She's been a high-profile victim of domestic abuse (at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown), she's turned heads with her skimpy outfits (not least the revealing get-up she displayed on last year's UK X Factor performance) and she has - most importantly - garnered millions of fans with her slick R&B tracks, after rising to fame in 2005 with her debut album, Music of the Sun. Last week, however, Rihanna was turning heads for a very novel reason. She was, somewhat unusually, wearing a rather demure tartan dress, with a puffball skirt and metal-tipped collar. She made the headlines last year by wearing next to nothing; she made them again this year with a coy cover-up.

At first glance, the Barbadian popstress seemed to be responding politely to the furore that she caused last year, when she performed on the live family TV show, wearing a skimpy outfit that left very little to the imagination and had X Factor viewers reaching for their mobile phones - not to vote, this time, but to complain that her performance was unsuitable for prime-time television.

The offending outfit consisted mainly of a strapless bikini-style top and high-waisted, high-legged shorts that could have passed for a pair of knickers, if it weren't for the multi-coloured fringe that obscured it. Replete with nude-coloured fishnet tights and lace-up heels, the huge hoops in her ears seemed to take up more space than anything else attached to her for that performance. The audience at home looked on, in equal parts aghast at her audacity, impressed by her bravery and astounded that she managed not to kick-start a Mexican wave of heart-attacks with a wardrobe malfunction.

On closer inspection of her 2011 X Factor outfit though, Rihanna was clearly still toying with the British public and subverting what appeared, on the surface, to be a tame schoolgirl image. Her brothel-creeper style shoes were emblazoned with the words "f*ck off", her tights deliberately laddered and, during her performance she was sure to reveal that underneath that appropriately-lengthed tartan, was a pair of stockings and suspenders. From a distance, she seemed to be pandering to the criticisms of last year's appearance. The detail, however, told a different story. Rihanna has never been one to shy away from confronting the issue of her sexuality and the UK tabloids were quick to brand her new image 'the naughty schoolgirl look'. She knows full well she'll be damned if she does and damned if she doesn't, so she may as well play along.

One thing the tabloids weren't talking about, though, was Rihanna's performance of her collaboration with Calvin Harris, 'We Found Love'. With several mainstream publications expressing a sense of ambivalence at her latest album, Talk That Talk, many people are wondering if she is relying on shock tactics to keep herself in the charts, where once her talent did the talking for her. Notably, she has recently buoyed her career by collaborating with Coldplay (on the track 'Princess of China') and Nicki Minaj (on 'Fly'), yet hasn't released a track of her own that has stood up to the quality of her breakthrough tune 'Pon De Replay' or the international smash hit 'Umbrella'.

Few music critics could argue with Rihanna's obvious talent. She is vocally versatile, possessing of a sharp personality and an impressive dancer. But without the material to keep her public interested, it may be that her star is on the wane. She may have changed her image and hair styles several times over, to stay one ahead of current trends in popular culture but without the material and the airplay, will she keep getting the column inches dedicated to her? Or perhaps the tabloids need to start acknowledging the quality of her performance, rather than dwelling on the features of her outfit that probably would have gone unnoticed, had they not been blown up and pixelated in the red tops the next day.

In essence, the tattoo on Rihanna's neck ("rebelle fleur" - French for 'rebellious flower') says it all. She is, in many ways, an adorable and admirable star. She has overcome the distress, drama and physical injury of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Chris Brown. She has wowed international audiences with songs like 'What's my Name' and her duet with Eminem, 'Love the Way You Lie'. But she always keeps the public at arm's length with her provocative antics and overt sexuality. She's drawn criticism recently over her decision to include scenes in her latest video which show her partner Dudley O'Shaughnessy scrawling the word 'mine' on her backside. The Rape Crisis Centre Charity branded the young singer a disgrace for glamorising the possessive and abusive behaviour that threatens so many women. With tracks like 'Rude Boy', she has always hinted at her naughty side; hammering the point home by appearing on mainstream TV shows in skimpy outfits, though, is one step too far for some her UK fans.

It remains to be seen whether or not the rebellious flower will continue to carve a career based on her talent or her ability to court the press with her outlandish behaviour.

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