A seven-day, worldwide junket hosted by Rihanna for fans, journalists and music executives on a Boeing 777 was long on swag, including a diamond bracelet, but short on access.
Extravagant press trip courtesy of Rihanna was a bust
Last month, Rihanna tried to pull off one of the biggest PR stunts in pop history. To mark the release of her seventh album, Unapologetic, she plotted a whistle-stop round-the-world tour featuring seven concerts in seven countries in seven days. Then she raised the stakes by hiring a Boeing 777 jet and inviting more than 300 people along for the ride - including fans, journalists and record label executives. The total cost is being kept secret, but it's clearly a trip that only a handful of global pop superstars could even contemplate.
What made Rihanna want to do it? She hardly needs the publicity. Robyn Rihanna Fenty only turned 24 earlier this year, but has already racked up 180 million units of record and download sales. In addition, this Bajan daughter of an accountant and a warehouse supervisor has some 27m Twitter followers and is said to be the most popular person on Facebook with 62m "friends".
The simple answer is that Rihanna and Island Def Jam, her record label, did it because they can. An unprecedented spectacle like this would cement the singer's iconic status and separate her from the pack. Beyoncé may be more talented and Lady Gaga better at setting the pop culture agenda, but neither has taken over a plane for a week. In addition, Rihanna's team were probably hoping to distract attention from the singer's controversial relationship with Chris Brown, which was attracting plenty of negative attention in the run-up to the album's release.
Rihanna named her ambitious excursion the "777 Tour" and scheduled it for the week building up to the album's release. The trip began on November 14 with a flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City, where the first of the seven concerts took place. From there, the so-called "Rihanna Plane" jetted to Toronto, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin and London, before touching down for the final time in New York City on November 21. That sounds like a gruelling schedule, and I'm happy to confirm that it was, because I was in seat 37H for the entire trip.
It's difficult to convey the excitement on board that first flight. When I got to my seat, I found a 777 Tour goodie bag containing perfume, a pair of headphones, a pair of specially designed flight socks and a string bracelet with a tiny but genuine diamond on it. Before take-off, Rihanna's familiar Caribbean lilt made an announcement over the plane's intercom system. The gist of her message was: "Let's get this party started!"
Once the plane reached cruising altitude, Rihanna came through the cabin to hand out drinks to her fellow passengers. Predictably, this attracted a media scrum, but Rihanna seemed unfazed by the attention. I remember thinking how natural she was: she looked like she was chatting to friends, not just "doing the rounds" with people whose help she needed.
We didn't realise at the time, but for many of us on board, this would remain the highlight of the tour. After her spirited appearance on day one, Rihanna was neither seen nor heard by the majority of passengers until the very last flight, from London to New York a week later. We knew she was travelling alongside us, because we watched her at the nightly concerts and sometimes glimpsed her at an after-show party, but actual interaction between Rihanna and members of the press was virtually non-existent.
At this point, it's only right to mention that all journalists joining the 777 Tour had been warned not to expect one-on-one interview slots with Rihanna. However, it's equally fair to point out that everyone had been promised a "daily press conference" - which might sometimes take place on board the plane. Day after day, this failed to happen, so the excitement of that first flight quickly dissipated.
As the week drew on, it became evident that we were stuck in a ludicrous situation: we were circumnavigating the globe for someone who had no intention of speaking to us. Inevitably, this made the schedule seem even more arduous. The 777 Tour became an endless succession of coach journeys, airport security checks, uncomfortable flights and snatched rest stops at hotels in cities that we barely saw. The itinerary was tight to begin with, but whatever free time there should have been - for reporting on the tour or simply sleeping - was swallowed up by Rihanna's constant tardiness. Flights invariably took off late because she failed to show up on time; over the week, she racked up an estimated $317,000 (Dh1.164 million) bill for airport fines.
Frustration reached fever pitch on the penultimate flight, which finally left Berlin's Tegel Airport on the morning of November 19 at 3am - some four hours late. By now slightly delirious, journalists started chants of "Save our jobs!" and "One more quote!" in a good-humoured bid to coax Rihanna from the first-class cabin where she had been cocooning herself. It didn't work, but the press pack's heckling became international news the next day. Of course, the 777 Tour had been designed to generate column inches, but it's unlikely that stories about a so-called "on-board mutiny" and supposed "PR disaster" were what Rihanna's record label had in mind.
But as luck would have it, the tour hit the headlines on November 19 - the very day that Rihanna's album came out. Did the old adage that all publicity is good publicity hold true? On first glance, it looks as though it did. Unapologetic became the singer's first number one album in the United States, though its first week sales of 238,000 were a fraction of the 1.2m that Taylor Swift sold in seven days the previous month. In addition, Unapologetic also topped the charts in several other international markets, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
Meanwhile, it's been estimated that Rihanna's 777 Tour generated an incredible one billion page impressions online. But what proportion of these were generated by negative web articles and blog posts and what will the long-term effect be? It's highly likely that the singer's album would have gone to number one anyway; as I noted at the start of this article, Rihanna is a massive star who hardly needs to raise her profile. The real purpose of the tour was to secure her future as a legendary pop artist, not just a very dazzling flash in the pan.
Alienating the world's media will not help her achieve this. To her credit, Rihanna did attempt to make amends by appearing before her fellow passengers on the final flight from London to New York. She didn't quite apologise, but there was an explanation for her absence during the tour.
"I know you guys got barely any dirt, but I had to be good," Rihanna said softly, her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. "I had to preserve my voice, [and] I was worried about my body more than partying on the plane, so I had to just sleep whenever I could. I hope you guys had as much fun as I did."
Only time will tell whether Rihanna's reputation can recover from what happened on the 777 Tour. The trip may have been ill-advised, and could probably have been executed a lot better. What's certain, though, is that no other pop star is going to try anything similar any time soon.
Nick Levine is a regular contributor to The Review.