speak for those women.
Glamour: I think that’s a great message. What about your new album? What’s it like?
Rihanna: I was involved in a lot of the writing. I put everything I’ve wanted to say for the past eight months into my music. The songs are really personal. It’s rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s really hip-hop: If Lil’ Wayne and Kings of Leon like my album, then I’ll feel good. I would not change anything about it. Even if people don’t love it, I made exactly the piece of art that I wanted to make. It’s super fearless—which is exactly how I feel right now. I am in a really good place.
Glamour: Justin Timberlake said it sounds a little more grown-up—do you agree with that comment?
Rihanna: I agree. I have grown up a lot since my last album. It [represents] exactly where I am at right now.
Glamour: Jay-Z once said that your challenge as an artist was going to be to make people relate to you as a human being. What do you think he meant by that?
Rihanna: Before, there was an innocence to me. It was a perfect image. So the minute I did something imperfect, it was a big deal. I think that’s what he was referring to: People forget that after we get to our hotel rooms at night, we take a shower, we watch TV, eat room service and do normal things. Behind it all, we are still human beings.
Glamour: Now let’s talk about your success in the world of fashion: You have become a fashion icon practically overnight. What does it mean to you as a performer, as a creative person, as a way to celebrate who you are?
Rihanna: Fashion for me is another way I get to express myself creatively. It is one of the fun things I get to do: to play dress-up, and create outfits and looks that aren’t typical. I am an artist, so I like creating things. Shoes are my favorite thing.
Glamour: OK, so how many pairs do you own?
Rihanna: Too damn many! [Laughs.]
Glamour: Your look has evolved from the beginning of your career.
Rihanna: In the first two years of my career, there were a lot of restraints on what I could do. I couldn’t wear certain colors of lipstick, like bright pink, dark pink or red; [my lips] had to be natural. Eventually, I stopped communicating with certain people at the label, and did exactly what I wanted to do. And that was to cut my hair, dye it black, change my clothes, change my sound. Really to just express myself.
Glamour: Let’s talk about that famous hair of yours. Your cut now is even called “The Rihanna” in salons!
Rihanna: Yeah, we cut it into a bob for the [Good Girl Gone Bad album] cover shoot, but then I went even shorter for the NRJ Music Awards [in January 2008]. My hairdresser just said, “I don’t feel like doing your hair anymore—I want to cut it.” I was like, Finally!
Glamour: On to your charity work: What in your own life inspired you to start the Believe Foundation?
Rihanna: I have always loved kids. They are little adults with so much personality, and it is fun to work with that. Whether that means donating school supplies or medication, or [using my celebrity] to get them a bone marrow transplant, I want to help.
Glamour: You actually helped a young girl and a mother of two, both of whom were suffering from leukemia, find bone marrow matches for transplants. How did that happen?
Rihanna: My manager sent me a video this little girl did for her best friend. It shows them playing, and then Isabelle says to the camera, “This is my friend Jasmina, and here’s how you can help her: Swab your mouth for DNA, and put it into an envelope.” They were both adopted and have the best bond—they are inseparable. The video made you fall in love with both of them. I was like, I have to help her. So I did a bunch of events to raise awareness. Just when we thought we were not going to find a donor, we found one. The other woman, Lisa, is a mother of two who was diagnosed with leukemia and was going to die if she didn’t get a bone marrow transplant. I knew she could not leave her two kids; that’s all that was going through my head. So we said a lot of prayers, sent out press releases and did events in order to get the word out. Her transplant was successful. She was in a lot of pain, but she was so strong and determined.
Glamour: Wow, that’s amazing. So here you are, only 21, and you have already accomplished so much. Where do you see yourself in five years?
Rihanna: So much has happened in the past five years, I can’t speak for the next five. What I want is to continue to grow. Because I am never satisfied; I always want more. I always want to get better. I always want to climb another step.
Glamour: Is it too early for you to think, I want to be in love, I want to have a family? Is that too far down the road?
Rihanna: I hope I find love in the next 10 years—that will be pretty annoying if I am 31 and still have never been in love! But yeah, I’d like to be in a great place in both my personal life and my career. I still want to be doing what I love. Whatever that is in 10 years, I don’t know.
Glamour: Well, congratulations on being a Woman of the Year!
Rihanna: It is an honor. The women who are being honored are all such great inspirations to me. I look up to them.