Rihanna, as it turns out, kind of does need an introduction. There are the bits we know: The 31-year-old Barbadian entertainer and mogul has nine Grammy Awards, 10 signature fragrances, thriving beauty and lingerie businesses, and a new ready-to-wear line for the fashion behemoth LVMH. She has broken a handful of Guinness World Records, she was the first black woman to be the face of Dior, she has acted with everyone from Cara Delevingne to Cate Blanchett, and former president Barack Obama has called her “a powerful force in the fight to give people opportunity, dignity, and hope.”
And yet, there’s another side to the blunt-smoking purveyor of genre-shattering pop that few people ever get to see. “I’m so shy,” she says, “I don’t even want you to know I’m shy.” In the three years since her chart-topping eighth album, Anti, Rihanna has kept a relatively low profile—at least for one of the most famous women in the world. But as she tells her friend and Ocean’s 8 castmate Sarah Paulson, it’s time to get back to—ugh, don’t hate us—work, work, work, work, work, work.
RIHANNA: Hey, boo.
SARAH PAULSON: How are you?
RIHANNA: I am so good talking to you. I’ve missed you.
PAULSON: Same. Are you sitting on a beach right now?
RIHANNA: I am actually in Barbados and I’m looking at the water, but I’m not on the beach.
PAULSON: What are you wearing?
RIHANNA: A custom Conner Ives t-shirt dress that is made with graphics used on my new collection. And that’s all I can say.
PAULSON: That’s all you can say?
RIHANNA: I know. Ooh la la.
PAULSON: Are you working right now?
RIHANNA: I actually flew to Barbados for a concert. One of my favorite childhood musicians just got out of jail, and he’s doing a little tour throughout the Caribbean. We have not seen him in 20 years, so I came to watch his show with my family and friends.
PAULSON: I love that about you—that you make time for doing things like this.
RIHANNA: You don’t get moments like these every day. It’s a fleeting thing, so I wanted to have it.
PAULSON: How old are you now? If you don’t mind me asking.
PAULSON: Shut up! I was too focused on work stuff when I was 31—I didn’t go to weddings, I didn’t go to funerals, and in retrospect I regret that.
RIHANNA: I never used to be this way. It’s only the last couple years that I started to realize that you need to make time for yourself, because your mental health depends on it. If you’re not happy, you’re not going to be happy even doing things that you love doing. It’d feel like a chore. I never want work to feel like a chore. My career is my purpose, and it should never feel like anything other than a happy place. I’ve made little things a big deal, like going for a walk or going to the grocery store. I got into a new relationship, and it matters to me. It was like, “I need to make time for this.” Just like I nurture my businesses, I need to nurture this as well. I’ll shut things down for two days, three days at a time. On my calendar we now have the infamous “P,” which means personal days. This is a new thing.
PAULSON: You actually put a “P”?
RIHANNA: Yes, and it’s a different color than all the other events. I still get harassed on those days, but I’m fine doing e-mails.
PAULSON: If there are things going on in the beauty line, do you all of a sudden go, “Wait, I don’t want to leave this hanging. I want to take care of this”?
RIHANNA: I don’t leave things hanging. I will work all day in a meeting, leave that meeting at 1 or 2am, and then come home with a tiny group of staff and work until 5, 7am.
PAULSON: When do you sleep, girl?
RIHANNA: I don’t have a sleep pattern. I have sleep pockets. I fit it in when I can. That’s why I take those personal days so seriously. Because it’s like, “You had all of me. I gave you the answers.”
PAULSON: I’m like that, too.
RIHANNA: It’s the reason why an album isn’t being spat out like it used to. I used to be in the studio, only the studio, for three months straight, and an album would come out. Now, it’s like a carousel. I do fashion one day, lingerie the next, beauty the next, then music the next. It’s like having a bunch of kids and you need to take care of them all.
PAULSON: Okay, but as a hungry kid, I need a new Rihanna album. How much longer do we have to wait?
RIHANNA: It really does suck that it can’t just come out, because I’m working on a really fun one right now. I’m really happy with a lot of the material we have so far, but I am not going to put it out until it’s complete. It makes no sense to rush it, but I want it out. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, “Even if I don’t have the time to shoot videos, I’m going to put an album out.”
PAULSON: But how much longer do we have to wait?
RIHANNA: I wish I knew. I have blocked off a solid period of time for the studio next month.
PAULSON: That sounds like a long time. When you were starting your career, did you always know that you wanted to build an empire and not just be an entertainer?
RIHANNA: No, sis. I had one dream and that was for my music to be heard all over the world. I didn’t even think about the fame part, and then that came, and I was like, “Oh, shoot. Do I really want to do this?” But the thing that keeps me alive and passionate is being creative. With every business outlet, I’m making something from a vision to a reality, and that’s the thing I really enjoy. Music had led me to these other outlets, and to things that I genuinely love. My mom pretty much worked in the beauty and perfume industry for a long time—she did makeup for people and was a makeup artist—so I always loved that.
PAULSON: Did you wear her makeup when you were a kid?
RIHANNA: No, girl. I was not allowed to wear makeup for a very long time. But I would watch her in the mirror doing her makeup, obsessed.
PAULSON: Do you remember the first time she was like, “Okay, you can wear lipstick. You can wear mascara”?
RIHANNA: She let me wear lipstick if I was a flower girl in a wedding or something like that, but the first time I really, really did my makeup—and she did it for me—was at my school pageant.
PAULSON: How old were you?
RIHANNA: Sixteen, just before I left Barbados.
PAULSON: Do you remember what the colors were?
RIHANNA: There was a green and gold eyeshadow. A lip liner and lip gloss combo, that old-school thing. The foundation is the thing I remember the most, because I had never seen my skin look that perfect. And it was like, “Wow, I want to wear foundation every day.” My brother hated me for that. He was like, “What are you doing? You’ve got to wear that every day now?” In my school, you weren’t allowed to do much at all. If your hoop wasn’t hugging your ear, you couldn’t wear it. It was studs or a hoop that hugged your ear.
PAULSON: What was it like for your mom when you started dressing for videos?
RIHANNA: The only thing my mom didn’t let me do was dye my hair black and cut it short. I’d wanted to do that since I was 14 and she was like, “No, not having it.” So instead, I tried putting on burgundy extensions and I got sent home from school. They told me to either take them out or dye it dark. I left school and went to town to buy some hairspray and spray them dark brown. I was like, “I spent $70 on these extensions! I’m going to make them work.”
PAULSON: One of the coolest things about you is that you’re impervious to criticism. You are who you are. You do what you do. You’re not going to let anyone’s opinion deter you from whatever it is that you want to be doing. Does the noise ever get to you?
RIHANNA: I have to say, I’ve always had pretty tough skin—even as a little girl, which was completely due to my parents. They never sheltered me in any way. They would tease me, and I would tease them right back. By the time I got to school, I always had this feeling like the kids were stupid. Maybe that was god’s way of preparing me for what my life was going to be like. I don’t feel any way about people’s comments. I remember being a kid and being like, “Wow! I’m in a chat room. I can say whatever I want. They don’t know how old I am. They don’t know who I am, or where I am.” There’s that idea of being a child behind a screen and having that feeling like you can say anything. That child is who I imagine behind a comment every time I see one. They would never say that to my face. They probably wouldn’t even say hello.
PAULSON: Your fans have become known as “The Navy.” Gaga’s got her Monsters and Nicki Minaj has her Barbies, but what makes a Rihanna fan different from other people’s fan bases? How did they even come up with “The Navy”?
RIHANNA: I think that happened from a song called “G4L,” where I say, “We’re an army, better yet, a navy, better yet, crazy.” Then Battleship kind of pushed that forward even more. But my fans are persistent, they’re loyal, they’re protective, they’re defensive, they’re fun. To be completely honest, the thing that makes my fans different from other fans is me.
PAULSON: It’s kind of amazing to go through life knowing that there are people out there who are just loyal to you.
RIHANNA: It’s an amazing feeling, because I started off as a kid, so I know my fans were kids, too. We’re all growing up together. It’s crazy to see where our paths are taking us, and how our journeys are evolving at the same time. I feel like they’re completely responsible for who I am, and where I am at in my career. God got me to a place, and they supported me and got me to where I am now. I feel really indebted to them.
PAULSON: What’s the biggest misconception about you?
RIHANNA: People don’t know that I’m shy.
PAULSON: I know that, because when I first met you, you were shy.
RIHANNA: And you are good at reading someone’s character, because that’s what you do for a living. Your gift is that you would know the exhibited behavior of a shy person. Because I kind of pretend it’s not happening, people read me as being confident. But I’m so shy I don’t even want you to know I’m shy.
PAULSON: Every single person on the set of Ocean’s 8 was a huge superstar, and I was this nerd ball who was on TV. I felt way out of my league.
RIHANNA: You’re bugging! I walked into that thinking, “I am a musician. I do not act. I don’t know anything about this.” I felt like the nerd ball, walking in there like, “What the hell am I doing here?”
PAULSON: The problem is that we were all like, “Oh my god, it’s Rihanna!” For some reason, I kept singing your songs around you all the time, even though I’m sure you were like, “Please stop doing that.” People were like, “You can’t sing her songs in front of her!”
RIHANNA: You singing my songs was not a problem. It was the songs that you made up, that was the problem. That was disturbing.
PAULSON: I don’t know why you haven’t called me yet to do a collaboration.
RIHANNA: That’s actually why I haven’t put my album out yet. It won’t be done until you’re on there.
PAULSON: I love that you happen to be an extraordinarily famous person but can also be a person who is afraid to look someone in the eye.
RIHANNA: It’s true. I still get nervous going to award shows.
PAULSON: There’s nothing worse.
RIHANNA: What is that? I always feel like everybody’s looking at me.
PAULSON: Well, Rihanna, that’s because they are. Did I ever tell you the story about Lupita [Nyong’o] and I at the Met Ball? We were on the stairs going up to the top, and we were like, “No one is taking our picture. No one is taking our picture.” Then we looked to the left, and you were above Lupita, and Madonna was behind me, and we were both like, “Well, if I’m going to be ignored because of Madonna and Rihanna, I think I can live with that.”
RIHANNA: Oh my god.
PAULSON: Are you going to the Met Ball this year?
RIHANNA: I’m not.
PAULSON: Who’s going to win the carpet this year? It’s not going to be me.
RIHANNA: You won the Ocean’s 8 premiere with that green Prada. I almost made you give me that dress on the spot. I was staring at you, like, “I am actually mad at this bitch. Why is she wearing that?”
PAULSON: You actually told me how mad you were.
RIHANNA: I can’t believe I’m asking you a question in my interview, but did you write down questions? How did you even come up with these questions?
PAULSON: The magazine helped me with questions, but then I changed some of them.
RIHANNA: I commend you, girl. Good job. Do you got any fucked-up questions? Give me something. Ask me anything.
PAULSON: Who are you dating?
RIHANNA: Google it.
PAULSON: Are you in love?
RIHANNA: Of course I am.
PAULSON: Are you going to get married?
PAULSON: She’s silent!
RIHANNA: Only god knows that, girl. We plan and god laughs, right?
PAULSON: Do you want to be a mother?
RIHANNA: More than anything in life.
PAULSON: I’ve seen you with those kids on Instagram.
RIHANNA: My little cousin Majesty. She’s here with me wading in the pool.
PAULSON: What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
PAULSON: First thing?
RIHANNA: Unless I have to pee or something. I always want to start my day with a little devotion. I buy these devotion books and they’re dated, so you just pull up the date and that devotion is for that day.
PAULSON: Have you always been a person of real faith?
RIHANNA: I’ve always been. My first time praying and fasting was when I was 7 years old. I did that on my own, because I wanted to go to New York, and I knew that this was a sacrifice I had to make in order for god to make sure I could get there.
PAULSON: Have you ever felt that god abandoned you? Or have you questioned your faith?
RIHANNA: Not my faith, but I have been in a place where I felt like maybe I had disappointed god so much that we weren’t as close. Actually, that happened to me while I was making Anti. That was a really hard time, but, thank god, I got through it.
PAULSON: Now that you’ve experienced that feeling, do you now feel like your faith can’t be lost?
RIHANNA: It wasn’t even lost then. The devil just has a way of making you feel like you’re not good enough, and that you’re not worthy of god being close to you. It’s really not the truth, but you wind up feeling like that. My grandmother was the one who started me on this. She gave me a devotion book, a physical one. It was the last thing she gave me before she passed away. It got left on a plane and stolen, so I just said, “You know what? Somebody else is going to gain from that.” And then I bought the same book on my iPhone. The only sad part was that her handwriting was in it, but someone is going to be blessed with it, so it’s fine.
PAULSON: That’s amazing. [Starts singing] Oh, girl. Girl. Girl, you know it’s true. Girl, you know it’s true. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. I love you-ooh-ooh. Just so you know, Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna, hey, is so grade A-A-A.
RIHANNA: I’m going to tell you this because I’m a black girl: You’re going to have to stay on beat, okay?
PAULSON: My sister can actually really sing, but she is always behind the beat. I remember being at karaoke with a bunch of our friends, and her voice sounded great, but my friend was like, “She’s behind the beat.” It runs in the family.
RIHANNA: Karaoke gets real serious around these parts. I mean, like, stolen mics and stuff. Jen, my assistant—well, now she’s my project manager—is so serious about karaoke. She throws her ass at it.
PAULSON: Well, then, next time I see you, we’ll have to go to karaoke with your friends.
Hair: Yusef at Factory Downtown
Makeup: Stéphane Marais at Studio 57
Set Design/Prop Stylist: Jabez Bartlett at Streeters
Executive Producer: Sylvia Farago
Production: Zara Walsh
Photography Assistants: Corentin Thevenet, Denis Shklovsky
Fashion Assistants: Malaika Crawford, Giovanni Beda, Florence Armstrong
Tailor: Hannah Wood
Hair Assistant: Andrea Naphia White
Makeup Assistant: Richard Soldé
Manicure: Kimmie Kyees at Celestine Agency
Set/Prop Assistants: Kit Falck, Ellen Wilson
Production Assistants: Sophie Hambling, Oliver Shipton, Charlotte Garner, Johnny Seymour