Ariana Grande: From Cat Valentine to a Generation-Defining Pop Princess [WHERE ARE THEY NOW?]

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Photo: Stefan Kohli

Ariana Grande’s breakup bop “thank u, next” set the tone for what pop music could be in 2019. Reflective, transcendent, empowering, and beyond infectious, it set a new standard for not just breakup anthems, but the genre of pop as a whole. A song surrounding the notion of looking and moving ever-forward, in many ways “thank u, next” speaks to Grande’s trajectory as a pop star. From modest beginnings as Cat Valentine on Victorious to becoming the youngest artist to ever headline Coachella, we look back at just how Grande became the pop princess of 2019.

Born in Boca Raton, Florida in 1993, with a name inspired by Felix the Cat’s Princess Oriana, Grande was drawn to the creative arts at an early age. Blessed with a four-octave vocal range, Grande would grace her first stage of many to come, playing lead roles in Annie, The Wizard of Oz, and Beauty and the Beast at Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater at the tender age of eight. Yet, arguably most impressive is the fact that she would make her national television debut before even hitting double digits, performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a Florida Panthers game.

Poised to become a serious threat in the world of musical theatre while most kids were still getting their multiplication tables down, it was at the age of 13 when Grande found her true calling–music. While still focusing on theatre, Grande first expressed her dream of making R&B album. However, it would take a few years for that dream to become a reality, as her managers at the time questioned who would want to buy an R&B album from a 14-year-old.

They say life imitates art but in the case of Grande, it was the inverse that rung true. Having only previously acted in theatre productions and sung in New York City jazz clubs, Grande landed the role of Cat Valentine in the Nickelodeon television show Victorious. Centered around the escapades of a group of teenagers who attended a performing arts high school, Victorious transformed Grande into a household name. And while many would come to know the aspiring actress as the “adorably dimwitted” Cat Valentine, Victorious hinted at Grande’s potential as a bonafide pop artist.

While filming Victorious, Grande posted several covers to YouTube, one of which includes an Adele cover–an artist that Grande would go on to join as the only female leading artist with three top ten singles simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100. Catching the attention of more than just Cat Valentine stans, Grande’s covers would catch the eye of Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman, who would sign her to a recording deal. And while Grande’s music debut would technically be on the Victorious soundtrack, chances are you may be more familiar with her debut album Yours Truly.

Originally titled Daydreamin’, Yours Truly was recorded over a three-year period, all while Grande was busy starring in Victorious and the subsequent spin-off series Sam & Cat. The ‘50s doo-wop-influenced R&B and pop album debuted atop the Billboard charts (spoiler alert: this would not be Grande’s last time atop the Billboard charts) and fulfilled a 14-year-old Grande’s dream of releasing an R&B-inspired album. Grande’s first number one album as a solo artist received widespread critical acclaim, but it was its lead single “The Way,” which features Mac Miller, that would go on to ignite a fire.

Following meeting during the recording of “The Way,” Grande would date the late rapper in May of 2017 before ending the relationship a year later. Lingering feelings of loss and love following Miller’s untimely passing would partially go on to fuel “thank u, next,” but we are getting ahead of ourselves here. After all, we still have three critically-applauded and internationally successful albums to touch upon.    

Somehow not daunted by the massive success of her debut album, Grande continued to defy expectations and set the standard for a new generation’s pop icon. From finding a fan in then President Barack Obama, who invited Grande to perform not once, but twice, at the White House, to releasing her sophomore album, My Everything, the rising pop star took 2014 by storm. My Everything marked a noted evolution for Grande, as the sophomore effort explored mature themes and varied electronic production. Plus, it didn’t hurt that it featured the likes of Zedd, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, and Childish Gambino–the last of which she shared headlining duty with at Coachella 2019.

Continuing a hot streak that is still going strong to this day, Grande released her third album, Dangerous Woman, in 2016 to widespread acclaim. However, the Dangerous Woman era was struck with tragedy, following an explosion after the artist’s Manchester Arena show, killing 23 and injuring more than 500. Grande faced the tragic event headfirst, suspending the remainder of the tour and casting a televised benefit concert alongside Liam Gallagher, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and more to raise over 23 million to provide support to the bombing victims and affected families.

The events of the Manchester explosion greatly reshaped Grande’s forthcoming fourth studio album, which she began work on back in 2016. Revealing the project with its lead single “No Tears Left to Cry” in 2018, Grande became the first ever artist to debut four lead singles from their first four albums at the top of the Billboard charts, officially welcoming the Sweetener era. Sweetener would also go on to earn Grande her first Grammy win, taking home the award for “Best Pop Vocal” performance.

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While the Sweetener era lasted less than a year, it is not because anyone came for Grande’s crown; she simply put out the best project of her career with no time to waste. Coping with the death of Miller and the sudden engagement and breakup to comedian Pete Davidson, Grande transformed her journey of loss of and eventual self-love into a collection of truly transcendent pop-R&B. thank u, next, the artist’s fifth record, marked a turning point for the pop star.

Originally championed as an heir to the throne of pop-R&B superstar Mariah Carey, thank u, next established Grande as not just an heir to the throne but a pop icon all her own making. Capable of highlighting both the profound gems of truth imbued in life-changing events and the simple undeniable joy of pop, 2019 welcomed Grande as its own pop princess. It’s Grande’s world, and we’re all just living in it. 

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