Singer, songwriter, actor, philanthropist, Rita Ora is a 21st century self-made superstar. In conversation with Donatella Versace, the two icons divulge on their coming of age, breakthrough moments, and living their passions with purpose.
It’s only a few days into the new year and outside, in Sydney, Australia, the sunlight is burning – another hot summer’s day. Rita Ora has been Down Under for some months as a judge on The Voice. As the lights are adjusted for her cover shoot, she reflects on her own early days as a singer. Born Rita Sahatçiu 31 years ago in Pristina, Yugoslavia – now Kosovo – to Albanian parents, she started out life as a refugee, the persecution of Albanians having forced her parents to flee to London when she was a baby. Attending a performing arts school, Ora began testing her talent at local gigs, “singing everywhere,” she recalls, even her father’s pub. “Breaking into the industry was difficult,” admits the singer-songwriter. “It took a lot of discipline and faith in myself to feel confident that this was the right path for me.”
While she heard her fair share of “No,” she persevered. Her debut album, Ora, debuted at number one on the UK charts, certifying platinum. Her latest co-written four-track EP, Bang (2021) features modern pop, 80s and 90s club culture, and house music, and is co-produced with Grammy-winning Kazakh DJ and record producer Imanbek. The EP comes after her 2018 album Phoenix, which has amassed more than 4 billion streams worldwide. That record holds three platinum singles, including “Lonely Together,” her collaboration with the late Swedish DJ Avicii. Ora dabbles in acting too, landing roles and serving notable performances in the Fifty Shades of Grey and Fast & Furious franchises; Southpaw alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams; Pokémon Detective Pikachu; and last year’s crime drama Twist alongside Michael Caine. “The best advice I can give young girls is to always believe in yourself and the vision you have for your art, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams,” underscores Ora.
On the other side of the world, in Milan, fashion’s own platinum icon, Donatella Versace, is overseeing the finishing of the latest bespoke Atelier Versace pieces. Designing is a role Versace, the daughter of a salesman father and dressmaker mother, dutifully stepped into since the shocking death of her brother Gianni in 1997 on the steps of the Versace mansion in Miami. In the years that followed, she would master it. Proving to be an audacious couturiere in her own right, Versace’s efforts did not go unnoticed. She designed the infamous jungle dress worn by Jennifer Lopez to the Grammy Awards in 2000 and was named fashion icon of the year by the British Fashion Council in 2017. The following year, she took home the CFDA Fashion Awards International Award. Her sensual and rich signature has gone beyond fashion, seeping into luxury hospitality with the opening of Palazzo Versace Gold Coast in Australia in 2000 and the Palazzo Versace Dubai in 2016. Today, the house of Versace is as much a favorite of stars – a regal Angelina Jolie in a liquid silver gown; Zendaya in purple and citrus chiffon; Dua Lipa seemingly molded into a baby pink crystal-encrusted bustier; and Winnie Harlow fierce in a leather blazer, to name a few – as it was during the years of Gianni, when a young Donatella served as her brother’s muse and fiercest critic. Ora counts herself among Versace’s devotees, admitting that she loves to express herself through fashion, and having turned to Versace numerous times. She made headlines in a slick leather pencil skirt suit, pop-print body-hugging looks, and an orange mini dress held together by a coiling rope recalling the threads of Medusa, the very symbol of the house of Versace.
In a candid conversation, the two icons reveal a mutual soft power and their desire to devote parts of their respective platforms to the service of the less fortunate, remembering very well that they, too, have witnessed dark days and survived.
RITA ORA What do you remember from the first time we met?
DONATELLA VERSACE Your energy, the way you laughed, and your sense of humor. I have always been drawn to people with a sense of humor and who are aware that we are blessed for being able to do the jobs that we do, to share with the world our creativity, and do so with a smile on our faces.
RO Well, fashion and music go hand in hand. You’ve always designed for powerful women. What do these women want and value from their clothes today?
DV I think women have finally realized that clothes can be used as a weapon to our advantage. Ultimately, we all want to be heard and be taken seriously for what we bring to the table – and it is a lot. Fashion can help us do that and many other things. When we dress, whether we do it consciously or not, we send a message to the world and, as a supporter of other women, I want to give them the tools so that even through their style choices, they are able to convey respect, credibility, and strength. Nowadays women have become more aware of their place in the world, they are fighting for their spot, and they have learned to support each other to achieve what they want and deserve. This is not about empowerment. No one gives them anything. And when these women wear my clothes, I want them to feel strong, in charge, and self-confident. These are women who catalyze the attention and fill the room with their charisma. Who inspires you the most nowadays?
RO I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from Cher, Madonna, and Tina Turner. All three of them are the absolute queens of reinvention. Their evolution as artists consistently inspires me to take risks with music, fashion, and performing.
DV Meanwhile, you are a Unicef Ambassador.
RO Working with refugees has always been a passion of mine. Given my own experience as a refugee, I’m very dedicated to working with those who have experienced similar struggles. Unicef is such a wonderful organization and being able to work with them on issues close to my heart has been an extremely rewarding experience. You have been vocal about your support to refugees. Why is the Syrian refugee cause so important to you?
DV I’ve always worked to help less fortunate people and now I’m actively trying to relieve the suffering of refugees. The Syrian refugee cause is very close to my heart, especially because we see every day the amazing work at the UN’s disembarkation point in Sicily, close to my homeland Calabria, being done to help refugees’ safety in Italy. It is intolerable that in 2022 people cannot feel safe in their homeland. This is why we all need to act and do something. The time for talking is over, we must act and sometimes individuals act faster than governments. As a society we must stick together and protect those who need to be protected.
RO What would you say to someone who doesn’t support refugees and who doesn’t consider forced human displacement their problem to solve?
DV I am not sure I would enter a discussion with them. Some people seem to think that because something is happening far away from them or doesn’t touch them directly, that it isnot their problem. In 2022 no one has this luxury. Everything that happens in the world has an impact on our lives and it would be irresponsible for those that can make a difference to turn their backs. What would be your best piece of advice to future generations?
RO Be fearless in whatever path you choose to follow. Give yourself permission to take chances and don’t be afraid of what others will think. You’ve got this! What is the best and worst part about being Donatella Versace?
DV There was a moment when being “Donatella Versace” was not easy. I was suffering from a great loss. I was put in a position I knew I had to take, but I was not ready to do so because all I wanted was to be by myself and hide from the world. Or when I was in a room full of men who dismissed my ideas even before I had the chance to explain myself. Those years were hard, but I have learned a lot as well. They made me stronger because there is one thing I will never do: give up. Today, it is much easier. I have come to terms with my demons. I say what I think, and I fight for my ideas and what I believe in. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
RO The best advice always comes from my mother, she is such a strong source of support and is always there for me when I need someone to talk to. She has given so much good advice over the years, but probably the most important is to approach situations with an open mind and heart.
DV There has been a lot of talk recently about women taking on more powerful roles in all industries. How do you face it in the times we are living?
RO Of course there is still significant change that needs to happen. Women still struggle with being taken seriously in various industries, and we are constantly fighting for our voices to be heard. We all must do our part wherever we can.
Read Next: Inside Vogue Arabia’s February 2022 Issue
Originally published in the February 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Senior fashion market editor: Amine Jreissati
Style: Fleur Egan
Makeup: Stoj Bulic
Creative producer: Laura Prior
Local production: Camille Peck