POP STAR, ACTOR, PRODUCER, AND NOW BEAUTY ENTREPRENEUR SELENA GOMEZ HAS YET TO FIND A CHALLENGE SHE CAN’T MASTER.
Selena Gomez doesn’t like birthdays. When we talk, her 28th is only days away. “I’m not really good with birthdays,” she says, waving her hand as if to shoo them away. Selena (with all due respect to her and the Allure copy desk, let’s just call her by her first name here) has left the party-planning to a handful of friends she’s been seeing during the pandemic. “I don’t know, it just feels like maybe something like 30 should be celebrated. Turning 28 is weird,” she says. In Selena’s defense, nothing about this year feels celebratory for anyone.
There is a paradoxical quality to interviews these days. They happen at a distance, of course, yet there is an artificial intimacy. We’re sitting in our respective bedrooms. Selena’s look is unembellished. She’s wearing a long-sleeve, loose-fitting cream tunic so simple and elegant that it would look equally at home on a Celine runway and in a Renaissance painting.
The rest of her appearance is also timeless: She has pulled her hair back into a ponytail gathered at the crown of her head. Even through the blurry haze of Zoom video, it’s apparent why she’s caught the eye of casting agents since she was knee-high. Her full lashes and arching brows contrast strikingly with the rest of her facial features, which read as cherubic — until she flashes a wide, toothy grin that disarms you like a sudden bloom.
Speaking of lashes, brows, and the like, we are here to discuss, among other things, the launch of Selena’s cosmetics line, Rare Beauty, which she’s been keeping under wraps for the past two years. “I had always wanted the name Rare. [The word] has become the identity of my brand and who I want to be, which is showing people that being diverse and different, whatever was happening, I wanted it to feel like you were included,” Selena says.
I can’t promise that you will feel a deep level of inclusion in the midst of a pandemic that literally requires isolation, but I can say that you will very likely think you look amazing while wearing Rare Beauty products (which is the next best thing). The Illuminating Primer is so skin-perfecting I feel compelled to skip foundation. The foundation, which I eventually try, is the closest match I’ve ever had to my skin’s precise mix of olive-yellow-brown. (Come to think of it, that does feel pretty inclusive.) The Lip Souffle Matte Lip Cream is blurry, punchily pigmented heaven. The liquid liner is not annoying to use, even for those who typically hate liquid liner. The liquid blush looks like a real flush and stays on all day. And the Blot & Glow compact kept me looking nonshiny and non-cakey on the set of a shoot where I had to be my own hair and makeup artist.
I was an only child, and very, very dramatic — which I still am to this day.
Funnily enough, Selena found herself in the same situation on the set of our cover shoot, where safety measures required her to serve as her own makeup team. “I had never done that before,” she says.”I was a little stressed. I was definitely proud to be wearing [Rare Beauty]. I was just like, ‘I hope I did this right.'”
A few days later, when we sit down to talk, Selena doesn’t seem nervous at all. She exudes a calm and evenness so unwavering that it unnerves me at first, but then makes me feel calmer too. She is by turns sarcastic (about when, if ever, she will perform in front of a crowd again), sincere (when discussing immigration and racial inequality), and self-deprecating (regarding her own fame). Seeing her sitting on her bed, hugging one knee to her chest, it’s easy to forget that the woman in front of me is a chart-topping pop star (her third solo album, Rare, reached the coveted number-one spot in the U.S., led by the success of the single, “Lose You to Love Me”), one of the first Latina actors to anchor a Disney Channel show, and an executive producer of controversial scripted and unscripted television shows that deal with subject matter including teen trauma, suicide, rape, and the injustices of U.S. immigration laws.
Of course, to be that impressively credentialed before you reach the end of your third decade, you have to get an early start. When most of her peers were getting their first Bratz dolls, Selena, age 10, got her first job on a major network television show. By the time her fellow millennials began holding down their first jobs, somewhere in their teens, Selena was a bona fide millionaire. And that momentum shows no sign of easing. Her zealous global fan base, many of whom call themselves “Selenators,” have made her one of the most influential celebrities of our time, with more than 186 million followers on Instagram alone.
I honestly can’t [google myself]. I’m strong in a lot of ways, but I think I just have way too much of a sensitive heart.
Little of Selena’s life has been lived in obscurity, though it very well could have been. She was born on July 22, 1992, in Grand Prairie, Texas, to Mandy Teefey and Ricardo Joel Gomez. “My mom did a lot of theater, and I was just fascinated by her,” Selena says. “I was an only child, and very, very dramatic — which I still am to this day. I just loved performing.” Selena recalls asking her mother if she could be on TV. “I think it was just something I felt like I was born to do,” Selena says. “My mom let me dress myself for the auditions. I learned the lines by myself.” The years that followed her stint as a regular on Barney & Friends were dotted with commercials, her first audition for Disney Channel, and then her capital ‘b’ Big Break: “When I was 13, I did the pilot for Wizards of Waverly Place,” Selena says. “I moved to L.A. when I was 14. [That] show went for about four and a half years. And I’m still trucking on.”
Unlike some Disney alumni, Selena makes no attempt to downplay or discredit her launchpad. “I was extremely blessed to get picked out of Texas and chosen to become a part of one of the biggest machines in the world — it was my high school,” Selena says, with a laugh. In fact, she considers her role on Wizards of Waverly Place, as Alex, a plucky teen with magical powers, one of the main reasons she still commands audiences today. “I think the female characters on Disney Channel have a lot of strength,” she says. “And my comedic timing, my improv skills, everything I experienced made me a better actress.”
After a couple of seasons, though, things started to change. She was followed to the set by fans. Interviewers like Ellen DeGeneres repeatedly prodded her about her romantic life. In the tabloids, and on the then-novel social media platforms Twitter and Instagram, people rabidly tracked her activity for clues about her relationship status. “My personal life was out everywhere,” she says.”It felt very claustrophobic and just…I felt very trapped.”
I have always had so many different emotions and I didn’t know how to control them quite well. Once I did find out more about who I was, I was proud.
Nothing was off-limits for her critics, including her body. Despite her transparency about being diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, having undergone an urgent kidney transplant, a second surgery for complications related to the first operation, and dealing with high blood pressure, her weight was constantly criticized.” I was dealing with a lot of medical problems, so I fluctuated in weight a lot,” she says.” It was just unfair for someone to handle.”
Selena also felt some expectation to be overtly sexual in her music videos. “I just did things that weren’t really me,” she says. She continues, choosing her words more deliberately: “There was pressure to seem more adult on my album, Revival. [I felt] the need to show skin… I really don’t think I was [that] person.”
Remarkably, no amount of scrutiny has silenced Selena on one personal matter: mental health. This spring, she freely discussed the topic with fellow Disney alum Miley Cyrus on an Instagram Live. “After years of going through a lot of different things, I realized that I was bipolar,” she told Cyrus. “I wanted to know everything about it, and it took the fear away.” She likened it to the experience of overcoming her fear of thunderstorms as a child. Instead of coddling her, her mother bought her a stack of books about the weather phenomenon. “[My mother] was like, ‘The more that you educate yourself on this, the more you’re not going to be afraid.'”
Months later, Selena is still processing her diagnosis as transparently as she can. “I have always had so many different emotions and I didn’t know how to control them quite well,” she says. “It was complicated. But I think I’m happy to understand it. Once I did find out more about who I was, I was proud. I also felt comfortable knowing that I wasn’t alone, and I was going to get through it. So I will always be passionate about that. It’s something I will continue to talk about.”
To create a healthier headspace, Selena limits her media intake. She doesn’t read comments, she doesn’t post on TikTok (her team sporadically posts to her account to promote projects), and she definitely does not google herself: “Oh, God! I haven’t done that in years,” she says, frowning and shuddering. Then her expression softens. “I honestly can’t. I’m strong in a lot of ways, but I think I just have way too much of a sensitive heart.”
Her sense of empathy, though, is one of the main reasons she remains personally involved in her Instagram account. When other celebrities simply posted a black square for Blackout Tuesday, Selena chose to devote two weeks of her feed to educational programming created by influential leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb, activist and rapper Michael Render (a.k.a. Killer Mike), and Black Trans Circles founder Raquel Willis were among those featured.
“There was so much that I didn’t know,” Selena says, pushing back her hair.”I was so upset with how people were being treated, and having people in my life that have dealt with that for years, telling me stories that they’ve never told me before.” Selena pauses to brush the back of her neck with her palm. “That’s why what I did with my social media was extremely important — having all of these different voices share their experiences. I didn’t want to be someone that was going to just post something [or make a] donation.” (Selena did donate, by the way, primarily through a Black Equality Fund she helped start in partnership with the nonprofit Plus1.)
As a fellow Latina, I ask Selena what place she believes we have as brown people in a movement that has largely been characterized as black and white. She doesn’t answer, exactly, but she does reveal that she had two personal experiences with discrimination in her early childhood, both when she was with her father, Ricardo, who is of Mexican descent. “It was back in Texas,” Selena says. “They used a derogatory term [to refer to] my father, and I just remember him being like, ‘Don’t say anything, don’t do anything.'”
I wanted to do something that would make people uncomfortable, that would force people to watch something that maybe they just don’t want to see, or don’t understand.
Fortunately, she did not not do anything. She helped produce last year’s Netflix documentaryLiving Undocumented, a series that follows the lives of real families being torn apart by the often inhumane execution of current U.S. immigration policies. “It made me mad. I knew I related to that in so many ways. A lot of my family were immigrants, and created lives for themselves here,” Selena says. “I’m just once removed from being an [immigrant]. I’m proud of that side of who I am. But seeing what happened [to the families in the documentary], I just felt helpless — completely disgusted and frustrated — and I wanted to do something that would make people uncomfortable, that would force people to watch something that maybe they just don’t want to see, or don’t
Selena considers Living Undocumented one of the highest accomplishments of her career. She says the other is the controversial Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, another of her producing credits, which deals with teen suicide, rape, bullying, abuse, and other mental health issues.”Whether uncomfortable or not, viewed as inappropriate or not, it has created conversation,” Selena says.”And I feel like it was important for me to do.” (Some mental health advocates strongly criticized the show, and at least one scene was retroactively deleted.)
Selena’s upcoming career moves are decidedly lighter fare, at least for now. On the docket: a cooking show on HBO Max called Selena + Chef, in which she and a rotating cast of well-known chefs cook a meal “together” from their respective kitchens.
Also coming soon: many more Rare Beauty launches. (There is no mascara or eye shadow in the lineup yet, so I’m betting on those two.) Though Selena’s “first love was acting,” and she plans to keep making music, it’s clear she is relishing the change of pace. “I would definitely like to say I’m an entrepreneur,” she says, smiling broadly. “But I’m new.” I ask her if she is anyone’s boss. “That’s such a weird term,” she says, laughing at first, then giving it some consideration.”It’s not that weird. It’s more that I am in control,” she clarifies. “I am in full control of my life and everything that I do, what is out there, everything. So I would like to say, yes. I’m in charge of everything in my life.”