She’s won over Jay Z and Madonna and has Hollywood banging at her door. Now Simon Cowell has signed her up as a judge on The X Factor. Stephanie Rafanelli talks to Rita Ora about break-ups, frenemies and making music with Prince
Rita Ora has a knack for inspiring devotion from musical legends. While recording in London last year, Prince wrote a paean, ‘Pink Champagne’, dedicated to her ebullience. Then he summoned her to his Paisley Park HQ near Minneapolis, resplendent in ‘a mustard-coloured poloneck, purple flares and an amazing black Afro. I’ve never seen a man who wears heels get so much female attention. He is sexy in so many ways,’ Ora declares, after striding into an East End studio, wearing the kind of platform boots that would make his royal not-so-highness proud, if a little envious.
He had invited her to record among the doves that he keeps in his studio: ‘We just wrote a bunch of music, laughed and danced.’ There, the poem evolved into ‘Champagne Kisses’, a song for her forthcoming second album. ‘If music had a face, it would be Prince.’
When Ora was still an aspiring teen musician, her mother once told her prophetically: ‘Not everyone will wish you well, but those that do will have more power than those that don’t.’ It could be the motto of her career. Her list of powerhouse mentors include Jay Z, who signed her at 18, and Beyoncé, her ‘sister from another mister’; Madonna, who chose Ora as the face of the fashion line Material Girl for S/S 2014; Tom Ford, who dressed her for this year’s Met Ball — ‘He’s a swaggy, swagger gentleman’ — and Harvey Weinstein, who, after her small role in this year’s Fifty Shades of Grey, is championing her acting career: ‘Harvey’s got my back and I’ve got his.’ And now Simon Cowell, who last week poached her from the BBC to join Nick Grimshaw on the new and improved X Factor panel, replacing Mel B. All this with less than three years in the mainstream public consciousness and, hitherto, only one solo album under her belt.
Still, it was quite an album. Her 2012 debut, Ora, went straight to number one, spawned three number one singles, and three Brit nominations, and won her a Mobo award, along with comparisons in vocal range, glamour and fierceness to Beyoncé and Rihanna. Since then, she has been relatively quiet in her solo career; instead there has been a flurry of extra-curricular activity that has meant Ora has stayed firmly in our sights. She has fronted campaigns for brands from Rimmel to Coca-Cola; designed a range of trainers for Adidas; performed for the Obamas in Washington; sung at the 2015 Oscars; duetted with Iggy Azalea on ‘Black Widow’, which reached number three in the US Billboard chart; and replaced Kylie as a judge on the fourth series of BBC’s The Voice earlier this year.
In the flesh, she is exactly like her on-screen persona: sassy, confident, direct, emotional, with hustler charm. Ora is a Kosovan-born, Portobello Road-bred, West London home girl in the body of an exotic vintage picture-postcard beauty: all tattoos, peroxide pin curls and a mischievous crimson smile. It’s a photogenic face that we’ve seen a lot of. Social-media savvy, Ora has been prolific on Instagram, posting a relentless stream of selfies, often featuring her posse of famous girlfriends; not least Cara Delevingne, with whom she became London’s partying equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde as their stars rose in parallel ascendence. ‘I’m 24, of course I love to party. But I work really hard, I think people forget that.’
Ora’s decision to ‘let her fans in’ to her personal life has come with some inevitable collateral damage. There have been a few black clouds over her name, but she is not one to play the victim: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it. You have to take it on the chin. But when the majority of the time things that are said aren’t true, it gets very hard to always have to explain myself. I just try to keep my reputation as honest and clean as possible.’
And so today she does not confirm or deny her alleged bust-up with Delevingne, the truth about her former boyfriend Rob Kardashian (Kim’s brother), who tweeted ungentlemanly accusations in 2012, nor get into the reasons behind her split with DJ Calvin Harris, her boyfriend of one year and former producer of her upcoming album. Their love song ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, released in March 2014, scored Ora her fourth number one single. But three months later Harris broke up with her on Twitter. He is currently dating Taylor Swift. To all of this, Ora has chosen to take a dignified stance. She has nothing but praise for his new girlfriend: ‘I’m a girl’s girl. I’m not going to have that first instinct of jealousy vibe.’ Of Delevingne she says: ‘I wish nothing but the best for her.’ On the Kardashians: ‘I am a huge fan of their whole franchise.’ It’s hard to know if she is just killing with kindness.
She clears her throat when I ask her about Harris: ‘It was a period of my life that I will value forever. But some things are just not meant to be. I don’t want to make this just about him. Musically, it was an amazing experi-ment and let’s just leave it at that.’ Ora has recently had to learn a restraint that, perhaps, does not come naturally. She says it’s hard splitting up in the spotlight: ‘I would rather it had been private. But I’m not private and nor is my job.’ (It is rumoured that Ora and her green-haired beau, the rapper Ricky Hil, son of Tommy Hilfiger, have also parted company.)
There have been complications, which have meant that, a year later, Harris-gate is still not water under the bridge. The DJ-producer has allegedly banned Ora from using any of his material for the album, which was due to come out last year. And so she was forced to return to the studio, with the likes of her former colleague on The Voice, Will.i.am, to start recording from scratch. Still, she is sanguine and recently performed ‘I Will Never Let You Down’ at the Big Weekend. I ask if she is allowed to put the song on the album. ‘Err, I really don’t know yet.’ But she can perform it? ‘Yes, that’s correct. It’s more on things like TV licensing. I’m not a lawyer, but I will let you know as soon as I do.’
It’s hardly surprising that her vision of the record has altered radically. ‘Two years ago, I was living in the States due to personal reasons. I was happy for a moment. So I thought this album was going to be about happiness and la la la.’ I take this to mean love. ‘And then I started to recognise things that I’d never seen before about the people around me. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that made me open my eyes to things. When my friendships get destroyed I really take it personally. And a few of those relationships got mishandled,’ she says rather vaguely. But you get the point.
And so she wrote ‘Poison’, her first official release from her new, new album, a rumbling power anthem straight from the gut about ‘poisonous relationships’. So it’s about being backstabbed? ‘Yeah. But I’m not going to blurt it out. I have my own therapist that I talk to,’ she says firmly. ‘I’ve stopped pretending that I’m this constantly happy person. I never tell people how I feel, my friends literally have to force it out of me. So ‘Poison’ is about having that mentality and it really poisoning you.’
Ora says the Kosovan culture is all about loyalty. She was born Rita Sahatçiu in 1990, in Pristina in the former Yugoslavia, now independent Kosovo. At that time the Serbian-dominated government, led by Slobodan Milosevic, had already imposed an apartheid system on Kosovans. The Sahatçius were highly educated middle-class ethnic Albanians who taught her to ‘have respect, show morals’: her mother Vera was a doctor, her father Besnik ran an import-export business and her grandfather Besim was a documentary director. Due to the increasing Serb repression of Albanian Kosovans, the family fled to London in 1991 and changed their surname to Ora. But her grandparents were left behind. ‘A few days later, they were evacuated and had to walk to the next city.’ War broke out in 1998.
The Oras are survivors. They moved first to Earls Court and then Ladbroke Grove. Vera waitressed, while retraining as a psychiatrist; Besnik bought a pub in Kilburn. Despite Portobello Road’s melting pot of culture, at that time there were few other refugees from their homeland. ‘Most people didn’t even know where Kosovo was. Everyone always used to think I had something else in me, that I wasn’t [white].’ When she was six, Ora joined the school choir. A child prodigy, she remembers her voice being like a ‘super-power’. It was a talent without borders.
She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School, sang at open-mic sessions and, spotted at a talent fair, was signed at 14. But the deal fell through, and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘I never wanted to go to school. It was distressing. But my mother is a soldier. Even when she was going through her cancer treatment, she had a smile on her face; even if her long locks were no longer there. She’s one of the reasons I’m not body conscious and quite comfortable in my own skin.’
Ora, too, is a fighter. She went back to school and studied for her A levels, while doggedly pursuing her music career, featuring on tracks with Craig David and Tinchy Stryder and even auditioning for BBC’s Eurovision: Your Country Needs You, although she had second thoughts and withdrew. All the while she also worked part-time at Size? shoe shop on Portobello Road: ‘I used to have to go up six flights of stairs to get trainers for other people and now I walk into Size? and the f***ing trainers I designed [for Adidas] are on that shelf.’
It was while she was selling shoes, at 18, that she took a call from a producer at Roc Nation, who, having heard her demo, invited her to New York to meet the label’s head Jay Z. She was signed within two days of arriving in December 2009. ‘All I thought about was music. I couldn’t cook, didn’t care. I ate buffalo wings every day, didn’t wash my clothes.’ She recorded an album, but Jay Z told her that it wasn’t the right time, to ‘be patient’ and play the long game. The album was shelved. She took a year to make the next one. The result was the meteoric Ora in 2012.
Experience has taught Ora that timing is everything and her second album’s delay may be equally serendipitous. The past year has been full of valuable formative experiences. ‘The Voice made me retune into my instincts. Being on that chair, no one can help you, so it’s made me get my [musical] gut back.’ Another was a panic attack she suffered in Miami in November 2013 while shooting the campaign for Material Girl. ‘It scared the living shit out of me. I started to value things, see things differently. This world can really eat you up and you can forget who you are.’
She says last year was a ‘whirlwind’, not least due to shooting two feature films, including the Weinstein-produced thriller Southpaw, out next month, which revolves around a boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal. ‘I play an underprivileged mother of two, addicted to drugs; it’s a nice shock. Acting is just something I’m exploring. I have no ego in that world. I’m still learning.’ She also appears in an episode of the Fox series Empire, about a hip-hop label, in which she performs with Charles Hamilton; and she is likely to reprise her role as Mia Grey, Christian’s frumpy sister, if the Fifty Shades Darker film is green-lit. Expect to see her in more Weinstein Company productions: ‘Harvey sticks to his word, which is very rare in this business.’
Ora admits that these days she is able to make a distinction between certain ‘celebrity friends’ and her ‘real friends’, most of whom grew up with her on Portobello Road, including her stylist Kyle De’volle, her older sister Elena, who works as part of her management team, and a group of Kosovan family friends: ‘They are the people I confide in.’ There are others she still trusts, including Will.i.am and Nick Grimshaw — ‘He’s one of the few that you can call in the middle of the night.’ But otherwise: ‘I just try to keep myself to myself.’
This does not mean that Ora will be home every night; she has every intention of carrying on ‘celebrating life’. The important thing from now on, she says, is her new outlook: ‘To care about the right things. Focus on my new album. Pick my battles. Go with my instincts pro-fessionally. And personally, whether I have 50 boyfriends in a year or one boyfriend in five years.’ And if sometimes she makes a mistake, well, that’s OK. ‘I’m 24. I’m not meant to know what I’m doing all the time.’