By InStyle Staff
Updated Nov 10, 2014 @ 5:45 am
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Credit: Giampaolo Sgura

In the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download November 14, writer Lizzie Widdicombe spent time getting to know 21-year-old singing sensation Ariana Grande. Inside her penthouse suite at the W Hotel in New York's Times Square, the "Break Free" singer offered a peek at the woman behind the cat ears, chatting fashion, fame, and the truth behind all those rumors. An excerpt of that conversation is below.

It’s 2:45 a.m.—well past most people’s bedtime—but the party’s just getting started at BPM, a gay club on the street level of the Out Hotel in N.Y.C.’s Hell’s Kitchen. Hip-hop shakes the sound system, the air is filled with apple-scented hookah smoke, and on the dance floor, where two muscle-bound studs in Speedos are gyrating above the crowd for cash tips, about 750 people, mostly young men in backwards baseball caps, are packed in front of the stage, waiting patiently for a new idol to appear: Ariana Grande.

The young singer has traveled a long way to get to this stage. Just a few years ago, she was a TV actress who was posting cover songs and impressions on YouTube, and her fan base consisted mostly of 12-year-olds who knew her as Cat, the daffy star of Victorious and Sam & Cat on Nickelodeon. Tonight, at 21 years old, she’s a full-fledged musical powerhouse whose second album, My Everything, has been dominating the iTunes store and radio playlists since summer.

Credit: Giampaolo Sgura

When a pop star has a new album, it’s normal for the record label to release singles to radio. But Monte Lipman, the chairman and CEO of Grande’s label, Republic Records, said, “What’s abnormal is, they don’t all go to No. 1.” Right now, she is three for three—having gone straight from the swingy “Problem,” performed with Iggy Azalea, to “Bang Bang,” a throwback to ’90s funk, with Nicki Minaj and

Jessie J, to the electronic-dance ballad “Break Free,” with Zedd. Whatever the genre and whoever the collaborators, when an Ariana Grande song comes out these days, odds are you’ll be hearing it in heavy rotation.

Grande is en route to BPM from Saturday Night Live, where she performed her latest single, “Love Me Harder,” a sophisticated and darkly sexy duet with neo-R&B star the Weeknd. By 3:30 a.m., however, she still hasn’t showed up. The guys on the dance floor don’t seem to mind, though. Their rapt patience makes it clear she has achieved another totem of success: gay icon. (Grande’s older brother, Frankie, a dancer and reality-show star, is gay and out.) The guy standing next to me, an amateur pop-culture philosopher, explains the excitement around Grande by placing her in the musical pantheon. With Grande, he said, it’s about raw vocal chops, not a wacky persona or hypersexual marketing. “She is what Christina [Aguilera] was compared to Britney [Spears],” he said. “In terms of today’s pop singers, Ariana Grande is the strongest new talent we have.”

************************************I first met Grande the day before her club performance, in a penthouse suite at the W Hotel in Times Square. She arrived almost an hour late—a publicist explained Grande had been waylaid by a crowd waiting for her to appear outside her brother’s apartment building, where she stays when she’s in New York. She was wearing all black, dressed in tight jeans, pointy heels, and a cropped top that read “Céline.” She was accompanied by an entourage of two: Alexa and Kelly, friends from her hometown of Boca Raton, Fla. All three girls were wearing cat ears. Grande insists that there isn’t a rationale to the accessory. “We just wanted to wear them,” she says. “And it’s almost Halloween.” Alexa chimes in: “If you’re cute, why not be cuter?”

Watching the singer with her friends is a reminder that, despite the voice, Grande is just barely out of her teenage years. The trio is giggly and fond of campy catchphrases. (She and Alexa seem to especially like “I can’t” and “I can’t with you.”) They pile onto one end of a giant couch, and the room immediately takes on a slumberparty vibe, which Grande says is typical. “Whenever I’m in town, literally eight people stay at the apartment. We’re up all night,” she says.

To find out what happened next, including more on her crew and her cat ears, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download November 14.