Rita Ora says she's a feminist "in Beyoncé mould"

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Sassy singer Rita Ora talks with Charlotte Edwardes about navigating fame at the age of 23, and why she calls the shots.

Rita Ora: "I put up the finger to other people's opinions on my life."

Rita Ora: "I put up the finger to other people's opinions on my life." Photo: Danielle Levitt/AUGUST/Raven & Snow

Rita Ora is wearing minuscule hot pants, a diamond-studded knuckleduster and has a giant peroxide Mr Whippy quiff. She plants one massive pink trainer on the table between us, then the other, and tells me I can ask "what the f..." I like. She orders a cup of Earl Grey tea – "Please. With some lemon?"

And this is her for the next 40 minutes: direct, sassy, doesn't "give two shits about anyone's opinion" - but also sweet, giggly, with constant references to her mum, dad, grandma and the kids "that I hope to have one day".

At 23, she has signed with Jay-Z's Roc Nation record label, made two albums, recorded with Prince, acted in two films (Fifty Shades of Grey and Southpaw, both out next year), won numerous awards, became the face of Madonna's Material Girl fashion label and launched a sports range with Adidas. In her spare time she tears around with model Cara Delevingne, wears cartoon-esque neon outfits and falls in and out of relationships. ("No, I'm not dating Tommy Hilfiger's son. I'm single.")

Cara, she "loves to death". Together they've navigated the bizarre trajectory of sudden showbiz success, and you get the sense that without each other it could've been messy. "When I was doing my first record, she was doing her first photo shoots and we both sort of exploded at the same time. It really helped to have somebody to go through it with. The highs and lows."

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They share the daze. "We meet up and we're like, 'Dude! What the f... is going on with our lives?' You know? It's been so quick."

The night before we meet in London, they have been presenting together at the GQ awards, "to people like Pharrell Williams, and Johnny Depp is there. I was presenting to [Scottish singer] Paolo Nutini. But being in a room with such respected actors, writers and artists, designers and all that stuff, and us being two 23-year-olds sitting on the same table, just looking at each other, thinking, 'God, this is just surreal.' "

They "look out for each other" because "it's pretty lonely sometimes. It goes from being hectic and then suddenly you're in a hotel room, alone, and all of a sudden it's silence. And you're like. 'Hello? Helloooo?' "

In person, Rita Ora bubbles with contented energy. She's endearingly gushy about her musical inspirations, many of whom she has been "blessed" to meet. And she'll name-drop happily. She starts a sentence: "I was talking to Beyoncé the other day." And another: "Prince gave me some great advice but he wouldn't let me steal any of his clothes. He's surreal. He walks around in this floating prance."

She's bowled over by Madonna, who is "amazing. Imagine reinventing yourself like that! It's so brave. It's like a snake that sheds its skin all the time. It's pretty hard to do that. And she's the nicest woman but really 'gangster' with it. I wouldn't be surprised if she grew up in the 'hood. But above all she's a businesswoman, 100 per cent."

One thing Ora prizes is artists who have "stood up for themselves", which sounds frankly hazardous in the music business, where you can live or die on the whim of the honchos in charge.

"When I started I was only 17," she says. "I was overwhelmed with the power of men in the industry and the thinking that you have to fulfil somebody's image. Obviously I love my record label. My first album [2012's Ora] was an amazing success but I wasn't completely satisfied because I'd listened to a lot of men. I accepted tracks [they wanted] because, you know, it was a 'legendary writer' or something.

"This time" – her second album will be released in January next year – "I feel more comfortable in my skin. I'm 23 and I've experienced a bit more, I've been in and out of relationships ... so in some respects this feels like my first record. I've actually had fights about tracks that were not being approved by the label. Now I'm like, 'I don't care who wrote it.' And when someone says, 'No, this isn't right', I say, 'No, this is f...ing right because it's my album." She smirks. "That's me being brutally honest."

I ask whether Calvin Harris, her ex-boyfriend and writer and producer of many of her songs, refused to allow her to use certain tracks on the album. "Obviously the obvious happened - we broke up. But I'll Never Let You Down was made in such an honest space, even after we went our separate ways," she says, referring to her recent hit single. "It still represents what I was doing when I created it with him. It was a lovely summer song.

"It was the first time I'd written something really honest without anybody else's input. Just his. It felt really liberating. But the [other] songs we did together didn't make sense musically with the album because we did them a while ago."

She says she "fights hard" to manage the way she's perceived and likes selfie culture for precisely this reason: "You get to control your image. You take it out of other people's hands. That's why social media is amazing, too."

She doesn't care what others think. "I put up the finger to other people's opinions on my life ... Yes, labels have opinions, so do management, but it's up to you whether you listen to them." The only person who can restrain her, Ora says is, "my mother".

Ora describes herself as a feminist "in the Beyoncé mould". "That's the perfect description," she says. "I am a woman, I'm outspoken and I support other females. I love what men do in the world but women have equal power."

Ora's London accent is offset with a sprinkling of Americanisms and an occasional propensity for mangling the English language: "Unicef have been the most sufficient and sustainable charity in Kosovo since the war."

Ora, who was named after Rita Hayworth, was born in Kosovo and is proud of her roots. The population, she tells me, is two million and, judging by her video for Shine Ya Light, filmed in the capital Pristina, most of them come to greet her when she visits. Now she's a Unicef ambassador for the country. "The kids, the people in the streets, everyone is so grateful that [I'm] doing something to represent them. They don't have the opportunities we have."

She slurps her tea and asks for some more lemon. "And Jaffa Cakes," she calls after a retreating assistant.

Her father, Besnick ("Nick"), ran pubs. ("I learnt to pull a pint at a very young age but I didn't drink it.") Mother Vera, "a breast cancer survivor", brought up Rita and her sister Elena and brother Don while training to be a psychiatrist. "She was always studying; we were a hard-working, middle-class family."

Portobello, in west London, provided the perfect backdrop to growing up: "It was ethnically so diverse, I was accepted." At 15 she was working in a shoe shop, her friends were on market stalls. "You'd walk down and it was like the movies – 'Hey, what's up? Have some fruit!' I knew everybody. It's such a cultural place – carnival every year; all the different types of food."

It was in Portobello during an open-mic session that she was discovered at the age of 14 by a producer who was passing with his kids. "I was in the studio every week after school, singing my little heart out," she says, adding that it ended with a "gentle parting of ways".

After dropping out of college, "I worked my arse off doing open mics everywhere - bars, pubs. I wrote songs, worked with producers." Then she signed with Roc Nation, "and that's when everything turned around".

Ora has nearly four million fans on social media. "They call themselves Ritabots, and come to my shows and pick me up from the airport," she says. "They're like, 'I've just started school, what classes shall I take?' They ask my advice about boyfriends, everything. I'm like, 'Pah! I'm not the best person to give advice on boyfriends! Clearly. You might not want to listen to me.' "

She's also trailed by the paparazzi. Those on her doorstep she gives tea and sandwiches. "They're all right," she says. "And we've created a little deal – certain times they need to leave me alone. Maybe at night-time."

Next year there's the new album, and the two films, including the much anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey. "I play Mia Grey, Christian Grey's adopted sister," she explains.

What did she think of the book? "I guess people have different opinions on the way they like things written," she says diplomatically. "But a good story is a good story. And I love that it was written by a woman from west London."

Director Sam Taylor-Wood, she adds, is "inspirational". "She's an incredible photographer, director, and a breast cancer survivor. I love her to death."

Time's up. On my way out, one of her team asks what I thought. "She's great," I say. "Tough and uncompromising."

"Yup. You can sum her up as: 'This is who I am. Eat it.' "

 

Lead-in image: Danielle Levitt/AUGUST/Raven & Snow. London Evening Standard, UK.

 

RITA ORA: THREE FACTS

• She dated Kim Kardashian's brother Rob but they had a messy breakup after he claimed that she cheated on him.

• She carries a personalised bottle of Tabasco sauce, which she claims to keep in her purse in case of emergencies.

• She has lots of tattoos, including the words "Love", "Hope" and "Promise" inked in between her fingers.