It’s late November 2012 and I have no idea what time zone I’m in, let alone what day it is. Delirium has set in aboard Rihanna’s 777 Tour plane, but at least it has a killer soundtrack – 35,000 feet above sea level, the dubstep wobble drop of then unreleased single Jump blasts through the loudspeaker, compelling me and my fellow passengers out of our seats for an impromptu dance party in the sky.
‘This is the coolest album listening party I’ve ever been to’, I think as I take a shot of Jay Z-endorsed cognac from a passing flight attendant. Down below, the rest of the world is going about its day but up here we exist in RiRi land, where the drinks are flowing, and the beats are hot.
Little did we know, our Almost Famous moment would soon descend into chaos, becoming one of the most controversial publicity stunts the industry has ever seen.
The album is Unapologetic, in name and nature. It’s Rihanna’s seventh album in seven years, so as a celebration she’s invited around 200 members of the world’s media and a bunch of fans to join her on board a Boeing 777 jet for seven shows in seven countries in seven days. What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s go back to where it all began.
Day 1: Los Angeles – Mexico City
Diamonds in the sky
You’re probably wondering how I ended up here. Me too. I’m 25 years old. After hustling in the microcosm of indie music journalism for years, I’m plucked from obscurity by a flashy entertainment editor at ninesmsn’s MusicFIX (now 9Honey Celebrity) and one of my first professional (and paid) jobs is to tour around the world with the biggest pop star of the moment. Seriously, pinch me!
The 777 Tour kicks off at a hotel near LAX, where our global travelling circus converges in the lobby, buzzing with excitement. We’re loaded into buses headed to a private airplane hangar, but the short journey is not without drama as a series of logistic mishaps results in my luggage being lost before we even step aboard the plane… an ominous sign of what’s to come.
I’m told to abandon our group and search among the first-class passengers’ things. I walk into the private, air-conditioned lounge and immediately spot my black hardcase with the band’s gear. I guess it looks like a musician’s road case? I go to retrieve it and plan to scuttle right back outside to my non-VIPs when I’m stopped by a striking man with long hair, tattoos and a nose ring.
It’s Nuno Bettencourt from iconic ’80s band Extreme… and it turns out, Rihanna’s guitarist for the tour. He’s incredibly friendly, telling me all about his family in Australia, how his kids (with fellow rockstar Suze DeMarchi of Baby Animals) live in the same suburb as me… we even share a GP!
Someone snaps a photo of us and it ends up on the ELLE UK Instagram. Am I an influencer now?
We board the plane, which I’m told was used for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign trail just months before, and chaos comes racing back when Rihanna makes herself known.
« Ladies and gentleman, there’s an emergency. Code seven-f—ing-seven-seven! » she screams through the cabin speakers before telling us to check the goodie bags on our seats for « the little cheap string » holding our very own (and very tiny) diamond, a nod to her Sia-penned single of the same name.
« You can never say you never had a real diamond in your life! » she adds, before taking to the aisles to meet and pour drinks for her fervent entourage.
I am not ready for the intense media scrum that ensues, and neither is fellow Aussie Mike Christian. The 2DayFM presenter describes the moment as « anarchy of the best kind ».
« The plane takes off and then Rihanna gets on the loudspeaker… next minute she’s pushing a drinks cart around the plane, everyone’s up, everyone’s dancing. There’s boom boxes in the aisles of the plane, and part of me is going ‘is this safe? Is this going to cause a plane crash?’ but the other part of me is going, ‘this is the most amazing thing ever!' »
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Four hours later, we make it to Mexico City and hit our first of many delays trying to clear customs and traverse one of the world’s busiest cities in a bus convoy during peak hour… the ride is almost as long as the plane journey and by the time we reach the venue, everybody’s starting to fade.
Diehard Mexican fans screaming for Rihanna outside El Plaza Condesa bring us back to life, their enthusiasm infectious as we’re ushered inside the intimate venue to see the inaugural performance of the tour.
Day 2: Toronto
Phresh off the runway
In Toronto we have a day hotel, but there’s no time for rest. We’ve been part of Rihanna’s entourage for 24 hours now, and with no WIFI on the plane everyone is hard at work filing the first tour story.
« I feel bad for my editors who had to read everything I wrote, it was like writing nonsense basically because I was so tired, » says New York-based writer Shawn Hollenbach.
« After that first 24 hours, we started to realise what we were in for, which was a lack of access to Rihanna, aside from that initial drinks cart situation, and just delays, delays and more delays, » recalls Christian.
Toronto is freezing, but we don’t have to brace the cold for long as we’re shuttled directly from our airport hotel to the Danforth Music Hall. Rihanna and her band perform the same set as the night before and despite the collective weariness setting in, we’re all still in awe of her stage presence and ability to command a crowd.
A truly mesmerising performer, she moves effortlessly on stage, taking the buzzing crowd through hit songs like Where Have You Been, Umbrella and We Found Love alongside then-Number 1 single Diamonds and another new track from Unapologetic, the aptly titled Phresh Off The Runway, which would soon become the anthem of our tour.
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Day 3: Stockholm
Pour it up, pour it up…
The press is starting to get restless, we haven’t seen Rihanna up close since the first leg, but as our plane descends on the picturesque Swedish countryside at sunset, a jovial feeling is in the air. We finally have a hotel for the night and the collective relief is palpable.
« Sweden was probably the best night of the tour, » recalls Christian. « Something about that venue… »
The venue is Berns, a stunning 1860s art nouveau ballroom overlooking the Baltic Sea. Huge chandeliers loom overhead as Rihanna takes to the stage, her electric performance seducing the adoring crowd, which includes some famous Swedes like songwriter Arnthor Birgisson, and the late DJ/producer Avicii. Even the flight attendants came and partied with us!
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At the end of the performance, nobody’s going to bed. Instead, we filter down into the underground club directly below the ballroom. Pornographic paraphernalia adorns walls and tables, adding to the debauched vibe. This wild afterparty is exactly what we’ve needed to let off some steam, and time stands still as tequila shot upon tequila shot is consumed as if the Norse gods themselves had inhabited our bodies in a frenzied, bacchanalian party ritual.
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Rihanna makes a brief appearance, serving drinks behind the bar for a photo op before disappearing in a cloud of Fenty Eau de Parfum.
The last thing I remember is politely accepting yet another shot only to fake-drink it then pour it out on the floor. The bus ride to the airport the next morning is not fun, and after throwing up in the on-board bathroom twice I’m beginning to regret my life choices. Rihanna’s film crew pounce on me, capturing my most hungover moment for the world to see. I’m horrified when it makes the final cut of her official tour documentary.
Day 4: Paris
Excessive alcohol, sleep deprivation and repeated jetlag has ruined me. When I find out we have another overnight hotel to crash at, it feels like all my Christmases have come at once. I’m (momentarily) tapping out. I join some of my tour buds on a walk to the Arc De Triomphe, grab a croissant and dip back to the hotel tout de suite to write and sleep… such is the rockstar life.
Receiving a tip-off from the Def Jam staff on tour, Hollenbach and some of the other journalists give up yet another night of sleep and make their way to the Paris afterparty, hoping to catch a glimpse of Rihanna’s rumoured celebrity entourage, including P.Diddy, Omarion and Pharrell.
« You have to go out tonight, cause Diddy’s going to be there and Rihanna’s going to be there so you’re definitely going to get some great stuff, » the Logo writer recalls a label rep telling him. « I was so exhausted, but I was like, ‘I guess I have to go.' »
Toting a cardboard cut-out of Rupaul (Drag Race being his network’s flagship show at the time) Hollenbach waited for hours to snap some kind of newsworthy photo before being bum-rushed by the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy.
« Diddy’s security guard batted the phone right out of my hand… so I just took pictures of the crowd and in my piece the next day I wrote, ‘here’s Sean P Diddy Combs’ with an arrow of him in a crowd of people, ‘here’s Rihanna,’ with just an arrow. »
Without ground transport organised, getting back across Paris in the early hours of the morning proved an added feat, with Hollenbach forced to navigate the public transport system.
« I couldn’t figure out how to go home, my per diem was so low. I was broke… I actually took public transit. Being a little drunk and trying to figure it out, I don’t know how I did it. Imagine there’s a drunk American carrying a cardboard cut-out of RuPaul going on the Paris metro back to the hotel… what a wild trip. »
The following morning, we’re delayed on the tarmac for over two hours while Rihanna is photographed shopping for lingerie. It doesn’t sit well with the waiting tour party, and frustration begins to mount as we’re beholden to the whims of our MIA star.
« We had to work to her schedule, » explains Christian. « Even if you’re the head honcho of the label in the United States, you can’t really tell Rihanna, ‘hey RiRi, you’ve gotta be on the plane at this time so all these other people that are here for you can leave,' » he reasons.
Day 5: Berlin
Pon de Replay
As the tour ploughs on, access to Rihanna has seriously dwindled. The only time to sleep is on the plane, and it’s hardly a peaceful environment. At one point I’m awoken by a harsh light shining in my face. A German news crew is filming me… because there’s honestly not much else to report on.
The shows have become repetitive, with Rihanna performing the same set list with the same commentary every night. Disorganisation and setbacks are running rife, tightening the noose around an already demanding schedule. We’re all scrambling for content by this point, and it shows.
We become the story: journalists turn the cameras on each other.
« There reached a point where everyone had deadlines they had to meet and story quotas they had to fill, so we just started talking to each other, » recalls Hollenbach.
« It became apparent that we weren’t going to get the access that we thought we were. So many people got really angry… Someone even made missing posters and put them all around the plane, » adds Christian.
« I thought, I could be one of those people and be angry about it, or I could go ‘I’m getting a once in a lifetime opportunity to fly around the world, sure we’re jetlagged, sure we’re tired, sure maybe it’s different to what we thought it was going to be… but let’s just make the most of it!’ Once I made that mental change, it became a blast. »
Tonight’s show in Berlin is at a sprawling industrial site called E-Work, a restored Third Reich-era power plant turned techno club. In lieu of a hotel, we’re given access to a giant backstage mess hall… thankfully there’s wifi.
Giant rusted metal hooks hang ominously over tables of weary writers squinting into glaring laptops, or collapsed on the concrete floor desperate for sleep. Given our late departure from Paris and the flight crew’s imposed rest time, it’s a long wait before and after the show.
The mood had distinctly shifted. Perhaps it’s our grim surroundings, or a collective exhaustion, but a heavy vibe sets in.
« The gig was in this big open hall, and after the gig we were all lying on the floor in this big open hall just trying to get some sleep. It’s not surprising that people got sick, it was exhausting, » Christian recalls.
Day 6: London
Finally en route from Berlin to London, it becomes painfully evident that everyone is sick, tired and about to lose their minds. I’m sitting next to Julianne Escobar Shepard from Spin magazine, and she’s struggling with what we’d later find out was pneumonia.
« We’ve travelled through Paris and Berlin, and thanks to extensive delays, haven’t seen daylight in days, » she wrote at the time.
« When we return, our eyes will have shrunken into tiny slots and we will forage on the ground for centipedes and other high-protein foods we can feel with our hands. »
Time zones are but a construct to the delirious tour party at this point.
We’re less than an hour into the flight when the journalists snap. Travelling for five days straight across six countries with no respite, and no sign of Rihanna, has taken its toll. We’re fatigued, delirious, and desperate. It begins with the chants « We need a headline! » and « Just one quote! » Suddenly, everybody’s standing up in their seats and flooding the aisles, cameras raised, microphones out, screaming for something… anything…
« Save our jobs, » the mob chants.
« Occupy 777, » someone else yells.
« No more B-roll, » screams a camera operator.
While it’s not enough (or perhaps too much) to elicit a reaction from our elusive captor, the random outburst works, and we’re given a tiny shred of news in the form of a naked Australian. Seizing the opportunity for attention, burgeoning reality star Tim Dormer streaks through the plane, thus giving the throng of hungry journalists the headline they so loudly demanded.
« The whole streaking thing obviously became THE story of the 777 tour… it was absolute pandemonium, » says Christian.
While Dormer’s dash gave everyone a brief morsel of news, the mood was still grim for many. « I remember the guy from Us Weekly lost his mind in London, he totally had a meltdown… but I guess all of us were having meltdowns at that point, » says Hollenbach.
Upon landing and checking into the hotel, we’re invited to watch Rihanna turn on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street. I use the spare time to go to a walk-in clinic and get antibiotics to treat a UTI I’d sustained through frequent lack of access to water and bathrooms.
Tonight’s show is just like the others, only Kylie Minogue is rumoured to be hanging backstage with our gal Ri. We begrudgingly hit a lacklustre afterparty in the mezzanine level of The Forum, then it’s a 3am lobby call to make it to the airport where, naturally, we don’t depart until after 11am.
My eye bags are carry-on by this point.
Day 7: New York
Please don’t stop the music
We’re all absolute shells of humans by the time we take off from Heathrow airport, but the end is in sight… and it’s a bittersweet feeling for many. Grappling with the Stockholm Syndrome this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has elicited is an absolute mind warp.
« It was utter chaos. It was so stressful and intense, nothing went to plan and nothing really turned out the way it was explained to me initially… but I also wouldn’t change anything, » adds Christian.
The camaraderie we’ve forged during our week-long stint sans Rihanna has bonded us for life, with Hollenbach likening it to « a weird fraternity or sorority. »
« It is such a unique experience that only those people on the plane will understand what that truly was… How I describe it is the most amazing nightmare of my life, » he adds. « I feel like it was a fever dream, but still fun and exciting and odd and frustrating. »
Cementing the sentimental atmosphere of the final plane ride, Bettencourt pulls out an acoustic guitar, leading an impromptu sing-along of hits by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Bon Jovi.
For a moment, it’s all kumbaya as we forget our woes and join in singing, « I want to get away, I wanna fly away… yeah, yeah, yeah », shooting a delusional smile to our fellow #RihannaJail prisoners.
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It turns out bursting into song is a much better way to lure Rihanna out from hiding, and with just minutes to land our elephant in the room reveals herself, citing vocal rest as her reason for laying low.
« I know you guys got barely any dirt, » said tells the crowd gathering in the aisles amid a starkly different mood from when she last addressed us. « But I had to be good. I still sound like s–t. It’s impossible to spend time with everybody, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Usually I will be partying back here [in economy], balls to the wall. But I had to pay attention and take care of my health since I was on the plane all the time. »
We’re now descending into Newark, and panicked flight attendants are trying unsuccessfully to corral everyone back to their seats. If this were a regular plane, the uncompliant passengers would be apprehended, with law enforcement waiting at the airport. However, as I’d come to learn throughout the journey, this is anything but a regular experience, and any sense of decorum or professionalism had evaporated the moment we stepped aboard.
It’s little wonder Rihanna has avoided us the majority of the tour. She probably took one look at the vultures on day one and was like, « hard pass, absolutely not » then retreated to the safety of her first-class pod away from the hungry masses.
The final show of the tour, at NYC’s Webster Hall, is her best yet. Glitter cannons launch from the stage during the crescendo of iconic dance banger We Found Love closing out the tour in appropriate fanfare before we head to the afterparty at Jay Z’s 40/40 club.
As the Hov himself brushes past me, I’m hit with the realisation that despite the lack of up-close access to Rihanna, the intimate shows we’ve been privy to every night are such a rare treat. This is a stadium-filling super star, and we’ve been able to witness her perform amongst her peers in small capacity venues across the world, every single night.
« While exhausting, it was unforgettable, » reflects Christian. « There was nothing quite like this that had ever been done before, and it’s probably never going to happen again. »
Years later, those in the know refer to the 777 Tour as « The Fyre Festival of press junkets », with members of the on-board media urging Rihanna and her team to « Never do something like this again« , but ultimately none of the bad press mattered. Unapologetic became Rihanna’s first #1 album on the Billboard charts, her tour made consistent headlines, and she’s gone on to be an enduring figure in the global entertainment, fashion and beauty industries.
Rihanna has a reputation for being unattainable. An email with her manager Jay Brown confirms this when I get in touch, cautiously asking for any kind of comment on the tour 10 years later. « She hasn’t given any quotes for anything for a while now, » he succinctly reminds me. Touché.
Touring with her for that week was a similar experience. Her team are wonderful, she herself is charismatic and cool… what little we saw of her. She was consistently out of reach, talking to us from the plane loudspeaker, breezing through the cabin pouring champagne and cognac for a lucky few on day one, but always leaving us wanting more.
Thus, the tour became less about the pop star we were covering and more about the travelling circus surrounding her… the media, music industry and fans who became an invisible woman’s entourage for an unforgettable week in November 2012.
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