Pop star Rita Ora has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager, and in her native Britain — the land of gossip rags like Hello, OK, and the Daily Mail — her personal life (and specifically her love life) has already been under scrutiny. “Maybe I should just go on a date with a dentist or something,” she jokes. Talking to Yahoo Music and AOL’s Build Series to promote her new self-acceptance campaign, the Open Mic Project, she more seriously admits that in the past, such extreme public attention has taken its toll.
“That scared me a little bit. I think as an artist, it was very petrifying to know that that was what [I was] getting into. … I thought, ‘Wow, my worst nightmare might come true. Instead of people caring about music and the songwriting and singing, people are going to care about who’s snogging who and who’s being pictured with who,’” says Ora. “It’s your personal life, and I think that’s something you have to sacrifice when you decide to do a job like this. And I understood that, [but] I wasn’t prepared for it. … I made my mistakes earlier on, where I would read [social media] comments and I’d just be completely distraught. And then there was times where your breakups will go public. I am a very open book. I’ve always been like that, and sometimes it hurts.”
But now, as Ora prepares for her first global full album release in 2018, she is refocusing on the issues that really matter. “I grew up. And I just realized that as a woman — being 27 now — I’ve started to come to terms with how we perceive things that we find are important in society, like certain stories or who’s dating who, or what is going on. I find that very mind-dumbing, if that’s a word.”
Joining forces with Absolut Vodka’s Open Mic Project to create a song inspired by fans’ stories of self-acceptance is one way Ora is attempting to shift the conversation. “I feel like whatever voice I have, I want to use it for people that don’t have one,” she explains. The song will premiere on Grammy night, Jan. 28, and Ora has spent recent weeks sifting through the submissions. “It has its ups and downs,” she says of the emotional process. “I’ve definitely cried a few times. … Without sounding preachy, these people’s stories are so much more inspiring than things you may look at in the tabloids. I find it so amazing that I had a chance to shine a light on a story that I think is way more important than whoever is snogging whoever, you know what I’m saying?”
Ora confesses that she feels a responsibility to the participating fans, to make sure she tells their stories respectfully. “I felt very vulnerable at one stage, because it’s very hard being a singer, and a female singer especially now,” she says. “Everything is so sensitive, and it’s a very difficult time in the world to make sure that what you want to say is said correctly, because everything is so easily misinterpreted nowadays. I just really wanted to show people who submit to this that it’s OK to be open and to just express yourself. I was like, ‘Oh, damn it. I’ve got all this pressure now. I’ve got to really make sure this song sounds good!’ But it’s going to be great because it’s inspired by the people, so that’s all that matters.”
Ora, a Kosovo refugee who moved to England with her family at age 1, is aware that she is a role model to her many young fans all over the world; her own role models include Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, Janis Joplin, Erykah Badu, Floetry, Jill Scott, and Sam Smith (“people that have lots of grit and a backstory, and just so much purity and authenticity where it’s undeniable. … Also, some of them sound like they’ve smoked 150 million cigarettes!”). She also cites her mother, a breast cancer survivor and psychiatrist for the U.K.’s National Health Service, as a chief life inspiration: “She’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever met.” Ora was even inspired by her mom to try therapy herself. “To speak to somebody is very helpful. I never believed it — trust me. I really didn’t. My mum is a psychiatrist and I was like, ‘That is so weird to me, therapy and all that!’ Then I did it, and I was like, ‘This is awesome.’”
Ora recently released the singles “Your Song” and “Anywhere” and reveals that some of the other tracks on her 2018 album will be as personal as her forthcoming Open Mic Project song. “I really started to figure out what I wanted to say and who I wanted to be, and it started off with a record I have on there called ‘Soul Survivor,’ which is really the last chapter of my previous journey of the past,” she says. “The rest of the album is about … just how I felt in situations of breaking up, breakups, and moving forward and just breaking free. I know the word ‘rebirth’ has been used a lot, but I really do feel like I’m reborn. It’s the weirdest thing.”