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Rihanna's Navy: How she recruits impassioned fans

©Arthur Mola/AP
Rihanna in Toronto (©AP/Arthur Mola)

The 7-7-7 tour reveals how the young star has mastered the fame game and why her fans love her

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

A few days ago, when we landed in Toronto after an overnight flight from Mexico City, it was easy to spot Rihanna at baggage claim: She was the one in the sunglasses, a backward baseball cap and, more importantly, two huge bodyguards subtly but persuasively waving off fans if they got too close.

What is clear halfway through the 7-7-7 tour is that Rihanna has mastered the fame game. Rihanna navigated the crowd at the airport like a shark -- with determined purpose and a sure path. She graciously stopped for photos with some of the airport workers, but the encounters were brief, and when she stood still to wait for the luggage, the entourage formed a protective circle.

Given that there are journalists embedded on the flight, there's really no downtime for her, and in the Toronto airport even such a mundane move like Rihanna shifting from one side of the baggage carousel to the other registered as a seismic event to the film crews who pulled out their boom mikes in hopes of getting a pearl of a comment from Rihanna.

Day 3 of the 7-7-7 tour: There's no curfew on Air Rihanna

Though she's only 24, Rihanna has learned to move with remarkable ease in this fast lane -- in the spotlight's bright and unforgiving glare -- and that's one reason her fans, known as the Rihanna Navy, love her.

"I think she's super-edgy, but still has a soft edge. And she doesn't give a s---," says Jessica Mallett, 24, from Squamish, B.C., one of 30 fans who won a spot on the 7-7-7 tour plane through various promotional contests. Like most fans we talked to, Mallett likes Rihanna's music, but her attitude is also a big draw.

Aerianna Buckner, 32, from Clinton, Md., echoes the same sentiment. "She doesn't care what people think," she says, quickly adding that she doesn't mean the fans, whom she feels Rihanna cares deeply about. "I like how she has evolved. She is coming into her own."

Buckner brought her mother with her on the trip. Mother and daughter are such fans that they even define their relationship with Rihanna songs. Buckner's mother, Wanda Lewis, says their mother-daughter bond resembles the tune "Hate That I Love You" because of the love-hate relationships children and parents can often have. But the most appropriate song is "Umbrella," Lewis adds, "because I'm their umbrella, always there to cover [my kids]."

Video: Rihanna's crew evaluates the 7-7-7 tour while in Paris

Contest winner Nikki Reuvers, 19, from Breda, Netherlands, is a fan of Rihanna's fashion sense. "I'm a fashion student and I really like her style," she says. In the Netherlands, Rihanna is more popular than Lady Gaga or Madonna, in part, because her fans feel close to her.

Even though Reuvers understands the primary purpose of the 7-7-7 tour is to increase awareness for Rihanna's seventh album, "Unapologetic," which comes out today, she says, "the first thing I thought when I heard about [7-7-7] is she's doing this for the fans. She wants a connection with us."

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.

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