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Ariana Grande on Activism, Family and Music

She’s been watching a lot of Planet Earth lately. “Have you seen those fish with the transparent heads? Those are aliens! That’s where they are! They’re here.” She takes me on a “really big trip” marveling at outer space. But within her intergalactic musings is the search for perspective: “The planets, the stars, there’s nothing more humbling than that shit. We get so stressed about little things when, in the big picture, we’re just a speck of dust on this tiny planet in this enormous solar system that is also a speck in a huge, mysterious black hole situation, and we don’t even know what it is!” She takes a breath. “Thinking about how small we are, it’s crazy. We are nothing.”

WE GET SO STRESSED ABOUT LITTLE THINGS WHEN, IN THE BIG PICTURE, WE’RE JUST A SPECK OF DUST ON THIS TINY PLANET IN THIS ENORMOUS SOLAR SYSTEM THAT IS ALSO A SPECK IN A HUGE, MYSTERIOUS BLACK HOLE SITUATION…

Not that Ariana is a nihilist. She speaks of the strength of community in this “tough, wild, chaotic time right now” and considers just how divided the nation is. Her call to action: “Everyone has to have uncomfortable conversations with their relatives. Instead of unfriending people on Facebook who share different political views, comment! Have a conversation! Try to spread the fucking light.” She’s become something of a feminist hero for her ability to shut down sexism and misogyny with a single tweet. The most recent of which, at press time, regards her ex, rapper Mac Miller, who allegedly drove drunk and crashed his car shortly after their breakup. A Twitter user suggested it was Ariana’s fault. “How absurd that you minimize female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship,” she wrote. “Shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem…please stop doing that.” The user apologized. She accepted.

Arian Grande via ELLE.COM

I meet Ariana on a sunny May afternoon. Her hair is styled in what I’ll call a three-way—two platinum-blond ponytails pulled high atop either side of her head, the third section of extensions cascading down her back. I ask if she is, in fact, communicating to her fans through her hair. “I’ve never thought about it that way,” she says, giving one pigtail a twirl. “But maybe there is a telepathic connection there.” For what it’s worth, her favourite pony is “the high, sleek, dark one. But she takes many forms. Many forms. There are lots of different girls in this sisterhood.” Including totally ponyless wigs, like the one she wore for her ELLE shoot. (Slow claps to her hairstylist, Josh Liu, for swishing and tossing strands by the handful, just out of frame, for hours.)

The previous night, Ariana attended her first Met Gala in a Vera Wang gown that sent fans into a tizzy. The “puff puff dream,” as she calls it, featured the entirety of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, from the Sistine Chapel, and was “a foreshadow, a hint,” of her upcoming video for “God Is a Woman.” The second single is her 92-year-old grandma Nonna’s favourite song from the new album. By name alone, I peg the track to be a feel-good Women’s-March–y anthem, something along the lines of Katy Perry’s “Roar” set to an R&B beat. I hear it a few weeks later. Hoo boy, was I wrong. Let’s just say it’s more about taking agency in the bedroom than at the office. Nonna, you’re so naughty!

It’s been almost a year since they fled a UK terrorist attack that claimed 22 lives, injuring 500 more, at the sold-out Manchester show of Ariana’s Dangerous Woman tour. Ariana is hesitant to talk about it. For one thing, the wound is still incredibly raw, but she’s also adamant that her story not overshadow those of the victims. So we talk around it. “When I got home from tour, I had really wild dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe,” she begins. “I would be in a good mood, fine and happy, and they would hit me out of nowhere. I’ve always had anxiety, but it had never been physical before. There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down.” She shared the experience with her friend Pharrell Williams. Together they created “Get Well Soon,” the final track on Sweetener.

“It’s all the voices in my head talking to one another,” she explains, before softly serenading me. “‘They say my system is overloaded,’” she sings, “and then the background vocals say, ‘Girl, what’s wrong with you? Come back down.’” The studio version is a veritable mille-feuille of vocal arrangement, stacking layers upon layers of Ariana’s voice until she lands, wholly, right-side-up.

NOT EVERYONE IS GOING TO AGREE WITH YOU, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’M JUST GOING TO SHUT UP AND SING MY SONGS. I’M ALSO GOING TO BE A HUMAN BEING WHO CARES ABOUT OTHER HUMAN BEINGS.

 I gently broach the subject with Ariana, and the name Manchester alone triggers a huge teardrop to roll down her cheek. “You hear about these things,” she starts slowly. “You see it on the news, you tweet the hashtag. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again. It makes you sad, you think about it for a little, and then people move on. But experiencing something like that firsthand, you think of everything differently.…” She pauses, swallowing the lump in her throat. “Everything is different.” Getting back onstage was “terrifying.” It still is sometimes. She credits her fans as being her primary source of courage. “It’s the most inspiring thing in the world that these kids pack the venue.

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