Ariana Grande sat with Telegraph and gave a great interview.
It’s hard to keep up – or, catch up – with Ariana Grande. Our interview was scheduled for one date in New York. Then it was rescheduled for a new date in Los Angeles. It was re-rescheduled back to New York on a third date. Then, once I was in New York, the interview was cancelled a couple of hours before the appointed hour. Sincere apologies followed – I even received a call from Grande’s manager, Scott ‘Scooter’ Braun (who piloted Justin Bieber’s ascent to stardom) – and we finally met three days later, in LA.
What goes on? One of the fastest-rising careers in music, that’s what. The 21-year-old singer from Florida is the brightest new international star of 2014. Grande was an adolescent musical-theatre stalwart who moved into children’s television before turning, in her late teens, to the business of applying her multi-octave ‘Baby Mariah’ vocal range to commercially sure-fire pop. The Swedish producer and songwriter Max Martin – responsible for every other song you have heard on Radio 1 in the past 20 years – has entrusted Grande with a few can’t-miss hits, while she has maintained an edge of credibility courtesy of interesting collaborators such as the cult Canadian R&B producer The Weeknd, the US hip-hop artist Big Sean, and the German electronica DJ Zedd (she has also worked with Harry Styles of One Direction).
One Martin co-contribution, Problem, topped the UK charts in July this year. By August, Grande’s work made up 30 per cent of the US Billboard top 10: Problem, its follow-up, Break Free, and Bang Bang, another UK number one by Jessie J on which Grande is a featured vocalist alongside Nicki Minaj. The only other female artist who has matched that triple feat is Adele.
Grande, then, is in considerable demand. Our final New York appointment was nixed after she had been up much of the previous night, first performing on the opening episode of the 40th season of Saturday Night Live, then singing at the gay nightclub BPM until after 3am. She subsequently lost her voice and developed a heavy cold. But it seems even her management don’t see her that often – and they are a short drive from her Beverly Hills home.
Before we start talking, Grande puts in a round of warm hellos to her team, and collects an award she has been given in absentia. It’s the Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrity 2014 honour from peta2, the youth wing of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She may have won MTV’s Best Pop Video ‘Moonman’ for Problem in the summer, but it’s a fair bet this golden pig-shaped statue will gain more prominent real estate on her mantelpiece: Grande is vegan. ‘I vacillate between being raw and not-raw vegan,’ she says. ‘Do I feel healthier? It’s the way to go, I have to say.’
So how come she has a cold?
‘Well, because I’ve been going non-stop for seven months,’ comes her playful (but with a hint of reproach) reply. ‘I haven’t slept in about seven months. So that’ll probably do it as well.’
Grande came off her prescribed bed rest to shoot a video for her next single, the gothic-R&B ballad Love Me Harder, and didn’t finish until six this morning. None the less her big brown eyes are alert (and heavily made up) and she is dressed in swishy casualwear: clumpy snow-white trainers; skin-tight, stone-washed jeans; vest with cardigan tied around her waist; bountiful hair extensions tied into her signature high ponytail.
Still, perhaps that fatigue is gnawing at her. When we start talking, Grande seems a little cool, her answers concise, her body language bolt upright. But soon, a charming, easygoing nature emerges, albeit hand-in-hand with naked ambition. You certainly wouldn’t trifle with Ariana Grande.
She speaks with the smooth, adjective-heavy confidence of many young stars. Indeed, she graduated from a similar tween finishing school to the Disney alumna Miley Cyrus – two Nickelodeon TV programmes, Victorious and Sam & Cat, ensured the inevitable pop career had a ready-made fan base. Unlike Miley, Grande courts no such wanton controversy. But they do have much in common, not least their age and their hypoglycaemia. Grande didn’t know that Cyrus also has the condition and says that her low blood-sugar levels have improved since she went vegan. Having interviewed Cyrus, I tell her that, in conversation, they share a similarly speedy speaking style and sparky manner.
‘I love her so much,’ Grande beams. ‘She’s a beautiful soul.’
Does she think Cyrus is transitioning well from her teen career to the adult world?
‘Absolutely. She’s so authentic, and so unapologetic,’ she says of Cyrus, who has been open about her love of marijuana and who recently stepped out during New York Fashion Week in little more than nipple pasties. ‘It’s great. She’s so happy. That’s something to be celebrated. People get mad at her for being herself. But she’s happy. And they,’ she adds pointedly, ‘are probably not.’
Grande’s own transition has not been without its bumps. Her Sam & Cat co-star Jennette McCurdy landed a few barely veiled petty shots at the ambitious Grande after the show’s cancellation this summer. Musically, the recording of her debut album, 2013’s Yours Truly, was a drawn-out process as she searched for her sound. She found her groove with this year’s My Everything, which gave her a second number-one album within 12 months (something not achieved in the US since Susan Boyle in 2010), but with this grown-up sound came issues about her new, matching style.
An example? ‘Well, I posed in a cute outfit with some kitty ears on and with my middle finger flipped up and posted it on my fan page,’ she says. (Unlike a lot of pop stars, Grande takes personal responsibility for her social media accounts.) ‘And my fans were like, “YES GIRL! OK!” A lot of my fans have grown up with me. But at the same time, a lot of people were like, “She’s changing! What’s happened to you?” I’m like, “It’s just a pic, y’all. I’m still the same old me. I’m just posing in a cute way!” A lot of people go ape over one photo.’ She shrugs. ‘But it’s just a photo. I’m still the same person I’ve been since I was four years old. Literally. Obviously, I’m a mature adult. But I’m still the same girl. I’m still Ariana from Boca who loves musical theatre, who loves her family, who loves the beach, who loves animals.’
Ariana Grande grew up in the upwardly mobile Floridian coastal town Boca Raton. ‘I adored and worshipped my brother, Frankie, as a little girl – everything he did was cool,’ she says. Her half-brother is a seasoned Broadway performer who recently appeared on the US version of Big Brother. ‘He’s 10 years older than me – he would kill me for saying that! But once Frankie got into acting in musical theatre and dancing, I was like, “OK, I guess that’s the cool thing now, so let’s investigate and watch old musicals.” My friends and I were huge musical-theatre geeks and we would go back and forth to New York whenever we had free weekends.’
Grande joined the local Little Palm Family Theatre. Aged eight, she landed the title role in a production of Annie. ‘I was so young, and my mom didn’t want to leave me at the rehearsals alone,’ she says. ‘But you weren’t allowed to have your parents there unless they were in the show. So my mom auditioned, which was the funniest thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world! Because my mom is a CEO, she has her own companies, her own full schedule.’ Joan Grande runs Hose-McCann Communications, a company established by Grande’s maternal grandfather. ‘They design and manufacture the Marines’ communication equipment – like, [for] the Army and the Navy,’ Grande says proudly.
Joan duly won a part in the show. ‘She was Daddy Warbucks’ maid,’ Grande says, laughing. ‘She had to wear a French maid’s outfit and use a broom. She was like, “I have no idea what I’m doing right now… but anything for my daughter.” ’
In retrospect, Grande can see that her enthusiasm for the stage was a response to family upheaval: her mother and father, Edward Butera, a successful graphic designer, broke up at about that time. Today, her mother lives close by in Beverly Hills but is committed to running her businesses. The management of her daughter’s career is left in the hands of Braun. ‘He’s like a stepdad,’ Grande says approvingly. Her father, meanwhile, is still in Florida. ‘I barely see him, but when I do it’s very pleasant. I love my dad.’
‘That was very hard as a young girl when my parents got divorced,’ she says, her natural volubility dipping only slightly. ‘Being in the middle of it was so stressful. And of course being made up of both of them – I was like, “Hey, if they both dislike each other’s attributes so much, what am I to like about me? I’m made from these two people and I’m caught in the middle of all this fighting.” It was traumatic. Between the ages of eight and 11, that was the roughest for me.’
Was musical theatre her refuge?
‘Oh absolutely! Like, “Take me away from home.” I remember saying, “Mommy, I never want this to end.” I loved playing a character as it was sort of just taking a vacation from myself.’
At the age of 14, she was living in New York with her mother and her brother, having scored a role in a Broadway children’s musical called 13. When she was 15, they moved to LA, where Grande won a role in the chirpy sitcom Victorious. But she concedes that she found ‘straight’ acting, and the celebrity that went with it, far from wholly fulfilling. ‘I was adjusting to these new things – red carpets, and people wanting pictures with me, and people taking pictures of me when I didn’t know they were being taken,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of weird superficial nonsense that sprouted from it that I definitely wasn’t used to. It was very weird. I just really liked performing.’ When she was 17, her wish came true: she signed a record deal.
The day of our meeting is October 1. Earlier, Grande tweeted to her 19.3 million followers (to put that number in context, Cyrus has only 18.6 million), ‘Happy first day of the best month of the year.’ Hallowe’en is around the corner, she explains. ‘I love all things dark and macabre and scary. That’s why I love this time of year so much.’
Her earliest passion was Jaws. When she was ‘two or three’ she had a birthday party themed on the film. Had she actually seen it? ‘Of course!’ she says, beaming. ‘Oh my God, that and Jurassic Park were my favourites. I loved it.’
Did she expect her pre-school friends to arrive at the party with, say, shark fins on their back?
‘No, I expected them to just come ready to watch the movie,
I guess. It was so funny – I ended up alone by the end of the party. All the parents were like [forced jollity], “We’re gonna go, but thank you so much…” ’
She insists that her mother wasn’t concerned by her infant daughter’s enthusiasms. ‘She was like, “Yeah, my kid is rad!” ’ In fact, Grande credits Joan with inspiring her dark tastes.
‘I’ve never seen her wear anything but black,’ she says. ‘She says it’s a part of who she is. A psychic she saw when she was younger told her that black was her colour. So she really decided to run with that one, I guess!’
Grande was raised a Catholic, but in adolescence began questioning her faith out of love and support for her brother, who is gay. ‘When my brother was told that God didn’t love him I was like, “OK, that’s not cool.” They were building a Kabbalah centre in Florida so we both checked it out and really had a connection with it.’
The Kabbalah movement – Madonna is its most high-profile adherent – ‘sort of stuck with me. And since then my life has unfolded in a really beautiful way, and I think that it has a lot to do with the tools I’ve learnt through Kabbalah, I really do.’
Asked to explain those tools she is hesitant, not to say bashful. But eventually she says that ‘you have to watch your intentions, make sure you’re not giving in to your ego. You have to numb your reactive state. You have the power to change your reality,’ she says, clapping her hands together. ‘You have to take a second and breathe and reassess how you want to approach or react to a situation or approach an obstacle, or deal with a negative person in your space. That takes a lot of self-control and practice and, I guess, willpower,’ she concludes with an embarrassed laugh.
Does her love of horror – and reported belief in demons – coexist with her spirituality?
‘Um, it does in my world,’ she says, smiling. ‘Do I believe in demons? I believe in unexplained energies.’
Those ‘tools’ have been tested recently. Grande is keen to fend off manipulation by an industry that does all it can to hypersexualise its young female talents. She is also aware of the responsibility that comes with her profile. ‘To me the idea of being a role model is just being yourself,’ she says. ‘And being unapologetically yourself, whatever that means. Whether that’s just me simply dressing sexier on some days and more conservatively on other days because that’s how I wake up feeling, I believe in authenticity.’
And should any record label executive or video director try to force her into a particular role?
‘I will never succumb to that,’ she shoots back. ‘And I think that’s because of my mother, and because of my family. I come from a strong, loud Italian family. We don’t take shit from anybody. But as somebody who’s also very sensitive and likes to please people, it’s conflicting for me,’ she admits. ‘Because a lot of the time I like to say, “OK! If you say so!” ’
This people-pleasing side goes against the recent tabloid narrative that enjoys painting Grande as a precocious ‘diva’. I certainly see no sign of it. Despite the (actually rather cool) love of ‘all things sci-fi and scary’, she appears too straight to wobble.
‘Spiritual enlightenment and self-protection are more effective than drugs and alcohol, I feel,’ Grande states, almost as if by rote. She also concedes that her ‘minuscule’ frame means ‘I can’t have much alcohol without becoming very, very silly’.
And she certainly seems determined to value her fans. After that wee-hours New York gay-bar gig, she returned home to her apartment to find ‘30 kids outside’. Rather than be freaked out, ‘I took them all down into my garage and we took pics and had fun. They’re really great.’
But she is aware of the reports of demanding behaviour. ‘It’s funny how a certain amount of success comes with a certain amount of weird, inaccurate depictions of you,’ she says. ‘But I feel like it will die down because it’s not something that I pay into. And also things can only last so long when there’s little truth to them. So that’s why I don’t trip over it.’
‘It’s weird to me,’ she continues, ‘because I do see myself as a fairly positive, very friendly person. So it’s kind of odd. I also think a lot of people don’t know what the word “diva” means. If you want to call me a diva I’ll say, “Um, well, cool.” Barbra Streisand is a diva; that’s amazing. Celine Dion is a diva; thank you. But if you want to call me a bitch, that’s not accurate. Because it’s just not in my nature.’
So Ariana Grande, buoyed by success, family, faith and fans, is focusing on the positives. Those include her first run of international concerts, the Honeymoon Tour, which starts in February. And they include her personal life. Is it true that she is dating Sean Anderson, aka Big Sean, the uncredited whisperer on Problem and duet partner on the current album track Best Mistake?
There is the briefest pause – neither party has publicly confirmed their relationship – before she replies, ‘Yes. He is one of the most amazing men in the whole world, and that includes my grandfather and my brother. I think the world of him, and he’s an amazing person. That’s kind of all there is to it.’ Then her face flushes and she flings herself down on the couch, burying her face in a cushion. It’s a lovely, and real, reaction. The pop cultural phenomenon Ariana Grande is, still, just a girl.
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