Beyond the Pale: In Defense of Ariana Grande’s Astoundingly Dark Tan
The ‘Italian-American’ pop singer may actually have North African Ancestry, too.
“When did she become black?” That question from a puzzled fan was one of many tepid responses heating up the interwebs back on July 9, 2019, when the cover of Vogue featuring a photo of Ariana Grande with a strikingly dark tan was posted to Instagram by the fashion + lifestyle publication. The print version would begin to grace newsstands soon after.
Posed in the photo with her beloved Chihuahua-Beagle mix, Toulouse, Grande sits on a beach before a frothing white shoreline. Her svelte torso is hugged by the crinkled fabric of a little black sundress. A twirled shoulder strap straddles Grande’s lithe left tricep. Atop her naturally dark-n-curly tresses — accentuated by freshly brushed “baby hairs” — sits an absolutely ginormous black sun hat. With doe-like eyes, Grande looks into the camera of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz and gives it what Madonna once memorably called “good face.”
But the most notable and unexpectedly contentious aspect of Grande’s Vogue Magazine cover photo in the summer of 2019 was the singer’s dark, honey brown tan — which could possibly-maybe-almost qualify for the African-American cultural expression of “melanin poppin’!” It was the very literal ‘shade’ of Ariana Grande’s complexion that would send both fans and non-fans of the singer into a collective tizzy.
“Why is she brown?” asked one puzzled commenter on Vogue’s on IG post. Another would much more pointedly ask, “Why tf does she look like a woman of color tho?” A question followed with unsolicited advice to the singer to “Chill with the tanning, Ari.”
“Noooo, sorry this is not ok,” wrote an even more distressed fan. “Ari does not look like this at all.” Meanwhile, even back when she was only a TV talent on the Nickelodeon network, Grande’s naturally pale skin often showed its equally natural tendency to take on a deep, sun-kissed hue. Even promotional images for FOX TV’s failed 2015 show Scream Queens would feature images of Grande looking every bit as ‘dark and lovely’.
Nevertheless, since establishing herself in 2013 as a world conquering pop-music diva with Mariah Carey-esque pipes, Grande’s semi-perpetual tan has often been a topic of debate on the web. Some fans have tried to point out her Italian ethnic heritage in an effort to explain her skin’s tendency to, um, “turn to the dark side.” But such defenses, unsupported by visual aids that could offer helpful context, have generally fallen flat.
One also can’t overlook the fact that well-known celebs of half-Italian ancestry — John Travolta, Madonna, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo di Caprio and Gwen Stefani among them — look pretty much like other white Americans. But what may make a big difference with Grande is that she, unlike any of the aforenamed, actually has Southern Italian roots on both sides. (We’ll get into the nitty-gritty of why that’s significant in just a bit.)
And so, hampered perhaps by a general lack of understanding about the significance of her “Southern” European heritage, Grande’s harshest critics have gone on to accuse the singer of everything from using “cheap self-tanner” to look multi-racial, to absurd claims of blackfishing and — even more absurd — to tanning as a quasi form of blackface.
But what if the perplexing depths of Grande’s tanned flesh isn’t a sign of going overboard in a nefarious effort to look multi-cultural, multi-ethnic or any other racially charged multi-hyphenate? And all of it done, as one oft’ repeated conspiracy theory suggests, to sell more records? What if Grande’s deep, dark tan is actually a genetic remnant of distant non-white ancestry?
Kiss me, I’m Sicilian + Italian
Despite accusations made by critics-n-haterz, Grande has never claimed to be anything other than a person of Italian descent. And Twitter has the receipts to back this thang up. As far back as 2011 (while still only a teen TV star on Nick), when a curious fan inquired about her “nationality,” Grande replied, “Italian American, half Sicilian and half Abruzzese,” followed by the seemingly prerequisite xx ‘kisses’ of a Yung Diva™ in the making.
It’s Grande’s maternal side of the family that comes from Abruzzo (aka Abruzzi), located in south-central Italy. On the colorful map below, it can be found right under the calf muscle-looking area of the country that’s famously shaped like one of Grande’s stiletto boots. And down at the southernmost tip, right across from Calabria (located down in the toe area), is the Mediterranean Italian island of Sicily, the place from whence Ariana’s dad’s side of the fam’ hails.
Of course, the story of a people is vastly more complex than simply looking at locations on a map. But we’re gonna need to skip over 15 bajillion years of European history and to get straight to the point. And the point is that during the 9th century, both Sicily and Italy were invaded by people from North Africa, and these folks left linguistic, cultural, and even genetic footprints that lingers in many Italians, possibly even Ariana Grande, to this day.
Out of Africa
Long before America would come to exist, or later come to be called “the melting pot,” Sicily was very much a multi-cultural melting pot. Over the centuries, the island was invaded by the Greeks, Germanic Goths, the Normans (Viking folk), and the Spanish. But during the Middle Ages, in 827 AD to be exact, Sicily was also invaded by Muslim warriors originating from the northernmost part of Africa formerly known back in the day as Mauritania.
Because abbreviated versions of longer names has also long been a thing, the invaders from Mauritania were called “Maures” by the French, “Moros” by the Spanish, and “Moors” by the English. So whenever you hear this term, usually in relation to the brotha’ in Shakespeare’s Othello, these are the folks being discussed. And for several hundred years, the Moors had European folk on the other side of the Mediterranean friggin’ “skerred.”
skerred | skerəd | noun: scared…afraid of something.
You see, in 711 AD, more than a hundred years before the Moors would come to add Sicily to their win column, they had already laid claim to a corner of Southern Europe. In fact, their lengthy rule of what today makes up the nations of Portugal and Spain spanned more than 700 years. But they also held parts of Southern France for nearly a century, and the Moors’ control over much of Sicily would span a little over 200 years.
During this time, the Italian island even declared as the Emirate of Sicily, meaning an Islamic state ruled by a monarch-styled emir — which it was from 831 to 1091. But even after losing control to the Normans in the mid-12th century, a heavy Islamic presence would remain until about 1226, when those Moors who hadn’t returned to North Africa were relocated to Muslim settlements situated in the far south of the Italian mainland (see: Puglia).
To this day, echoes of Moorish influence on Southern Italy can be found in everything from architecture, place names and language (the Tunisian Arabic once spoken in Sicily is still evident in the Sicilian dialect), to religious practices, culinary traditions, and even board games like chess. But one of the most revealing places in which the Moors’ impact on the culture of Southern Italy is found is in the legends that the people have come to embrace.
One of the most well-known is that of Mata and Grifone, a ritualistic folktale celebrated by the populations of Messina, Seminara, Palmi, Siderno, Martone, Anoia, Tropea, and other cities and towns across Sicily and Calabria, on the Italian mainland. It’s a legend that reveals the very remarkable way that a great many in Southern Italy have actually come to see themselves as the descendants of a big ol’ interracial love story.
Once Upon a Time in Sicily
A long time ago on a island far, far away, the Moors achieved their conquest of the Sicilian city of Messina. Afterward, a general in the invading army named Hassan took a tour of the area. During his survey, his eyes caught sight of Mata, the daughter of a Messinese nobleman. Overwhelmed by the woman’s beauty, he pledged his undying love and asked for her hand in marriage. At first, Mata would refuse Hassan’s offer, but later told the Muslim warrior that she’d accept it under the condition that he convert to Christianity. He accepted her terms and, after becoming a Christian, changed his name to Grifone (or Grifo). The two lived “happily ever after” and had several sons and daughters who became the proud people of Messina. Or so goes the legend.
Today, Mata and Grifone are celebrated in forms ranging from giant statues on horseback (“il Giganti”) which are paraded through the city during festivals, to smaller but still larger-than-life papier-mâché puppets that are carried on the shoulders of puppeteers who reenact a sweet courtship dance to the rhythm of raucous drums.
A somewhat less well-known tale (but quite likely part of the foundation for the mythical Mata & Grifone), is that of the infamous real life 12th century Sicilian Baroness Macalda di Scaletta and the Moorish Emir Ibn Sebir, from the Tunisian island of Djerba. The two met while they were both held as prisoners in the — wait for it — Matagrifone castle of Messina, and spent many of their days together playing chess. The game of chess that, for the record, was brought to Europe in the 8th century by the Moors. Historical evidence also suggests that Baroness Macalda was probably the first person in all of Sicily to learn how to play chess, and reenactments of the tale of the Baroness and the Emir can be seen today in the opera dei Pupi, the traditional marionette theatre of Sicily.
Our final Sicilian legend tells how in the 11th century, in the capital city of Palermo’s historic Kalsa district (formerly known as “Al Hàlisah”), there lived a beautiful young maiden whose favorite pastime was caring for the plants and flowers that she grew on her balcony. One day a passing Moor saw her there and was smitten. The maiden was equally smitten by his tall, dark and handsome self, and the two fell madly in love. But the flames of their passion would soon consume them when the woman learned that her Moorish lover already had a wife and kids back in Africa (Tunisia), to whom he one day planned to return. So in a seething rage, she hatched a murderous plot. [TW: Extreme violence] In the late of night, the woman killed her lover with his own sword and cut off his head. His decapitated noggin was then kept hidden in a planter on her balcony, so that her lover would always be there with her.
All across Palermo today, nearly everywhere the eyes of the tourist falls they’ll find ornate, multi-color ceramic planters of varying sizes situated on red brick terraces, near emerald lawns, on winding stone stairways, and high balconies. The planters are called testa di moro (head of the Moor), and serve as functional folk art emblems of the popular legend of the beautiful but deadly Sicilian maiden and the tragically handsome Moor.
“…one of the most revealing places in which the Moors’ impact on the culture of Southern Italy is found is in the legends that the people have come to embrace.”
Speaking of handsome Moors, this striking painting of Mulay Ahmad, the 16th century ruler of Tunisia (below), was painted by the famed Flemish painter of the Baroque age, Peter Paul Rubens. The artwork has no specific ties to this article, but is being used here as a segue which sets up a fairly massive mic drop in the defense of Ariana Grande’s astoundingly dark tan.
‘Dark Like an Arab Girl’
Earlier in this essay, the weakness found in arguments made by fans who defend the depth of Grande’s tan by simply pointing out the singer’s Italian heritage was underscored. So it seemed prudent here to provide examples of other Italian women whose complexions, both tanned and untanned, also span a similarly remarkable range.
Sabrina Salerno, also known as Sabrina, is an Italian singer, songwriter, record producer, model, actress, television presenter and a 1980s calendar girl. As is quite obvious from the picture on the left (used in a 1985 calendar), she could’ve been a smokin’ hot spokesperson for Coppertone Suntan Lotion, too. But fate would instead see her become a pop music sensation with the release of her 1986 debut single, “Sexy Girl.” How utterly apropos.
Claudia Cardinale (born 15 April 1938) is an Italian film actress who’s starred in some of the most acclaimed films of the 1960s and 1970s. Among them, Fellini’s 8½ (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), The Professionals (1966), Sergio Leone’s iconic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Escape to Athena (1979) — okay, that one’s not so acclaimed — and others. And she was actually born in Tunisia, which has a large Italian population today.
Last but certainly not least is one of the most widely recognized faces in cinematic history: Hollywood screen legend Sophia Loren. The actress who — perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not — got her first starring role in a 1953 Italian film adaptation of Aida. Uh-huh, that Aida; Loren actually played the part of the opera’s titular Ethiopian princess, but her skin was darkened a bit more and her hair was made to look more textured. (Yes, really.)
In her 1998 autobiography, Sophia Loren: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, the Italian-born actress also shares a surprising factoid about herself as a young girl growing up in Rome, where she was born in 1934. A young girl who didn’t quite fit in, it seems. Describing herself back then, Loren writes that she “was so skinny, they gave me the nickname stechetto — the stick. I was tall, thin, ugly, and dark like an Arab girl.”
Beyond the Pale
In 2009, a European team of geneticists took on the task of investigating if an influx of genetic material dating back to Moorish dominance in Spain, Southern Italy and Sicily might still be found in the DNA of people from these regions. By focusing on specific Northwest African haplogroups (a group of folks who share a common ancestor on either their paternal or maternal line), they were indeed able to find genetic proof in line with the historical data.
As to whether Ariana Grande actually has North African ancestry, only a DNA swab kit could say for sure. But considering the history and the legends, chances are good that her roots are part of that rich legacy––which pretty much makes rocking a honey brown tan a genetic birthright. And so with that, this writer will now close his historical (and scientific) defense of Ariana Grande’s astoundingly dark tan by badly paraphrasing the immortal words of Kanye West and saying…get down girl, go ahead, get brown.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.