Rihanna in Mexico (©Marco Ugarte/AP)
MSN flies the friendly, frantic skies with the superstar's globetrotting entourage
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
And so it begins. For the next several days, I will be embedded with Rihanna for the 777 tour. That stands for seven countries, seven days, seven shows.
More than 150 journalists from 82 countries are on a chartered plane with the superstar from Nov. 14 through Nov. 20 on her promotional tour for "Unapologetic," her seventh album in seven years, which comes out Nov. 19. Are you sensing the theme yet? My job is to take you on the trip with me so I want to set the scene. Each day I'll address a different aspect of the adventure.
It felt a little like summer camp as we piled on buses yesterday to head to Los Angeles International airport to fly to Mexico City. Most of us were meeting for the first time and everyone's a little nervous and a lot excited. Rihanna's label execs at Island Def Jam have been turned into camp counselors/travel guides.
This is no small undertaking and there are only a handful of artists who have the kind of global following that allows such a push. In a cash-strapped music industry that has been in free fall for the past decade, Rihanna has been a singular sensation. She has put out an album every year except for one since 2005. She has charted more than 20 Top 10 singles in that span, surpassing Madonna as the solo artist who has achieved that many hits in so short a time span.
As GQ declared on this month's cover, she is our "obsession." and she has 62 million friends on Facebook to prove it.
While this is a truly extravagant excursion, it's also a shrewd move: For the next week, Rihanna will get continual free press from the constant barrage of tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram posts and more that we all rush to publish whenever we can get to a wi-fi hotspot. And that doesn't include the other pieces we're doing like this one.
So what is traveling with Rihanna like? After a few Spinal Tap-type diversions, including going to the wrong tarmac and taking all our luggage off the bus only to have to pile it back on, we arrived at the plane, which is, of course, a 777. Since we were on a private air strip, there were no metal detectors, no long security lines. You even get to keep on your shoes.
On the plane, there's a pecking order: Rihanna and her inner circle are in the front cabin, the rest of her entourage, including her music director, are in business elite. The journalists and around 30 contest winners, including four Rihanna picked from her rabid Rihanna Navy twitter followers, are in coach. We have the same seat on the same plane for all seven flights.
Rihanna boarded the plane last in Los Angeles and did a victory lap to the back of the plane to greet her fans. The camera crews and still photographers followed her down the narrow aisles. After she passes by, someone asks their travel companion: "How did she feel? I know that's creepy. What did she smell like?"
Shortly after takeoff, she comes through again, this time pouring us all cognac or champagne. Once again, as she enters our sphere, the camera men (yes, they do all seem to be men) and still photographers precede and trail her. There's no escaping from the paparazzi even at 35,000 feet in the air. And she seems totally fine with that.
After taking off two hours later than planned, we land in Mexico City already behind schedule and head straight to the venue, El Plaza Condesa, on buses. Rihanna is long gone.
The club is surrounded by the 1,000 or so contest winners who are attending the show for free. Rihanna goes on 90 minutes late, but the audience doesn't seem to mind at all: they grow more rabid as the performance goes on. I'll review her show in a later post, but here's a hint: The 60-minute promotional show is a full-on production more akin to an arena concert.
We hop right back on the bus and head back to the plane as Mexico City disappears in our rear view mirror without so much time as even for a shot of tequila. The only way we even knew we were in Mexico City was that Rihanna repeated "Hello Mexico City" a few times from stage.
Last night we flew overnight to Toronto. We left three hours late, but when you're on a charter, it would quickly appear that departure times are very fluid. We get day rooms so we can at least shower before we head to the Toronto show and then we head back to the plane for an eight-hour red-eye to Stockholm. It may be glamorous, but it already feels a little grueling.
Next stop ... Sweden.
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.