Meeting a megastar for the first time can be nerve-racking. You never really know what to expect. So, naturally, even as I looked out over the calming Hudson River from the rooftop of a Manhattan photo studio, I was a little antsy. Then the elevator rang, the door opened, and out walked Rihanna.
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It was 2007. I was an assistant beauty editor at the time. Rihanna was fresh off the release of her wildly successful third album, Good Girl Gone Bad. She was one of the hottest artists in the world. So I watched intently as she casually strolled in as if she’d just hopped off the A train, rocking an oversize hoodie, jeans, and a skully, with two of her girls from Barbados in tow.
She shook hands with our production staff, greeting each person with a smile. When she turned to me, I sat my notepad down, expecting a handshake. To my surprise, she walked right up and gave me a hug. “Hey, I’m Robyn,” she said.
One of a Kind Archive John Galliano vintage dress: Rihanna’s own Maria Tash earrings, worn throughout. (Photo: Gary Sorrenti)
Instantly I knew what kind of person Rihanna was. Underneath the veil of this superhero-ish, ultramagnetic, über-swaggy star, Robyn Rihanna Fenty was a real one—not fake real, but real real: a Black girl who wasn’t so caught up in her own celebrity that she couldn’t recognise another Black girl on the come up. Sure, it was just a hug. But the gesture was bigger than that. Rihanna gave off the type of down-to-earth vibe you’d expect from a homegirl you’ve known since middle school.
Despite her fame, Rihanna has somehow always managed to stay down—for the cause, for her people. It has always felt like she is one of us.
Rihanna’s position as a global celebrity with more than 85 million Instagram followers has certainly helped her forge inroads where others have met roadblocks. But she has never shied away from using that platform to speak truth to power.
In 2018, Rihanna turned down an invitation to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show to stand in solidarity with free-agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was effectively sidelined from the league after taking a knee during the national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality. In her acceptance speech at this year’s NAACP Image Awards, she called for friends and allies of the Black community to “pull up,” to be part of the movement and stand on the side of justice. This spring, as the Covid-19 pandemic devastated communities—and, in particular, Black communities—across the United States, her Clara Lionel Foundation, the nonprofit she founded in 2012 and named after her late grandmother Clara Braithwaite, and her 91-year-old grandfather, Lionel Braithwaite, and its partners committed more than $36 million to emergency response efforts. And Rihanna was one of the first celebrities to speak out about the brutal killing of George Floyd: “If intentional MURDER is the fit consequence for ‘drugs’ or ‘resisting arrest’… then what’s the fit consequence for MURDER???!” she wrote on Instagram.
Fast-forward 13 years from our first meeting, and in addition to the blockbuster albums and world tours, Rihanna has built a behemoth of a fashion and beauty empire, which includes a makeup line, Fenty Beauty; a Paris-based fashion house that she created in partnership with luxury conglomerate LVMH, Fenty; an inclusive intimates collection, Savage X Fenty; and the highly anticipated new skin-care line she dropped in July, Fenty Skin.
Successfully pivoting from one industry to another is a feat very few people have been able to pull off—let alone Black women. Think about it: Other than Oprah, how many Black women have managed to take multiple industries by storm? The list is very short, and Rihanna’s name is unquestionably near the top—an achievement made more remarkable by the way she has done it. Rihanna’s swag bleeds through every product, campaign image, Instagram caption, and shade name (Cuz I’m Black).
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That’s why I wasn’t the least bit surprised by how quickly Fenty Beauty exploded after its launch in 2017. According to Forbes, the brand raked in a reported $100 million in sales in its first six weeks, reaching more than $550 million in its first full year alone.
By developing a truly inclusive makeup collection, Rihanna provoked change in an industry that had historically—and almost exclusively—catered to white women. Fenty Beauty launched with 40 shades of foundation, more than double the number offered by many other leading brands at the time. (It inspired what has come to be known as the Fenty Effect: Forty shades is now considered the benchmark for foundation ranges.)
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But Rihanna’s approach to Fenty Beauty resonated with people in a deeper way. Beyond providing people in communities of colour starved for accessible foundation that actually matched their complexions, the move seemed to communicate, I see you when no one else does.
“Rihanna’s unapologetic determination to make beauty an inclusive industry—and her insistence that beauty be democratic—changed the game,” says actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who last year launched her own beauty brand, Pattern, with a range of products and tools designed for natural hair. “She seems to imagine from a world where there are no limits, inviting us all to do the same.”
With Fenty Skin, Rihanna is looking to bring that same sensibility to skin care. More than two years of development went into the line, which led to a tightly curated collection of three multitasking two-in-one products: makeup remover/cleanser, serum/toner, and an SPF moisturiser. “I’ve always seen the Fenty brand as more than just makeup, and I knew I wanted to make skin care from the very beginning,” Rihanna says. “It was just about getting it right. You have to live with the formulas for awhile and test them in different ways. It’s very different from makeup in that sense. It takes a long time.”
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Rihanna has never abided by limitations. But her outward success in the beauty space is a testament to something far more inward that is less about how her fans have embraced her and more about how she has embraced them.
Back when we first spoke in 2007, while munching on fried rice from a local restaurant, Rihanna shared a story about her mom, who had worked at a makeup store similar to Sephora. “She knew everything about perfume, skin care, and makeup,” Rihanna told me. “She never let me wear makeup, but I was secretly fascinated. So when she’d leave home, I would play around with hers.”
Rihanna understood early on that beauty is about much more than appearances: It’s about discovery, identity, and how you feel as much as how you look. Her impact on the beauty world is a microcosm of a shift in the world itself—a world that is now finally expanding beyond the prototypical tall, thin blonde to include the full-figured, dark-complexioned, and natural in its notions of strength, success, and, yes, beauty. Rihanna has opened doors for women of all races, sizes, orientations, and creeds to be both seen and heard, which is not just a concept she has grasped and capitalised on but a reality she has lived. Like the hug from one Black girl to another, you can’t fake that. Not with all the foundation or concealer in the world.
Art director: Oliver Shaw; Executive Producer: Shelby Beamon; Entertainment Booker: Christopher Bartley; Hair: Ursula Stephen; Makeup: Priscilla Ono, Fenty Beauty Global Makeup Artist; Manicure: Kimmie Kyees; Local Producer: Gabe Hill for GE Projects; Digital Technician: Dale Gold; Set Designer: Spencer Vrooman; Tailor: Jim Tanner; Production Assistant: Sasha Bar-Tur; Photo Assistant: Jared Zagha; Printing: Arc Lab Ltd. Special thanks to Ron Hartleben and Jahleel Weaver.
This article originally appears in the September 2020 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR US, available on newsstands September 8.