A country’s tragedy was the music world’s gain when Yugoslavia descended into civil war in 1991. One of the families fleeing that war were the Sahatçius. Among them was one-year-old Rita who would one day grow up to be one of the UK music scene’s most exciting musicians. When her family arrived in London, refugees from a conflict tearing apart the land they loved, all they wanted for their daughter was a better life. They could not imagine what little baby Rita Ora would one day become.
Rita Ora was born Rita Sahatçiu in Pristina, Yugoslavia. Her parents are Albanians. Her father, Besnik, is an economist and pub owner and her mother, Vera, is a psychiatrist. Ora has an older sister and younger brother, Elena and Don.
Rita’s family were forced to leave their home country in 1991 following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the consequent persecution of ethnic Albanians in what would eventually become the country of Kosovo. They sought refuge in the United Kingdom, eventually settling in London when Rita was just a year old. Besnik decided to drop the family name – which meant ‘watchmaker’ in Turkish, and adopt the surname ‘Ora’, which is the Albanian word for ‘time’. He figured that the British people probably wouldn’t be able to wrap their lips around the surname ‘Sahatçiu’, and he was probably right.
Rita grew up near London’s famous Portobello Road in the Notting Hill area of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. She was enrolled at St Cuthbert with St Matthias Primary School in Earls Court. The youngster showed an early interest in music, in particular singing.
In later life, Ora credited her father with piquing her interest in rock and pop music. As a child, she would devour her father’s record collection, listening intently to albums by the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire, Prince, Blondie, Celine Dion and Jimi Hendrix. Although these were all to have some influence on her, Ora stated that the biggest influences on her when she was growing up were Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani.
Recognizing their daughter’s talents, Rita’s parents decided to send her to the world-famous Sylvia Young Theatre School after she finished primary school. The school is an independent school near Marble Arch in London that specializes in teaching young performers. It proved just the place for a budding young talent who would one day take the music world by storm.
As she grew into adulthood, the young Rita started performing at open mic nights which took place in her local area. She proved very popular with audiences. She also performed regularly in her father’s pub. It proved a great training ground for what was to follow.
Like many famous alumni of the Sylvia Young Theatre School, Rita’s first brush with fame came via acting, not singing. In 2004, at the tender age of fourteen, she was cast in the British TV legal drama series The Brief. This led to her landing a role as an Albanian immigrant in the British gangster movie, Spivs.
However, acting was not what she wanted to do. She wanted to be a singer, and that’s exactly what she set out to achieve.
Ora’s music debut came in 2007 when the seventeen-year-old contributed to Craig David’s single, ‘Awkward’. She also added her considerable vocal talents to Tinchy Stryder’s 2008 single, ‘Where’s Your Love’. Both performances were uncredited, though she was credited as a background singer on James Morrison’s 2008 album, Songs For You, Truths For Me.
Unsatisfied with just being a background recording artist, Ora took the decision in 2008 to audition for the BBC’s Eurovision: Your Country Needs You, which was an annual song competition to find Britain’s official entry for the yearly Eurovision Song Contest.
Ora qualified for the competition and even did a few episodes of the show. However, she decided that the competition wasn’t for her and withdrew. Her manager, Sarah Stennett, later said that Ora had told her that she thought entering Eurovision was the only way she could kickstart her career. Stennett persuaded her that entering Eurovision was often the kiss of death to a budding young talent’s career, not a boost to it. Ora agreed and withdrew.
Determined to help this precocious young talent out and rescue her from the doldrums of TV talent shows, Stennett decided to get in touch with the independent American record label, Roc Nation. The label listened to some of Ora’s demos, liked what they heard and signed her up for a recording and publishing deal. She was finally on her way.
Ora got to work immediately, recording an entire album, as well as making cameo appearances in Jay Z’s video for his 2009 track, ‘Young Forever’, and in Drake’s video for ‘Over’ in 2010. Ora wanted Roc Nation to release her album, but after listening to it, they advised against it and they told the eager young performer to hone her craft and come back to them when she had better material. Eager to please, Ora agreed.
In 2011, the singer started putting up cover songs and videos about making her new album on YouTube. These soon attracted lots of fan and industry interest. One keen viewer was DJ, record producer and musician, DJFresh, who realized the attractive young vocalist would be perfect for his new song, ‘Hot Right Now’.
‘Hot Right Now’ was released in 2012 to both critical and commercial acclaim. It debuted at number one in the UK Singles Chart, making it the UK’s first ever drum and bass number one. The single would eventually go platinum, gain huge popularity across Europe and become a club staple. It also placed Rita Ora firmly in the public eye.
Following on from the success of ‘Hot Right Now’, Ora’s record label felt the time was right to release her debut album. ‘Ora’ was released on the 27th August 2012, following a 6th of May release of the single ‘R.I.P.’ which had performed strongly in the UK Singles Chart.
‘R.I.P’ featured guest performances from J. Cole, Tinie Tempah and will.i.am, and was met with mixed reviews. Despite this, it debuted at number one in the UK Albums Chart. A single from the album, ‘How We Do (Party)’ was released on the 12th August 2012 and reached number one in the UK Singles Chart.
Rita was nominated in the category of Best New Artist at the 2012 MTV Europe Music Awards, and was due to open for Usher during the UK leg of his ‘Euphoria Tour’ in 2013. However, this was later cancelled due to Usher’s ‘professional and personal commitments’.
2012 proved to be a busy year for the rising star. Her fourth single, ‘Shine Ya Light’, performed well in the charts, and in November she was invited to perform as a special guest at the 100th Anniversary of the Independence of Albania concert in Tirana, Albania.
2013 saw the singer embark on her first ever UK tour. Called the ‘Radioactive Tour’, fans were finally able to flock to see this vibrant young performer at close quarters. They were not disappointed. In June of 2013, she appeared on the world-famous Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, winning even more fans. She also announced that she was working on her second studio album.
Ora released her next single, ‘I Will Never Let You Down’ in May 2014. The song debuted at number one in the UK Singles Chart, making it her fourth number one and third as a solo performer. She also collaborated with Iggy Azalea on her single ‘Black Widow’ and performed for US TV audiences in the telecast, Christmas in Washington.
In 2015, Ora released the single ‘Poison’, which charted at number three in the UK Singles Chart. She also performed the Oscar-nominated song ‘Grateful’ at the 2015 Academy Awards in Los Angeles. As that year came to a close, she filed a lawsuit against Roc Nation, stating that the contract she had signed with them in 2008 was no longer enforceable due to California’s ‘seven-year rule’. Roc Nation countersued and the matter was settled out of court.
Since then, Ora has signed with Atlantic Records. She continues to record, tour and make guest appearances, such as in September 2016, where she took part in the vigil for Mother Teresa’s canonization at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, Italy.
Throughout her recording career, Ora has also kept a presence on television. She was a judge on the UK version of The Voice in 2015, and in the same year she was invited to be a judge on the UK version of The X-Factor. Her act, Louisa Johnson, would eventually go on to win the show.
She also stars in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie franchise.
Rita Ora enjoys a feisty public image, especially in her adopted homeland of the United Kingdom, primarily thanks to her appearances as a judge on two of the UK’s biggest Saturday night prime-time television shows, The Voice and The X-Factor. She has had a similar effect in the US, thanks to her appearances on America’s Next Top Model.
She is also popular with musicians and music fans alike, who love her fresh approach to pop, and her spirited public performances. But there’s another side to her image as a performer, due primarily to her Albanian heritage.
She is an honorary ambassador for the Republic of Kosovo, and has been regularly invited to perform at concerts for her former homeland. Her mother is a devout Catholic, and though Ora describes herself as ‘more of a spiritual person’, she respects the religion and is happy to lend it her considerable talents, as was witnessed at the vigil for Mother Teresa in 2016.
A fluent Albanian speaker, she is admired for her bilingual abilities and for her love of both her adopted homeland and her former homeland. She has also won many female fans for her outspoken support of feminism.
Her image has also been bolstered by her philanthropic activities. She has performed at several charity events, including the ‘Chime for Change’ concert held at Twickenham Stadium in London, which raised awareness of women’s issues. She has also lent her support to refugee charities and cancer research charities, all of which have been met with enthusiasm from her growing army of fans.
Though her rocky personal life has lost her a few fans, and her acrimonious split with her record company looked to some like she was not one for honoring her commitments, any negatives have been tempered by her support of children’s charities, her genuinely bubbly personality and a musical legacy that speaks for itself.
As she heads towards the end of the decade, Rita Ora’s public image is an almost entirely positive one.
Not much is known about Ora’s early relationships, though there was at one time strong suspicion that she was the mystery woman that came between the rapper Jay Z and his wife Beyoncé. The rumours became so persistent that Ora was eventually forced to take to Twitter to refute them.
“I never usually address tabloid gossip but let me be clear, these rumours are false,” she told her fans. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Beyoncé. Let’s continue enjoying Lemonade’.”
Of the relationships we do know about, many have been with high-profile men. In 2012, Ora began dating reality TV star and businessman, Rob Kardashian. The relationship was not a happy one, with the pair splitting up after just two months. Things quickly turned sour, with Kardashian insinuating on Twitter that Ora had repeatedly cheated on him.
Ora next briefly dated DJ Calvin Harris. The relationship did not last long, however, and the pair soon split up. At first the split was amicable, with Harris calling Ora a ‘beautiful, talented woman’. However, things again soon turned sour, with the pair bad-mouthing each other in the press.
Next, rumours began to circulate that Ora was romantically linked to the Blink-182 drummer, Travis Barker. Barker seemed to confirm this was true during an interview with People magazine, but later said they were ‘just good friends’ during an appearance on Larry King Now.
Ora has also dated the musician Richard Hilfiger, The X-Factor winner James Arthur and the rock musician Andrew Watt. It is not known whether the singer and Watt are still together. Perhaps wisely, the singer has kept her recent love life out of the public eye, preferring to conduct her relationships in private. With so many of her relationships ending acrimoniously, that’s probably for the best.
- Hot Right Now: The Definitive Biography of Rita Ora by Douglas Wight and Jennifer Wiley
Written by: Ben Perry