Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the artist who would become known by just her middle name, Rihanna, would sign her first record deal at the age of 16. While she got her start young, her path to fame hasn’t always been an easy one. From her childhood in Barbados, to leaving her home and family behind for a new country while still a teenager, Rihanna’s life has been an exciting one — but that isn’t always a good thing.
Despite the ups and downs, Rihanna has steadfastly remained true to herself. Her life has changed in many ways since her childhood in Barbados. She’s gone from a small-town girl to an international superstar, and her transformation has been fascinating.
She helped raise her younger brothers
Rihanna’s early years were far from perfect. Her father struggled with drug addiction, leaving her mother to support the family. As the oldest, this left Rihanna in charge of her younger brothers. She told The Guardian in 2007 that this forced her to grow up quickly, and that she was “kind of like the second mom” to her siblings.
Her father has since become sober and patched up his relationship with his family, but Rihanna’s troubled childhood left an impact. “I think it made me very independent,” Rihanna said in the article. “I’m very strong. Very determined. I’d always been a daddy’s girl. I was Daddy’s girl. And I found out who was doing right and who was doing wrong. And I turned into a mommy’s girl.”
She wants to be a positive influence
Rihanna’s turbulent childhood made her determined to be a force for good. At 19, she was just entering the limelight and was quite conscious that — while she may have just been a teenager — she was still in a position to influence others.
“I’m very aware of the impact I have on people’s lives,” she told The Guardian, “So I only wanna make positive ones. Why not help? Be that example they can follow. I always wanted to make a difference in the world. I was always trying to figure out how can I change the world.” Rihanna has turned that early desire to do good into many philanthropic pursuits. Ten years after vowing to “make a difference in the world,” she was named the 2017 Harvard University Humanitarian of the Year for her contributions to the community.
She was an army cadet
While still a young woman in Barbados, Rihanna did a stint as an army cadet. Fellow singer Shontelle, who is also from Barbados, revealed in a 2009 interview with the BBC that both of the aspiring stars had been in the military program together, and that Shontelle had in fact been Rihanna’s drill sergeant.
That military training came in handy years later as Rihanna prepped for a role in the 2012 film Battleship. To get ready for filming, Rihanna was drilled by a Naval officer. “It’s not a walk in the park,” she told Marie Claire.
She was bullied in school for her light skin
It would be easy to assume that someone with Rihanna’s flawless looks had been popular growing up, but appearances are so often deceiving. Rihanna told Allure in 2009 that she was often teased in school for having lighter skin than her classmates. The teasing would often escalate to fist fights. “I was cultured in a very ‘black’ way,” said Rihanna. “But when I got to school I’m being called ‘white’…they would look at me, and they would curse me out. I didn’t understand.”
Her struggle to not be defined by her skin color didn’t go away when she achieved fame in fortune. In a 2015 interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine she opened up about being judged for her race. “It’s still a thing,” she said. “And it’s the thing that makes me want to prove people wrong. It almost excites me; I know what they’re expecting and I can’t wait to show them that I’m here to exceed those expectations.”
She moved to the U.S. as a teen for her career
Rihanna’s path to fame began when she was only 15 years old. Still in school, she turned towards music as a distraction from her family troubles. She auditioned for music producer Evan Rogers with two classmates, but it was Rihanna who stood out. Rogers later said, “The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist.”
Just a few months later, at the age of 16, Rihanna moved to the United States to begin working on her demo album. “I wanted to do what I had to do, even if it meant moving to America,” she said.
She’s proud of her culture
She may have left Barbados behind, but that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten where she comes from. She told Esquire in 2011, “I’m always representing Barbados. All over the world, no matter what I was doing, no matter what I achieved, no matter what award it was, I always shouted them out.”
In 2016, her album Anti dropped. The song “Work” features what Vogue called “sort of a vocal variation” which Rihanna described as an homage to her heritage. “That’s how we speak in the Caribbean,” she said. “It’s very broken and it’s, like, you can understand everything someone means without even finishing the words. This song is definitely a song that represents my culture, and so I had to put a little twist on my delivery.”
She makes bold fashion choices
Rihanna’s style is uniquely her own, and sometimes her fashion choices are more than a little risque. She has been known to go braless, unafraid to let her girls be seen. “I have always freed the nipple,” she told Vogue in 2016. “It was never to get attention. Never sexual. Never in desperation… And after a while, it became such a scandal and a ‘horrible role model’ thing. It was a topic of discussion, and eventually other girls started defending me. And now there’s this whole ‘Free the Nipple” movement.'”
The singer is also a fan of getting inked, rocking more than twenty tattoos.
She designed a fashion line
Not content to simply inspire fashion trends, Rihanna decided to try her hand at designing clothes. She was appointed creative director at Puma in 2014, which led to her line Fenty x Puma. In 2017, she was honored by the Parsons School of Design for her contributions to fashion.
While some celebrities simply lend their names to fashion lines, Rihanna takes a hands-on approach. According to the New York Times, Rihanna “is heavily involved with her brand,” and also works “across the fashion world” as a freelancer.
She’s got her eyes on an Oscar
As if music and fashion weren’t enough, Rihanna has also turned toward an acting career. She was cast in a cameo role in an installment of the Bring It On franchise in 2005. A newcomer to the acting world and still at the start of her career, Rihanna told MTV News, “It’s weird, but it’s also fun. I’m really enjoying it.”
Her other film roles have included parts in 2012’s Battleship and 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. She already has an astonishing eight Grammy awards under her belt, but now the budding actress has her eyes set on a different kind of award: an Oscar. “I’d love to get there one day,” she told The Sun in 2017. “Who doesn’t want to be told they’re doing a great job?”
She’s a strong feminist
It should come as no surprise that Rihanna is an ardent feminist. Not only does she wear what she wants, but she also stands up for women’s rights. She took part in 2017’s Women’s March in NYC and has been seen rocking a t-shirt by Dior with the slogan “We Should All Be Feminists.”
Rihanna stood up for women on Instagram on the day of the Women’s March, writing, “So proud to be a woman!! So proud of the women around the world who came together today for pro-choice!”
She goes above and beyond for her fans
Rihanna is grateful to her fans and happy to show it. In 2016, she did some free meet and greets while on tour — something that celebrities usually charge a lot of money for. She has also been known to reach out to her fans on social media, like the time she helped a gay fan on Twitter come to terms with his sexuality and come out of the closet. Another Twitter user reports that Rihanna counseled him through a bad breakup, saying “Just believe that the heartbreak was a gift instead!”
She gives back to the community
Rihanna isn’t content with keeping her fame and fortune to herself. She’s also giving back to the community in a big way. She started the Clara Lionel Foundation in 2012 to “fight against injustice, inequality, and poverty.” The singer told Essence, “One of the greatest benefits of my job was being able to start the Clara Lionel Foundation in honor of my grandparents. There is truly nothing I’m more proud of and we’ve just gotten started.”
In 2016, she was named a Global Ambassador of the Global Partnership for Education. Commenting on her appointment, she said, “I feel strongly that all children everywhere should be afforded the opportunity of a quality education…Working together, I know we can amplify our efforts and ensure that millions of children gain access to education globally.”
She fantasizes about a “normal” life
Rihanna may have an incredible career that is only gaining more and more traction, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get tired of it sometimes. In 2015, she told Vanity Fair that there are times when fame can become overwhelming.
“Dude! Oh my God — this is scary and sad all at the same time,” she said. “I literally dream about buying my own groceries. Swear to God. Because it is something that is real and normal. Something that can keep you a little bit uncomfortable.”
A grounded optimist
Rihanna has accomplished more before the age of thirty than most people do in a lifetime. With such an impressive career already under her belt, it can be hard to remember she’s got her whole life ahead of her.
Despite all of her accomplishments, perhaps the most impressive thing about Rihanna is her kind heart. A life of fame and fortune is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but Rihanna stays positive through it all. “I always see the best in people,” she told Vanity Fair in 2015. “I hope for the best, and I always look for that little bit of good, that potential, and I wait for it to blossom.”