Even as a little girl singing in the car, Ariana Grande had a big voice. At 14, ready for the music world that wasn’t quite ready for her, she took a detour with a Nickelodeon show or two. Now 21, with a hit second album, she’s gone from small screen to mega pop star— which, as Alex Morris discovers, was her plan all along
As rain cascades in torrents and thunderclaps burst over Times Square, Ariana Grande is inside 1515 Broadway weathering a storm of a more personal nature. For the first time in six years, MTV is reviving Total Request Live, reborn today as Total Ariana Live, and though cameras will roll in approximately 30 minutes, Grande is sequestered in a green room with her vocal coach, battling a head cold and nerves so intense she’s broken out in hives.
And then we’re live in six minutes… four… two… and Ariana is scampering up onstage in the teensiest of miniskirts and the tallest of platform heels, eyeing the baby grand in the corner where she’ll soon perform a pared-down, jazzy rendition of her hit single “Problem”—and saying that she’s “so nervous, I’m dying, I’m very nervous” in a voice slightly raspier than usual. Which, let’s face it, is a problem. Grande, 21, may have spent the bulk of her teenage years as a Nickelodeon darling, first as Cat Valentine in Victorious—a bubbly tween show with an unparalleled squeal quotient—and later in its also squealy spin-off, Sam & Cat, at one point the network’s highest-rated live-action sitcom. She may have garnered a bazillion teenybopper fans who adored her ditzy, will-o’-the-wisp character with an adulation that can be bred only in the teenage mind. She may have become one of the top five most-followed people on Instagram. But that was then, and this is now, and now relies very much on her ability to sit at that piano, open her mouth, and blow the studio audience’s collective mind.
Which, she later says, was what she wanted all along. “I was 14 years old and ready to make an R&B album,” says Grande, who collaborated with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj on the summer single “Bang Bang.” “I was like, ‘Where is that Mary J. Blige collab? Where is that Natasha Bedingfield writing session? Where is my session with India.Arie? I’m ready. Let’s go.’ I wrote this song called ‘Higher,’ and the lyrics were too sexual, too mature. And my mom was like, ‘This is a great song, but damn, you’re too young for this.'” To bide her time until she could make the kind of music that interested her (“I’ve always felt a connection with things that were more soulful”), she auditioned for Broadway, starring in the musical 13 at age 14, and parlaying that into a TV career. It took her three years while filming at Nickelodeon during the day and recording in the studio at night to finish her first album, Yours Truly, released last year.
Read the rest of the interview with Ariana Grande in the October Marie Claire on sale September 16, 2014.
On early ambitions: “I was 14 years old and ready to make an R&B album. I was like, ‘Where is that Mary J. Blige collab? Where is that Natasha Bedingfield writing session? Where is my session with India.Arie? I’m ready. Let’s go.’ I wrote this song called ‘Higher,’ and the lyrics were too sexual, too mature. And my mom was like, ‘This is a great song, but damn, you’re too young for this.'”
On hiding behind her Nickelodeon character: “People liked her and they accepted her and they thought that I was like her. So I used to pretend to be a little more like her than I actually was.”
On her first single, “Put Your Hearts Up,” tanking: “I was like, ‘Guys, there has to be a really distinct difference between me and my character.’ And we did that with ‘The Way.’ I dyed my hair back to brown. I made out with a rapper in the video. I made the point I wanted to make. And I was excited to do so after so many years of pretending to be somebody else in front of a lot of people.”
On growing up in a Italian family: “My grandparents were always playing cards or cooking or cursing about something, and my dad would be singing terrible, terrible Frank Sinatra karaoke, and I would always wear Halloween makeup or masks or costumes around the house.”
On being vegan: “Coming from a strict Italian family, they thought nutrients were red meat and pasta. It was like, ‘We’ve got a big day tomorrow. Be sure to have the prosciutto before you go to bed.’ It’s a commitment that I’m 100 percent dedicated to because a) of my love for animals, and b) I’m obsessed with my health because my family has a terrible history with cancer.”
On her first car accident: “I was driving to Big Sean’s house on those windy hills in L.A. It was my first time going up those hills so I was going like 12 miles per hour. This lady was whipping around the corner, and I came to a complete stop so she bumped me really hard — the whole front of my Range Rover was wrecked. She jumped out and was like, ‘Sweetie, it’s okay, it’s totally fine. What do you do?’ I was like, ‘I’m a singer.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, I think I broke my leg.’ And I was like, ‘I mean, I make jewelry.'”