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10 steps to '7 Rings': How Ariana Grande became the most relevant pop star on earth

Ariana Grande performs at Wango Tango at Banc of California Stadium in June 2. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Published May 21

Doughnuts. You guys remember the doughnuts?

The last time Ariana Grande played Tampa, in 2015, she was enmeshed in a spicy scandal of the week, getting caught licking doughnuts and hissing "I hate America" in an L.A. pastry shop. That's a pretty Florida Woman move for the pride of Boca Raton, but it's not a stellar look for a pop star.

And a pop star she very much was, hot off four Top 10 singles (Problem, Bang Bang, Break Free and Love Me Harder) and headlining her first arena tour. Grande was newly 22 and revered by her kitty-eared, ponytailed young fan base, in spite of the occasional burst of bratty behavior. But she was also the kind of pop star it was fun to poke fun at, talented but artistically lightweight, adorable but not exactly lovable. Doughnutgate was the icing on the eclair.

Four years later, it feels like we're on another planet. In 2019 alone, Grande has headlined Coachella, won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, matched a 55-year-old chart record set by the Beatles and signed on as the new face of Givenchy. She has more Instagram followers than Rihanna and Katy Perry combined, and was just named one of Time's 100 most influential humans. This Florida Woman has become the most relevant pop star on earth.

Much of what made Grande such a fascinating figure, no one could have foreseen in 2015. Nor could anyone have predicted how fluidly she'd roll with the unprecedented turbulence of her life and career, evolving not only as a personality but as a person. In her music and online, she has figured out how to project a more transparent vulnerability than Taylor Swift or Adele, a quieter confidence than Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus. It wasn't all directly her doing, and the results still are not the whole world's cup of tea.

But this much is certain: No one's talking about doughnuts anymore.

Before Grande plays a sold-out show at Amalie Arena on May 28, it's worth retracing some key steps in her career's evolution since her last trip to Tampa. Here are the 10 moments that transformed Grande into perhaps the biggest pop star Florida has ever produced.

March 12, 2016: Grande hosts Saturday Night Live: In retrospect, it shouldn't have been surprising that a former Nickelodeon child star could hold her own on camera. But no one expected Grande to be quite so good at sketch comedy. Busting out impressive impressions of Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston and especially Jennifer Lawrence (who knew?) showed Grande's reservoir of talent ran deeper than many imagined.

May 20, 2016: Dangerous Woman: More accolades would come later, but Grande's third album was her first great artistic statement, more expansive, more omnivorous and — crucially — less overtly reliant on guest stars than her previous work. Grande's era of artistic exploration began in earnest right here.

May 22, 2017: Manchester: It's hard to view a suicide bombing that killed 22 of Grande's fans outside a concert in Manchester, England, as anything but a tragedy, and it's perhaps unseemly to consider how it impacted her career. But enduring the public pain of one of the highest-profile terror attacks in modern history did change the way the world saw her, shining light on the obvious fact that there was an actual human woman inside the diva all along.

June 4, 2017: One Love Manchester: Two weeks later, Grande hosted a benefit concert that helped raise more than $23 million for bombing victims, families and the Red Cross. The event, featuring performances by Coldplay, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder and others, received widespread acclaim, lifting spirits in Manchester and around the world — and Grande was rightly hailed as its emotional heart and center.

April 20, 2018: No Tears Left to Cry: Other big-voiced singers might have turned a tragedy like Manchester into a somber and serious power ballad. Not Grande. Pulled from her emotions after the bombing, the lead single from her 2018 album Sweetener was dreamy, dazzling and inspirational without feeling cloying — and the first sign that as an artist, Grande had emerged from her emotional rubble with new, unrestrained creative curiosity.

May 2018: Pete Davidson: Grande had dated other stars before, including rappers Big Sean and Mac Miller. But no relationship captured the public's imagination like the whirlwind affair she kindled with Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson. It wasn't just the odd-couple pairing of a petite pop A-lister and lanky, tattooed, stoner goofball. It was how quickly — and how publicly — their relationship blossomed on social media and beyond. They got matching tattoos. Davidson joked about Grande in interviews. Grande wrote a song literally titled Pete Davidson. They got engaged. They inspired the summer buzzphrase "Big Something-Something Energy." (Use your imagination to fill in the something-something.) And then, just as quickly, they broke up. As famous as Grande already was, the relationship still somehow boosted her overall Q rating — and catapulted Davidson into an all-new echelon of celebrity infamy.

Sept. 7, 2018: Mac Miller, RIP: Another personal tragedy, as Miller, a longtime friend and ex-boyfriend, died from a drug overdose. As with Manchester, here was an event that Grande could not have predicted or prevented; it left her reeling amid an outpouring of social media sympathy. i'm so mad, i'm so sad i don't know what to do, she wrote on Instagram. you were my dearest friend. for so long. above anything else. i'm so sorry i couldn't fix or take your pain away.

Nov. 3, 2018: Thank U, Next: What was remarkable about Grande's next hit wasn't just its empowering hook or star-studded music video, an homage to flicks like Mean Girls, Legally Blonde and 13 Going on 30. It was her startling honesty in addressing ex-boyfriends Davidson, Miller, Big Sean and Ricky Alvarez by name, reflecting on how she had grown from each relationship. Thank U, Next managed to be creative and catchy yet mature and self-aware. It was also Grande's first No. 1 single.

Feb. 10, 2019: Skipping the Grammys: Winning her first Grammy for Sweetener was a significant moment for Grande. But not as significant as skipping the ceremony. According to Variety, Grande wanted to perform her new single 7 Rings, but producers weren't on board. Grande, in turn, said thank you, next, tweeting that her "creativity & self expression" felt "stifled" by producers. Guess who came out of the debacle looking better: Grande and her artistic principles, or the Grammy producers who passed on a song that would spend eight weeks at No. 1.

Feb. 19: Beating the Beatles: The week her album Thank U, Next debuted, Grande had the top three singles on Billboard's Hot 100 chart: 7 Rings; Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored; and Thank U, Next. The last act to pull that off was the Beatles in 1964 — and Grande is the only solo artist to do it. Breakfast at Tiffany's and bottles of bubbles all around.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

Ariana Grande

Normani and Social House open the sold-out show. 8 p.m. May 28. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. For the first time, the venue will institute a clear-bag policy similar to the one at Raymond James Stadium. Fans can bring one clear plastic, vinyl or PVC bag measuring no more than 12 by 6 by 12 inches, like a freezer bag, or one of the souvenir bags available for purchase outside the show. Fans may not bring opaque wrist or shoulder clutches. Cameras are not permitted. (813) 301-2500. amaliearena.com.

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