The biggest pop star on the planet (in terms of success, not her diminutive stature) stopped dead in her tracks and turned to face me.
‘Piers Morgan,’ I clarified as she peered towards me, bemused.
‘Piers…Morgan…’ she repeated, slowly. ‘Oh. My. God.’
I’ve been called worse.
It was an unlikely setting for a peace summit.
We were both by chance at the same LA restaurant on Tuesday night – the Ocean Prime steakhouse in Beverly Hills.
It was 9.45pm and we were pretty much the last people left in the place – me with my manager John Ferriter at one table, she with her 8-strong record producer team at another, celebrating her historic chart success this week in which she became the first solo artist ever to simultaneously have the top 3 singles in the Billboard Hot 100.
(Her week was to get even better when she won Best International Female at the BRIT awards on Wednesday).
What made our encounter slightly awkward is that three months ago, Ms Grande and I got into an unseemly Twitter squabble.
Ariana, 25, squeezed into our banquette table at the Ocean Prime steakhouse in Beverly Hills and said: ‘I want to persuade you to be a feminist – a proper one’. ‘I AM a proper one,’ I said, leading to a fun, fiery debate. She with her 8-strong record producer team at another, celebrating her historic chart success this week in which she became the first solo artist ever to simultaneously have the top 3 singles in the Billboard Hot 100
She’d taken exception to me criticising British pop group Little Mix for posing naked with insults like ‘slutty’ ‘ugly’ ‘fat’ and ‘weak’ painted on their bodies. I thought it was crude, cynical sexual exploitation designed purely to sell records
Ariana thought differently, raging: ‘I use my talent AND my sexuality all the time because I choose to. Women can be sexual AND talented, naked and dignified. It’s OUR choice and we will keep fighting til people understand.’ When I questioned this premise, she spat back at me: ‘I look forward to the day you realise there are other ways to go about making yourself relevant than to criticize young beautiful successful women. I think that’s a beautiful thing for you and your career…or what’s left of it’
In 2017, I wrote a column heavily criticising her for flying straight home after the appalling ISIS terror attack at her Manchester concert, in which 22 people were killed and scores more badly hurt. I thought she should have stayed to visit her wounded fans and families of those who had died. Then I wrote a public apology to her a few weeks later when she DID fly back to Manchester, hosted a massive show to raise money for the victims, and showed extraordinary courage in marching out on stage on her own to address the huge crowd when she must have been very nervous and scared
She’d taken exception to me criticising British pop group Little Mix for posing naked with insults like ‘slutty’ ‘ugly’ ‘fat’ and ‘weak’ painted on their bodies.
I thought it was crude, cynical sexual exploitation designed purely to sell records.
Ariana thought differently, raging: ‘I use my talent AND my sexuality all the time because I choose to. Women can be sexual AND talented, naked and dignified. It’s OUR choice and we will keep fighting til people understand.’
When I questioned this premise, she spat back at me: ‘I look forward to the day you realise there are other ways to go about making yourself relevant than to criticize young beautiful successful women. I think that’s a beautiful thing for you and your career…or what’s left of it.’
To make it worse, her attack got a gazillion retweets as her 60 million fans gleefully spread the word.
This wasn’t the only tricky history between us: in 2017, I wrote a column heavily criticising her for flying straight home after the appalling ISIS terror attack at her Manchester concert, in which 22 people were killed and scores more badly hurt.
I thought she should have stayed to visit her wounded fans and families of those who had died.
Then I wrote a public apology to her a few weeks later when she DID fly back to Manchester, hosted a massive show to raise money for the victims, and showed extraordinary courage in marching out on stage on her own to address the huge crowd when she must have been very nervous and scared.
We stared at each other like two dogs meeting for the first time on a beach, eyeing up whether to wag our tails at each other or have a fight
So now here she was, my pint-sized nemesis – standing just 5ft 3in tall, wearing a large sweatshirt and very small shorts, and with her striking brown eyes blazing defiantly at me.
She walked over and shook my hand.
‘Sorry I didn’t recognise you,’ she said, ‘I’m so blind I can’t see past my nose….anyway, I want to sit down with you and have a chat.’
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘Then sit down.’
Ariana, 25, squeezed into our banquette, along with her friend, singer-songwriter Victoria Monet (who co-wrote Grande’s recent monster hit album ‘thank u next’).
‘Congratulations on making history,’ I began.
‘Thank you, it’s nice of you to say that, but it’s not what I want to talk to you about. I want to persuade you to be a feminist.’
‘I’m already a feminist,’ I replied.
‘No, I mean a proper one.’
‘I AM a proper one.’
We stared at each other like two dogs meeting for the first time on a beach, eyeing up whether to wag our tails at each other or have a fight.
‘Well you have a funny way of showing it,’ she scoffed. ‘You’re always telling women how to dress and behave.’
‘No, I’m not. I just don’t think female stars with millions of young female fans should use nudity as a commercial tool. I don’t think that’s feminism, it’s exploitation.’
‘No it’s NOT!’ she seethed. ‘A woman should be able to do whatever she wants, without limits and without some man always criticising her.’
‘So, women can murder people?’
‘Sorry, WHAT? No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘So, there are limits then?’
‘To committing murder, yes! But there’s nothing empowering about murder.’
‘Those doing it might disagree, but you get my point. There are always limits, to everything. And now we’ve established there are limits to feminism, what did you think about Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajowski when they posted topless selfies of themselves flipping the bird? How is that remotely empowering?’
‘It’s empowering because they are both free to do whatever they want with their bodies, and if they want to express themselves in that way, that is their choice and their right.’
‘Sure, but isn’t it also my choice and right to criticise them for it?’
‘Why should you?’
So now here she was, my pint-sized nemesis – standing just 5ft 3in tall, wearing a large sweatshirt and very small shorts, and with her striking brown eyes blazing defiantly at me. She walked over and shook my hand
‘Because I think it sends the wrong message to young girls that the only way to succeed in life is to strip off and be rude.’
‘No, it tells them that they shouldn’t have to get a man’s permission to do what they want with their bodies. It’s their life, their body. There’s such a double standard – male stars like Justin Bieber go topless all the time but nobody attacks him for it. I’m sure Kim and Emily did that picture because they were sick and tired of people criticising them all the time.’
‘No,’ I interrupted, ‘they did it for commercial gain. Their careers are literally built on taking their clothes off and they’ve made millions doing it. They don’t have a world class talent like you.’
I mentioned how I mock-tweeted about Kim Kardashian two nights ago when she appeared at a Hollywood beauty awards show in a tacky, cleavage-bulging bondage style black cut-out Thierry Mugler dress.
Ariana thought for a few seconds.
‘Let me say this: when you criticise women for what they wear like that, you don’t know what else they’ve been trying on to get to that point. You don’t know all the stress, and all the outfits, they’ve gone through trying to decide what will work and won’t work. It can be so nerve-wracking. You also don’t know how much they’ve been body shamed and what effect that has on any woman. It can make you feel horrible.’
These were good points, but she needed a better example to illustrate them than the world’s most shameless clotheshorse.
‘Kim Kardashian wears this outrageous stuff specifically so we all talk about it,’ I protested, ‘it’s literally her brand.’
‘OK, but you were so wrong about Little Mix. I toured with those girls and I understood exactly what they were doing and saying. They were standing up for all girls who’ve been called those horrible names, and saying it doesn’t matter what people call you, you should feel proud of yourself and your body, and strong. I felt that when I saw their photo.’
‘Yes. I used to be called all those horrible names myself, long before I was famous or even an adult. So with respect, I can relate to what young girls go through far better than you.’
‘I accept that. But I have a 7-year-old daughter, I don’t want her thinking nudity is the route to success. That is my concern.’
‘I understand that, I do,’ she said, but you should want your daughter to grow up believing she is free to do what she wants with her body and with her life.’
‘I do, but whilst I believe you when you say YOU don’t use nudity or sex as a cynical commercial tool, and that for you it is a form of art attached to your performing, there are some other female stars who I am damn sure do.’
‘I agree,’ she replied. ‘See, I AGREE. We’ve reached common ground again. Let’s get another drink to celebrate.’
Two large glasses of a very expensive Californian red appeared in seconds and we toasted each other by clinking them together. But she wasn’t happy when I looked away as I did it
Ariana turned to a waiter standing nearby.
‘Can you get me and my new best friend Piers a glass of wine please?’ she asked him. ‘I’m paying.’
Two large glasses of a very expensive Californian red appeared in seconds and we toasted each other by clinking them together.
But she wasn’t happy when I looked away as I did it.
‘NO! NO! NO!’ she screamed. ‘Always look me in the eye as you clink. Do it again!’
We clinked again, and this time I looked into her eyes.
‘That’s better. OK, now we can drink.’
‘Fiery little thing, aren’t you?’ I laughed.
‘I’m Italian, half Sicilian, half Abruzzese. So I make no apologies for being passionate – it’s in my blood!’
Victoria suddenly announced that she wanted to perform a trick with a toothpick and napkin, so we all stopped talking to watch.
It was a simple, but well executed trick, and we applauded.
‘This is fun,’ said Ariana. ‘I’m glad we bumped into each other.’
‘Me too,’ I said, and I meant it. She’s a bright, lively, warm and entertaining young woman.
But our F-word debate was far from over.
‘I think radical feminism does immense damage to feminists,’ I suggested.
‘What do you mean by radical feminism?’ she asked.
I took out my phone and showed her a photo I had tweeted earlier in the day of a desecrated statue in Florida.
Last Sunday, a former US sailor named George Mendonsa died.
He was immortalised by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous World War II photo on V-J Day in Times Square, which caught euphoric George sweeping dental nurse Greta Friedman – a stranger to him – into his arms and kissing her.
They later became friends, and Greta said she had no issue with what George had done, understanding that he was showing spontaneous appreciation for all the work nurses did in the war.
But on Monday, the day after George Mendonsa died, the statue depicting the moment was defaced with the words #MeToo in red paint.
‘This is where radical feminism damages feminists,’ I said.
‘I agree that doesn’t seem right,’ Ariana nodded. ‘There has to be some common sense and balance.’
Mac was the rapper Mac Miller, her boyfriend of two years who died of a drugs overdose last September, just a few months after they split up. Tears were flowing down her cheeks as I began to play the song, which is a beautiful, soulful cover version
‘If women hate men, then everyone loses,’ I said.
‘Yes, I agree. But women don’t hate men.’
‘Some radical feminists definitely hate men.’
‘OK, some may do. But most women don’t.’
‘No, and most men want to treat women properly, fairly and equally.’
‘OK, I accept that too.’
‘See, we’re really getting somewhere!’ she cried. ‘This is good. We’re finding common ground.’
‘You know what else really p****d me off?’ I continued. ‘When “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was banned by some American radio stations for supposedly representing sexual assault. That’s bullsh*t.’
Ariana’s eyes promptly welled up with tears.
‘You OK?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I’m sorry. That song is special to me.’
Then she took my phone and hurriedly Googled something.
‘There… Mac and I recorded a duet of it together. Not many people know about it. I love that song.’
Mac was the rapper Mac Miller, her boyfriend of two years who died of a drugs overdose last September, just a few months after they split up.
Tears were flowing down her cheeks as I began to play the song, which is a beautiful, soulful cover version.
I suddenly felt incredibly sad for her.
For a young woman, Ariana Grande’s had to endure some awful things in her life.
‘You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?’ I said.
‘Yes. I don’t want to make out I’m been through any worse than anyone else. Everyone has their problems and their sh*t to deal with. But in recent years, I have…had a lot of pain and sadness.’
The Manchester terror attack was an unimaginably dreadful and emotionally scarring experience.
‘You know, I really admired your guts when you went back and put on that concert,’ I said. ‘I remember seeing you on stage, alone and tiny, and thinking how frightened you must have felt looking out at a huge stadium full of people and not knowing for sure there wasn’t some other lunatic out there waiting to do something terrible again.’
‘I…..I……’ Ariana tried to speak, but tears flowed again. ‘I was scared, yes. But I had to do it.’
‘I’ll be honest, I thought you were wrong to fly home after the attack.’
‘I didn’t want to,’ she said, ‘I was told to, and it was all so chaotic and upsetting I just did what I was told. I wasn’t thinking straight.’
‘I wrote a column attacking you for it.’
‘You did? I never saw that.’
‘Then you probably didn’t see my second column apologising to you when you flew back?’
I pulled out my phone again, found the column and urged her to read it.
‘I don’t know if I want to, it all brings back such terrible memories for me.’
But she did read it, slowly and carefully.
The column ended with these words:
‘Ariana, we’ve never met and I doubt I’ll be on your dinner party schedule any time soon. But I want you to know this: I seriously misjudged you. I had you down as just another self-obsessed millionaire pop star prepared to put her own safety before that of her fans. I was completely wrong. In fact, you’re an exceptional young woman who last night put on an exceptional show and in doing so, sent a massive two fingers to the disgusting creeps who thought they could bomb you and your fans into submission. That took huge personal courage, yes. But more than that, it took spirit. An indomitable spirit.
The Blitz spirit. The kind that says: ‘I don’t care who you are, or how badly you want to hurt me or my way of life, or that of those I love, I’m not having it.’ My army brother says there are two types of people in life: those you’d want in the trenches next to you, and those you wouldn’t. Ms Grande, I’d have you in the trenches next to me any time. I’m sorry I questioned your courage. You’re one helluva gutsy young lady.’
As Ariana finished reading this, she wept again.
‘That was so kind, thank you.’
‘I meant it,’ I replied. ‘I very rarely apologise to anyone for anything but I misjudged you, and I wanted to say so.’
‘Well, I appreciate that. It seems I misjudged you, too.’
John handed her a tissue.
‘I’m so sorry for crying so much!’ she laughed. ‘I’m a very emotional person and these things really affect me.’
‘It would be very strange if they didn’t,’ I said.
‘Come meet my friends,’ Ariana commanded, so John and I walked over with her to her table and met her group.
‘Good news!’ I announced, ‘Ariana’s decided to make her next record about me, it’s going to be called Thank u Piersy.’
They looked at each other uneasily, then realised I was joking and laughed, with palpable relief.
More wine arrived, and Ariana reprimanded me again for incorrect clinking technique. ‘LOOK INTO MY EYES!’
I looked into her eyes and then proposed a toast to her and her team for their chart-busting triumph.
‘You should all be very proud,’ I said, ‘this is an amazing achievement.’
‘I couldn’t do any of this without these wonderful people,’ Ariana responded. ‘I have worked so hard to get to this point, so many shows, so many flights, so many hotels, so many media appearances, I’ve done whatever has needed to be done. I have no other life at the moment. But when you get a week like, you realise what you’ve been working for.’
‘Has it been worth all the sacrifice?’
‘Yes. It’s what I wanted. I love music. It’s my life. Music and my friends like these guys.’
Then she turned to them: ‘I’ve been educating Piers about feminism.’
They laughed, and I laughed.
‘The most important thing you said tonight is that feminists have to bring men with them in their battle,’ I said. ‘Annie Lennox said the same thing to me, and I think it’s vital.’
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘but you men have to bring women with you too. It’s a two-way street. Remember Piers, this is about EQUALITY, in EVERYTHING… including PAY! We should be paid the same as men!’
‘I totally agree,’ I said. ‘And men should be paid the same as women, right?’
‘OK, so I’d like to be paid the exact same amount as you. What are you earning these days – $20 million a week?’
There was a moment of silence before everyone exploded with laughter.
‘You can’t sing!’ she insisted.
‘I can sing!’ I retorted. ‘In fact, I regularly sing on TV to millions of people. So I demand equal pay as you.’
‘That’s not how this works…’ she chuckled.
‘Complicated, isn’t it?’ I countered.
‘It doesn’t have to be.’
Around 11.45pm, two hours of chat later, I stood up to leave.
Ariana sprang up too, ran round the table and exclaimed: ‘Can we hug? Would that be inappropriate?’
‘Yes, of course,’ I replied.
So we hugged.
‘I’m so glad we met,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I replied.
‘I think we’re going to be good friends,’ she said, ‘we’re a lot more alike than I realised.’
Ariana Grande is an extraordinarily charismatic and talented young lady, right at the top of her professional game.
I enjoyed her company enormously, and appreciated her desire – particularly in these highly partisan Brexit/Trump times – to engage so enthusiastically in respectful debate with someone she had previously locked horns with on Twitter.
John and I left, and as we walked back into the chilly Beverly Hills night air, we both burst out laughing.
‘Did that just happen?’ he asked.
‘It did,’ I said. ‘Only in Hollywood, right?’