Photographed at the Dream New York in Midtown Manhattan
Rita Ora enters the lounge in Sony’s New York headquarters and immediately curls up on a couch, kicking off a pair of pointy, cherry-red Louboutin pumps so new that one still has a price sticker inside. She is only 22, but one gets the sense that Ora is already the sort of person who’s able to make herself comfortable wherever she goes. Plus, high heels are still foreign territory for her.
“Growing up, I would usually just be like one of the boys,” she explains. “I became kind of a sneakerhead.” Ora’s tomboy roots still peek out, in the menswear-inspired outfit she’s wearing by the British designer J.W. Anderson -- perfectly starched white dress shirt and red tartan trousers -- and in the videos for both of her catchy-as-hell singles, the soaring, forget-your-ex anthem “R.I.P.” and the party jam “How We Do.”
Her West London upbringing -- her family moved there from of Yugoslavia when she was a baby—comes out in bits and pieces, too. “We all stick by each uvva,” she says of her labelmates on Roc Nation, to which Jay-Z signed her in 2009 after she’d spent several years performing in bars around London. And how did that go down?
“The first thing Jay said to me was, ‘Hey, kid!’ ” Ora recalls, doing a near-perfect impression of Jay-Z’s signature genial bark. “He raised me a little bit. It’s very much of a family feeling.” Jay-Z and Beyoncé were both in attendance at Ora’s first U.S. performance, at a Cartier party in New York City last April. Ora didn’t know they were coming, but had coincidentally prepared an homage of sorts. “I was singing ‘Say My Name,’ and I was nervous because it was in front of the queen!” Ora says. “She did give me the stamp of approval at the end.” She’s not the only one: Ora’s debut album, Ora, which took her three years to finish, landed at number 1 on the U.K. charts when it was released last September. The record comes out stateside early this year.
Beyoncé is clearly a role model for Ora, whose voice is similarly powerful and versatile, but when it comes to discussing other influential artists, her list is a litany of pop’s most powerful and original female vocalists. She ticks off Lauryn Hill, Debbie Harry, and Grace Jones in the same sentence, throws in Janis Joplin and Patti LaBelle for good measure, then segues into her affection for No Doubt and TLC. One trait those women share is their ability to connect with a gay fan base, which Ora herself has begun to cultivate in Europe. “I can’t wait to perform at Gay Pride and do the festivals,” she says. “The crowds are very supportive, and they make noise and they love having fun! I love the fact that they love that, because that’s what I’m about.”
Though a lot has changed since she moved to the U.S. four years ago to pursue her career, she says her relationship to her family has remained firmly intact. “My mum calls me up every once in a while and says, ‘Are you eating? Are you sleeping?’ ” the singer says. “You know, mum stuff.”
So is she? “Yeah, I am! I’m eating,” Ora replies with a laugh, suddenly remembering the salad that’s been ordered for her from Chop’t and digging in, making herself right at home.