manchester's ariana grande stans on why she's a queer icon
Ari returned to her second city to headline Pride this weekend. We met her fans.
It’s a Sunday evening in Manchester and there are 30 minutes left until Ariana Grande takes to the stage. It’s 10pm but the crowd is still sweating from the heat of the day: 10,000 people packed like sardines into a former train depot in the city -- not that that seems to have phased them. Queer people kiss and dance drunkenly to Rihanna and Lady Gaga songs pumped through the speakers; the kind that have been about long enough for people to love, forget about and rediscover. It’s a party.
In the corner, a woman watches on with a teenage girl, her daughter, curled at her feet. She’s smiling and optimistic, with a rainbow feather boa wrapped around her neck and a t-shirt that reads: ‘Proud Mum’ with a Pride Flag love heart. They’re waiting anxiously to see Ari. “If she plays "One Last Time", I think I’ll start bawling,” the daughter admits.
The circumstances that tie Ariana to Manchester are well documented and heartbreaking. Two years ago, she stopped by the city to perform a date on her Dangerous Woman tour. It was targeted by a suicide bomber. 22 people lost their lives. Since then, Ariana has lived her life on a strange axis, maintaining her position as one of pop’s most spectacular entities but also as a lifeline to a city -- and to the relatives of those who died -- that see her as a figure of strength and stoicism in the face of pain. She famously returned a fortnight after the bombing to stage the ‘One Love’ fundraiser for those affected by the tragedy. It went on to raise over £17 million for the cause.
Perhaps, in some ways, she feels just as indebted to Manchester’s people as they do to her. It’s a complicated exchange, especially when it comes to performing live again. When news first broke of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener tour swinging by the UK, there was a Manchester-shaped gap in the announcement. Fans speculated: maybe it was too painful for her to return? Or maybe there was something greater planned?
It turned out that Ari would play Manchester Pride in lieu of returning to the arena that changed her life, preaching to a crowd of fans both queer and straight. But opinions of her occupying that slot were split. On one hand, some queer people questioned why a straight-identifying woman was headlining an LGBTQ+ event (something that Britney, Kylie and just about any other female popstar has done without backlash in the past). On the other, there was the fear that having Ariana’s only Manchester show collide with Pride would lead to the event itself becoming burdened by a largely straight audience. It was a difficult debate to make sense of.
But on the day, the conflict has been sidelined and everyone seems to be having a good time. “It’s just a great day to come together and celebrate what it means to be queer,” a woman called Tito, who identifies as queer, tells me. “I do like Ariana Grande too. She’s got some sick tunes, and she’s sort a gay idol, isn’t she? It makes sense to me.” Most people -- straight or gay -- seem to share her opinion on this. Milly and Tabitha came to Pride primarily to see Ariana. “We are 100% allies!” Milly stresses. “I like an excuse to come to a show to celebrate something that’s not just Ariana,” she adds, holding two gin and tonic tinnies in one hand. “My moral compass would be a little bit skewed if I was coming here just for Ari and not Pride overall.”
So what are the things that make Ariana Grande a queer icon? To most queer people, it’s something indefinable; more of an energy than a prescriptive list of qualities. There’s a rather off-colour but reliable marker of someone’s queer icon status that cis gay men have adopted: ‘Can ‘X’ celebrity say the ‘F’ word?’. Despite being straight, it deems that Charli XCX can, perhaps because she has a deep understanding of the kind of music that makes young queer people go insane. As a bisexual woman with a message of acceptance sewn into all of her songs, Lady Gaga can. Those who can’t are struck from the record, either because of a mediocre stage presence or a lack of bops.
Considering Ariana is behind at least two songs that carry such potent gay energy; the kind that soundtrack the last 10 minutes of a queer nightclub before it closes, as you desperately search for someone to go home with (that’s "Into You" and "bad idea" btw), Ariana Grande is most definitely a queer icon.
Laura and Holly, gay and straight respectively, believe she deserves that glowing status. “She’s a diva!” Laura says, before Holly points out that “her support for her brother is so vocal, and she’s always talking on social media about her gay fans and the community.” Part of a friendship group that has come bearing both homo and hetero qualities, they say that the day prior -- headlined by Years & Years -- felt a little more Pride-friendly, “but like you were saying earlier,” Holly adds, turning to her friend, “if Ariana brings in more people to celebrate Pride then that’s great!”
It does, at times, feel a little co-opted. I run into a group of queer women, and wonder if they’re here for Pride or Ari. “Both!” the group agrees. “But I’m a bit split about the whole thing,” a girl called Nat chimes in. “On the one hand I’m glad she’s here to support Pride, but on the other hand, I see a lot of people here purely for Ariana.”
“It’s against the sentiment of pride isn’t it?” her friend Fee says. “But I guess a lot of gay people do look up to her as a gay icon.” It turns out I’ve caught the group on their way out. It's too busy. “How am I going to get to even see the screens?” one says. “It doesn’t feel like Pride, it feels like a festival for straight people.”
Billie is a trans fan of Ariana’s who is staying to see the show, undeterred by how busy it’s become. She’s here with her queer friend Zoe. “When you look at her fan communities, so many of them are LGBTQ+ in some way,” Billie says. The transphobia and bigotry that plagues places outside of this space isn’t apparent here -- no matter how heteronormative the crowd is. “She likes to represent the community as a whole, and being here and seeing everyone be supportive is so amazing.”
The whole event does look different to the way it was staged previously in nearby Canal Street: from a mini stage in a local park to a full-blown festival-style set up. Stefan and his mate Tom are die-hard Manc Pride people who’ve noticed that. “As long as the roots and the cause is still there, I think it’s a good thing,” Stefan says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily all bad making things bigger and better. It’s a celebration still. Pride has always been a meeting of straight cis women and gay men anyway. I’ve been here every year so I needed to come back, but when we saw the announcement with Ariana…” They share a sweet moment of talking over each other, back and forth, fizzing with excitement. “A lot of queer people do see her as a gay icon!” Tom says. Stefan nods along in agreement, and with a grin, chimes in: “They love a girl in thigh-high boots!”
As 10:30pm strikes, the lights dim and a solitary five foot figure walks on from the side of the stage, like a regular person and less of a popstar. Free of the aura of uppity stardom, she’s met with a roar of applause and adoration as the spotlight finds her. “Right now I’m in a state of mind…” she coos, as the crowd sing every word back to her. Ariana Grande is back on the soil some may consider her second home; a permanent, painful bolthole she’ll forever be tied to.
Eight songs later, as the crowd get ready to bid her goodbye, Ariana Grande wants to do something special. For the first time on her European tour, she sings a note perfect, acoustic rendition of "One Last Time", the song that became the ode to those who died that night in Manchester. Somewhere in the sea of thousands, a queer teenage girl cries in the arms of her doting mother.
Photography Richard Dowker