Ariana Grande has a pretty face and a golden voice, but the chart-topping sitcom star has a dark side, too.
It’s the midday rush at Olive & Thyme, a Burbank, Calif. lunch hot spot. As throngs of middle-aged women and studio execs scrape the remnants of their hummus boards, a petite 20-year-old brunette in a distressed sweater slips through the door and slides into the first corner banquette. You might imagine that the first female singer to post a No. 1 album in three years would demand a flashier arrival. But this isn’t Ariana Grande’s first rodeo. She was on Broadway at age 13 and had a role on Nickelodeon’s Victorious in 2010, before she began starring on Sam & Cat in late 2012. Her smile is little-sister cute, and she flashes it often. Why play it cool? There’s no need to act the part of the jaded pop star when you’re winning.
Even if the menopausal women and midlife-crisis-stricken men surrounding Grande at lunch aren’t fussing over her, the music industry is, thanks to a seemingly superhuman vocal range weaponized in her five-foot frame. “I love her voice,” says R&B legend Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds who produced her debut album, Yours Truly, which topped the Billboard charts last August. “Her tone is golden and it just feels good. She’s got one of those feel-good voices we haven’t heard in a long time.”
That voice has attacked pop radio this year like a drone strike. Off the mic, in the cut, her voice shifts from teen-sitcom-star singsong to a snappy, serrated Italian lilt. It’s a coup of charisma that explains why Grande was sought out and signed by Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, today’s pop music Midas.
“She’s the real deal,” Braun says, pitching her like a presidential candidate. “I don’t think she needs to worry about anything other than being who she is.” He might be right, but the business of being Ariana Grande ain’t exactly a nine-to-five, either. During a break from the 14-hour days she’s pulling working on Sam & Cat, her music—a new album is already in the works—and other assorted tasks involved with becoming the next great American Sweetheart, she cracks wise about growing up Italian, her high-profile love life, and the ghosts and demons around her that she can’t help but notice as the whole world takes notice of her.
Let’s talk about growing up in Boca Raton. Do you know an Asian grill restaurant called “Stir Crazy?”
That’s my favorite! That’s the best restaurant ever. What do you get?
I usually get the chicken and rice, and I love that they have the double-up option where you can go back to the buffet.
I usually get the chicken and tofu with brown rice.
I feel like we knew some of the Mafia somewhere down the line. No Mafia ties though.
How often do you go back to Boca?
I barely get to go back home anymore. I miss my grandparents the most, and the beach.
What was your family like growing up?
My family was the stereotypical poker-playing, loud, friendly, food-shoving, loving, Italian family.
Growing up Italian, did you ever fake having Mafia ties to appear tougher?
I didn’t have to fake anything…I’m kidding. We didn’t have any Mafia ties. I feel like we knew some of the Mafia but were not involved for sure. I do know somewhere down the line there were some friendships. No Mafia ties though. It wasn’t something I bragged about.
Was your mom a good cook?
My nonna[grandmother] is the best cook in the world. We had Sunday sauce—the best marinara sauce ever. We had the Italian cookies and all that good stuff. Every Christmas she’d make zeppole and spiedini and everything Italian. Then I grew up and changed my diet completely. I only eat salmon, vegetables, and fruits—super healthy.
Is it tough giving up the Italian food?
No. I was excited. When I was a kid I was raised to believe a bowl of pasta was healthy and good for you. Then I was like, “Wow, I’ve been killing myself all these years.”
See, I would miss giving up all the garlic. Non-Italians don’t appreciate garlic.
I do like garlic. I can have garlic if it’s raw and organic. I have my own garden in my backyard. I harvested jalapeños from my garden for the first time the other day.
You sound kinda domesticated for a 20-year-old. Where do you get that from?
Myself. No one in my family is like me, nobody. My mom is a CEO and owns a company that manufactures communications equipment for the Marines and the Navy, so she’s not really the housewife type, if you get what I’m saying. She’s the most badass, independent woman you’ll ever meet—not the cookies-in-the-oven type.
You’re also obsessed with Harry Potter.
I’m a big nerd. I love Lord of the Rings. I love Harry Potter. I love scary movies. I love dinosaurs, science, aliens, ghosts.
Have you ever seen a real hogwart?
What? No. What the hell’s a hogwart? That’s a school, Miss Thing.
Are you calling me “Miss Thing?”
Yes. Hogwart’s is a school of witchcraft and wizardry.
Do you believe in aliens and ghosts?
Of course. We’d be so stupid to believe we are the only people here.
Have you ever seen an alien?
Not an alien, but I’ve had a ghost/demon experience. We were in Kansas City a few weeks ago and went to this haunted castle and were so excited. The next night we wanted to go to Stull Cemetery, which is known as one of the seven gates to hell on Earth. The Pope won’t fly over it—
I’ve had a ghost/demon experience. We went to this haunted castle and were so excited...
I love that you know that. Sorry, go on.
I felt this sick, overwhelming feeling of negativity over the whole car and we smelled sulfur, which is the sign of a demon, and there was a fly in the car randomly, which is another sign of a demon. I was like, “This is scary, let’s leave.” I rolled down the window before we left and said, “We apologize. We didn’t mean to disrupt your peace.” Then I took a picture and there are three super distinct faces in the picture—they’re faces of textbook demons.
Let’s see the picture.
I deleted it. The next day I tried to send the picture to my manager and it said, “This file can’t be sent, it’s 666 megabytes.” I’m not kidding. I used to have a folder called “Demons” that had pictures with all the screencaps in it, but then weird things started happening to me so I deleted it.
What weird things?
I was going to sleep about two weeks ago. I had just gotten off the phone and as soon as I closed my eyes I heard this really loud rumble right by my head. When I opened my eyes it stopped immediately, but when I closed my eyes it started again with whispers. Every time I closed my eyes I started seeing these really disturbing images with, like, red shapes. Then I opened my eyes and got back on the phone and was like, “I’m really scared and I don’t want to go to bed tonight.” And then I scooched over to the left side of my bed, because that’s where the best service is in my room, and there was this massive black matter. I don’t know what it was.
It was like a cloud of something black right next to me. I started crying. I was on the phone like, “What do I do, what do I do?” and they said, “Tell it to eff off.” I thought, I’m not going to do that. It’s going to upset it, so I’m just going to chill and not feed into it because all it wants is fear. It feeds on fear. I watched it move to the front of my bed and then I fell asleep on the phone. I woke up and it was gone. The next night my friend Tyler was staying with me. She said she was trying to sleep and her body felt paralyzed almost, and she described the same exact thing I saw.
Alrighty then. “The Way,” is a pretty romantic song, but how bad was Mac Miller’s breath in the video?
It wasn’t bad if you like cigarettes and whiskey. It’s certainly a distinct taste.
Was that the hardest part of the video?
No, it was fine. The whole video shoot was fun to be honest. The kiss was definitely “directed,” let’s just say.
Was he awkward after it?
No, he is very funny. He is one of my best friends. People keep trying to start rumors about me and Malcolm, but he is one of my favorite people in the world, like as a friend. So we just look at them and laugh.
So there’s a nerdy part of you. What about the gangsta rap part?
I like rapping. I don’t take myself seriously but it feels good to learn the words to an entire song and rap.
Are you annoyed when people compare you to Mariah Carey?
At first impression I think it’s an obvious comparison to draw because of the range and style of throwback R&B. But as you listen to the whole album, Yours Truly, you get to know my sound. You get to know Ariana. If I complained about being compared to the greatest vocalist who ever lived, I would be a very dumb, ungrateful person. So I can’t complain. It’s a massive compliment.
You think she’s the greatest vocalist?
For sure. Her voice is something that’s untouched: her range, her control, and her ability. I take it as a compliment but I’m very excited when people listen to my whole album and get to know my sound.
If you had to choose between music and acting, which would it be?
Music, no question. I started in musicals because I wanted to sing. I never liked acting. I auditioned for TV to get a platform to get a record deal and then I fell in love with acting because it was fun. After I’m done playing Cat Valentine I don’t see myself doing much acting, but I would do a scary movie or a musical, at any moment.
What’s your favorite scary movie?
At the moment it’s Mama. It’s really dope. I like The Ring, too. The Paranormal Activity series is good and I like Cabin in the Woods because it has a sense of humor.
You seem to blur the lines between being a girly girl and someone who likes to be scared.
Here’s the thing, I love Audrey Hepburn and Chanel. I’m super girly when it comes to fashion, but on the inside I’m only fascinated with dark, macabre, and weird things. Like the “Thriller” video. Like Tim Burton.
I’m not comfortable being sexy and dressing sexy. I don’t see myself ever becoming a sex symbol.
Where do you think that comes from?
I don’t know. My mom has always loved Halloween. One year when I was a little kid she smeared blood all over the walls in our new house and said O.J. did it. We’ve always had a very weird, like, Addams Family sense of humor. My mom’s fabulous, but I’ve never seen her in anything but black.
A lot of your songs deal with love. Have you experienced real love?
I think so. Love comes in many different forms. You can love somebody and not be in love with them. They can break your heart and you can cry over it but still not be in love with them. Love is a really peculiar thing. I think as far as being in love, I’ve experienced it.
You announced your relationship with Nathan Sykes from The Wanted on Twitter. Is social media a scary place for celebrities?
No. Everybody’s got something to say but I’d rather be the person who’s honest than the person who’s like, “Oh that’s personal, I’m not going to tell you.” I’ve always had an open, honest relationship with my fans.
What’s been the most ridiculous thing to happen to you on social media?
I took a selfie and everybody was like “There’s a big black dildo on the floor.”
Ah, yes—the alleged black dildo. People were talking about this like an hour ago.
I was like, “Are you kidding me? That’s a microphone for my looping machine because I’m a singer.” [Ed. note: Ariana showed us a picture of the looping machine.] People have too much damn time on their hands and just need Jesus if you ask me. I hope they find something better to do with their time.
Are you looking to transition from being a teen star or reintroduce yourself?
No, I don’t think it has to be a reintroduction because the public has only known me as a character for so long. They know me as Cat, so I think of it as an introduction to Ariana. It’s not something I think about, “How can I show the world I’m grown up? I’m sexy or more mature.” I don’t feel comfortable flaunting my body that much yet. I don’t need to do that to show I’m grown up. I don’t want people to talk about my choices or how little I’m wearing. I just want the conversation to be about the music and what I’m creating.
Do you think there will be a time when you will paint yourself as a sex symbol?
No. [Laughs.] I don’t see myself as sexy and I’m not comfortable being sexy and dressing sexy. I don’t see myself ever becoming a sex symbol.
What do you think of the transition Miley Cyrus is going through?
Miley looks like she is having the time of her life, and I think anybody who’s giving her a hard time is wishing deep down they were having as much fun as she is right now. People are being so cruel. I think that’s bullying, and she should do whatever the hell she wants. Everybody needs to have more fun. If it’s not your taste, don’t look at it. I get so hyped up about the Miley thing because I think she’s cool.
But it is a drastic transformation.
Sure. As long as she’s happy though.
Justin Bieber is also going through a big transformation. How close are you two?
Not very, but he’s a friend. We never talk or see each other, but he’s really nice and whenever we are in the same building he’s friendly and we play music for each other.
Is he flirty?
No. He’s super respectful of my situation.
What is your biggest fear?
It’s the littlest things that freak me out. Like swallowing pills, people being sick. And I can’t stand germs. I’m terrified of looking straight into the camera. I see people on the other side of the lens and the whole judgmental world of pop culture waiting with their pitchforks and torches. At the end of the day I don’t care what they have to say, but knowing that every little thing I do is documented is a lot of pressure. I guess that’s where it comes from.
You’re afraid of the camera but you’re in front of one a lot.
But when I act I don’t have to look in the camera. And they aren’t judging me—they’re judging my character.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Kemal and Karla. (HAIR) DALINA Rebollo. (MAKEUP) Jo Baker. (CLOTHING) Opening Spread: Dress by Lovers & Friends / Earrings by Michael M. Following spread: Trench Coat by Dita Von Teese / Bodysuit by Maria Lucia Hohan / Tights by Capezio / Shoes by YSL / Earrings by Le Vian / Necklace throughout Arianna's own. Final spread: Dress by Vivienne Westwood / Earrings by Michael M. / Bracelet Ariana's own.