The tragic, real-life story of Rihanna

In 2005, 17-year-old Robyn Rihanna Fenty broke onto the music scene with the release of the smash hit "Pon de Replay." Since then, the world has watched her grow into one of the most successful women on the planet. According to Forbes, Rihanna became the world's richest female musician in 2019, a result of her success with music and makeup, along with becoming "the first black woman in charge of a major luxury fashion house."

Yet, despite being so successful and popular, Rihanna has managed to keep her private life private for the most part. Though many fans are aware of her story during her rise to fame, her life prior to that is not as well known. Perhaps that's because information about the hitmaker's childhood in Barbados is not freely available, or because Rihanna is protective of her family and her secrets.

Whatever the reason, there's an interesting story there. Even if Rihanna makes her success look easy, it was anything but: she grew up in less than ideal conditions and faced more than her fair share of struggles, but it was largely because of her difficult past that she became the person she is today. Here is the tragic, real-life story of Rihanna.

Rihanna grew up with trouble at home

Rihanna remembers growing up in Barbados as being "just a little island girl riding bikes, running around barefoot and flying kites in the cemetery," but her childhood home wasn't as free. Her father's drinking problems would lead to tense moments. "Fridays would be scary because he would come home drunk," she told Rolling Stone in 2011. "He'd get paid, and half of it would go toward alcohol. He'd walk in the door, and it was all eyes on him."

The future pop star could feel the temperature in the house go up whenever domestic violence was around the corner, previously telling ABC News, "[My parents] had a very abusive relationship. My dad was the abuser. [He hit her] on numerous accounts." She added, "I don't want to say normal, but it wasn't a surprise when it happened. She never went to the hospital ... Domestic violence is not something that people want anybody to know."

Though her mother was the primary victim of her father's outbursts, Rihanna recalled a time when she was punished for wanting to stay at the beach 10 minutes longer. "He slapped me so hard," she revealed to Rolling Stone. "I ran home with his handprint on me. I couldn't believe it. My mother saw my face, how traumatized I was. You know how, when you know you did something wrong, and you deserve to get beat? This was out of nowhere."

The origins of Rihanna's hardened entrepreneurial spirit

Rihanna is a musician first, but she's a powerful business woman, as well. As noted by Rolling Stone, "She's had endorsement deals with Nike, Gucci, CoverGirl and Clinique, not to mention her own scent, Reb'l Fleur." Her upbringing as the oldest child in the family made her staunchly independent, and her father helped mold her into the woman she would become. "He taught me how to fish, how to swim, how to run, how to ride," the singer-songwriter told the media outlet. "He really toughened me up."

When she was young, Rihanna's father sold clothes on the street or out of his car to make a living. Whether through want or necessity, she would sometimes join him. "She used to sell stuff on the side of the street like I did," Rihanna's dad, Ronald Fenty, said in a 2011 interview with The Sun. "She'd come outside of the store and put up a rack and sell hats and belts and scarves ... She would also buy sweets, put them in packages and take them to school to sell to her friends for a profit." It was that entrepreneurial spirit that had Rihanna's father thinking she would end up in business. In the end, he was right, in a way.

The breaking up of Rihanna's family

Addiction sadly took a substantial toll on this celeb's early life, when drugs planted their hooks in Rihanna's father and ran havoc through her family home. "My family broke up because of his addiction," she tearfully told Oprah Winfrey on Oprah's Next Chapter. According to the Mirror, dad Ronald Fenty bought drugs even when money and food in the house were low. "Even as a toddler, I learned that my mum and dad would argue when there was foil paper in the ashtray," Rihanna said, referring to drug packaging or freebasing paraphernalia.

When she was nine years old, Rihanna walked in on her dad smoking crack, as per Rolling Stone. "I did have a drug problem and Robyn did walk in and see me taking drugs in our house," Ronald told The Sun. "She was just a little kid and it made her look at me, and other things, differently. Around the same time we were walking down the street with the kids and there was a guy sleeping on the sidewalk. Her mother said to Robyn, 'Your dad is going to end up like that.' I did not want my children to see me sleeping on the sidewalk so I started making the changes."

Rihanna's father would eventually beat his addiction, but it cost him his marriage and damaged his relationship with his children. "I had to give up drugs for my family," he said. "I still kind of lost them."

Rihanna was bullied in school

Rihanna is loved and admired around the world, but she didn't always feel loved as a child in Barbados. Her father was a descendant of a poor Irish community, the members of which were often referred to by derogatory names. Rihanna's last name, Fenty, was a common surname for this group of people. The future singer-songwriter also had a light skin shade, and this combination led to teasing at school.

"I was cultured in a very 'black' way," Rihanna said in a 2009 Allure interview. "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." The future celeb didn't take it lightly, and she fought back, some times with her fists. "I got teased my entire school life," she said to Glamour. "What they were picking on I don't even understand. It was my skin color. Then when I got older, it was about my breasts." 

The constant bullying she faced, however, helped shape her and prepare her for a life in the limelight, a life that can be cruel and unforgiving. "This thick skin has been developing since my first day at school," Rihanna told Harper's Bazaar in 2015. "It didn't happen after fame; I couldn't survive fame if I didn't already have it. So sometimes the toughest thing in life is to be vulnerable."

Rihanna was a good girl gone bad

With Rihanna's father battling his own demons and the fights at home increasing, the future celeb's mental health understandably suffered. Though the trouble at home was kept private, the young Rihanna began to separate herself from the other kids at school. According to Rolling Stone, "She wouldn't talk, wouldn't even cry." It was around this time that the future singer's grades slipped along with her health. 

"She had always been a straight-A student, but she started to struggle," Rihanna's mother, Monica Braithwaite, said. "She would suffer from these terrible headaches. She had to get CT scans." The headaches went on from the age of eight until Rihanna was 14, but the doctors had no answers for the excruciating migraine-like attacks. Initially, they believed that Rihanna may have a tumor of some sort, with the singer herself once saying, "It was that intense." However, the test results always came back negative. 

It wasn't until her parents separated and the fighting stopped that the headaches finally went away. Rihanna believes that the pain was caused by the emotional stress of the arguing and domestic abuse.

Rihanna has suffered a history of violence

In February 2009, the world was rocked by reports that Chris Brown had abused then-girlfriend Rihanna. TMZ later released photos of her battered face, and the abused singer became fodder for nearly every news outlet in the U.S., causing Rihanna to retreat from the public eye for months.

In her isolation, however, she began to worry about Brown, despite her being the victim. "If I feel this depressed, then what is he going through?" Rihanna later explained to ABC News. "I had to protect him. I thought that I had to let him know, don't do anything crazy. Like just hang in there ... The whole world hates him now. His fans, his career. He just, he lost me, I just need to let him know; don't do anything stupid." Eventually, the two reunited and Rihanna faced criticism for it. 

For her part, Rihanna was disappointed because she'd made a promise to her younger self that she was "never going to date somebody like my dad" (via E! News). She wasn't proud of her choice, but she had been overpowered by love. Fair or not, Rihanna found that her personal decisions had far-reaching consequences, and told ABC News, "It's completely normal to go back. It's not right. When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn't be held responsible for going back."

Rihanna has faced non-stop rumors

Many high-profile celebrities contend with rumors, from exaggerated tales to outright lies. For Rihanna, it seems that every single celebrity she talks to becomes the target of a reported relationship. While working on a Rolling Stone cover story, Rihanna happened to be in the same restaurant as Colin Farrell, someone she'd been rumored to be sending salacious texts. As Farrell left the restaurant, he stopped by the singer's table. "Our friends outside are gonna get some good mileage out of this," he jokingly said. "We're gonna be texting each other all f**king night!" The actor was right: the next morning, several tabloids suggested the two celebs ate dinner together and were romantically linked. 

To make matters worse, rumors have sometimes come from within. After Rihanna was assaulted by Chris Brown, her father sold information to the press. "That was the first time," Rihanna later told Vogue in 2011 (via Billboard). "My dad went to the press and just told them a bunch of lies. Because he hadn't talked to me after ... that whole thing." She added, "He never called to find out how I was doing, if I was alive, nothing ... He went straight to the press and got a check." That wouldn't be the last time either, as Ronald Fenty would later sell more gossip on his famous daughter. "It really makes me question what I have become to my father," Rihanna wondered. "Like, what do I even mean to him?"

Rihanna's lawsuit against her father

After her challenges with Chris Brown, Rihanna found that she was spiralling into a dark place. She recalled on Oprah's Next Chapter that she was "resentful," "angry," and struggling to overcome it all. When asked how she finally got through it, Rihanna said, "[I] repaired my relationship with dad." The singer had grown apart from her father after her parents' divorce years earlier. "I was so angry at him," she explained, adding, "I couldn't separate him as husband from him as a father."

After the reconciliation, however, Rihanna and Ronald Fenty continued butting heads. In some cases, it wasn't personal — it was business. According to CNN, Rihanna discovered that her father and his business partner, Moses Perkins, were allegedly using her name and brand, Fenty, to earn money. The singer and her representatives reportedly asked the pair repeatedly "to cease and desist all activity and efforts to exploit Rihanna's name and the goodwill associated with the Fenty brand." When that failed, they filed a lawsuit.

According to the 2019 suit, Rihanna's father reportedly launched a production and talent company called Fenty Entertainment in 2017, and negotiated 15 unauthorized Rihanna shows in Latin America, two at the Staples Center, and another at the T-Mobile Arena, all totaling nearly $15.5 million. He even reportedly attempted to use the Fenty brand to register a line of resort hotels. With the case set to move to a jury trial in June 2020, The Blast reports that it was later postponed due to the pandemic.

Rihanna became the family caregiver

Rihanna was exposed to things in life much earlier than most. In fact, she saw and experienced things as a child that most people never do. By the time the singer-songwriter was 16 years old, her father had moved out and her mother had returned to work to support the family. This left the young teenager at home to look after younger brother Rajad. Though it caused Rihanna to grow up quickly, she looks back at these times fondly, telling Elle that it was "probably the best summer I ever had."

But it was more than one summer that she would act as caregiver. While Rihanna takes on much of this willingly, such as gifting her mother a massive mansion, some of it has been imposed upon her. In 2008, she was forced to send her father home from her U.S. tour for drunken behavior. According to the Daily Mail, in order to save her father from going to jail for a California arrest, Rihanna agreed to pay $58,000 for him to enter a Malibu rehab program in 2013. And while speaking with Rolling Stone, Rihanna revealed that her dad once sent her a text with nothing but prices for furniture that he wanted to buy for his house. "It's fine," she explained. "I'll give my father anything. It's not something that's hard for me to help him with. It's just, like — damn, Dad. Hi."