As she suggests, there have been plenty of accomplishments to mark out the hard-working entertainer’s short career: three UK solo number-one singles, regular appearances as a TV talent show judge, a growing number of film roles, her own fashion lines.
When we meet at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in October, Ora is preparing to take the stage as the headline act for Landmark’s highly anticipated “boutique boulevard”. It’s her first trip to the city and she is already feeling the effects of Hong Kong’s fierce air-conditioning, every now and then breaking off from our conversation to sneeze.The star’s flying visit is typical of her non-stop schedule: Ora has worked hard for her fame. Born Rita Sahatçiu in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, formerly in Yugoslavia, her parents (both Albanian; mother a Catholic, father a Muslim) moved from the increasingly war-torn region to London when she was one year old. She owes her given name to silver-screen legend Rita Hayworth, while her father changed the family name, which means watchmaker, to Ora, meaning watch or clock, on the assumption that most British people wouldn’t be able to pronounce the former.
Ora has enjoyed performing from an early age, but the possibility that it might develop into something bigger sneaked up on her, she says. “I kind of grew into it. I joined my school choir when I was six, and I loved how it felt – I used to look forward so much to rehearsals. One thing led to another, and my choir teacher said to my parents that they should think about sending me to a performing-arts school.”
She soon won a coveted place at London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School, alma mater of a startling array of British performing talent, from Amy Winehouse to Emma Bunton, aka Baby Spice, but Ora felt she didn’t quite belong.
She finally realised she had what it takes to be a singer and performer when, aged 14, she got up on stage and sang at her father’s London pub and soon found that people were coming along just to listen to her. At the same time, she started to build a reputation as a singer in London’s clubs, where she somehow managed to persuade DJs to let her provide vocal accompaniment.
Ora signed with Jay Z’s Roc Nation label in 2009, after pulling the plug on an opportunity to represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest, reasoning that the fun but terminally kitsch song contest might actually do her career more harm than good.
Her debut album Ora
followed in 2012, and the hits began to flow. The first single from the album was the dubstep-influenced “R.I.P.”, co-written with hip hop superstar Drake and featuring British rapper Tinie Tempah, which went straight to number one in the UK. It was followed by the straight-up celebratory party-pop of “How We Do (Party)”, which also topped the chart. She hit number one for a third time in 2014, with feel-good synth-pop love song “I Will Never Let You Down”. Both this and her most recent hit, the electronic power-pop smash “Poison”, will appear on her yet-to-be-named second album, which is due out soon (“Finally,” she says with a small sigh).
“Poison” is her most sincere song to date, an angry, emotional take on a bad relationship, and Ora promises her second album will showcase a more personal side and better reflect her own diverse tastes, which run from grime to punk to hip hop.
“I can tell you that the second record is 100 per cent me,” she says. “With this album I really focus on my personal issues. I worked with a selection of people I can count on one hand, and I didn’t tell the industry I was doing it. It was the first time I got to express myself freely – I took the initiative. I did that on my first album but I was also trying to please people. I want to be a pop artist, but one who takes risks.”
Her own inspirations, she adds, have all chosen a similar path, from contemporary artists such as Beyoncé back through Gwen Stefani to the likes of Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Janis Joplin. “All these people took risks. I don’t think Jimi Hendrix was thinking about how to be number one on the Billboard charts. The challenge is being yourself and getting other people to accept that. Madonna did it, and she made it possible for so many of us.”
Alongside her own hits, Ora has appeared as a guest singer on a broad range of songs by other stars. The list includes rappers Iggy Azalea and Charles Hamilton, singer-songwriter Charli XCX and electronic music producer DJ Fresh, with whom she performed the UK’s first number-one drum-and-bass hit, “Hot Right Now”. She was part too of charity ensemble Band Aid 30 in 2014, and recently collaborated with bona fide music industry legend Prince, the results of which may appear on the new album.
From the start, though, Ora knew that her career wouldn’t be just about the music, and she has turned her hand to acting, television, fashion and philanthropy. She has said that her plan has always been to turn herself into a brand, to become famous for a whole range of endeavours, and then to use that fame as a springboard to release the music she really loves.
A cornerstone of that brand is her instantly recognisable look, which marries old-school glamour with punk- and hip hop-influenced street style. She received the ultimate seal of approval from gritty glamour’s number-one icon when Madonna asked her to be the face of the Material Girl fashion line, and Ora has also appeared in one of the pop diva’s videos. Her love of fashion is well documented and she has modelled for the likes of Calvin Klein, DKNY and Roberto Cavalli, played muse to fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld and is currently designing her 10th collection for Adidas. The luxury offerings at Landmark are not lost on her during her visit. “I love it – it’s such a great, prestigious shopping mall, with such a great selection of designers, which is the most important thing,” she says. “I know Hong Kong is renowned for its shopping, and this proves it. I’m just upset I haven’t had the chance to see more.” Never seen without her signature dazzling red lipstick, she has also launched collections with cosmetics giant Rimmel and says a future fashion label in her own name is a definite possibility. “I’d love to but it’s been non-stop with Adidas, and they’re so great to work with – it’s such an amazing platform to learn about design, and I’m like a sponge.”
Ora was selected earlier this year as a judge for the UK version of TV talent show The Voice
, and was promptly poached for rival show The X Factor
by television impresario Simon Cowell. A burgeoning acting career provides yet another string to the star’s bow. She has been acting since she was a kid, taking her first television and film roles at the age of 13. Lately, Hollywood has beckoned and she took a small part in 2013’s Fast & Furious 6
, played Christian Grey’s sister in the notorious 2015 movie Fifty Shades of Grey
, and portrayed a drug addict in the 2015 Jake Gyllenhaal boxing hit Southpaw
Balancing music, acting, television, fashion and everything besides doesn’t leave Ora much time for herself. “I don’t have a personal life,” she says, “I don’t do anything else. I have to plan weeks in advance if I want to go out for a drink.” Not that she’s short of options on the social front: her star-studded collection of friends includes Ed Sheeran, Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss, while she has romanced such high-profile partners as musician Bruno Mars, TV personality Rob Kardashian, Richard (son of Tommy) Hilfiger, and dance-music producer and DJ Calvin Harris – with whom she collaborated on “I Will Never Let You Down”, the lyrics to which became instantly ironic when, following their break-up, he refused to allow her to perform the song live.
Ora has performed too for some very high-profile audiences – the Obamas, for one, at the 2014 Christmas in Washington charity concert. “That was interesting, because you have to be invited to do it,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they know who I am’.” And then there was the 87th Academy Awards ceremony – “one of the highlights of my life,” she says – where she performed her Oscar-nominated song “Grateful” from the soundtrack of the 2014 romantic drama Beyond the Lights
Ora has attained mega-star status in Kosovo, of course, a tiny territory that has experienced more than its share of troubles in recent decades. When she returned to Pristina to shoot the video for “Shine Ya Light”, she was shocked by the reception she received. “I felt like Michael Jackson when he went to Africa. I thought, ‘This is insane’. It was the best reception I’ve ever had. I never thought I’d be accepted like that.”
The ultimate honour, though, came when she was asked earlier this year to become an honorary ambassador for Kosovo by the state’s female president, Atifete Jahjaga. “My parents were happier than me at first, because I didn’t really understand what it meant,” she says. “I asked my dad and he said, ‘It means you’re a voice for a generation’. It’s an incredible compliment. Not many people from my country get out and have chances like I’ve had.”
Words by Richard Lord
Photography by Damon Baker/Trunk Archive/Snapper Media
“I love doing this job,” says Rita Ora. “I’m always seeking that next accomplishment. I love that feeling – it’s my addiction. Having a number-one record, being able to make time to fly to my best friend’s wedding, being here today – these are all accomplishments for me. They mean I can go to bed happy. Even though I’m only 24, I feel like I’m about 50 – I’ve been through a lot.”