Cover Story

Billboard Cover: Ariana Grande on Defending Female Pop Stars and Staying Away From Drama

Ariana Grande
Joe Pugliese

Grande photographed April 22 at the Paramour Estate in Los Angeles. Styling by Law Roach. Grande wears Chanel sunglasses, an H. Stern necklace, Tacori rings and Harry Kotlar earrings.

in 2016, Ariana Grande has confronted her critics (lampooning Doughnutgate on 'SNL') and asserted her feminism (quoting Steinem, calling out sexists) as she grapples with pop stardom: 'People are unafraid to hurt you'

While it boasts five bedrooms, marble floors and a huge window overlooking beautiful Benedict Canyon, the Beverly Hills home Ariana Grande moved into last summer lacks any kind of decor -- unless you count the picture frames leaning against a nearby wall, their corners still wrapped in cardboard. On this Monday afternoon in April, Grande sits in a plush white chair at the head of her sprawling dining room table. She’s wearing a plain black top, black stretchy pants and unmarked black sneakers, and her hair hangs over her chest in two loosely braided ropes. A MacBook, iPhone, bottle of water and Starbucks iced coffee sit before her. It’s as if a Hollywood pitch meeting is about to break out -- an impression that’s reinforced when she offers a one-sentence summary of Dangerous Woman, her third album, throatily enunciating each syllable: “A 22-year-old girl comes into her own trying to balance growing up, love and a lot of other bullshit along the way.”


See Ariana Grande's Towel-Clad Cover Shoot

But in Ariana Grande’s world, things are always a bit more complex -- odder? -- than they first seem. After delivering this little coming-of-age log line, for example, she points her big eyes up at the ceiling in search of a kicker and comes out with this: “And she has a black latex Super Bunny within!” (More on that in a moment.) Once Grande -- a former Nickelodeon star and gifted comic actress who expertly impersonates other pop stars on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon -- warms up, the barely furnished house begins to feel less like a conference center and more like an acting studio. During our talk she dramatically bats her lashes and flashes an exaggerated grin, all with self-aware elan. She also does a perfectly mealy-mouthed impression of rapper Future and breaks into “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne. But the best is her Jurassic Park velociraptor: She curls her fingers into claws, hunches and does a Wookiee-like growl: “Hrrrrlll!”

Joe Pugliese
Ariana Grande photographed on April 22 at the Paramour Estate in Los Angeles.

It’s all very charming -- Celine Dion told Grande she “peed” watching her re-create her signature chest pound for Fallon -- but Grande’s skill for mimicry doesn’t make it any easier to suss out her true self. Is she an entertainer in the old-school mode, forged in the fire of TV, Broadway and pop-music child stardom? A diva tucking her insecurities behind a lot of razzle-dazzle? Someone who might actually slip into a black-latex bunny costume?

As a matter of fact, Grande appears on the cover of Dangerous Woman in shiny black headgear with long ears. It looks like it was designed for American Horror Story by the cartoonists at Warner Bros. The Super Bunny “is my superhero, or supervillain -- whatever I’m feeling on the day,” says Grande. “Whenever I doubt myself or question choices I know in my gut are right -- because other people are telling me other things -- I’m like, ‘What would that bad bitch Super Bunny do?’ She helps me call the shots.”

Courtesy Photo
The Dangerous Woman album cover.

Whether owing to her gut, her team or her alter-egos, it has been a grand career for Grande so far. With her March hit “Dangerous Woman” -- a sultry R&B track with a self-empowerment message and an arena-annihilating hook -- Grande became the first artist in Billboard Hot 100 history to have the lead single of each of her first three albums debut in the top 10. She has sold 1.3 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music; grossed $41.8 million on 2015’s Honeymoon Tour, according to Billboard Boxscore; claims 4 billion YouTube views; clocks in at fourth among all humans on Instagram (with 71.4 million followers) and 18th on Twitter (38.8 million); and will kick off her album release with a performance at the Billboard Music Awards on May 22. And, she says, “I feel like I’m still just getting started -- a lot of people forget I’m only three years in.”

Andrew Lipovsky/NBC
On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in April.

Grande’s challenge is with her quote unquote brand. Like all female pop stars entering adulthood these days, she’s under pressure to not only prove herself grown and sexy, but that she’s somehow lifting up herself and other women as she does it. And in her bid to be taken seriously, she has more to overcome than many of her peers. The world first met her as Cat Valentine, the adorably dopey character at the heart of two Nickelodeon teen sitcoms (the second, Sam & Cat, ended in 2014), and she hasn’t quite shaken off that childlike sheen. Her tiny stature (she’s just 5 feet tall), love of Harry Potter (she describes Super Bunny as “my patronus”) and all the animal-themed, Lolita-meets-S&M gear don’t exactly help. Neither did getting caught on a bakery security camera in 2015 licking pastries that weren’t hers while declaring, “I hate America.”

But Grande’s got a not-so-secret weapon in all this: showstopping talent. “She’s a pure singer,” says Macy Gray, 48, who appears on Dangerous Woman’s most soulful cut, “Leave Me Lonely.” “It’s similar to what Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera have -- that power thing. But I didn’t realize that. She does all these pop records where you can get a song across without showing your chops.”

Watch All of Ariana Grande's Celebrity Impressions

And Grande’s talent is not merely as a singer. Her turn as SNL host in March garnered rave reviews. Steven Spielberg was so impressed he texted Lorne Michaels to say so. (“I can’t tell you how surreal and insane that is for me,” gushes Grande. “My second birthday party was Jaws-themed. My brain almost combusted when I heard it from Lorne.”) Her skits were great, but the real win was the monologue, in which Grande spun Doughnutgate into a showcase for her artistry and self-awareness, singing about her need for a proper adult scandal (“Miley’s had them, Bieber’s had them”) to take her career to the next level. “I was just so happy to be able to make fun of myself,” says Grande. “If you think you’re laughing at me, I promise I laughed first.”

When it comes to the delicate art of signaling her feminist awareness, Grande has proved less of a natural. Instagramming pictures of Maya Angelou, Coco Chanel and her journalist aunt Judy Grande with Gloria Steinem in the lead-up to the release of “Dangerous Woman” felt a bit on the nose when the constituents of Taylor Swift’s woke women’s consortium advertise their membership simply by appearing together on red carpets.

Dana Edelson/NBC
Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Grande, Sasheer Zamata, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant in the “This Is Not a Feminist Song” SNL sketch in March. 

Still, Grande’s feminism is clearly no put-on. “Do you want to see something I saved to my phone because it upset me so much?” she asks me. It’s a collection of tweets from a U.K. radio station with a salacious streak -- two praise Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik for showing skin, and two scold Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian for the same. “If you’re going to rave about how sexy a male artist looks with his shirt off,” says Grande, “and a woman decides to get in her panties or show her boobies for a photo shoot, she needs to be treated with the same awe and admiration. I will say it until I’m an old-ass lady with my tits out at Whole Foods. I’ll be in the produce aisle, naked at 95, with a sensible ponytail, one strand of hair left on my head and a Chanel bow. Mark my words. See you there with my 95 dogs.”

In June, Grande tweeted a screen grab of an essay she wrote about her budding independence, capped with a 1971 Steinem quote: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. She will need her sisterhood.”

Watch Ariana Grande's Mom Fangirl Out After Hearing 'Dangerous Woman' Album for the First Time

Grande’s sisterhood includes her mother and nonna, managers Stephanie Simon and Jennifer Merlino (Grande parted ways with co-manager Scooter Braun in February, though he shares an A&R credit on Dangerous Woman with Republic Records EVP Wendy Goldstein), her fans the Arianators and old pals from Florida: Misha Lambert, now a self-published author, and Alexa Luria, who just graduated from the University of Florida and has 560,000 Instagram followers thanks to her BFF status with Grande.

“I have a bunch of really dope friends I’ve known since elementary school,” says Grande. “They think it’s funny that people want to take pictures with me at Starbucks, because it is -- it’s weird. They’re going to keep me healthy and humble. I still feel like Ariana from Boca [Raton] who loves musical theater and dogs. I’m just working now.”

But Grande was working then, too. When she was 8 years old, she sang the national anthem at a Florida Panthers game, caught Gloria Estefan’s ear doing karaoke on a cruise ship (Estefan has said she told Grande, “This is what you need to be doing”) and starred in Annie at the local Little Palm Family Theatre. That was about the time her parents split up. Joan Grande is the CEO of Hose-McCann, a communications company with military contracts, and her dad, Edward Butera, owns a graphic design studio in Boca Raton, where Ariana was raised with her older half-brother Frankie (today an actor, TV host and YouTube personality). Back then, she dressed up as Dorothy Gale a lot, and sometimes Jason Voorhees.

Ariana, Demi & Selena: How Their Careers Stack Up Against Each Other

“I was a messed-up little kid,” says Grande with glee. “I remember one night my dad came home late from work, and we all had skeleton makeup on our faces. He was like, ‘Is this Halloween?’ Nope, it’s just another Wednesday in our house.”

Grande sang to the soundtracks of The Bodyguard and The Wizard of Oz, played French horn for a few years and made songs using GarageBand and a Boss RC-50 Loop Station like her early hero Imogen Heap. (Our interview is interrupted when her soundman arrives to collect her Mi.Mu Gloves, a Heap invention and Grande concert staple that bundles a sampler, theremin and vocoder.) Broadway came calling first. In 2008, Grande moved to New York with her mother and Frankie after winning a role in the musical 13. Then, in 2009, they relocated to Los Angeles for her Nickelodeon gig on Victorious.

LSF/Splash News
On tour in 2015.

Republic Records chairman/CEO Monte Lipman signed Grande in 2011, when she was 17. “I’m pitching her on the company,” he recalls, “and about 12 minutes in, she shuts me down and goes, ‘Do you want to hear me sing?’ Then she belts a Whitney track and just stops time. The other intriguing thing was she said she pursued acting to set up her music career. Ari is very determined and incredibly resourceful.”

An early bubble gum LP was wisely scrapped -- Grande even had the frilly video for “Put Your Hearts Up” scrubbed from Vevo -- and in 2013 she relaunched. “One minute I was Cat Valentine,” she recalls, “and the next I was singing R&B and making out with Mac Miller” in the video for “The Way.”

Big Sean, another rapper whom Grande featured on her early songs, became her boyfriend. Their eight-month romance ended in early 2015 because, they maintained, touring would keep them apart most of the year, and Grande says the split wasn’t too hard on her. But tabloid coverage of the type that surrounded her then remains a sore spot now.

“I’ll never be able to swallow the fact that people feel the need to attach a successful woman to a man when they say her name,” says Grande, alluding to another singer’s relationship. “I saw a headline -- draw your own conclusions [on the subjects] because it’ll be so much drama that I don’t want -- they called someone another someone’s ex, and that pissed me off. This person has had so many great records in the last year, and she hasn’t been dating him forever. Call her by her name!” Her voice echoes off her home’s bare walls. “I hate that. Like, I’m fuming. Sorry. You opened up ... I need to take a sip of water and breathe. Don’t get me started on this shit.”

It seems obvious that Grande’s referring to Bieber and Selena Gomez, though it’s unclear if she’s projecting onto Gomez because she has worked too hard to have her own spotlight stolen or she resents having her old romances played for clicks. In a quieter moment, I ask her about the difference between TV fame and pop celebrity. “When you’re playing a zany character on a kids’ show, people don’t want to vilify you as much,” says Grande. “They’re a lot harder on pop artists -- they’re unafraid to hurt you.”

Calvin Harris, Ariana Grande, J. Cole, Martin Garrix & Fetty Wap to Headline Billboard Hot 100 Fest: See the Lineup

Grande says she went through a lot in the last year and a half, but when I press her for specifics, she just refers me to the new album’s lyrics. “I’m much better at making songs than telling people things,” she admits. As for her documented but unconfirmed relationship with her backup dancer (and partner in doughnut crime) Ricky Alvarez, she’s curt: “We’re happy. I’m a very happy girl. I have a healthy life right now, and I think that’s all anyone cares to know. The end.”

Grande doesn’t mention that Alvarez inspired the name of the LP’s doo-wop opener “Moonlight.” “That’s what Ricky called her one night. I think it was after their first kiss,” says Grande’s close friend and co-writer of six years, Victoria Monet, 23. “He waited to kiss her for a long time, and she was really impressed. He’s such a gentleman, and the song is a great little bookmark of the start of their relationship.” Grande sends Monet texts or voice memos when anything song-worthy happens to her, and the two write music during sleepovers in which they wear onesies and play the card game Bullshit. Grande also invited Monet on tour so she could hear a stadium full of fans singing their songs.

Behind the scenes with other folks, it has been rumored that Grande is somewhat difficult -- that she is, you know, a diva. “The D-word for Ariana is ‘do-it-yourself,’ ” counters Lipman. “She takes on tremendous responsibility and isn’t afraid to challenge whomever. Some people are intimidated by that, but I encourage it. We’ve argued -- we’ll raise our voices -- but that’s creative conflict and that’s where the sparks fly. It always starts and ends with Ariana.”

Joe Pugliese
“If I want to walk to Whole Foods and there are a million pictures of me the next day, fine!” says Grande. “Guess what? I go to Whole Foods looking like shit all the time.” Grande wears a Ralph Lauren dress, Tacori rings and Harry Kotlar earrings.

There’s a hint of that stubborn support for the artistic prerogative in Grande’s response to a question about Kanye West and his now-notorious line from “Famous”: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.” Grande squirms when asked about the line, but refuses to cast West out: “I’m conflicted. It’s a serious thing to joke about, but at the same time, a lot of artists use humor in their music. I mean, yes, it’s hard to listen to. But I’m obsessed with Kanye’s album. I’m obsessed with Taylor’s album. There are some cringe-worthy topics on his, but it’s part of Kanye. He’s a fantastic artist.”

Grande’s determined to avoid any kind of controversy. She won’t comment, for example, on Swift’s Twitter scuffle with guest Dangerous Woman rapper Nicki Minaj over the latter’s perceived 2015 MTV Video Music Awards snub: “If people are fighting, I stay as far away as possible. I’ve said this a million times: I hate drama. I love women in the industry. I’m a big fan of all my peers, and I try to keep it a hundred. That’s why I don’t look at anything. I’m like, ‘My song’s out!’ Then I run for the hills. ‘Here’s another picture of my dogs! Bye!’ ”

Speaking of her dogs: Grande owns seven (not 95, or at least not yet). A brindle pit rescue named Cinnamon offers me a paw when I arrive, and her Yorkie adoptee Strauss finds her lap halfway through the interview. The cheagle Toulouse, who modeled for Coach in 2015, eventually walks me to the door. Grande offers a hug, but her team, who excused themselves earlier, are flocking back to the big table, so she doesn’t linger. The menagerie awaits its leader.

Billboard Hot 100 Fest 2016