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A Star is Reborn

10 July 2023, 08:30

After 15 years in music, Rita Ora is doubling down on her creative ambitions. She tells Sophie Walker how love and connection at the core of her personal and artistic mettle.

Rita Ora positions herself within a hall of mirrors. She sits before her own: a wall-consuming halo of LEDs to perfect the finished image; a smaller one sits on her dressing table so she can attend to the finer details with a drawer crammed with cosmetics, hastily pulled open.

A computer monitor bleeds static; a man leans back on the table, his head decisively cropped, and in her hand is a phone, leveraged at the height and distance to capture herself. There’s Rita, there’s ‘him’ and there’s all of ‘them’ – but she’s looking at you.

Ora understands what it is to be seen. The artwork for her third record, You & I, the first substantial body of work she has released in five years, communicates Ora as more than a pop star but a ‘figure’; a woman capable of wielding the power of her image, and therefore, her voice – all in that sharp, knowing glance down the lens. Her celebrity, which has remarkably endured beyond a decade despite professional and personal obstacles others might have failed to clear, is by no means an accident. Say what you like about Rita Ora, because people often do – ‘Rita Ora leaves little to the imagination…’, ‘Rita Ora Dazzles…’, ‘Rita Ora bares all…’ – but she has remained immutable within pop culture’s line of vision.

The sheer inescapability of her name calls to mind an oft-quoted ambition of Victoria Beckham’s: “I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic.” Dissatisfied with being a pop star alone, Ora’s career has expanded into acting and TV presenting, having been a coach for both The Voice’s UK and Australia editions, as well as a judge for The X Factor. Her image has also elevated the profiles of Calvin Klein, Super Ga, DKNY, Rimmel, Cavalli, EE (who could forget ‘Giant Rita Ora’ terrorising the lockdown London skyline in the name of 5G?), Thomas Sabo and Prada, to name but a few. And, if that weren’t enough, she is Chief Creative Partner at Próspero Spirits, the first female Tequila distillers.


Her name is a tabloid obsession with articles produced en masse, dissecting who she’s with, what she’s doing and where she’s going; what she did – or, a particular newspaper favourite – did not wear. Column inches amplify her mistakes, most notably her violation of lockdown laws for her thirtieth birthday party, and rumours are fuelled between the lines, including the since-disproven theory that she was public enemy number one: 'Becky with the Good Hair.' It will come as no surprise, then, that Ora’s is one the leading faces for the banner of the Mail Online’s ‘TV & Showbiz’ online news section.

Her polymathic approach to pop culture and entrepreneurship, and her dedication to her visibility, wins admiration from some and sparks dislike in others. But regardless of how you feel about her, this is an unequivocable fact: the devil may work hard, but Rita Ora works harder. She made the best out of a bad deal. Her beginnings in the early 2010s as the UK’s answer to Rihanna, all peroxide, red lipstick and West London attitude, held the promise of a career without limits. She collaborated with rapper Tinie Tempah and DJ Fresh, zeitgeist-defining artists for the era who allowed Ora to tap into the pulse of the streets she came from rather than the kind of smooth-edged pop dreamt up in major label boardrooms. Having been raised to sky-scraping heights at 18-years-old by signing to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, her 2012 debut album Ora charted immediately at number one. “There’s just too much anonymity”, The Guardian’s Michael Cragg wrote, as was the critical consensus, but the strength of its hits and Ora as a star-in-ascent marked a voice that was poised to dominate the airwaves for a long time to come.

But if her debut left us wondering who Rita Ora was, then the subsequent years brought us no closer to her. A slew of chart-dominating collaborations emerged with Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX, but it seemed that Ora’s momentum had started to fizzle beyond her reputation as a hired gun. In 2015, she filed a lawsuit against Roc Nation accusing the label of neglect, holding her to a five-contract deal while allegedly refusing to release the multiple albums she claimed to have recorded. The company countersued her for $2.3 million, and eventually, they settled the dispute privately out of court. It took six years for Ora to reassemble herself and her team, to claw back what she had built, eventually inking a deal with Atlantic to release her second album, Phoenix. The record was meteorically successful: a pristine collection of electro-pop with many of its singles amassing over half a billion streams, including “Your Song” and her collaboration with Avicii, “Lonely Together”. She represented a universal prism where people could project their daydreams, sensuality and weaknesses and see them refracted in a dazzling spectrum of colour. In a decade of pop music dominated by the Swiftian school of bearing the most private contours of an artist’s heart, Ora successfully retained her anonymity – this time out of self-preservation – and with it, her story.

Rita Ora Best Fit Digital Cover copy

The release of You & I, however, marks a decisive turning point: for the first time, Ora is inviting you in. “It’s a very open record,” she tells me. “It’s made to be like a diary.” Her life has changed irrevocably from the party-girl reputation that defined her twenties. Ora is now 32-years-old, a decade that arrives with hard-earned wisdom, and she is a wife, married to the New Zealand filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi who brought us Jojo Rabbit and Marvel’s Thor series. “I’m at this moment in my life that was something I wanted to capture: meeting this person, but also my friendships changing, people getting married and having kids. My life was drastically changing. I was getting older… I wanted to write something that felt real to me.”

For the first time, Ora has a hand in her own lyrics, and in doing so reclaims her own narrative – something she had to renounce to ensure her survival in a career that has been repeatedly derailed. The release of You & I marks a moment where it is finally safe for her to take a risk, to leave behind the safe harbour of shrewd collaborations and EDM universality. “I’d like to think Phoenix was a much more polished record, and while this is way more unpolished - I’m never not going to make pop songs - but this was a more natural, imperfect approach which is what I always wanted. That’s what you do when you’re a songwriter and you’re aiming to write more honourable records: they will inevitably become a bit less hooky and anthemic, and I’m okay with that,” she explains. “I’ve never made an album like this before; I wasn’t trying to make a record that sounded like something else. Being involved in the songwriting was eye-opening for me – I had no worries, no sense of judgement. I became way more confident. This is my more, sort-of artistic album, for sure.”


A striking thing about having a conversation with Rita Ora right now is, quite simply, that she is happy – perhaps fulfilled, even, despite being a figure who strives so relentlessly for more. Even when she reflects on her battle with Roc Nation, one of the most challenging chapters of her life, she refuses to dwell too deeply on it. “It was actually really stressful,” she says, as if it were a mild inconvenience. “At the time, when I was fighting for the rights [to my music] and everything, I was thinking, ‘Is this worth it?’ My mental state was getting bruised – it wasn’t damaging the public’s perception of me; it was just damaging me. But then I realised it was all because I love music, and I love singing. I knew that, at some point, I had to see the light. And I did. When I found a new team, it was like, ‘Hallelujah! This all wasn’t for nothing!’” Then, Ora adds: “But I enjoyed the fight.”

She recalls, “I was getting these signs from big artists and not even noticing it…” Signs from who? “Prince was the first person to tell me to own my own masters: ‘Own your masters, or your masters own you.’ I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, and he just went back to playing funk, but when I did my research into ownership and percentages - blah, blah, blah – I went in, and I got what I needed.”

The explanation behind her incredible tenacity, perhaps, could be found in her experience as the daughter of refugees. Her family left Kosovo due to the persecution of Albanians that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, finding a home in Notting Hill in 1991, when Ora was just a baby. She has represented her birth country tirelessly throughout her career, working closely with refugee charities and becoming one of UNICEF UK's ambassadors in 2019. “I think my parents really put that work ethic in me,” she notes. “I was very loved; I was very looked after – I have such incredible parents. They never really shared any struggle with us, but it was all about respect, resilience and hard work. So, I do say I’m a bit of a workaholic, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

I wonder if belonging to a family that is no stranger to volatility attuned her to the possibility of losing everything. “It’s fear, isn’t it?” she acknowledges. “I think we all live in fear that it’s all going to go away tomorrow. But I think that’s nothing to do with my upbringing. None of us want anything good to go, and that’s another reason why I work really hard. I love what I do, and I think I’m really good at what I do – and with that comes protection. I’m like a mum, protecting my baby.”

Ora mined inspiration for her transparency and desire for connection through You & I from her grandfather, the film and theatre director Besim Sahatçiu. “He was the creative current in our household,” she tells me. “My mother and father wanted me to dream, but more than anything, they just wanted me to be secure. School was a big thing. But my granddad, he was more the dreamer. He pushed me to do what I do.” Sahatçiu devoted himself to filmmaking, but found success in taking a risk with 117, a short film shot in the Kosovar village of Nevokaze, depicting the traditions and lifestyle of an Albanian family of 177 members who were all living under the same roof. It was described by critics as the ‘spiritual portrait of a nation’. Ora says, “I was always curious, out of all the films he did with bigger budgets, why this one worked. And then I realised it was because it was how people were actually living. It’s about human connection.”

Sahatçiu passed away in 2005, but he lived to see his granddaughter’s acting debut in the British crime film Spivs. “He was kind of ill when that was happening, and he couldn’t really stand up,” Ora shares. “And I remember my grandmother calling me, and she told me that he stood up to cheer for me when I came on the screen. Bless him, I was only in it for five minutes. But he saw that I achieved something. I wouldn’t suggest you judge my acting skills from that film, though!”

Rita Ora Praising You Press shot i photocredit Ed Cooke
Photo by Ed Cooke

On the new record, Ora retraces her roots that have, until now, been unexpressed through her music. “I was inspired by loving things,” she says, “but I didn’t want people to think that you have to have somebody of your own to be happy, and so I started to self-reflect and appreciate the people that shaped me, as well.” The song “Shape of Me” is dedicated to her mother. “I started writing the song from the perspective of shaping a sculpture, but then I was like, ‘This sounds too metaphorical, this isn’t working. Let’s talk about the women that actually shaped who I am and what they used to say to me.’ It sounds a bit like a galloping horse with this country twang,” she explains, “because I wanted people to feel that they were being shaped with me as they listened. Very weird, but that was the vision.”

I ask if she sees herself reflected in her mother as she grows older. “Definitely. I’d like to think I’m funnier than her, though she won’t like that very much,” she says, laughing. Vera Sahatçiu works as a psychiatrist who specialises in postpartum. “Every day she wakes up and goes to work, and comes home having had the most insane experiences. She teaches me something every day, and she has really taught me how to be respectful and polite, but still very opinionated and unafraid to protect myself.”

In 2005, Ora’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. It awakened her from a young age to a reality everyone must one day confront: “When you’re young, you look at your parents like they’re superheroes. You never think anything is going to happen to them. When she was sick, I just thought, ‘I haven’t done enough. What can I do? How do I stop this?’ But it was out of our control. Luckily, she was young, it was caught early and she overcame it, but that’s why I want to work really closely with my mum with breast cancer research charities - and also postpartum charities, which is my mum’s passion. If anything, it just made me feel like I need to be a better daughter.”

Ora’s introspection also led her to reminisce on her teenage years: the girl who spent her weekends working in a sneaker store on Portobello Road, drinking with her friends in parks and taking any opportunity to sing at her father’s pub. “Notting Hill” is an ode to those years of thrills and freedom, when it was all still to be played for. “Now, this one’s my favourite, actually,” smiles Ora. “It’s all of our favourite: it’s Taika’s favourite, it’s my sister’s favourite – everyone’s – because it feels like, ‘Damn, that was a good time’. Even though I got famous pretty young, that window of time was iconic for me: walking down Portobello Road, paying two pounds for a shot and us just not thinking or caring. I never really paid homage to that time in my life and that area, with all its different ethnicities, smells, food stalls, record shops… everything. That was the energy.”

The commonality between the woman I speak to today and her teenage self lies in Ora's unwavering self-confidence: “I was always the one experimenting with outfits, the one people would always copy in the crew, and I would dress people up… I was always about, visually, being one of the coolest kids on the block. I was obsessed with fashion.” She spent much of her wage at the sneaker shop on more to add to her collection. “I would always get the freshest trainers, and I would collect them, actually. I have a huge storage unit now just filled with them. I know, it’s mad. I have a lot of Jordans and rare, exclusive stuff that are probably worth a fortune.”

"I want to challenge myself and keep working into my fifties, and I think that means being really resilient and to keep pushing, no matter what.”


To this day, she remains friends with the song’s characters. “I think that’s why some people can really connect with me, because I’ve always been loyal to what I do, who I represent and what I choose to talk about. Eventually, people started thinking, ‘At least we can rely on Rita, she’s not gonna lie to us’ – I’ve always been a very transparent person, and I think being famous, it’s really important. You don’t have to share everything, but when you do share it, you need to be very honest.”

Though You & I encompasses love in all the forms that have manifested in Ora’s life, much of the record is an open love letter to her husband. It begins with a sample of a voice note, with the familiar words: “Rita, it’s me.” The album’s opener, “You Only Love Me” is a dizzying headrush of how it feels to embrace your feelings without fear – Rita at her best. She and Waititi were friends for five years before progressing to a romantic relationship after having been introduced at a barbecue by Robert Pattinson. “We clicked straight away,” she reminisces. “And, you know, his mother also survived breast cancer. We just really connected on our families and our work ethic. It was like there was no one else at the party, and then it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the sun’s coming up. What’s going on?’ We remained really good friends, but I had butterflies – it was a surprise, but I felt comfortable. Safe.”

Does she believe their meeting was fated? “You know, I honestly gave up on the idea of finding somebody who could handle what I do and how I live my life,” she tells me. “I mean, it’s a lot – it’s a lot to accept for anyone. But I never thought following the rulebook of happiness was going to lead the way to it. Everyone’s got their own journey, and I basically married my best friend. I never really thought, at first, that he was the person I was going to marry. You know, I always fancied him, but I honestly didn’t plan for it. I didn’t think it was going to happen for me because of what I do, and if there was someone out there who would love me for me.

"I can’t tell you the rules, but I can tell you, in my opinion, that if you are your best self, then the best will come to you. If you have worries, work through them in therapy; if someone is toxic in your life, get rid of them – if these things aren’t bringing you to your best self, then you’re not really making space for what you want. I believe in that, whatever kind of spirituality that is.”

The title track was penned the morning after their wedding in a stupor of disbelief: “I was like: ‘I just got married yesterday… I can’t think about singing about anything else apart from that. I wanted to write the ultimate love song.” It’s a patchwork quilt of references to songs that defined the dancefloor on their wedding night. The particulars of their wedding is something Ora closely guards, kept on a high personal shelf no grasping hands can quite reach. I ask her why she chose to keep those details sacred when the couple have been otherwise generously visible, including gracing the cover of Vogue Australia together. “Well, because I learned the hard way,” she shrugs. “Writing this music gave me the strength to refuse be forced to go into detail. In the past, a picture would leak, or something, but with this, they had nothing but my word, and it made me feel really powerful. I can tell my story in my way.”

Rita Ora Praising You Press shot photocredit Ed Cooke
Photo by Ed Cooke

Waititi’s influence is tightly woven into the fabric of the record beyond merely being Ora’s muse. More than her romantic partner, for this project, he has been her creative partner, too. He has lent his irreverent directorial signature to the music videos for “Praising You” and “Don’t Think Twice”, where Ora’s humour and gift for performance is cast in sharp relief. “I love him in all aspects of the word,” she smiles. “But, you know, I really respect him and admire what he does and how he has created his own style. It’s so cool to work with someone you love and bounce off each other. It’s the easiest thing ever. He throws ideas at me every minute, but that’s fine – we’re both fire signs.”

Longevity has been on Ora’s mind, lately. “Getting older in the public eye, you feel like you have to keep re-establishing yourself,” she tells me. “It’s like, ‘How are you going to last?’ Because there are a lot of stars that have come and gone, but to reach icon status, you have to reinvent. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve got shit to do’ – do film, do music, do passion…” But really, ever since she was plucked from obscurity as a teenager, she has been questioning how to build something that will endure. During her legal battle with Roc Nation, Ora drew up a twenty-year business plan. “I was fed up with how I felt, and I was like, ‘I’m never letting that happen to me again.’” She outlined her desire to own her own music, to perform in films, and to be married. “I mean, everything was on that board. It was crazy. You see famous billionaires say, ‘Well, I just envisioned it!’, and we’re all like, ‘Yeah, okay. Whatever...’ But I really did do that.” Ever since she was a child, her mother would tell her to picture a sea of people singing her songs back at her - and so she would hold that image in her mind’s eye every night, like a ritual.

The singing: that’s what it’s all for. The world may have tried to prise that passion from her, and she may have pursued far more besides, but its importance in her life has never waned. She shares, “I just loved singing, man. I only ever wanted people to hear my voice. I still get up in pubs. You know, just the other night I was singing ‘Valerie’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ with Russell Crowe at a random Australian uni bar. It was amazing…” But really, despite the unfathomable scale and cast of Ora’s life, she still yearns for the days when she was playing student bars with everything to fight for. “My first tour was a uni tour with DJ Fresh. It was a really good way of taking the temperature of what people were actually listening to. In fact, I remember Chase & Status were always playing uni rooms, and I asked why, because they were so big, and they were like, ‘What do you mean? That’s where all the research is.’”

She feels that, for the first time in a long time, she has rekindled that same sense of intimacy and connection with her audience. I ask her what she has learned through the process of bringing You & I to life, and she tells me, simply: “That I am an artist.” The album is imbued with a certain integrity, she believes, because of how deeply intertwined it is with her life and the woman she has become. But as always, she won’t stop there. There are plenty of things on that prophetic business plan that have yet to emerge: “I want to make lots of films. I want to get a role that feels really substantial, that could really shock people and have a lot of layers and emotion to it. I want to challenge myself and keep working into my fifties, and I think that means being really resilient and to keep pushing, no matter what” – because when it comes to succeeding, Rita Ora just can’t help herself.

You & I is released on 14 July via BMG and is available for pre-order now

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