I didn’t really know who Rita Ora was when I first met her. It was 2010 and she was a guest on my BBC Radio 1 show. I’d done no research and there was nothing about her online. All I’d been told is that it would be a 10-minute chat with a new pop star signed to Roc Nation. Now, if you’ve ever heard Rita Ora talk, you know that 10-minute chats aren’t in the mouthy pop star’s framework. She arrived in the studio and was brash, yet angelic and hypnotizing with the presence of a mega star, bounding over to hug me and gush about her love of Kate Moss and Radio 1. She was open, funny and dorky, but most of all, she was real. Since then she’s had five number one hits and a number one album in the UK, toured the world and become the superstar she promised to be in 2010. A lot has changed, but Rita herself is still all about real talk, full of love and somehow even funnier, sexier and dorkier than ever. Success has a strange effect on teenagers who dream of fame, but Rita has somehow taken it all in stride. She’s dealt with criticism from the press, Twitter spats and actual real-girl beef but now she faces her biggest challenge, something every British artist dreams of: conquering America. With a Calvin Harris-produced single out in May and increasingly scary levels of fame and pressure to make album number two a success when it’s released stateside this summer, I chatted with her about how she plans on doing it all while keeping sane.
Nick Grimshaw: You were just at Milan Fashion Week, walking in Jeremy Scott’s Moschino show and performing at Philipp Plein. How was it? All I’ve seen is pictures of you becoming best friends with Naomi Campbell.
Rita Ora: Yeah, me and Naomi Campbell are like best friends… No, I’m joking. She’s so cute. She was looking after me at the [Philipp Plein] show. I was really nervous because I felt fat — everyone was so skinny and tall. So she gave me a pep talk and walked me in. Then we ended up having drinks by the bar and she was being really cool.
NG: She’s so fun isn’t she?
RO: She was being major, but you know what that’s like. I’ll talk to you about it later when we’re not being recorded.
NG: So, you were in Milan, where I also saw you cavorting on top of a car in a bikini or
a bra top or something at the Philipp Plein show.
RO: Oh, it was a bra, yeah. I had nothing else so I wore a bra and some jeans. We had fun. It was a really sick show. It wasn’t fashion-y, which was nice. It was just like a proper party.
NG: Were you always experimenting with fashion looks when you were younger?
RO: I was always messing around. I had everything at my beck and call in my mom’s room, so I was playing dress-up all the time and putting on shows. My mom would tell me to shut up, already, and I would never shut up.
NG: I think the Oras need to have a reality show like the Kardashians.
RO: Yeah, we do need to do that. Everyone’s going to see how absolutely gangsta we are.
NG: So gangsta. That day we hosted the BBC Radio 1’s Teen Awards together and I had to share… well actually I jumped into your room because my dressing room was awful, so we shared your dressing room and your mother was telling me that I looked stupid moments before I went on live television.
RO: I know, literally like three minutes before you were going on TV. I was like, “Mom, you can’t say that to him.”
NG: She was like, “You look stupid. That outfit doesn’t suit you.”
RO: And I was like, “It looks cool, it looks cool.”
NG: I love her. She’s a good woman. Would you say that she’s one of your role models?
RO: Yeah she is. She’s a very influential human being. She’s friendly, fun and very honest. And she kind of came from nothing. She had so much shit going on in her life but now she’s a doctor and also knows how to have fun. She’s never backed down from anything. I mean she’s a mom, she’s a wife, she’s a doctor… She is. Everything. She’s major.
NG: So Rita, now that you have reached your goal and you are an international pop star–in Milan one minute and New York the next–with an album on the way, what’s the next level? What’s the next goal?
RO: I would love to win a Grammy one day. And I want to go to India, China and Egypt. Places I would have never gone before. I want to live the world through music and perform for people. Music is so fucking fun and it connects people. And in all honesty, I never want to stop doing this. I would go on tour for the rest of my life if I could. So I don’t think I’ve reached anything yet. I’ve got about 15 more years of goals to achieve.
NG: I’m not just saying this because we are being recorded right now, but I’ve heard you moan about food or moan about drink, but I’ve never heard you say, “I’m tired, I’m not doing this, I can’t do it.” Are there any days where you’re like, “I can’t fly across the world, I literally can’t do this”?
RO: I mean, yeah, but I just don’t tell anybody. Why complain about something that you’ve always wanted? I know that you have to work hard to succeed and there are a lot of people who work hard around you. There are a lot of incredible, talented artists that you aren’t competing with but you’re kind of fighting up against because everyone wants to be the best, so I don’t ever complain about having to work hard. I’d rather run around than sit around, you know what I mean?
NG: Why do you think that so many pop stars go off the rails? And do you ever feel like it’s moving too fast and you could go off the rails?
RO: I think it comes back down to your morals and how you envision yourself and your goals and where you want to be when you’re 70 years old. Everyone’s different and everyone reacts differently, but I think that if you always keep good people around you then surely someone can remind you who you were before you did any of this.
NG: Let’s talk about your new album. This is your US debut. How does that make you feel? When I am doing the radio show and I think of pop stars I think of international pop stars, like Rihanna, Beyoncé… and Rita! What’s it like when you go to America?
RO: Ooh that’s good because that’s who I want to be whenI grow up. Conquering America for a UK artist is incredible because that’s what everybody wants and dreams about. And I guess it’s the same for the US acts; they’d like to crack the UK. The accomplishment is dominating a market which you aren’t familiar with. So yeah, I am a bit nervous. I am a bit scared, I’ll be honest, but I am so fuckin’ excited because the tour we’re doing is going to be so fucking massive. I just can’t wait for it because we have so much more to play with now. The first tour was obviously just me and the band and I was new and now I’m new again, but in another part of the world and we have dancers and loads of decorations and things you’ve never seen before. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s like a completely different planet.
NG: What about when you see Jay Z now — is it like, “Hov!” or is it like a work relationship? What advice did he give you on album two? Everyone says the second is always a difficult album…
RO: Yeah, it is. Now we’re at a place where I’ve grown up a little bit; it’s been two years since my last album. When I met him I was 17, and I am 23 now, so he’s watched me grow and now it’s about me having my own opinion and making my own decisions, which he understands. It’s more of a brother-sister relationship really. He really cares about me and it’s nice to see a boss who also really wants you to succeed and he’s really doing everything in his power to make this perfect.
NG: We should also speak about this man called Calvin Harris, who just so happens to be your boyfriend, and who you worked with on this album. Is it different working with someone that you’re dating rather than someone you’ve just met professionally? Is it easier or harder?
RO: It’s easier actually, because you’re in a comfortable environment but also you get a little bit shy. I got a little bit shy during our first musical bonding because he’s seen me in everything else but he hadn’t seen me in my work mode. So I was a bit shy at first, but not anymore. Now it’s fine.
NG: How many songs did you guys do for the album?
RO: We’ve done four, but the people on this album are just so cool, Grimmy, I can’t believe it.
NG: Hit me with it, come on.
RO: My single “I Will Never Let You Down” [produced by Harris] is obviously a very important song to me because it’s a love song, but it reminds you of Whitney. And that was the vibe we were on. We just wanted to feel good. You know that feeling of “How Will I Know” with the synth? It just makes you feel happy; that’s what I wanted to create. We have this amazing song “Young Dreamers” with Macklemore and it’s so cool. It’s for the kids, and it’s liberating and so fun. I did some stuff with Prince. This album was just so…
NG: Hold on. Don’t brush over Prince. Back up on Prince.
RO: Yeah, we did a few tracks together. I flew to Minneapolis and went to Paisley Park, which is like his iconic studios and we just made music. I was there for a week. It was the best thing I have ever done in my life.
NG: Oh my God, I bet. What happened? Did you just start jamming with Prince? Was it easy? What’s he like?
RO: No, it’s so easy. He plays like 50 instruments so you could do anything and he’ll fix it. He has an answer for everything. He’s a genius. When we connected I basically got a call from my management saying, “Prince would love to speak to Rita.” And I was like, “Wait, like the actual Prince? The Prince of Wales?” But I went that night and met him and we listened to music and it was amazing.
NG: That is so insane. And you never get freaked out? Because if my manager called and was like, “Jay Z’s invited you over,” or, “Prince has invited you over,” I’d be such a weirdo. How do you do it? How are you not freaking out?
RO: You know why? Because I want to be like that one day. They started from nothing and now they are legends and they will be remembered. And I’m all about learning everything–like how they move, how they speak, how they act–and I am so distracted by all of that, by trying to read them like a book, that I don’t think about who they are and I just take it in. I’m from West London and never thought anyone would know my name.
NG: Well they know now. I was looking at the pictures of us at Coachella last night because I was trying to convince my friends to go and I found the pictures of you getting ready for your performance in Frank Sinatra’s bedroom.
RO: Oh yeah, we’re doing that again this year. You went through all of my clothes. It was amazing.
NG: Yeah, there’s a picture of me in one of your body-con dresses with one of Frank Sinatra’s lampshades on my head. What’s your favorite festival? Do you like British or American festivals?
RO: The weather is better at the American festivals, but I think the vibe at the British festivals is completely different. It’s so much cooler and so much more, I don’t know, risky.
NG: I was thinking about this and one of the main differences is that at Coachella we hang
out at a nice house that Frank Sinatra once owned, and at Glastonbury I remember us walking back to our Winnebago at six in the morning eating sweet and sour chicken.
RO: In the mud.
NG: That is the different vibe.
RO: Oh babes, I miss you!
NG: I miss you too. Stop being a pop star!