Though Renata Raksha set up the shot and Shibon Kennedy pulled the clothes, there was not a component—the set, the garments from ROCHAS and Fendi, the slippers from Puma, the jewelry, the color palette that ranges intelligently from clay yellow to apocalyptic pinks and whites—that seemed given to, rather than discovered by, her. The lank cover pose, the knowledge to break her hip just so certainly originates with her education in couture; in the past, fashion's avant-garde have directed Rihanna on film and in photos.
It’s Rihanna’s stare, the stare of a director in actor-drag, whose phone and life is in perpetual portrait orientation lock, that identifies this cover as Bad Gal-directed. Over her pink shoulder, she peers confrontationally, coolly at those who can’t stop watching. In her neck, one can detect the strain of her sort of instant glamour. In her eyebrows, not her lips, is the suggestion of a smirk the tripod’s presence confirms: you thought Rihanna might have been caught like monthly cover girls, who are generally truncated at the hip and sans equipment and head-on. But her length is fully captured, she’s taking the shot and she’s giving you only her back. Rihanna said she would take the portrait herself.
Rihanna’s selfies tend to work astride this contradictory feeling, of casual access and strict provocateur. Since the early days of her Instagram account @badgalriri, a phrase that has become a slogan, persona and surrogate identity for Rihanna’s floating self, she’s used selfies to give her fans spectacular, broken glimpses of her life. The selfies come with such regularity that they might be forsaken as ordinary ritual now.
Here is one memorable document, of her torso, bejeweled and irridescent for Crop-Over, one year before Instagram would declare her body scandalous. Years later, pictures of Rihanna’s annual trip to Crop-Over are a tradition the internet looks forward to outside of carnival itself.
By their nature, selfies taken on mobile phones can’t give the whole body at once. For as often as Rihanna posts herself at play, at work, and at rest, the images are sometimes fractured along the purpose of communicating information—whether that be the Rihanna x River Island collection that officially codified Bad Gal as her message or the artistry of her beloved hairstylist, Yusef—a reminder that the public can’t and should not think that they possess her. The lens is a portal and a limit.
Rihanna likes to post photos of herself getting lifted. See this blurry, black and white one, taken more than 2 years ago. Or this one, where two joints the length of noisemakers dangle from her perfectly-painted mouth. Elongated women smoking cigs, waiting frustrated for a man or an event at some bar or another, have long been a cliche of photography, of course. To Rihanna, patience is not the ultimate virtue. Leisure is and weed works, and her penchant for photographing herself in intense moments smoking, is an original, organizing principle of her self-portraiture.
For half a year, though, the selfies from @badgalriri stopped. Lui Magazine’s 2014 Spring cover features Rihanna placed in modified Basic Instinct pose: what is mostly just her torso, unevenly greased but otherwise as plain as her tattoos will permit, reclines in a patio chair; her hands clutch a glass, tinted a cerulean blue that clashes with the velvet navy of her bucket hat, under which she trains an unequivocal stare. The look, that’s the great, smart profanity of the portrait. Not her breasts, though they are likely the reason Instagram “mistakenly” disabled Rihanna’s account when she posts herself gracing Lui in advance of publication. Rihanna, in protest or in boredom of it all, kills off @badgalriri completely, and for a period the only photos the public can access are taken by photographers and paparazzi.
During her absence, @badgalriri was alternately mourned, copied, and gossiped about. By November of that year, however, the dark ages were over and people stopped conjecturing. Photos can start conversations, but more importantly, they can kill them. When Rihanna logged back on, she posted a photo of an anthropomorphized Instagram logo holding hands with her alter-ego Rhenna, the crudely-rendered stick figure whose vacant face provides a template for all the hope and speculation Rihanna’s own expressive mug will not allow her public.
Rihanna’s first selfie back on her Instagram account was not remarkable and it wasn’t meant to be; if anything, it was a generic, funny contribution to the well-documented archive of Rihanna taking pictures of herself smoking a blunt. Her inaugural selfie would be an outtake in another celebrity’s reel—even as digital self- portraiture is a requirement for feminine celebrity, we know that famous women performing candid behavior will never outweigh the self-seriousness of fame, that they will never stop posing—but for @badgalriri, it’s a clever reminder of her one rule: There are no rules. There is only technique. An Hermes scarf is only a Hermes Scarf if you are obedient, but if you are self-reliant, a Hermes scarf is a bandeau bathing suit. And it is nearly cruel to the others that for her, whimsically capturing herself upside down, make-up smudged and her eyes glassed-over, is a technique of glamour.
If pre-digital age celebrity balanced tenuously between scarcity and publicity, then Rihanna’s self-portraiture has tipped towards the casual spectacle. That’s smart—more is more, but it will never be, thankfully, everything. A recent picture in particular, of at least four to a potentially infinite number of Rihannas reflected kaleidoscopically in the lenses of her Adam Selman sunglasses, assures an adoring, if sometimes weary public, the steady stream of their beloved glimpses. A star has it all because she only gives he public some, albeit frequently.