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Rita Ora is the brightest of a new breed of pop star whose every thought and deed is relayed to her millions of Twitter followers. But despite the criticism it invites, she’ll keep on giving until she’s bigger than Beyoncé, says Simon Mills

Studio 7 of The Worx in Parsons Green: Rita Ora is grooving away to Diana Ross’ ‘My Old Piano’, a Day-Glo siren under ultraviolet light with Hollywood hair and Carnaby Street lipstick. Turns out Rita has a history with this space.

‘It’s weird,’ Rita tells me when the lights come up. ‘This is the actual studio where I auditioned for Eurovision [to clarify, Eurovision: Your Country Needs You!, a BBC production looking for the British contestant for the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest]. I was 16. Andrew Lloyd Webber was there,’ she says, pointing to the other side of the big, rather impersonal space. ‘Right from the start I was, like, “What am I doing here?” ’

When her turn arrived, little Rita didn’t bother to hear a verdict from one of the most powerful men in showbusiness. ‘I did my song and walked out. No one knew what to do. They started looking for me, calling my agent.’ Too late. Rita was on her way home. ‘Imagine!’ she says, her big white smile almost too big for her face. ‘If I’d stayed, it would probably have been all over for me. At best, I’d be a contestant on that diving show…?’ Splash!? ‘Yeah, Splash! I love that show,’ she says, sipping green tea.

Session 6: Squiz Hamilton

An olive-skinned bombshell with platinum hair, her flawless complexion is still aglow from a recent trip to Thailand where she made a video for ‘Torn Apart’ with Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, as we must now call him). In a few hours she’ll be on the front row watching her supermodel friend Cara Delevingne walk in the Chanel couture show in Paris. Then it’s back to the UK to headline a tour, with costumes designed by Pucci. These will be Rita’s first live dates since a European arena tour supporting Coldplay last year. She’ll be promoting a new single, ‘Radioactive’, taken from her number one platinum debut album Ora, hoping for a fourth UK number one. Rita will also be attending the BRIT Awards, where she’s been nominated in three categories.

The story of how Rita Sahatçiu fled Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal regime in Kosovo and became the gilded Rita Ora, recording with Jay-Z and Tinie Tempah and hanging with Beyoncé and Rihanna, is worth telling.

Four years ago Rita was walking down Kensington High Street when her phone blinked ‘incoming international call’. She thought it was her grandma calling from Kosovo. It was actually Jay-Z’s people. They’d heard about her via the internet, had been to her gigs and listened to demos, now they wanted to talk business.

Within days, 17-year-old Rita was flying solo to New York, going straight from the airport to a swanky Manhattan nightclub (‘Run-DMC T-shirt on, hair up in a ponytail — not a great look’). She was led to a booth where Jay-Z was holding court. ‘He said hello and shook my hand. I couldn’t speak for a few minutes, which is unusual.’ ‘You have a firm handshake!’ said Jay-Z. ‘I like that.’ The hip-hop polymath was clearly impressed. ‘You can see the potential,’ Jay-Z has said. ‘When she enters a room it changes… and that presence — you can’t duplicate it, especially at a young age. It was just infectious, like “Man, she loves this…” She’s driven in that way.’

Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation signed her up. Antsy and impatient, Rita presumed she’d be on Oprah within days. ‘Rita, relax,’ Jay-Z told her. ‘You’ve got us. Wait. Find yourself.’

‘The best thing Jay-Z ever taught me was patience,’ she says now. ‘Find out what you are and what you want to write about. He’s like the best older brother a girl could ever have.’ And what of Jay-Z and Beyoncé? ‘They are so in love. They made me believe that true love really does exist.’

Instead of rushing things, Roc Nation sent Rita on a gruelling US tour (‘I played a funfair in Flint, Michigan’) and she recorded an album but scrapped the whole thing (‘It wasn’t powerful enough. It was a watered-down version of what I wanted to do’). She wanted to release a single but Jay-Z advised against it. ‘How We Do (Party)’ was eventually released in March 2012. ‘Four years after I’d signed — so long!’ It went straight to number one in the UK.

No wonder Rita was so keen. Before getting to the top, she had spent a long time scraping along the bottom. Her parents, Besnik and Vera Sahatçiu, left their war-ravaged home in Pristina, SFR Yugoslavia in 1991, arriving in London when their youngest daughter Rita was just a year old (she is named after her film-director grandfather Besim Sahatçiu’s favourite film star Rita Hayworth). ‘We lived in Earls Court, on the Old Brompton Road. One room for all four of us, my sister [Elena, now 24] annoying me by doing her times tables when I was trying to sleep. Out of the window I could see Brompton Cemetery. Scary.’

Continually tarred with the ‘refugee’ tag, Rita’s family found fitting in tough. ‘That word carries a lot of prejudice,’ she says. ‘But it also made us determined to survive. When you put anyone into an alien environment, where other people aren’t completely comfortable with them being there, they are automatically going to be defensive. It’s the rule of the jungle, right?’

Her parents did everything they could to make ends meet, her mother studying to be a doctor during the day and grafting as a waitress by night; her father, a restaurateur back in Kosovo, looking for work as a publican.

After Rita’s younger brother Don was born in 1998, life improved. They moved to Kensal Rise and her father bought a pub, the Queens Arms in Kilburn. Rita prides herself on being able to pull a proper, modestly headed pint at her dad’s bar. Don now attends Holland Park School. ‘He’s an XBox-obsessed hippie boy who wears shells and bones around his neck. I love him.’ Her mum now works as an NHS psychiatrist at the St Charles Hospital in North Kensington.

Inspired by her parents’ extensive vinyl collection (‘Blondie, Hendrix, Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire and Celine Dion — my personal favourite’), Rita showed early talent at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in Marylebone, stretching her alto/mezzo soprano vocal talents in the choir. ‘I was always getting told off by my choir teacher for, you know, riffing when I shouldn’t,’ she says.

Following the Eurovision hiccup and a few ill-judged forays into musical theatre, such as a stint in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (‘Not who I am at all’), Rita spent her days hanging out in Portobello, working at the shoe store Size? and browsing the 1990s hip-hop racks at Rough Trade records. Soon she was recording in a tiny studio on Ladbroke Grove, making guest appearances on records by Tinchy Stryder and Craig David, and performing at open mic sessions around the edgier parts of West London and, occasionally, in her father’s pub. A physical and online fan base developed. She landed a production deal and record companies began sniffing around. That’s where Jay-Z and his entourage came in. The Twitter followers swelled to 2.3 million… and that’s when the trouble started.

The rules governing modern pop mean that as well as singing and recording, Rita is also obliged to engage in constant tweeting, Instagramming and other social networking activities. This, inevitably, leads to rumour, snippy criticism and bilious vitriol from the haters and the ex-lovers (‘She cheated on me with nearly 20 dudes while we were together,’ tweeted her overly specific ex Rob Kardashian, brother of Kim). Rita has a sense of humour failure when I ask, for instance, if the Twitter stories claiming that she is dating Diana Ross’ son Evan are true.

‘Oh God,’ she says. ‘Not you as well? Listen, sharing my life with people is just part of my daily routine. But I don’t take any notice of the things people say — it’s just white noise. I know the truth. I don’t feel I need to explain anything. Silence is the most powerful response. I know it’s contradictory to put yourself out there and then not want to deal with the responses, but that’s just how it is.’

So why does she do it? ‘You can be forgotten very quickly,’ she says. ‘So I am aware that I need to stay current, keep connecting and keep bringing things to the table… Otherwise you can just disappear.’

Rita’s infectious lust for success and her dizzying schedule may have been fuelled by a wake-up call a few years ago while she was at Sylvia Young. When she was 15, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and Rita stopped going to school. ‘My mum had always been one of those free-spirited women and her being ill was really confusing for me. I couldn’t understand why my mum wasn’t a superhero, why she wasn’t, you know, unbreakable. I’d sit around the house for days. I was really down.’

It was her older sister Elena, now part of the Rita Ora entourage, who encouraged her to go back to school. Mama Ora made a full recovery. ‘The experience made me value family and life,’ says Rita. It also inspired the lyrics of a song, ‘Fair’, on her debut album. ‘My mum now has this incredible attitude to life and wants to grab every moment and opportunity with both hands,’ she says. ‘So I kinda think, when your ball is rolling, you don’t stop it. You keep it rolling. You have to make yourself… unforgettable.’

As she walks to her airport-bound taxi, Eurovision’s big loss and pop music’s incandescent gain gives me a bar or two of that famous Nat King Cole standard ‘Unforgettable’. ‘Rita is a bit of a Coronation Street name, isn’t it?’ she says. Who cares? I think. She’s not pulling pints any more.

Rita Ora is a BRIT Awards ambassador for MasterCard; find out more at somethingforthefans.co.uk. ‘Radioactive’ will be released on 10 February



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