On July 10th, it was announced that Ariana Grande would be the cover star of the August issue of Elle magazine! A video of her playing the game of Song Association was uploaded to their YouTube channel on July 12th.
Check out the whole interview below!
Ariana Grande is a star. A really big star. For millions of Arianators, as her fans are known, she’s a radiant, life-giving force they wake up with in the morning and go to bed with at night. They’ve followed the phases of her career as she’s risen from Broadway (the musical 13) to TV (Nickelodeon’s Victorious and Sam & Cat) to the apex of pop stardom and commercial success (eight multiplatinum singles, 9 billion music video streams on YouTube). They’ve contributed to the $100 million-plus that her tours have made, casting the likes of Drake and Sting in Ariana’s petite but long, five-foot shadow. They are among Ariana’s 121 million Instagram followers, making her the third-most-followed person, above both Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé. And when her latest album, Sweetener, drops August 17, Arianators will have helped its lead single, “No Tears Left to Cry,” break records set by none other than Ariana herself.
Calling to them is Ariana’s honeyed, four-octave voice. But they’re also drawn to her sparkle: The poofy lampshade and figure skater–style dresses. The cat, bunny, and Minnie Mouse ears she wears often and without ceremony. On Twitter, she speaks to her fans in fluent internet, playing fast and loose with a “see no evil” monkey emoji and crafting full sentences in acronyms only. In a few short weeks, she went from casually dating Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson to engaged, their relationship born, in part, out of Harry Potter fandom (him: Gryffindor, her: Slytherin). On Instagram, they flirt guilelessly, as if no one were watching (everyone is watching). And then, of course, there’s her signature Vegas-fountain ponytail, the orientation, height, and shade of which Arianators track like an ancient civilization charting the moon. To the casual observer, the singer’s idiosyncrasies might seem juvenile, absurd even, but there’s a subversiveness to Ariana’s child’s play. Her bright and shiny optics belie a far more nuanced character. She’s been in therapy for more than 10 years, since around the time her parents divorced, and thus traffics in self-awareness. “It’s work,” she tells me, sitting on the couch in her hotel suite overlooking Central Park. “I’m a 25-year-old woman. But I’ve also spent the past handful of years growing up under very extraordinary circumstances. And I know how that story goes.…” Cut to former child star in a mug shot. And scene.
She’s been watching a lot of Planet Earth lately. “Have you seen those fish with the transparent heads? Those are aliens! That’s where they are! They’re here.” She takes me on a “really big trip” marveling at outer space. But within her intergalactic musings is the search for perspective: “The planets, the stars, there’s nothing more humbling than that shit. We get so stressed about little things when, in the big picture, we’re just a speck of dust on this tiny planet in this enormous solar system that is also a speck in a huge, mysterious black hole situation, and we don’t even know what it is!” She takes a breath. “Thinking about how small we are, it’s crazy. We are nothing.”
Not that Ariana is a nihilist. She speaks of the strength of community in this “tough, wild, chaotic time right now” and considers just how divided the nation is. Her call to action: “Everyone has to have uncomfortable conversations with their relatives. Instead of unfriending people on Facebook who share different political views, comment! Have a conversation! Try to spread the fucking light.” She’s become something of a feminist hero for her ability to shut down sexism and misogyny with a single tweet. The most recent of which, at press time, regards her ex, rapper Mac Miller, who allegedly drove drunk and crashed his car shortly after their breakup. A Twitter user suggested it was Ariana’s fault. “How absurd that you minimize female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship,” she wrote. “Shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem…please stop doing that.” The user apologized. She accepted.
I meet Ariana on a sunny May afternoon. Her hair is styled in what I’ll call a three-way—two platinum-blond ponytails pulled high atop either side of her head, a third section of extensions cascading down her back. I ask if she is, in fact, communicating to her fans through her hair. “I’ve never thought about it that way,” she says, giving one pigtail a twirl. “But maybe there is a telepathic connection there.” For what it’s worth, her favorite pony is “the high, sleek, dark one. But she takes many forms. Many forms. There are lots of different girls in this sisterhood.” Including totally ponyless wigs, like the one she wore for her ELLE shoot. (Slow claps to her hairstylist, Josh Liu, for swishing and tossing strands by the handful, just out of frame, for hours.)
Last night, Ariana attended her first Met Gala in a Vera Wang gown that sent fans into a tizzy. The “puff puff dream,” as she calls it, featured the entirety of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, from the Sistine Chapel, and was “a foreshadow, a hint,” of her upcoming video for “God Is a Woman.” The second single is her 92-year-old grandma Nonna’s favorite song from the new album. By name alone, I peg the track to be a feel-good Women’s-March–y anthem, something along the lines of Katy Perry’s “Roar” set to an R&B beat. I hear it a few weeks later. Hoo boy, was I wrong. Let’s just say it’s more about taking agency in the bedroom than at the office. Nonna, you’re so naughty!
A sly, mischievous streak runs through Ariana’s maternal bloodline. “It’s the Italian thing; we have the dark humor,” she says. Nonna enjoys Cards Against Humanity (sample card: “Chunks of dead prostitute”). And for Ariana’s fourth birthday, her mother, Joan, threw her daughter a Jaws-themed party. “Most of the kids were running, screaming, because I had Jaws playing on a huge screen,” Joan recalls. “The parents were like, ‘Are you crazy? Our kids don’t watch that!’ But it was [Ariana’s] favorite movie.” Joan is a soft-spoken firebrand. The Brooklyn-born, Barnard-educated 61-year-old was “goth before goth was goth,” she says, and name-checks Poe and Hawthorne as favored college companions. At home in Boca Raton, Florida, she made the macabre fun for Ariana and her older half brother, Frankie. Halloween was as big of a deal as Christmas. “I did the house up in things that would give normal children nightmares,” she says. “I would go to the butcher, get heart organs or lungs, and then be like, ‘Ariana, Frankie, this is a heart.’ The kids would paint blood on the walls. I remember Ariana’s little handprints.”
The family went to Disney World pretty regularly, where Ariana was drawn to baddies like Cruella de Vil and Maleficent. “If we had a choice of going to the Disney princess store or the villain store, it was always the villains,” Joan says. It’s worth noting that the biggest fights between mother and daughter “had to do with boys.”
At eight months pregnant with Ariana, Joan moved from New Jersey to Florida to open a marine communications equipment manufacturing company, which she still owns and operates. On the phone from her office, she explains that she and her older sister, Judy, always questioned the status quo. Ariana calls them “through-and-through feminist queens.” Judy was friendly with Gloria Steinem and was the first female Italian American president of the National Press Club. When Joan built her company, she did so with working mothers in mind: “I built this building with a day-care area. I actually had it certified. Employees brought their children, and Ariana was here almost every day.” I ask if she’s ever been tempted to quit her job, in light of her daughter’s astronomic success. Stupid question. “We’re very close,” she says of their relationship. “But I don’t live my life through her life. I have an amazing career. I work because it fulfills me as a person. Because I’m Joan, not Ariana, not Frankie. I would never want to lose Joan somewhere along the way.”
There’s a bouquet of white roses on the coffee table in Ariana’s hotel. The note: “To my darling Ariana: You are the true work of art! Love you dearly, Mommy.” It’s been almost a year since they fled a UK terrorist attack that claimed 22 lives, injuring 500 more, at the sold-out Manchester show of Ariana’s Dangerous Woman tour. Ariana is hesitant to talk about it. For one thing, the wound is still incredibly raw, but she’s also adamant that her story not overshadow those of the victims. So we talk around it. “When I got home from tour, I had really wild dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe,” she begins. “I would be in a good mood, fine and happy, and they would hit me out of nowhere. I’ve always had anxiety, but it had never been physical before. There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down.” She shared the experience with her friend Pharrell Williams. Together they created “Get Well Soon,” the final track on Sweetener.
“It’s all the voices in my head talking to one another,” she explains, before softly serenading me. “‘They say my system is overloaded,’” she sings, “and then the background vocals say, ‘Girl, what’s wrong with you? Come back down.’” The studio version is a veritable mille-feuille of vocal arrangement, stacking layers upon layers of Ariana’s voice until she lands, wholly, right-side-up.
Joan was in the audience the night tragedy struck and recounts the chaos. “I was like a fish swimming in the wrong direction. Everyone was leaving, and I was going toward the stage. The bomb went off, and I’m looking at these young adults with fear in their eyes. People were jumping from the upper seats to get out. I just started grabbing people. I could have been steering them.…” Her voice trails of, the what-ifs too painful to imagine. “I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I was going to my daughter. Not to be overly dramatic—I struggle with this every day—but I didn’t know what I would find when I got to her. I sympathize with every parent who was waiting for a child. Those minutes when you don’t know what’s happening…there are no words.”
They immediately caught a flight back to Boca, where the future felt incredibly uncertain. Ariana cried endlessly and barely spoke for two days. It was unclear if she would ever want to perform again. Then Joan got a knock on her door. “It was two or three in the morning; she crawled into bed and said, ‘Mom, let’s be honest, I’m never not going to sing again. But I’m not going to sing again until I sing in Manchester first.’” They called her manager, Scooter Braun, and the One Love Manchester concert was born, helping raise $23 million for the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund. Of how the event has changed Ariana, Joan says, “She loves a bit more fearlessly than she did before.” I gently broach the subject with Ariana, and the name Manchester alone triggers a huge teardrop to roll down her cheek. “You hear about these things,” she starts slowly. “You see it on the news, you tweet the hashtag. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again. It makes you sad, you think about it for a little, and then people move on. But experiencing something like that firsthand, you think of everything differently.…” She pauses, swallowing the lump in her throat. “Everything is different.” Getting back onstage was “terrifying.” It still is sometimes. She credits her fans as being her primary source of courage. “It’s the most inspiring thing in the world that these kids pack the venue.
They’re smiling, holding signs saying, ‘Hate will never win.’” The tears are full-on now. “Why would I second-guess getting on a fucking stage and being there for them? That city, and their response? That changed my life.” She’d go on to complete the rest of her world tour, capping it off with a performance at A Concert for Charlottesville, another city reeling in the aftermath of senseless violence. A lot of mainstream top 40 types—those who, say, have a certain Reputation—are seemingly reluctant to take a political stance. The fear being, presumably, a loss of fan base and revenue. “That’s wild to me,” Ariana says. She is loud and proud in her anti-Trumpism and has aligned herself with gun reform and Black Lives Matter. I wonder if she’s gotten any backlash. “Of course!” she says. “There’s a lot of noise when you say anything about anything. But if I’m not going to say it, what’s the fucking point of being here? Not everyone is going to agree with you, but that doesn’t mean I’m just going to shut up and sing my songs. I’m also going to be a human being who cares about other human beings; to be an ally and use my privilege to help educate people.” For her, the role of the artist is to “not only help people and comfort them, but also push people to think differently, raise questions, and push their boundaries mentally.”
There’s another song on Sweetener that I misjudge based on the title alone. I assume “The Light Is Coming” will be a sweet balm of a ballad in response to the darkest of days. Nope. It’s a bass-thumping dance track featuring Ariana’s friend, collaborator, and “big sis,” Nicki Minaj. (“That’s a ride-or-die situation. She is the best there is, male or female,” Ariana says.) “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole,” Ariana trills. But then, what is light without the dark? I think of Joan’s campy Halloween house, the Jaws party, those villains—and the bright star who draws her energy from them all.
Before I go, Ariana shows me her Met Gala manicure. It’s also The Last Judgement, this time decaled across her fingers, each nail gilded with a tiny 3-D gold frame. The detail is mind-blowing, and yet it’s a small tattoo of the female symbol that catches my eye. It’s on her middle finger. “Yeah, it comes in handy,” she says.