Ariana Grande is a star. A really big star. For millions of Arianators, as her fans are known, she's a radiant, life-giving force they wake up with in the morning and go to bed with at night. They've followed the phases of her career as she's risen from Broadway (the musical 13) to TV (Nickelodeon's Victorious and Sam & Cat) to the apex of pop stardom and commercial success (eight multiplatinum singles, 9 billion music video streams on YouTube). They've contributed to the $100 million-plus that her tours have made, casting the likes of Drake and Sting in Ariana's petite but long, five-foot shadow. They are among Ariana's 121 million Instagram followers, making her the third-most-followed person, above both Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé. And when her latest album, Sweetener, drops August 17, Arianators will have helped its lead single, "No Tears Left to Cry," break records set by none other than Ariana herself.
Calling to them is Ariana's honeyed, four-octave voice. But they're also drawn to her sparkle: The poofy lampshade and figure skater–style dresses. The cat, bunny, and Minnie Mouse ears she wears often and without ceremony. On Twitter, she speaks to her fans in fluent internet, playing fast and loose with a "see no evil" monkey emoji and crafting full sentences in acronyms only. In a few short weeks, she went from casually dating Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson to engaged, their relationship born, in part, out of Harry Potter fandom (him: Gryffindor, her: Slytherin). On Instagram, they flirt guilelessly, as if no one were watching (everyone is watching). And then, of course, there's her signature Vegas-fountain ponytail, the orientation, height, and shade of which Arianators track like an ancient civilization charting the moon. To the casual observer, the singer's idiosyncrasies might seem juvenile, absurd even, but there's a subversiveness to Ariana's child's play. Her bright and shiny optics belie a far more nuanced character. She's been in therapy for more than 10 years, since around the time her parents divorced, and thus traffics in self-awareness. "It's work," she tells me, sitting on the couch in her hotel suite overlooking Central Park. "I'm a 25-year-old woman. But I've also spent the past handful of years growing up under very extraordinary circumstances. And I know how that story goes..." Cut to former child star in a mug shot. And scene.
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."
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.