Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the artist who would become known by just her middle name, Rihanna, would sign her first record deal at the age of 16. While she got her start young, her path to fame hasn’t always been an easy one. From her childhood in Barbados, to leaving her home and family behind for a new country while still a teenager, Rihanna’s life has been an exciting one — but that isn’t always a good thing.
Despite the ups and downs, Rihanna has steadfastly remained true to herself. Her life has changed in many ways since her childhood in Barbados. She’s gone from a small-town girl to an international superstar, and her transformation has been fascinating.
She helped raise her younger brothers
Rihanna’s early years were far from perfect. Her father struggled with drug addiction, leaving her mother to support the family. As the oldest, this left Rihanna in charge of her younger brothers. She told The Guardian in 2007 that this forced her to grow up quickly, and that she was “kind of like the second mom” to her siblings.
Her father has since become sober and patched up his relationship with his family, but Rihanna’s troubled childhood left an impact. “I think it made me very independent,” Rihanna said in the article. “I’m very strong. Very determined. I’d always been a daddy’s girl. I was Daddy’s girl. And I found out who was doing right and who was doing wrong. And I turned into a mommy’s girl.”
She wants to be a positive influence
Rihanna’s turbulent childhood made her determined to be a force for good. At 19, she was just entering the limelight and was quite conscious that — while she may have just been a teenager — she was still in a position to influence others.
“I’m very aware of the impact I have on people’s lives,” she told The Guardian, “So I only wanna make positive ones. Why not help? Be that example they can follow. I always wanted to make a difference in the world. I was always trying to figure out how can I change the world.” Rihanna has turned that early desire to do good into many philanthropic pursuits. Ten years after vowing to “make a difference in the world,” she was named the 2017 Harvard University Humanitarian of the Year for her contributions to the community.
She was an army cadet
While still a young woman in Barbados, Rihanna did a stint as an army cadet. Fellow singer Shontelle, who is also from Barbados, revealed in a 2009 interview with the BBC that both of the aspiring stars had been in the military program together, and that Shontelle had in fact been Rihanna’s drill sergeant.
That military training came in handy years later as Rihanna prepped for a role in the 2012 film Battleship. To get ready for filming, Rihanna was drilled by a Naval officer. “It’s not a walk in the park,” she told Marie Claire.
She was bullied in school for her light skin
It would be easy to assume that someone with Rihanna’s flawless looks had been popular growing up, but appearances are so often deceiving. Rihanna told Allure in 2009 that she was often teased in school for having lighter skin than her classmates. The teasing would often escalate to fist fights. “I was cultured in a very ‘black’ way,” said Rihanna. “But when I got to school I’m being called ‘white’…they would look at me, and they would curse me out. I didn’t understand.”
Her struggle to not be defined by her skin color didn’t go away when she achieved fame in fortune. In a 2015 interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine she opened up about being judged for her race. “It’s still a thing,” she said. “And it’s the thing that makes me want to prove people wrong. It almost excites me; I know what they’re expecting and I can’t wait to show them that I’m here to exceed those expectations.”
She moved to the U.S. as a teen for her career
Rihanna’s path to fame began when she was only 15 years old. Still in school, she turned towards music as a distraction from her family troubles. She auditioned for music producer Evan Rogers with two classmates, but it was Rihanna who stood out. Rogers later said, “The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist.”
Just a few months later, at the age of 16, Rihanna moved to the United States to begin working on her demo album. “I wanted to do what I had to do, even if it meant moving to America,” she said.
She’s proud of her culture
She may have left Barbados behind, but that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten where she comes from. She told Esquire in 2011, “I’m always representing Barbados. All over the world, no matter what I was doing, no matter what I achieved, no matter what award it was, I always shouted them out.”
In 2016, her album Anti dropped. The song “Work” features what Vogue called “sort of a vocal variation” which Rihanna described as an homage to her heritage. “That’s how we speak in the Caribbean,” she said. “It’s very broken and it’s, like, you can understand everything someone means without even finishing the words. This song is definitely a song that represents my culture, and so I had to put a little twist on my delivery.”