At this summer's One Love Manchester concert, all eyes were on Ariana Grande. And to many, the star they saw on the stage was a complete departure from who they used to know—and while it may seem like the tragedy of the past week, and the aftermath of the terrible suicide bombing at her May 22 concert, transformed the artist, it was actually the culmination of what has been a complete turnaround.
For many years, Ariana had a bit of a reputation as a slightly entitled, albeit talented, singer. The young star went through a variety of mini public relations crises, culminating in what came to be known as DonutGate. The leaked video of Grande licking an unsold donut and yelling out phrases like "I hate Americans," combined with rumors of being disrespectful towards members of her team and other iffy behavior, wasn't doing her reputation any favors.
Then, slowly but surely, she began to find her footing. First she gave a noticeably empowered interview to Billboard magazine in May 2016, saying things like "I'm tired of needing to be linked to a guy, I'm not Big Sean's ex, I'm not Niall[Horan]'s new possible girl. I'm Ariana Grande." She started speaking out on her social media platforms, sending out tweets with messages like, "I am tired of living in world where women are mostly referred to as a man's past, present or future PROPERTY / POSSESSION."
Almost exactly a year ago she started to truly walk the walk by attending the Women's March on Washington with a bevy of her family and friends. And her refusal to back down in the face of the terrorist attack, choosing instead to rally her famous friends in a gesture of love and defiance, has taken her image completely full circle.
Ariana Grande is simply one of the starkest examples of what has been a long trend of reinvention in the pop world. Stars are constantly re-branding themselves, and while it may seem organic or natural, it's actually something that is truly an art. It's carefully crafted and executed with one clear goal in mind.
According to branding expert Eric Schiffer, this rebranding gives celebrities the opportunity for new or revived attention: "[Reinventions] are designed to appeal to a demographic they have yet to attract, or to reinvigorate their brand among their current fan base."
And often times, the stars themselves start to grow restless in the typecasting they find themselves in. They slowly realize that they've gone so far down a road they never intended to be on and feel desperate for a change. And as Brittiany Cierra Taylor, an Audience Development Manager at BET who has handled the re-branding of musicians, tells E! News, a lot of times they're the victims of unfortunate circumstances. "A lot of pop stars are sold to us as a gimmick based on what is trending in the present," she explains. "We get these young, innocent packages and then they either start to experience life and want to act out on their changes in front of the world, or they just want to show us who they really are."
Enter one Miley Cyrus.
The singer spent the last several years twerking her way through the bad girls club, occasionally stopping to rock a thong leotard or give an interview about her hard-partying ways. Her entire musical and aesthetic persona was one giant F You to the establishment and to her stifling Disney upbringing. Not that anyone was too upset about this era: It brought the world "Wrecking Ball," and that chorus is worth enduring several hours of footage of the star gyrating nude on a piece of construction equipment. But it never felt like a sustainable persona, and this spring she suddenly flipped the script.
Gone is the flash, gone are the grills, in is everything natural. She debuted her new look with the "Malibu" video in early May, which saw her traipsing around in the hills of Los Angeles looking like she just returned from a sojourn in Laurel Canyon with Carole King and Joni Mitchell. This reinvention was further proven by her Billboard Music Awards performance that saw her swapping the theatrics (and the twerking) for simply standing onstage and singing.
But executing a pop star reinvention is much more than just deciding to change and swapping out a leotard for jean shorts—it takes research, planning and a team of experts with all sorts of opinions. "So many faux pas occur when people only ask people who think like them to examine a plan," says Taylor. "Don't be Pepsi—get another head in the room. Think like Beyoncé: She relies on herself a lot, but she also keeps a great team around her to collaborate or push back on ideas when necessary."
Once a star has assembled their reinvention A-team, they need to set a goal.
"The first step is to decide on the intention," explains Schiffer. "Is it to build a new demographic or stay relevant with existing fans? Then, align your attire, your messaging, your social media and behavior."
For a lot of stars, it all starts with the hair. As an ancient proverb probably once read, change your hair and change your life. Just look at Katy Perry. The star went platinum blonde (which was followed by a dramatic pixie cut) as she was fresh off of announcing her breakup from a very hot and heavy relationship with Orlando Bloom. She teased it all in an Instagram post (that featured a cotton candy aesthetic that was a departure in and of itself) that proclaimed, "New life who dis." Truer words have hardly been spoken.
That set off the period that we now know as "Purposeful Pop." According to Perry's Twitter bio, she currently sees herself as "Artist. Activist. Conscious." She has placed herself at the forefront of the resistance, whether she's acting out against the current administration (as in "Chained to the Rhythm"), her sworn enemy Taylor Swift (as in the not-so-subtle lyrical digs that make up "Swish Swish") or anyone that might be offended by graphic descriptions of oral sex (we'll let "Bon Appetit" do the talking on that one).
She's become someone who, for lack of a better description, truly gives no f--ks. But it all started with the haircut.
Next up in a reinvention is a wardrobe change. If we're looking to mildly incorrect ancient proverbs, this would be the clothes make the man. For Perry's part she began borrowing from what we're going to call Kylie Jenner Chic—she isn't quite at the level of the young reality star, but she also isn't afraid to wear a sports bra as a top or rock a millennial-pink bodysuit. She explained the new sartorial direction in her recent Vogue cover shoot: "I like more androgynous, architectural lately," she told the glossy. "I am happy to be another interpretation of myself. I am pushing for my own evolution, just making better choices as far as style goes."
Cyrus has taken the opposite approach, swapping "all the nipple pastie s--t," as she described it to Billboard, for a practically all-white wardrobe paired with completely natural hair and makeup. The other week she was even spotted wearing...wait for it...cowboy boots. When she arrived to shoot her Billboard cover story she even styled herself from a collection of blouses and sweaters that she brought in from her own closet.
Once the stars have drummed up all the buzz associated with completely changing their physical look, it's time to drop new music. By this time they've attracted the new audience they've been hoping to and have also held their fans' hands through the transition. Cyrus gave us "Malibu," which is a return to the country roots she was raised around and Perry has been rolling out the tracks from her upcoming album. And like him or not, Taylor points out that none other than Justin Bieber has done a great job with past rollout strategies once he decided that he had ridden the boy wonder wave as long as could.
"He started looking a little older, he teased his new music on social, and he engaged with fans who were not as happy with his new sound," she said. "He made sure they knew this was who he was, and he'd appreciate if they stayed with him and understood if they didn't. From that aspect, his rebranding was executed perfectly."
Which brings us to the keys to success. Or the major keys, to borrow from another star who pulled the image rug out from under himself. First, pop stars must tread very carefully with their social media strategy, making sure not to change anything about their online image until their absolutely sure of who they want to show the world. "So many artists have been on an apology tour because they rebranded for instant success instead of a purpose," warns Taylor.
Second, the new image a person chooses must really be their choosing. The aforementioned team of experts is important, but no one is going to believe that Katy Perry is now an activist, or Miley Cyrus is now an Earth child, unless they do, too. As Taylor puts it, the artist needs input because "They are the one who will be living and breathing the role."
For Schiffer's part, he warns that it's all about being careful not to cast off any fans too hastily. "The new image must be intrinsic to the core values of their brand," he says. "Or else it's deadly—They alienate fans who already identified with those deeper elements."
And if all else fails, get a hat.
Seriously, the hat is the golden ticket of pop star reinvention. Just look at Lady Gaga: Her pink fedora truly personified Joanne and the entire new leaf that came with it. We saw her put on the Joanne hat and we knew everything was different. As Gladys Tamez, the designer of the topper in question, told E! News last year, "[The hat] was about getting to who she was as an artist and a person, it was a way for her to transition out of that sort of pop star persona to something more down to earth something more representative of who she is."
Pharrell Williams donned a hat when he became a judge on The Voice. Bieber started wearing one of the pilgrim variety when he started his party phase. And Cyrus is on her way to Joanne status with her new favorite khaki floppy brim. Here's looking at you (and your head), Katy Perry.