Long before her “big break” in show business, mega-superstar Rihanna demonstrated a powerful drive to succeed. The incredibly popular singer has always been an independent, self-confident young woman with a mind of her own.


Rihanna arriving for Stella McCartney. Photo: Featureflash

Robyn Fenty always took the lead among her peers, even as a young girl, and later as a student of Combermere School and as a military cadet. As her mum, Monica Fenty, has said, “She’s definitely not a follower. She’s an individual–very adventurous.” During this period of her life in Barbados, Robyn Rihanna Fenty sang in island talent shows and won the Miss Combermere beauty pageant. Around this time, she also started a band with a few of her friends, and soon after, her talent caught the eye of a music-business insider vacationing in Barbados with his Bajan wife. Music producer Evan Rogers immediately recognised what he called Rihanna’s “star presence,” which he says lit up a room the moment she entered. When he first “discovered” the soon-to-be-star, she was only 15 years old. According to Rogers, Rihanna is a “natural-born star”–the kind that record companies search the world for but find only “every once in a while.” He’s so enthused with Rihanna’s innate star quality that he refers to the singer as “the definition of a star.”

With her mum’s permission, Rogers brought Robyn Fenty to America to record a demo when she was 16. He introduced her to American rapper and record producer, Jay-Z, who signed her with the Def Jam record label, and the rest is history. Her first single, “Pon De Replay,” which became an instant hit, had its roots in Caribbean beats and rhythms. As her mum has said, “A lot of her dancehall reggae cultural background was in that song.” Many believed at the time that the island girl would be a “one-hit wonder,” but she would soon prove them wrong.

 Early Life: A Variety of Influences

Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born to working class parents Monica and Ronald Fenty on 20 February, 1988, in St. Michael, Bridgetown, Barbados. Her birth was followed, several years later, by the births of brothers Rorrey and Rajad. The family lived in a modest bungalow in her hometown, where Robyn enjoyed spending time at the beach, the town square and local Chefette restaurant. She grew up steeped in her native Creole culture and surrounded by musical influences that included Caribbean rhythms, reggae, ragamuffin and dancehall–musical roots to which she was destined to later return.

Despite her father’s alcoholism and its devastating effect on her parents’ marriage–as well as on her own emotions–young Robyn loved her dad and always got along well with him. Between her studies and fun outings with friends, she would often join her dad selling clothing from a roadside stall to help earn money for the family. At seven years of age, Rihanna’s love for music inspired her to begin singing. Yet, the stress of her turbulent home life did take its toll on the young girl, resulting in migraine headaches that began at age eight and continued until her parents’ separation when she was 14.

Returning to Her Roots

Rihanna’s strong sense of family and deep love for her childhood home in Barbados have drawn her back home to the land of her heritage time and time again, with her grandmother’s death bringing her back for the funeral. Her interview with Oprah also led her to offer the famous TV personality a guided tour of her old neighbourhood. The tour brought affectionate greetings from old friends, who still know Rihanna as “Robyn,” and included a visit to the quaint bungalow where she grew up. To anyone watching and listening to Rihanna interacting with the people of her birthplace, it’s obvious that she has left a part of her heart in Barbados.

Her love and pride in her birthplace are also reflected in the fact that Rihanna is currently the official spokesperson for the Barbados Tourism Authority, having recently signed a three-year contract with the agency. The international pop sensation has even stated that when she has children, she would love to bring them up in Barbados.

Though the island nation’s official language is English and the country’s literacy rate is one of the highest in the Western hemisphere, Rihanna’s excellent English is made even more melodious by her trademark Bajan accent, which many people find quite charming, and which clearly points back to her Creole roots.

Rihanna. Photo Helga Esteb

Hollywood Halloween Carnaval Crowning of Rihanna at Greystone Manor Supperclub. Photo Helga-Esteb

Rihanna’s Evolving Persona

Rihanna is a study in contrasts. Over the years, the mega-star has evolved from an innocent girl-next-door image to an edgier, sexier, vixen persona–a phenomenon which occurred around the time of her third album release, “Good Girl Gone Bad”–and an image which she has stated is the real “her.” Yet, in her subsequent interview with Oprah, she once again looks and acts just like the girl next door, admitting that she’s had to pretend she’s felt comfortable in what Oprah called “(her) own sexual skin.” Rihanna, in fact, made a fascinating revelation during that interview–referring specifically to her 2011 photo shoot with Esquire, the magazine that described her as “the sexiest woman alive”–when she stated that she’d had to fake that comfort.

A partial hint as to why Rihanna may have made the leap to the bolder, sexier image she’s embraced may be gleaned from another statement she also made during her interview with Oprah: “In Barbados, we have a very sexual culture.” Taken in combination, the above factors make one curious as to whether she might not have simply felt pressured into portraying the more sexual persona and whether the innocent-island-girl image might not actually be the true one. However, the true Rihanna could lie somewhere in between. She is a bit of an enigma, to be sure.

Complexity also seems to dwell in Rihanna’s personal life–not just surrounding her image. This past year witnessed her controversial reunion with former boyfriend Chris Brown, the man the world knows to have physically abused the island beauty. Reports suggest the reunion was short-lived, however. She’s now focusing on her music, her fashion, and future projects that will likely further cement this pop star as an icon for her era.

 The Real Rihanna

Whatever incongruities may appear to exist in Rihanna’s professional persona, few would argue that, despite her fame, she is an honest, down-to-earth and humble individual–a factor that’s rather unusual for a person of her celebrity, though certainly endearing. These character traits have been attested to time and time again by those who know her now and those who knew her during her early life in Barbados. Her interview with Oprah reveals this side of her personality as well when she describes her discomfort with the term “role model,” stating that she is “super afraid of the pedestal that comes with fame and celebrity.” It’s very important to Rihanna that her fans know that she has flaws–that she is a “work in progress.” Rihanna’s honest appreciation and sincere regard for her fans, who she calls her “army,” is another refreshing aspect of her personality.


Rihanna’s concert during the Rock in Rio in Arganda del Rey in Madrid. Photo: Shelly Wall

In recent news, the star has also made headlines with her fashion know-how. Rihanna was celebrated by Vogue as an extraordinary style guru known for “the most fabulous anytime-anywhere ensembles imaginable,” according to the fashion magazine. Her beauty, in spite of her shifting image–from innocence to bad girl–has also remained intact whether she wears her hair long or short, wears a dress or skin-tight leggings.

It’s obvious that Rihanna’s family and national background have played a key role in shaping her into the individual she has become–both personally and professionally. However, it’s what she herself has done by taking that background and moulding it into the shape she has envisioned for her life that has made it possible for her to succeed so extraordinarily in show business–not only in her home country of Barbados but also in the United States and around the world. The international star status of Robyn Rihanna Fenty, who began life in a modest bungalow on the Caribbean island of Barbados surrounded by her native Creole culture, is a rise to stardom that is surely a source of national pride for her homeland. It’s also an inspiration to all her fellow Barbadians who aspire to finding their own personal paths to success in the world. After all, if Rihanna could do it, perhaps they can, too.