Born in Kosovo, and raised in London, where she shot to pop stardom at age 22, Rita Ora is looking to revitalize America’s Next Top Model, taking over for host Tyra Banks, who’s heading behind the scenes after 22 seasons. Billboard caught up with the 26-year-old multi-hyphenate talent at the Mercer Hotel in New York, where the singer/actor/designer was clad in a bright orange, oversized, quilted jacket atop a black Acne dress. (Or as she put it: “I’m wearing this parachute here, just in case I need to fly out the window.”)
Below, Ora weighs in on being a boss, expressing yourself in the era of Trump and Brexit, and finding her unlikely style inspirations — hello, Irony Lady! — as well as dishing about her forthcoming sophomore album, which she says is the first album she can finally say she’s actually proud of.
As the new host of America’s Next Top Model, you’re stepping into some mighty fierce shoes. How will you make the role your own?
For sure, I am. I didn’t approach it as I was stepping into her shoes — we’re creating new ones. This show’s been going on for 23 seasons now: I thought, “Let’s make it current.” Everyone that our generation looks at is successful [through] social media, by expanding their brand with the Internet. I wanted these girls to be a threat to the Gigis, the Bellas, the Kylies.
And so the winner of ANTM has to be a brand, a business, and a boss. Meaning, you have to not only take great pictures, but also work it! Take it out, post it, express yourself, brand yourself — even if it’s good controversy, it just has to be you!
What do you mean by “good controversy”?
I mean, what do you have to say that other girls already in the industry haven’t said; what are you giving to our world?
You’ve been a coach and a judge on TV before, on The Voice UK and The X Factor. What are some key lessons you’ve learned that prepared you to take on this particular role?
You have to really back up your words. Stick by your opinion and really hold your own and be proud of who you are.
What have specific designers or stylists taught you along the way?
I worked with Patti Wilson, who’s worked with Prince, and did the styling for The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston — [sings Whitney’s “Queen Of The Night”] “I’ve got the stuff that you want!” — that was an iconic moment for me. She taught me always just be fierce and bold with yourself. You don’t have to physically be bold; just your energy and your character, it oozes out of you. And then Karl Lagerfeld, and being in the Chanel family and walking the catwalk for the couture collection, taught me to be chic.
What does it mean to you to be chic?
Not rolling out of clubs with your tits out. [Laughs.] Having a voice, having a story and being a lady.
There are chic ways to show one’s assets, like the images in your new campaign that just today came out for Tezenis.
Yes, that for me is my chic.
How do you describe your personal fashion aesthetic?
It really has no boundary. Personalities inspire me, everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Lady Gaga to Blondie to Billy Idol or Freddie Mercury. It’s about them, more than how they looked that’s inspired me.
What about Margaret Thatcher inspires you?
I loved how strong she was. I was a kid, so obviously I’m not going to get into the whole thing. But I just always remembered the voice and the presence, and that for me was inspiring. And her quotes: “The lady’s not for turning,” for example, is one that I found very powerful.
What are your thoughts are on the industry’s continuous emphasis on Size 0 body shapes being the norm?
This has been an ongoing issue for fashion for decades. I think we’re on a slow progress with us becoming very vocal about that. Ashley [Graham] being on the judging panel is a major point as to whom we accept on ANTM. She’s a prime example of somebody who comes across as a story, from being a catalog model to now being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It’s a real achievement, and her story I thought would inspire the girls.
Ashley gives the girls self-belief. I give them initiative, and an idea of how to expand their brand and turn them into collaborators like myself; I work with Adidas, Rimmel and Tezenis and I act in movies, and now I’m finishing my album, thank God!
You’re finally out of your Roc Nation contract after a lengthy legal dispute. What can we expect from your forthcoming album?
I’ve moved on to Atlantic, finally, and I’m on a great path. I’ve worked with some incredible people, like Stargate, and I’ve really taken it back into time. Even Nile Rodgers put down some cool guitar riffs on there. I have respected musicians that I’ve loved growing up, and band members who I’ve supported on tour — like Coldplay — have given me advice, and now I’m putting it to good use.
What’s good is that people want to be involved, which is exciting for me; just getting back into music, which is my first love. It reminds me of who I am. While going through the transition of labels I kind of forgot that. Now I have the chance to just be free. I wrote everything on this record, it’s all live music, obviously mixed with some great beats. It’s all about melody and my love for soul and harmonies. It’s the first time I’ve ever been proud of my music.
Is there a theme to the record?
Yes: London! Being from the U.K., and having that love for grime music and English rap, the Skeptas and the Giggs of the world that we’ve got [representing for] our youth, that is very important to me. There’s a song called “I’m Not Afraid,” that talks about everything that people may think I’ve run away from. There’s a song called “Soul Survivor.” It’s not a dwelling record — this is a happy record. It’s about breaking through. It’s like a rebirth.
America is entering a new chapter. There’s a lot of divisiveness in this country right now.
ANTM has always fostered a spirit of inclusivity on the show. What does it mean to be America’s next top model in the era that the US is entering into with Donald Trump as our next president?
I’m not a politician, first and foremost. Being from the outside, being from the U.K., we have a lot of issues going on ourselves, that we all know about. And me being a refugee, I have a lot to voice [with] my opinion on coming from a war zone into the U.K., and it giving me an education. I’m a prime example of somebody who has done good with having refugees enter our country. And being an Albanian ambassador for Kosovo, I voice my opinion for my generation. Having the freedom to have an education is vital.
As for ANTM, I want to remind the girls they have the chance to give their ideas and the right to present their selves in the way they want. For me, freedom is everything; without freedom you can’t create, you can’t write what you want to write in this interview, you don’t even have the right to express yourself.
Your final collection with Adidas just came out. What’s next for you as a designer?
The relationship with Adidas is still there. We’re still partners in crime. It’s just moving forward and finding the next goal, which is to make your own money — don’t share it! It wasn’t about the money; I had the best experience with Adidas, learning how to design, working with a global brand. It’s one of the best global brands, they now have Kanye, Pharrell, me, Stella McCartney. It’s a great roster to be on.
What do you want to design next?
Everything! Doing lingerie was fun. But just clothes, just having fun with clothes and [making] them affordable for people my age.
You also have some movies coming up, like the next 50 Shades film in February. Will we see more of Christian Grey’s sister this time around?
Yes, for sure. I’m a fan of the books. They go to Aspen. She’s there when he has the crash. She’s definitely involved with the family decisions. She gets kidnapped. Then they both have to save me.
It’s just fun. I never looked at it as a main role, it was never meant to be that. It was more being part of a franchise and learning as an actress.
And you’re also filming with Carrie Fisher?
Yes, in this new movie called Wonderwell, shot in Rome. It’s very different for me. Carrie plays a good witch, I play a bad witch slash fashion designer — it’s like Devil Wears Prada meets Maleficent, with powers. I’m in control of this fashion brand, but I’m the witch of this town and I need these kids to kind of give me their powers so I can run the world. Then Carrie comes in and saves them and it’s like a whole thing. We’ve been arch-nemeses for a long time. It’s fun. It’s an indie movie, it’s really cool.