From child star to music star is a story we’ve been hearing a lot about of late: here’s a star whose controversy is that she’s just fine with being an old-timey princess.
Words / Rob Copsey
Photography / Florian Renner
Illustration / Hattie Stewart
Styling / Brigitte Pilla
Make-up / Michael Johnston
Hair / Dalina Rebollo
Sat cross-legged on an armless antique chair in a central London hotel, Ariana Grande is ravenous. Now 7pm, she’s been up since six in the morning for the first of four jam-packed days of UK television, radio and press interviews to simultaneously promote her new kids TV series and album. Wearing a pretty black dress and an alarmingly cute doe-eyed expression on her face, one of her 20-strong entourage that sit in for the interview – including mum, best friend and new boyfriend Nathan Sykes from The Wanted – approaches with an assortment of energy snacks. She opts for a flax bar and three vitamin pills. Ariana ain’t going anywhere yet.
The transition from beloved child actress to pop megastar is one rife with potential for disaster. At the moment, Ariana is slap bang between the two. Currently in the middle of a 40 episode run of her Nickelodeon series ‘Sam & Cat’, any behaviour deemed too risqué could find her falling out of favour with the tabloids. Be too sickly sweet and there’s danger of losing interest from the masses that sent her debut LP ‘Yours Truly’ to number one on iTunes in 30 countries. “I was so surprised that people took me seriously as an artist right off the bat,” says the 20-year-old Italian-American. “Especially as I was on a kids show for so long. To be honest, I thought it wouldn’t happen for me. I’m so grateful and I’m proud of the music we created. I can’t wait to step it up.”
She may be slow out the gate with a music career compared to her child star affiliates, but Ariana explains that she decided to take her time finding her niche after initially being faced with an album she didn’t want to release. “It was all very bubblegummy,” she admits of her early recording sessions. “It was mainly doo-wop driven and very princess-type music. It felt too young, too electronic, too current, too mainstream… everything I didn’t want to be.” Spending a total of three years on the project, the ‘50s pastiche has mostly been wiped in favour of a throwback R&B style that’s been compared to Mariah Carey circa ‘02 and early Whitney Houston – both musically and vocally.
Unsurprisingly, she embraces the likeness wholeheartedly – even putting up covers online of some of their notable classics to rapturous praise – but she’s quick to dismiss any talk of wanting to emulate their success. “I just want to succeed in my own way,” she explains. “I’m not trying to beat any records or achieve success on somebody else’s level because those women are icons. Of course I want the music to be successful – music is my life – but I’m not trying to have anyone else’s career. I’m trying to create something that’s unique to me and I want to do it in my own way.”
Reminiscing on when she first realised that she had an impressive set of pipes, Ariana recalls: “I grew up in a very musical household where I thought it was normal to sing all the time. One day my mum heard me and she was like, ‘Can you do that again?’, so I did. She said, ‘Oh, I think we’ve got a problem here – this one’s looking for trouble!’” Noting that her mum wasn’t especially keen on the idea of her pursuing a music career “because of all the craziness that comes with it,” she insists: “She wanted me to be a happy, healthy, normal kid. Of course, she’ll support me in whatever I want to do, but her saying, ‘You don’t have to do this’ and not being that typical stage mum helped me realise early on how much I really want to do this myself.”
It’s hard to believe that Ariana is the same age Miley Cyrus; a popstar with a similar backstory who so desperately wanted to shed her Disney image she reinvented herself as a tirelessly twerking, sledgehammer-licking, foam-finger-chewing rebel. By comparison, Ariana’s behaviour appears more innocent and child-like on the surface, but on closer inspection it quickly becomes apparent that she’s an old soul at heart. “I can’t sing about: ‘Walk into the club, you’ve got a cool butt, swag, turn it up’ – not in a million years,” she vents, sighing with frustration. “I don’t relate to it – I wish I was cool enough to pull it off! The sad thing is there are tons of girls out there – my friends included – who force themselves to be that sort of person. It’s not what’s cool if you’re not happy.”
Curiously, it was Ke$ha – a popstar who career relies on her image as a boozy, glitter-spewing party animal – to whom she recently turned to for advice. “She said, ‘It’s cool that you’re like this, you need to embrace it. It’s cool that you don’t club or party. You’re a princess and that’s ok.’” Her wandering gaze snaps back into focus. “I’m not a child, I’m just not a party girl. She said you need to embrace who you are, and I’m a hopeless romantic who feels very uncomfortable in this day and age. I don’t think I’m meant to be living in this time, but I’m glad I’m here.” The idea of these two people even crossing paths, let alone becoming friends, seems too bizarre to be merely a coincidence. “I have no idea how it happened,” She admits. “Opposites attract I guess. I was writing songs with her and her mum just the other day. They’re both amazing, zany, eccentric and beautiful women. They’re like an extension of my family now.”
Asked if she thinks – or fears – that her years in the business will eventually lead to her own Miley Moment, she adamantly claims that she’s “felt the same way inside since I was five. I don’t see myself changing like that. I’m growing up, for sure, but I don’t feel the impulse to do anything shocking to tell the world that I’m growing up – I’m just going to let the music do the talking.” Not wanting to be misunderstood, she continues: “I think Miley is amazing though. She looks happier than ever, prettier than ever and she’s doing better than ever. Her music is kicking ass. She’s doing all the right things for her, and I’m doing all the right things for me.”
As Nathan interrupts us to see if he can fetch Ariana a coffee, the conversation turns to her love life. She politely declines his offer, but her prolonged gaze over him afterwards makes everyone else in the room feel awkward. To break the tension, I ask if her budding romance has inspired her next album, which she has already begun working on. “I’m always going to be as honest I want to be,” she says, looking painfully smitten. “Music is the greatest form of self-expression. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and I’m learning a lot of lessons from this relationship. I think that’s beautiful and it’s something that should be expressed. You best believe I’m going to be writing about him!”
She’s currently defending accusations that there was an overlap period between Nathan and her Aussie YouTube prankster ex Jai Brooks; something she out-rightly denies. But it’s a minor blip given the majority of fans on both sides welcomed news of their relationship. “They want us to be happy. And if they don’t, then they’re supporting us for the wrong reasons,” she says, pulling a faux frustrated expression. “If it was a singer that I liked and they were in a happy relationship, I’d be like, ‘hell yeah!’ And if they got engaged? I’d be crying on the floor. Sobbing happy tears, of course.”
When the subject of her years on Nickelodeon arises, where she played Cat Valentine on ‘Victorious’ and now on its spinoff series ‘Sam & Cat’, Ariana offers little more than the PR-fed lines (“It was an amazing experience because I grew up watching Nickelodeon, getting to work there was such a blessing”). The reason for her glazing over is probably down to her not-so-surprising revelation that she wants to give up acting so she can give her full attention to music. “There are three things I’d like to do if I continue acting,” she says. “A musical movie, to do Broadway again and a scary movie. Other than that, I don’t really want to be an actress anymore.”
With a Christmas EP and album number two already in the works, I ask her if she plans to stick to same winning formula as ‘Yours Truly’. “It’s still going to be heavily R&B driven,” she insists, her eyes searching for exactly the right words. “I still want it to be poppy as well, but I don’t want it to sound like an extension of ‘Yours Truly’. It’s not going to be the reject songs that didn’t make the first album. We’ve started fresh. I’ve been talking to writers about recent events in my life and I’m really excited about it because I want my sound to capture how I feel.” Barely two months have passed since the record was released, but she’s keen to plough on because she is “now learning more each day that I used to in a month. My life is on crazy fast-forward right now and I’ve got to hold on otherwise I’m going to miss my chance.” And the person she wants to collaborate with more than anyone else on it? “I’d really love want to record a song with Imogen Heap.”
Thrown by her response, I’m prompted by one of her crew to wind up the interview. I revisit her desire to act in a horror film, to which she reveals she considers herself a scary movie buff. This sets her off on a ramble. “‘The Ring’ is the ultimate horror movie for me, probably because it came out when I was a kid. Have you seen they’ve remade ‘Carrie’? I’m very unsettled about that. The original was such a classic and this one looks somewhat modern, which bothers me.” I ask her what role she’d like to play in such a film. “I want to be the girl who dies first,” she says with a glint in her eye. “You know, the girl who says, ‘I dare you… you wouldn’t! And then gets it in the neck.” She may have yet to completely rid herself of her cutesy child star roots, but with that kind of wicked streak, it shouldn’t take her long.