In a world where celebrities are often experiencing some form of turmoil, Ariana Grande has endured enough to last a lifetime. Apart from dealing with the chronic anxiety that has plagued her for much of her life, Grande suffered through the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack that took place on 22nd May 2017, at the Manchester concert hall immediately following her performance. The explosion left 22 people dead and over 500 injured and left Grande in a state of shock. After bravely completing her tour that year, she suffered what she described as PTSD and crippling anxiety.
“When I got home from tour, I had really wild dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe,” Grande admitted. “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 added: “I’ve always had anxiety. I’ve never really spoken about it because I thought everyone had it, but when I got home from tour it was the most severe, I think it’s ever been.”
In the wake of Manchester and her revelations about dealing with the psychological trauma that stemmed from the attack, Grande has become a mental health advocate as part of her willingness to let her fans into her struggles. She even posted on Instagram the results of a brain scan she took which revealed the lingering effects of PTSD and exchanged Tweets with Jim Carrey in which she thanked him for his ongoing support and his public admissions of depression.
Certainly, Ariana Grande has not yielded to her anxiety issues in any way when it comes to her frantic recording and touring schedule. She seems like a woman on a mission while in the midst of a global tour and whose latest album, Thank U, Next, landed at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 100 chart, a mere six months after her previous album, Sweetener, had achieved the same top ranking.
It’s a remarkable achievement for any musical artist, let alone one who contended with the death by accidental drug overdose of her ex-boyfriend, the rapper/record producer Mac Miller, in September, followed by her breakup with Saturday Night Life comedian, Pete Davidson (who famously discussed suicide on air), to whom she was briefly engaged.
But Grande evidently has deep psychological reserves that have stiffened her resolve and helped carry her through two turbulent years. The petite (5’0”) singer with the gargantuan voice has thrown herself into work as a form of self-therapy and which has had the desired effect of placing depression, anxiety, and anything else into quarantine. Where some performers would suffer creative paralysis in the face of tragedy and personal loss, Ariana has doubled down on suffering and turned out what is
arguably the finest work of her career.
“I made Thank U, Next with my best friends over the course of a really small period of time, and it kind of saved my life,” Grande said of her experience in making the album. “I don’t think life ha ever been as bad as it was when we started…It was kind of this super challenging chapter that sucked, and then my friends made it amazing and special… It turned everything around in my life. It sounds really corny, but it was the most beautiful.”
Even more remarkable was how she rebounded after the Manchester terror attack by completing her touring commitments in Asia, Australia, and Latin America and then returning to her home in Los Angeles where she began working on new songs. She recalled of that time: “Everybody thought I was crazy when I got home and wanted to hit the ground running. I was in the studio the next day recording.”
She added: “I am a workaholic, it is the thing I know how to do best. I’ve been working straight since I made my Broadway debut at the age of 14.”
The result was last Autumn’s ‘Sweetener’ LP that featured the title track Get Well Soon that was a raging metaphor and tribute to the victims of the Manchester bombing and her own troubled psyche. The song, which included 40 seconds of silence to honour the dead, resonated deeply with critics and fans alike and served as a cathartic deliverance for Grande.
“The song isn’t just about the Manchester attack but it was also about personal demons and anxiety, and more intimate tragedies, as well. Mental health is so important. People don’t pay enough mind to it,” she said.
“It was [producer/singer] Pharrell Williams who kind of forced it out of me, because I was in a really bad place mentally. I’ve always had anxiety; I’ve had anxiety for years. But when I got home from tour it reached a very different, intense peak. It became physical and I was not going out at all, and I felt like I was outside my body. I’d have these spells every now and then where I felt like I was having déjà vu, but like 24/7 for three months at a time”.
“It was really weird, and all that was on my mind. Pharrell was like, ‘You have to write about it. You need to make this into music and get this shit out, and I promise it will heal you.’ And it definitely helped. It still took me a few weeks to feel better but looking back at it now from a healthier place, it’s probably one of the most important songs I’ll ever write.”
Born in Boca Raton, Florida, Ariana Grande is the product of a proud Italo-American family. Her parents, Joan Grande and Edward Butera, moved to Los Angeles in support of her career and Ariana subsequently won the part of Cat Valentine in Nickelodeon’s TV series, Victorious.
Grande credits her mother Joan for serving as an ideal role model as a highly successful business executive whose drive and energy has seemingly been passed on to Ariana.
“She’s the most loving and generous mother in the world. She has more energy than a power plant. She’s incredible. My mom is the CEO of a company that designs and manufactures marine radio communication equipment. She works almost exclusively with men and she’s always been able to assert herself. She’s also taught me to be a businesswoman.”
Growing up, Grande was fuelled by her mother’s evident sense of ambition and self-belief. From the age of four, Ariana was enthralled by music and recalls being taken by her mother to Broadway shows as a child and attending Celine Dion and Shakira concerts. As soon as it became evident that Ariana had an ethereally powerful voice, the kind that comes along every generation or so, Joan Grande began the process of cultivating her daughter’s vocal genius.
“She wanted to educate me musically because music was a big part of our home and has always meant so much to us. But the most important lesson she taught me was making me believe that I can aspire to do anything. This is what her father taught her. Since he had no sons he could leave the company to, one day my grandfather said to my mother, ‘OK, Joan, you’re up. From tomorrow you get up early and come to the office with me. I will teach you the business.’”
“My grandfather passed down his business sense to my mother and she in turn has passed that on to me. She’s also taught me another big lesson when it comes to life: you have to work very hard to get results!”
That kind of commitment is what drove Grande to complete Thank U, Next while she was still processing her highly public split from Davidson. It was another example of how work is able to give her the peace of mind that remains otherwise elusive. Anyone dealing with anxiety is aware of its manifest insidiousness, but in Grande’s case one must factor in the additional complications and obligations of being a world-famous pop star and being under constant public scrutiny
There is no place for her to hide, literally and figuratively, and this compounds the challenge facing this young woman with the unearthly voice and perfectly sculpted features. She’s also highly susceptible, as many young people are, to the disses and daggers of social media and her natural tendency to be a pleaser, someone constantly in search of validation by others and the kind of public approval that most entertainers crave.
“Sometimes celebrity and social media interaction takes a really crazy toll on me and I’ll be really sad for a couple days in a row when I read something that makes me feel awful because I am such an extreme purist when it comes to people.”
Added Grande: “I want everyone to be my friend. I desperately love and want to hug everyone I encounter. Literally I’m like, ‘Wow, I wish everyone would come over for dinner right now and never leave.’ I’ve had that since I was a little girl.”
Her extraordinary gifts as a performer and her relentless dedication to her music have left her exceedingly vulnerable, however. Like so many musical artists, especially ones who achieve staggering success as adolescents, Ariana is facing the instability and existential uncertainty that often results from living in a bubble. The usual kinds of teenage paths to self-understanding are replaced too quickly by the constant demands and obligations of the performing artist.
Not only is the socialisation process stunted if not perverted, but there is far less time to solve basic questions of identity and direction in life because they have already been settled – at least formally. Grande, however, has a high degree of self-awareness that has allowed her to take her anxiety public and engage with her fans in painfully confessional tones via Twitter.
“Someday, when I’m feeling ready or when I’m more healed up, we can talk more about [PTSD]…I am constantly working on my health/ learning how to process pain (aren’t we all). Every day is different but I’m doing my best.”
She’s also understood the unpredictable dynamic of anxiety and how it can assert itself without warning and without any seemingly direct connection with the current state of one’s life. Grande, as is her nature, is even apologetic about having to admit to her condition.
“I almost feel guilty that I have it [anxiety] because it’s just in your head and it’s just so crazy how powerful it is. You have ups and downs and sometimes you’ll go weeks at a time where you will be crushing it and there will be no anxiety…and then something will happen that can trigger it and then you have a couple of down days.”
More importantly, however, she has been straightforward in advising people to seek professional help when needed and plaintively asking her fans to not to give in to the stigma that still, however inexplicably, surrounds mental illness.
“In all honesty therapy has saved my life so many times. If you’re afraid to ask for help, don’t be. You don’t have to be in constant pain and you can process trauma. I’ve got a lot of work to do but it’s a start to even be aware that it’s possible.”
Above all, Ariana Grande is a fighter. She has faced up to every obstacle that has been thrown in her way and remained steadfast in her willingness to engage with her public as openly as possible. Though she occasionally wobbles when it comes to the men in her life, she never wavers when it comes to her fans. Just as Ariana’s voice exerts a quasi-hypnotic sway over her fans, her spirit should be equally empowering.