Rita Ora Reflects on 'Girls' Controversy: 'There's Not One Way to Come Out'

Rita Ora Girls
Courtesy Photo

Rita Ora featuring Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX, "Girls"

Last month, Rita Ora released "Girls," a sexually charged pop chorale based on the singer's own experiences with women. The single -- one of the most anticipated music collaborations in recent memory -- has all the makings of a perfect summer smash: shimmery synth pulses, pristine production and A-list features from Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Cardi B. However, some considered its lyrics problematic.

Ora meant for "Girls" to be a celebration of bisexuality, but the song drew ire for its depiction of same-sex attraction with critics -- including prominent LGBTQ artists -- arguing that it perpetuates stereotypes. Hayley Kiyoko, known to fans as "Lesbian Jesus," called Ora's effort "tone-deaf," while Kehlani, who identifies as queer, branded the song "harmful" in a since-deleted tweet.

With a chorus that goes, "Sometimes I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls/ Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls," many listeners expressed their concern that "Girls" validates the myth that women only hook up with other women as a drunken dare or because it turns men on. But that was never Ora's intention. Immediately following the backlash, the musician came out on Twitter and assured her followers that she would "never intentionally cause harm to other LGBTQ+ people," her most ardent fans and supporters.

Ora showed her love for the LGBTQ community on Monday night at the Trevor Project's 2018 TrevorLIVE gala in New York, where she closed out the event with acoustic performances of her hits "Anywhere" and "I Will Never Let You Down" -- and, yes, even a lively rendition of "Girls," featuring queer vogue ballroom dancers from Viceland's My House.

Before wowing the star-studded crowd -- including Carmen Carrera, Lena Waithe, Adam Rippon, Gus Kenworthy and more prominent LGBTQ figures -- Ora caught up with Billboard on the red carpet. Below, the British chanteuse reflects on the controversy surrounding "Girls" and clears up any misconceptions about its core message.

Why is it important for you to continually support the LGBTQ community?

The LGBTQ community has always championed me. Since I've started my career, I've felt very supported by the LGBTQ community. They feel like home for me. Every time I'm at a show, they cheer the loudest for me. Without them, I don't know what I would do. All my best friends are in the LGBTQ community and have always been very encouraging of me to express myself and be loud and be open and share my creativity. The LGBTQ community has a very important home in my heart.

You used "Girls" to come out as a member of the LGBTQ community. Do you hope that the public's differing opinions about what is and isn't an acceptable way to come out changes?

This song is about liberation and freedom and empowerment and celebrating who you are. I think the narrative is shifting already. There's not one way to come out.

How were you able to bounce back after all the backlash?

I just haven't listened to the noise as much. I have been grateful for the support and for the people who have spoken out about it, especially the Years and Years boys. And all of my friends, especially the ones in the LGBTQ community who have great big followings and have been doing amazing things for organizations, their support has kept me happy and has kept my spirits up.

Charli, Bebe and Cardi were all quick to apologize to fans -- but also came to your defense. 

Of course, they've all shared their opinions and I appreciate that. At the end of the day, having us all on the song together, I think it was beautiful and really gave us all this amazing moment to unite as women.

For fans who still feel hurt by the song, what would you tell them?

I don't think they're upset. I can't speak for them. But for those who are still upset about the song, I just want to tell them that I love them and that they are very near and dear to my heart. And that's what I really tried to convey with the statement that I put out.

Tell me about the origin of "Girls."

It actually came to me two years ago. It was the first song I wrote for my new album, which comes out later this year. And it was definitely the most vulnerable and open I've ever been on a record. I was super proud of the evolution of my music and I began to feel a sense of pride in my journeys and my experiences. And so I wanted to share that with the world.

What pushed you to finally release the track?

I felt trapped for the two years I wasn't making music. I just felt really enclosed and introverted. I was sick and tired of feeling under pressure. I know that a lot of people can relate to that. So I wanted to put it out there because it was my truth and I knew that it was something that a lot of my fans were going through -- and are still going through. There are so many kids and people out there who are afraid to share their sexuality simply because of what their family may think. I did it for all of them.