Ariana Grande was due to make an emotional return to Manchester on Sunday night with her first performance in the city since a benefit concert for those killed in a terror attack two years ago.
The 26-year-old, who was made an honorary Mancunian in the aftermath of the bomb attack, was expected to dazzle fans with a sequin-studded set to headline the city’s biggest ever Pride celebrations.
Thousands of brightly dressed revellers gathered at Mayfield Depot, a former railway station nearly a mile from the spot where 22 people were killed and hundreds injured at her concert at the Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017.
Armed police patrolled the fringes of the festival and security inside was extra tight, but that did not deter the party atmosphere.
“The scale of it and the vibe is off the scale,” said Nathaniel Thornton, 28, wearing a rainbow-coloured costume decorated with a hand-crafted Manchester bee at his second Pride. “After the bombings we came to Manchester the following day when we had the vigils. This year we would’ve come anyway but the fact Ariana is here amplifies it. Kudos to her.”
Thornton’s sister, Essi, 26, said she would be tearful when Grande takes the stage but welcomed her return to the city. “Everyone will be crying. Everything is heightened this year,” she said.
Before the gig Grande tweeted: “On our way to Manchester Pride. Love u so much. Can’t wait to give you all our love. You’re my heart in every way.”
The choice of Grande to headline Pride divided opinion when it was announced in February. Some complained about a straight artist topping the LGBT event while others were angry at the price of tickets – £71 for a weekend pass, up from £30 last year.
However, festival organisers said the prices were not comparable as this year’s Pride is a full weekend of live shows, featuring artists such as Emeli Sandé, Years & Years, Bananarama and Cheryl.
Grande responded to the criticism by saying ticket prices were out of her control and said she wanted to celebrate a community that had been “so special to me and supportive throughout my entire career … regardless of my identity or how people label me”.
Thornton dismissed the naysayers, saying Grande was “the most appropriate” headline act: “Look at Cher, Madonna – you don’t have to be gay to be a gay icon.”