Ariana Grande: The diva with a heart

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Ariana Grande’s hits include Problem, Into You and Dangerous Woman

Ariana Grande is one of pop’s most intriguing and gifted singers.

A magnetic performer with unrivalled vocal control, she’s unusually outspoken, and has been known to tackle interviewers head on if she feels they’re being misogynistic.

During last year’s US election, she posted a video of Donald Trump’s declaration that “nobody has more respect for women than I do,” which jump cut to footage of Grande laughing in utter disbelief.

And upon being branded a diva, she once replied: “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.”

Aside from politics, the 23-year-old has a deep connection with her audience, exchanging long, heartfelt messages to counsel fans through hard times; and sending cookies and cocoa to teenagers who queued to see her in the depths of winter.

The intensity of that bond was evident in her response to the terrorist attack at her concert on Monday, which claimed the lives of 22 fans.

Writing on Twitter, she simply said she was “broken”.

Ariana Grande-Butera was born in Boca Raton, Florida on June 26, 1993.

The singer is of Italian descent and her name is believed to have been inspired by Princess Oriana from the cartoon series Felix the Cat.

Blessed with a four-octave vocal range, she took her first steps on stage at the age of eight; starring in local theatre productions of Annie and The Wizard of Oz, while studying the French horn and writing songs inspired by DIY indie artist Imogen Heap.

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Ariana Grande (left) on the set of her first TV show, Victorious, in 2010, with Elizabeth Gillies, Victoria Justice and Daniella Monet

Speaking to Billboard magazine in 2014, Grande called herself a “very weird little girl” who didn’t always fit in with her peers.

“Dark and deranged. I always wanted to have skeleton face paint on or be wearing a Freddy Krueger mask, and I would carry a hockey stick around. I was like a mini-Helena Bonham Carter,” she said.

In 2008, when she was 15 years old, she landed the role of Charlotte in the Broadway production of 13: The Musical and that led to a role as the adorably dimwitted Cat Valentine on the Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious and its spin-off, Sam & Cat.

The latter only lasted one season, with rumours of bad blood between Grande and her co-star Jennette McCurdy. But by the time it finished, she was already on her way to becoming an international pop star under the guidance of Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun.

Her debut single, Put Your Hearts Up, was released in 2011. A fairly nondescript teen pop record, it failed to chart and Grande subsequently disowned it.

“It was geared toward kids and felt so inauthentic and fake,” she told Rolling Stone.

“That was the worst moment of my life. For the video, they gave me a bad spray tan and put me in a princess dress and had me frolic around the street. The whole thing was straight out of hell. I still have nightmares about it, and I made them hide it on my [YouTube] page.”

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The singer has always had a more wholesome image than her pop peers

Her debut album was better, especially the breathy, flirtatious single The Way; but Grande’s career didn’t really take off until she released Problem in 2014.

That single flipped pop wisdom on its head, with the singer belting out the verses in full-force diva mode before whispering the chorus – “I got one less problem without you” – over a skittish saxophone riff.

It caught fire instantly, rocketing to the top of the iTunes chart in 37 minutes, before the song had even been played on radio.

Grande followed it with a series of high-profile collaborations, with Zedd (Break Free), Jessie J and Nicki Minaj (Bang Bang) and The Weeknd (Love Me Harder), cementing her position as the breakthrough artist of 2014.

The singer stood out not just for her vocal chops, but her image. While Miley Cyrus was swinging around on her wrecking ball, Grande dressed like a 50s teen idol, her hair scraped back into a pony tail, and topped with a pair of cat ears.

“I don’t feel confident in my sexuality or in my fashion,” she told the New York Daily News. “I think of music first. I want people to listen instead of look and judge.”

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The singer has grown up in the public eye

But look and judge they did; and Grande bristled when the media trained a spotlight on her relationships. Beneath those cat’s ears, it turned out, were the claws to match.

“I’m tired of needing to be linked to a guy,” she told The Sun in 2015. “I’m not Big Sean’s ex, I’m not Niall [Horan]’s new possible girl. I’m Ariana Grande.”

She followed that up with a longer essay on feminism, in which she said: “I can’t wait to live in a world where people are not valued by who they’re dating / married to / attached to / having sex with (or not) … but by their value as an individual”.

Then, when two hapless radio hosts asked her to choose between her make-up and her phone, she replied: “Is this what you think girls have trouble choosing between? Is this men assuming that’s what girls would have to choose between? You need a little brushing up on equality.”

Career wobble

But her public image took a knock when, two years ago, she was caught on surveillance tape with her boyfriend in a California doughnut shop, where the size of the produce led her to proclaim, “I hate America” before, bizarrely, licking a doughnut that remained on sale after she left the shop.

Grande quickly took to social media to apologise, explaining that the target of her comments was America’s lackadaisical attitude towards childhood obesity – but it was a public relations disaster, portraying her as a selfish, entitled diva.

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The star’s behaviour shocked fans

The star turned the tables, though, when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 2016, putting her transgression in harsh perspective.

“It can be tough growing up in showbusiness, you know?” she said in her monologue. “A lot of kid stars end up doing drugs, or in jail, or pregnant, or get caught looking at a doughnut they didn’t pay for.”

“Which, yes, was childish and stupid… [but] I think I’m in a place where I’m ready to be caught in a real adult scandal,” she continued, before launching into a jazzy showtune called “What will my scandal be?”

Her stint on the show was a very public rehabilitation, and one which made a virtue of her talent for impersonating other musicians (Celine Dion said she “peed herself” watching Grande mimic her on television).

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The star is one of only two female artists to have three simultaneous top 10 hits in the US. The other is Adele.

It also helped launch the star’s third album, Dangerous Woman – a mature, confident record which the singer’s confidence grow to match her vocals, particularly on the dusky, slow-burning title track.

Lyrically, she addressed her transgressions, not only apologising for, but owning her mistakes.

“I’ve been doing stupid things, wilder than I’ve ever been,” she sang on Bad Decisions, before adding the caveat: “Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?”

Dangerous Woman went platinum in the US and gold in the UK, assisted by a trio of top 10 hits and a Grammy nomination for best pop album.

It also spawned her biggest tour to date – one which looks likely to be suspended after the tragic events of Monday night.

Writing on Twitter in the aftermath of the explosion, Grande said: “From the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry.”

“I don’t have words.”

 

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Alexandra Laverro

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