Rita Ora: Rising like a Phoenix
Bad record label deals, tabloid rumours and ‘it girl’ status Rita Ora has sure been through a lot in her short music career.
Now, with the imminent release of her new album, Phoenix, the singer is poised for her return to where she belongs — the very top
Star power is something that is hard to describe, but you know when you see it, and you rarely forget it when you do.
My last sighting of this immeasurable non-entity was just a few short weeks ago when a 27-year-old woman stood alone on a stage singing an acapella rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’, and holding a note that the legendary soul diva would’ve been proud of.
Amid a sea of live-streaming phones raised over their heads, the gathered crowd went from near-silence to an explosion of euphoria. They, like I, knew they had witnessed something special. A star at the peak of her powers.
Full disclosure, the woman on stage in a monochrome, body-conscious dress with ethereally peroxide blonde hair was not your average 27-year-old. It was Rita Ora — the multi-award winning British singer and platinum-selling artist.
She had flown into Dubai that morning to perform at a private event to celebrate Esquire Middle East’s 100th issue. Five hundred invite-only guests were packed into the stunning Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera restaurant.
In the days leading up, it was the talk of the town, and would continue to be for several weeks after. In fact, the venue’s namesake chef even flew over from Sydney just to cater for the gig. Another sign of true star power.
Smiling and joking on stage as she belted out renditions of her massive hits ‘Your song’ and ‘Lonely together’, it was clear that the infectiously charismatic Ora is in a good place; riding the crest of a new wave that is just about to break. And the often hard-to-please Dubai society crowd were lapping it up, happy to bathe in her wake.
The day before, as she boarded a Dubai-bound plane, Ora dropped the news that she is releasing a new album, Phoenix, on November 23. Within 24-hours it was number one on iTunes pre-sales charts worldwide.
Despite it feeling like she’s been dining at the music industry’s top table for a long time, Phoenix will only be her second album — and her first in six years.
“I feel like a brand new artist,” she says hours before the party, sitting across from me in a suite at the reopened Address Downtown in Dubai. She’s wrapped up in a bathrobe, her blonde hair scrunched up in curlers.
With the announcement of the album drop she is just getting started on a huge publicity push, which means that after the Esquire gig, she’ll be jetting off to Milan at 2am for the start of Fashion Week.
She’s recently woken up from a jet-lag induced nap, and while we chat excitedly about her new album, she starts eyeing up the Caesar salad and chicken noodle soup that room service has brought up. Her eyes linger on the soup a little too long, before apologising and tucking in.
“I didn’t really know where I stood [in the music industry] as it had been so long since I had released some music, but I’m doing things differently this time,” she explains. “I am trying to modernise the way music is going today, and because of online streaming there really aren’t any rules anymore.”
How has she attempted to do that, I ask. “What people are really after is content — they just want music, and more music, constantly. They are not into being forced to listen to an entire album, which is why I decided to drip-feed the release of singles over the past two years, without mentioning an album was coming. I wanted to release each track when I felt they were ready, not to bombard people with all of them.”
The approach seems to have been a marketing masterstroke, with three of the four songs Ora has released (‘Your Song’, ‘For You’, and ‘Girls’) debuting at number one in the charts. The only one that didn’t, her song ‘Anywhere’ debuted at number two. “Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran just happen to release their duet that same week! I was, like, ‘oh, for f**k’s sake!’” she says with a dirty laugh, her large eyes flashing with cheekiness.
It’s a strange thing sitting there watching a beautiful woman in a dressing gown, cussing and occasionally slurping down chicken noodle soup explaining how she’s trying (and currently succeeding) to revolutionise the way the entire music industry works. But that, I come to find, is very much what you get with Rita Ora: an unfiltered, and driven woman who is very comfortable with who she is and what she wants.
Born Rita Sahatçiu, the singer’s family lived in a part of Yugoslavia that is now Kosovo. In 1991, they fled for London with her parents and her older sister, Elena, before she was a year old.
The Sahatçius were Kosovans of Albanian descent, and as the former Yugoslavia was bubbling with racial tension, the Serbian-led government in Belgrade had instituted an apartheid system in which Kosovans were denied access to education and healthcare and were intimidated in a variety of explicit and implicit ways.
Ethnic Albanians retaliated against Serb oppression. The seeds of a brutal war had been sown, and, although fighting didn’t breakout until 1998, if you were in Kosovo in 1991 there was a very real sense that things were not going to end well.
The Sahatçius were smart and well-educated, with university degrees and an enviable social life. Rita’s mother, Vera, was a doctor. Her father, Besnik, had a thriving business. They hung out with intellectuals, businessmen and professional people of all stripes. But by 1991, their situation was intolerable.
In London, the family shared a series of tiny flats as they started again from scratch. Elena and Rita spoke Albanian in the house. Vera looked after the girls. Besnik found work.
By the age of 11, it was clear that Rita had a very special talent — one which she has previous described as a ‘superpower’. She soon was accepted at the Sylvia Young Theatre School so her father decided a change was in order.
If Rita became a star, he wanted people to be able to pronounce her name. Sahatçiu means “watchmaker” and so they added “Ora” to the family surname. It means “hour”. Ironically, even by her own omissions, Rita’s timekeeping leaves something to be desired.
Making the most of her talent, Rita would take on gigs, singing at small venues in London as word started to spread. At one of these shows, a representative from Jay-Z’s record label, Roc Nation, noticed her and flew her to New York to meet the boss. She was offered a contract there and then, and after three years finally released her debut album, Ora.
Cue her rocketship. In 2012 the young singer’s career exploded. Three tracks — “RIP”, “How We Do (Party)” and “Hot Right Now” (with DJ Fresh) — became party anthems. All of them went to number one. But trouble was afoot.
While her record deal with Roc Nation stated a five-record agreement, Ora would only release one. She later filed a lawsuit claiming that she was being neglected by the company. In response to the lawsuit, Roc Nation countersued Ora, but the case was eventually settled amicably in 2016.
The settlement finally freed her up to take back control of her own career. Today she is managed by her sister, Elena. “What I went through was a really strange and difficult situation that I would never wish for another artist to go through,” Ora explains.
“It was political and tough, and I kept just thinking ‘Why me!?’ But I got through it and I’m here now.” Suddenly, the name of her new album, Phoenix, takes on a whole new weight of importance.
A few weeks earlier, the Esquire Middle East team are on set in a North London studio killing time waiting for Ora to finish up with her hair and make-up.
The busy life of an A-lister means that her morning was booked with radio appearances, and despite turning up already looking great, the photoshoot preparation demands her full attention — a whole three hours-worth of attention.
You can’t rush perfection. On set she is a ball of energy, bopping around to the music — it was Beyoncé’s birthday so Ora specifically requests some Queen B in honour of the occasion and belts out every word — and slipping in and out of wardrobe changes lighting quick. Her first rodeo this definitely isn’t.
“I love fashion, because it is an amazing way to communicate with people,” she says. “It’s a place where you can just as easily express yourself, or hide away.”
On set Elena and their mum, Vera, are all involved. It is quite the family affair. Vera loves the shoot, claiming it’s her favourite her daughter has ever done. The Esquire team breathe a sigh of relief. We have mum’s approval.
“I am taking these home with me”, she says ogling a pair of bejeweled Giuseppe Zanotti boots like a kid in a candy store. Being a regular on Fashion Week front rows, it’s no surprise that she knows Zanotti personally, as well as other leading names in the world of fashion; Donatella Versace, Kim Jones, Stella McCartney and Cara Delavigne.
If you’re one of Rita Ora’s 13.8 million Instagram followers — and we’d imagine that many Esquire readers are — then you will be well aware that she is not someone who is afraid to show-off what she has.
The day she arrived in Dubai, she posted an Instagram story of her lounging by the pool in a barely-there swimsuit, tagging in @EsquireMiddleEast with the words ‘Back in Dubai!’. Within an hour, tabloid news sites around the world were writing stories off the back of it.
We ask whether it is a clever marketing move, or just the self-expression of a woman proud of her body. “I find it very empowering,” she says. “I love being in tune with my body, and I don’t see me being sexy as a form of disrespect to other people, or my upbringing. It is a form of freedom of expression.” She pauses briefly, before adding, “You know, men also show-off their bodies on Instagram and people don’t give them as much sh*t!”
It’s a good point, and one that is very much top of the cultural agenda. With someone who has been under the celebrity spotlight for nearly a decade — Ora’s CV also includes film roles in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and Southpaw (2015), as well as being a judge on X-Factor and hosting America’s Next Top Model — she clearly feels confident in using her platform to express opinions on issues that matter to her, such as female empowerment.
“I think it would set women back, if I said ‘yes’,” she says when asked if she feels being a woman has limited her.
“I’ve been watching people coming out and talking about things like the #MeToo movement over the past 18 months, and it has been hugely inspiring. If I was to use my position to say ‘we don’t get this! Or we don’t get that!’ then I think it would be less empowering.”
“Instead, I want to show people that I am running my own business, I am in control of my own destiny, and I am in the best place I’ve ever been. That is inspiring, and that is how we progress,” she says stressing the words with a steely confidence. “I don’t think I am limited because I am a woman, but I think we need to be more outspoken about what we have done, and not about what we don’t have.”
Our chat moves on to the position of men within the female empowerment moment, and I ask for her advice on how best to show our support, without feeling we are over-reaching or, dare we say, ‘man-splaining.’
“I do like seeing men stressing about what they can and can’t say these days!” she jokes with a grin. “No, but in all honesty, it’s more about actions and not words. It’s about being supportive of progressive change, even it means just being there. Sure, if you feel it’s the right thing to do then speak up, but the key is to show support in whatever way you can.”
Speaking of using her platform for good, another issue looming on the horizon that is close to Ora’s heart is Brexit. As a shining example of the positive aspects of migration, the closing of borders is a subject that hits close to home.
“Listen, I am a refugee,” she says, “and I’m proud to have previously worked with UNICEF as an example to show the value and benefits of allowing refugees into countries.”
“Do you remember that speech that Meryl Streep gave at the Golden Globes?” she continues, “The one where she pointed out that everyone in the audience was not actually from Hollywood? Literally, like, everyone! I was, like, BOOM! IN YOUR FACE!” she says with an infectious laugh. “Things like that make me really happy.”
It is no surprise that Ora cites Madonna — another culture-shifting icon in both music and female empowerment — as one of her idols. She picks her when asked which one celebrity she would live on a desert island with, “She’s such an interesting character who is so smart and in tune with her sexuality and her body and soul. She is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I bet she’d have so many naughty stories that I’d never get bored!” again she laughs.
Rita Ora is addictive. Her music, her laugh, her eyes, her InstaStories, her drive, her ambition — you could spend hours in her company, and it would feel like minutes.
She knows it too. “I’ve been told that I’m the kind of person that you try to get rid of, but you never really want to let me go,” she says.
After Ora walks off-stage, a snake of people shuffle after her as she heads to a private green room. Queues try to sweet-talk their way past the bouncers in the hope that they can get that ultimate souvenir: a selfie with the star.
A lucky few do, and she is happy to oblige with a pout, a smile, and that infectious laugh. The crowd will be talking about her long after she has jumped on a plane, and jetted off around the world promoting Phoenix. But that’s because there’s just something special about Rita — and that is all part of her star power. Part of her aura.
Rita Ora’s second studio album, Phoenix, will be released on November 23 via iTunes