When Rihanna dropped her very NSFM video for Bitch Better Have My Money on Thursday, internet detectives immediately went to task sleuthing the identity of her unnamed Desi henchwoman. Who was she, the enigmatic brown girl who helped Rihanna knock model Rachel Roberts unconscious with a single swing of her wine bottle? One name kept reappearing in the breathless tweets and comments, a single first-name moniker, like Rihanna herself: Sanam.
Sanam is a 25-year-old Seattle resident who, prior to BBHMM, has never had any experience acting, in music videos or otherwise. Three months ago, she received an Instagram message notifying her that @badgirlriri had begun following her account. Days later, the pop queen sent her a mysterious Instagram message inviting her to collaborate on an unspecified project. Turns out, Rihanna had been wowed by a selfie Sanam posted, and wanted to cast her in the video for her new single.
Now Sanam's on a first-syllable basis with "Rih" and racking up major internet fame. People are enamored with the mean-mugging accomplice who helped Rihanna seek revenge on her swindling accountant. VICE spoke with Sanam about being on set with a real world goddess, her quick rise as a brown girl Cinderella, and how she learned to love the internet.
VICE: How have you been since the video premiered?
Sanam: I've been going to my job like a regular person. I work at a plant store in this really shishi white neighborhood and most of the people who shop there don't know what's going on. The day after the video came out, I just went to work and everything was so normal there, but my phone was blowing the fuck up all day. My co-workers knew what was going on, but none of the customers who came in recognized me. Some girl on Tumblr sent me a message, and was like, "Hey, you rang me up there once, and I just saw you in the Rihanna video. That's so crazy!"
It's overwhelming, because I'm hella normal. I work at a plant store.
You posted an Instagram snapshot of Rihanna following your account a few months ago. What happened between Rihanna following you on Instagram three months ago, to Rihanna casting you as her co-star in her new video?
When I refreshed my notifications, she had unfollowed me, so I was sad about it. Then two weeks later, she followed me again. The next morning, I went to work, and I got a DM from her on Instagram. She was like, "Hey, I have this idea I want to run by you. I think you're so fucking rare. Let me know if you're interested." I had no idea what she was talking about. I was just freaking out, because Rihanna is messaging me on Instagram, telling me that she thinks I'm cool.
Then I got another message from someone who works for the production company that made the video, and they were like, "We want to put you in Rihanna's video! Send us an email or give us a call." At first, I was just like, This can't be real. This is really weird. I don't know about this. But I ended up getting in touch with the guy who messaged me and it was all legit. I spent my entire day at work going back and forth talking to them. At the end of the day, they were like, "We just got the confirmation from Rih: We want to cast you, and we want to fly you out tomorrow." And I flew down there the next day.
She followed me on Instagram on a Wednesday night, and then I was in LA on Friday morning. It was crazy.
It's already a pretty iconic video. How did they describe the concept to you?
For the first few days, I had a general idea of what was going to happen. We're going to be kidnapping this person and you guys are going to be her henchmen and you just have to be really tough. I think the term they used was "bad bitch." When they told me more about the video, I was like, Holy shit. Knowing Rih, I knew this shit was going to be super controversial.
What was she like in person?
She's so sweet. She was showering us with compliments. She is so fucking real and down-to-earth, which is the corniest thing to say about a famous person, but she really is.
When we were down there, the first day I met her, I was like, "How did you find me?" She was like, "I saw you on my Explore page." She saw that picture of me where I was wearing my nath and my tika. She was like, "I just thought you were so cool, and I was like, I don't know if I should message her or not. I don't know if she's going to be down." I'm just sitting there, like, "Are you crazy? How could you be nervous to message me?"
How was it like on the set? It looks like it was a blast to shoot.
I got the flu the day before I left to go there. So I was super sick the entire time, and the first three days I lost my voice. I was just like, I'm on the verge of death right now, but this is the best week of my life.
I remember we went into her trailer so she could give us a "yes" or "no" on what we were wearing, and she was like, "Do you need anything? Do you want me to get some medicine or something?"
You're like a modern-day brown girl Cinderella. You'd made legions of brown girls jealous.
Yeah, it's really true. You don't see a whole lot of Desi girls doing stuff like this.
Besides working at a plant store, you're also an artist. What kind of art do you make?
I've been painting and drawing since I was younger. Getting older, and especially [since] becoming more aware of social justice issues, I like to make art that speaks on that, but in a really funny, cheeky way. I haven't worked on anything in a long time. I had an art show in Baltimore in February.
It's hard to make art when you're a woman, but especially a woman of color, just because it's not respected in the same way as a white male artist's work. It's really hard to feel empowered sometimes. Being in the video, I feel like that's given me a little bit more of a platform to talk about that kind of stuff.
You met Rihanna on the internet, on Instagram. But you also have this community, and following, that you've built online before, with your art and persona.
I posted one selfie [on Tumblr] that really blew up. I've been on the internet for a really long time. So I really had some kind of a following, but not on this scale. I have a love-hate relationship with the internet, like every other person my age. It can be so fucking toxic and shitty sometimes, but...
But only on the internet can Rihanna cast you in her music video from an Instagram photo.
Exactly. I'm not complaining.