“Can I ask one really important question?” Ariana Grande says. Her voice lilts up and down with every word, like it’s navigating the Amalfi Coast, which is simply how someone with a four-octave singing voice speaks. This is a question she asks everybody she can, and she’s observed that people tend to begin answering before she’s even finished asking, which is proof of the question’s excellence.
Her voice could be a wonder of the natural world, if it wasn’t clearly evidence of the sublime. It is almost shocking to reconcile her physical form — barely over five feet tall, teetering on platform heels — with the sound she produces from her vocal chords. In 2015, she performed for the Obamas at the White House, and when she began riffing along with the opening chords of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” people in the audience literally gasped. And this was before the first lyrics were sung! When it ended, Patti LaBelle gave her a standing ovation.
Grande’s albums have all gone platinum, except for the ones that have gone double platinum; most are studded with platinum singles. Commercially speaking, her discography is a Harry Winston’s inside a diamond mine. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry recently named Grande one of the Top 10 recording artists of 2020, two spots ahead of Justin Bieber. She was Spotify’s most streamed female artist of the past decade, a fact that no doubt surprised her since she debuted three years into that time frame.
Now, Grande springs her question: “If you were a soup, what soup would you be?” Then she answers it: “I’m a tie. I’m either miso or butternut squash soup.”
This is the business of being Ariana Grande: Making connections wherever you go. It occurred to her to start raising her makeup game after people began walking up to her at Whole Foods and asking for photos. “Maybe I can just pop a little blush on or a little mascara to feel more...” Her voice flattens. “Ready to make friends. In public.”
Jisoo Baik top. Lorraine West and Sarah Hendler earrings. All makeup by r.e.m. beauty. Photographer: Zoey Grossman Stylist: Arianne Phillips Hair: Evanie Frausto Makeup: Ash K Holm Manicure: Thuy Nguyen Set Designer: Bette Adams Backdrops: Schmidli Production: Crawford & Co Productions
Lately she’s been taking a break from recording to explore what she calls “new versions of storytelling.” She’s working with an acting coach who trains leading ladies—and seems to be doing their job extremely well. Grande has a role in Netflix's upcoming movie Don't Look Up (along with Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, and Cate Blanchett). She’s set to be a judge on The Voice, where she will serve as a soprano shepherd to tomorrow’s pop voices. She recently performed a live concert in the digital realm of the online game Fortnite. She’s also creating makeup products. I was the first civilian allowed to test them — after Grande, her mother, her dancers, 15 of her closest friends (“They’ve been to the lab more than I’ve been anywhere,” she says), two of her closest friends who are also fans, the wonderful team at Forma Brands, and my boss Jenny.
“Coveting the secret for the past two years and having testers and samplers in my purse, and people asking me, ‘Oh, I love your highlight, what are you wearing?’ And me being like, ‘I don’t know', sweating,’” Grande recalls. Her singing voice tends to blur the edges of her speech into one gorgeous mass, but her speaking voice, it should be noted, employs supernaturally precise diction down to the letter. “It was so hard to keep a secret for this long.”
“You can never have enough makeup, just like you can never have enough music.
You can never have enough makeup, just like you can never have enough music.
In the manner of a streetwear brand, r.e.m. beauty itself will manifest in a series of “drops.” The first focuses primarily on the eyes — “our main gateways to our dreams, our emotions, our everything,” Grande explains. “They’re our main storytellers and sources of communication,” she continues. “I feel like you can emote more with your eyes than you can articulate sometimes.” To that end, there are fine-point eyeliner markers, liquid eye shadows in a range of matte shades, glittering toppers that sparkle like nebulae, and at least one mascara. There are also lipsticks that feel like butter and glosses that tingle upon application, calling to mind DuWop’s Lip Venom. “That was the reference!” Grande exclaims. “I feel like this is as tingly, if not tinglier than Lip Venom. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, is this a little too intense?’”
Grande’s dream was to manufacture her dreams — the formulas she fell asleep thinking about. Does she have any musings for those who may see another musician-fronted makeup brand and think...
“That it’s crowded?” she says. “I’ve thought a lot about this, of course, because I don’t want to just hop onto any bandwagons ever. I think that...I wear my peers’ makeup as well, just like I listen to their music. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, there’s too many female artists.’ I love and I’m [a] huge fan of my peers that do both, and I think that it’s just another way to tell stories. Because you can never have enough makeup, just like you can never have enough music.”
It comes down to having a point of view, Grande says. At the end of the day, she has developed a tightly edited line of cosmetics that are specifically suited to her preferences and desires. After years cutting up her lash strips into feline dimensions, she’s producing a range of her own, to be released in a forthcoming drop. “I always am very picky when it comes to that,” she says. The lip glosses are more like dewy lip stains, because Grande wanted something that would be long-wearing. Despite their existence, which suggests they are already perfect for her, she is ravenous for feedback. “Do you like the tingle of the gloss?” she asks.
“I do!” I mention, though, that I wish it was a little bit tinglier, which was perhaps a mistake.
“Oh!” she gasps. “Maybe they sent you the wrong one, because I couldn’t [make] it tinglier if I tried....” She eventually contemplates bringing a new tube directly to my door.
A few days later, I’m awakened in the morning when my apartment buzzer goes nuts. I shuffle downstairs in my robe to find another warm package, this one containing a single lip gloss. Who dropped it off? I like to imagine that it was Grande herself, slipping through the vestibule to make the delivery, and then fluttering away on the wings of an oversize hoodie. The doe-foot applicator slopes so perfectly to the contour of my lips, it’s like coming home. This time a tingling sensation begins instantly. My lips involuntarily pucker.
When she was growing up, Grande wanted her hair out of her face. “I would wear either little headbands or...my family used to call them schmattas, little tie- around things, because I always wanted it out of the way.” She grew up in Boca Raton (“Flarda” is how Grande pronounces the state) and lived there until 2008, the unofficial launch of her career. After an open casting call, Grande was cast in 13, a Broadway musical with a mostly teen cast and pit orchestra. When she moved from Boca to New York, loose, umber curls rained onto her shoulders.
She shared a dressing room with Elizabeth Gillies, who eventually costarred with her on Nickelodeon, and the two learned how to do their show makeup together. “I think we went with our moms to Saks or something and shopped at the counter, and the lady was like, ‘Oh, this is the perfect thing. This is the right thing.’ And they sold us on everything and we bought it and we just threw it on and went onstage.”
Grande once said that boys taught her how to do makeup — one of the artists who worked on her at Nickelodeon was male, and some of her earliest singing gigs were in drag bars. But it was her mother who taught her how to wear it. “Joan Grande is not Joan Grande without a fierce, charcoal-black eyeliner situation,” her daughter says. (Joan has self-identified as “goth before goth was goth.”) The littler Grande adapts the look for herself whenever she is seen in public, in the form of two small wings she draws out from the corner of her eyes.
Can you think of a musician with a more (to use an overworked word more intentionally than I ever have before) iconic look? On the matrix of pop references, she places herself somewhere between Nancy Sinatra and Barbarella, at the corner of nostalgia and futurism. She maintains a Bardot-like commitment to the eyeliner, which sometimes gives the impression that she is a time- traveling lounge singer floating through the contemporary music industry. “I’ve always sort of gravitated towards the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s for glamour references,” Grande says. “I’ve always pictured myself in a different time period. I’ve always wanted to wear that makeup, wear that hair, wear those outfits, be those performers.”
The ponytail is an aesthetic event she constantly reimagines and refracts, like Kusama and the polka dot. You can see its evolution clearly across Grande’s album covers, which all feature a portrait of her. On the cover of Yours Truly, her first album, it was a half-up, cheer-captain style, with spiral curls that suggested heated machinery. (On the song “Tattooed Heart,” she asks her varsity lover to wrap her in his jacket.) Gradually, the pony tightens; the curls loosen throughout My Everything, now gathered completely at the crown of her head. Dangerous Woman briefly introduces a fetish-y bunny mask. The pony remains unchanged, but in the context of latex, it feels like progress.
Grande’s transformation for Sweetener is her most dramatic to date. She appears upside down on the cover, in her own Bizarro World. The discreet elements of her ponytail are all pushed to their logical opposites. Her hair is ice blonde, factory-straight, and tied at the nape of her neck. Her promises to potential partners mature as she does, culminating in Positions, her most recent album. The title track describes various acts of service, both carnal and domestic, Grande might perform for a life partner. Her hair follows the music; the ponytail is pumped full of volume and looks like it might smell of Elnett.
It occurs to me that Grande, at 28, is approaching another ascent, from world famous pop star to something even greater. She’s now set to occupy a space with Rihanna (Fenty Beauty generated an estimated $570 million in 2018), Jennifer Lopez (fragrance revenues upwards of $2 billion), and Beyoncé (whose management company also maintains, among other streams of revenue, a clothing line with Adidas) — a foggy Olympus where it becomes difficult to separate the person herself from the revenue she generates year over year. Ariana Grande is a person, but she is also a brand, and her success hinges on being able to blur the distinction.
Grande is superlatively grateful, a sentiment she expresses 14 times over two hours, for the career she has and the opportunities that career has offered her. Occasionally, she finds herself bewildered when her work reaches far enough around the globe to tap her on the shoulder.
During a recent, rare moment of downtime, she was watching HBO Max’s new Gossip Girl and found herself confronted by her own singing voice halfway through the episode. She was so excited. “Excuse me!” she shouts, recalling the experience, and startling her dog Toulouse nearby. “Does anyone want to warn me when fucking titles are going to come in and Kristen Bell’s voice is going to start saying Gossip Girl stuff and my song’s going to be in the background? Does anyone want to just warn me? Because I had a heart attack. You know, like, I was a young girl watching Gossip Girl religiously growing up. And then I’m sitting here...”
This kind of thing happens not infrequently to the most streamed female artist of the past decade, whether in grocery stores or the solitude of a Gossip Girl viewing experience. But it always makes Grande emotional, though not for long. “I sort of smile,” she says, not smiling, “and keep going.”
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