It’s early in the New Year, and Selena Gomez is hidden away north of Manhattan, tucked in a room in an anonymous Tudor nestled in the crook of a picturesque village’s curving hills. The sky is fogged to white; the Bronx River ruffles the heavy quiet. Lightly mesmerized, I walk up to the wrong front door and am greeted by a kindly man in a suit and an N95 mask. “Selena?” he says. “Selena’s across the street. She seems lovely. Good luck.”
Selena Gomez is, in fact, across the street, in an oversized Nirvana shirt and black leggings and a ponytail, waiting on a big white couch, with her caramel Maltipoo curled on top of a furry green throw at her bare feet. Behind her, a fireplace crackles obediently; a single string of rainbow Christmas lights hangs across the windows. The deeply surreal aspect of this situation is heightened by the fact that it’s been nine months since I’ve had an indoor conversation with anyone outside my household—and suddenly I’m alone in a room with Selena Gomez, who a few years ago was more popular on Instagram than any other of the seven and a half billion people on the planet; whose “Lose You to Love Me” has been streamed nearly twice as much as “Let It Be” on Spotify; whose charisma is rooted in a sort of warm everydayness but who is so frankly beautiful that I feel that I’ve been transplanted into a movie about a doll who came to life.
After greeting me hello—she speaks in a surprisingly low, laconic register, the opposite of the breathy meringue of her singing voice—Gomez pulls a cloth mask over her face. She’s in New York to finish shooting her new Hulu series, Only Murders in the Building, a comedy in which she, Steve Martin, and Martin Short play neighbors attempting to solve an Upper West Side crime. She’d flown back to Los Angeles for the holidays, to her house, where she’s been riding out the pandemic with two friends who live with her and her maternal grandparents, who’d come to visit just before lockdown and ended up moving in. The year 2021 has begun—thus far—uneventfully, we agree. “We barely made it to the countdown,” Gomez says.
This time last year, Gomez had been days away from releasing Rare—technically her sixth album, but her third solo one, after 2015’s Revival, which cemented Gomez’s transition from a mover of studio product to an artist with a point of view. She was preparing to launch Rare Beauty, her makeup line, which promotes the message of the album as well as of Gomez’s general public platform: that everyone is special and worthy of love as they are.
But then the pandemic hit. Gomez spent a few weeks in a miasma of panic, then got to work. She started recording a long-promised Spanish-language EP, Revelación. She filmed a quarantine cooking show for HBO Max, called Selena + Chef, in which each episode features a famous chef teaching Gomez how to cook a dazzling meal via videoconference. (The shtick of the show is Gomez’s amateurism, but she’s ably beheading a raw octopus by episode two.) “I got good at roast chicken,” she tells me. “I know how to make a French omelet now, and molé.” She did her best to fill the sudden stretches of cavernous time. She walked her dogs with her friends and sat down to eat her nana’s corn casserole and did yoga and played “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” on her guitar. Every day she made sure to change into a different pair of sweatpants. When the afternoon doldrums came over her—she imitates her impatience: “What am I going to do? Like, right now, what am I going to do?”—she sometimes gave up and marathoned Bridgerton or The Undoing or watched two movies in a row. “I can’t function unless I’m working,” she tells me. “The whole point of quarantine for me personally was just to stop, and I have a hard time doing that. And my main focus was really politics, and making sure I took it seriously.”
Gomez, at 28, is in the middle of a political awakening. It was delayed, perhaps, because of ambient pressure to not alienate parts of her audience. (An impossible task when you have more Instagram followers than almost every country in the world has people: When Gomez posted in protest of the abortion bans that swept the deep South in 2019, her comment section flooded with vitriol as well as love.) Also, Gomez has been off the internet for three years—she sends photos and text to her assistant to post to Instagram and Twitter. (“Everyone always asks me, ‘Are you secretly on; are you lying?’ and I’m like, ‘I have no reason to lie.’ ”) She gets her news mostly from “an older woman that I’m really close with,” she tells me—someone whose identity she’d prefer to keep private. “And I watch CNN, but I try not to do it too much, because I’m empathetic to the point that I’ll cry at anything. I cried a lot during quarantine, just for the pain of everyone else.” But she had been appalled by the news during the Trump administration. She was compelled to act by the widespread suffering in the pandemic, by the fact of “so many pointless deaths.” Then came the Black Lives Matter protests. “I thought, Who am I to talk?” she says. “Am I going to post a picture and say, ‘This is important’?” No, I need to learn; I need to figure out people’s pain.” She turned over her Instagram account to movement heavy hitters, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who originated the term intersectionality, and Alicia Garza, one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter. As the election approached, Gomez went into get-out-the-vote mode, interviewing Stacey Abrams for the digital organization She Se Puede and releasing PSA after targeted PSA. “My first engagement with Selena was revelatory: She expressed an honest disengagement with traditional politics while also showing a hunger for solving real, painful problems,” says Abrams. “In that, she embodied the most powerful voter—one who comes to participation because she knows better is both possible and her right.”
It was especially remarkable given the fact that Gomez had never voted before 2020. Had she done the blue-state thing of assuming her vote didn’t matter? “I just had no idea,” she says, sounding sad and unguarded. “Either I didn’t care or I just was not recognizing the importance of who’s running our country, and that’s really scary to think about.” In a conversation with vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, she explained that she hadn’t previously been educated on the importance of voting. (She tells me that she didn’t hesitate to share this with the public, because she knew there were “a million people my age” who were in the same boat.) During election week, she was tense and terrified; she stayed up late watching the news, waiting for new batches of votes to be counted. Though Gomez is still wary of being divisive—at one point in our conversation, she tries to think of a way to describe the Trump administration and lands on “pretty hard to like”—she tells me she’s thrilled about the election’s outcome. Videos have been circulating, in the flourishing ecosystem of the Selena Gomez fan internet, of Gomez in New York, the day the election was called for Joe Biden, saying that no human is illegal; in another video, she’s in the back seat of a car, smiling deliriously, singing Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.”
“I haven’t even touched the surface of what I want to do,” she says. “I can’t wait for the moment when a director can see that I’m capable of doing something that no one’s ever seen”
When she was 10, she was cast, alongside Demi Lovato, on Barney & Friends, which was conveniently shot in another Dallas suburb. The job didn’t feel like work: “You’re on set with a big purple dinosaur and dancing and having a great time,” she says, laughing. Three years after she wrapped her run on the show, she secured the role of Alex Russo on the Disney Channel show Wizards of Waverly Place and moved to Los Angeles with her mom. Gomez’s desire to oblige and enchant, inherent in any young performer, became enshrined as a mandate. Working for Disney turned Gomez’s life into a perpetual promotion, with her image quickly distributed through TV, music, movies, merchandise, live appearances, and cross-promotion of all of the above. “That was my job in a way—to be perfect,” she says. “You’re considered a figure kids look up to, and they take that seriously there.” Gomez’s Wizards character was sly and sardonic, lazy about both school and wizardry—that was the concept, by the way: a family of wizards running a West Village sandwich shop. But Alexandra Margarita Russo still radiated the essential Disney-girl quality: a spunky, unselfconscious precocity and confidence.
It became part of Gomez’s job to maintain that aura even as, simultaneously, the tabloid media began treating her as an object of interest. She was 15 when paparazzi began showing up on set. Her onscreen brothers, David Henrie and Jake Austin, felt protective of her. “We were all new to this, and they wanted to say things to the paparazzi, but you can’t, because that’s exactly what the paparazzi want,” Gomez says. “I remember going to the beach with some family members who were visiting, and we saw, far away, grown men with cameras—taking pictures of a 15-year-old in her swimsuit. That is a violating feeling.”
I ask Gomez whether she was aware of how invasive this situation was as it was happening, or if she brushed it off in the moment. “I think I spent so many years just trying to say the right thing to people for the sake of keeping myself sane,” she says. By dint of her personality, as well as the fact that she was a young woman in the spotlight, she had to be unconditionally grateful, composed, sparkling. “I’m just such a people-pleaser,” she adds.
“It seems almost impossible not to be, as a performer,” I say, “unless you’re like–––”
Simultaneously, I say, “Daniel Day-Lewis” and Gomez says, “A man? Yeah.”
Gomez is jet-lagged. She woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. The room is warm, and the afternoon is becoming opaque, and the superstar in front of me is giving off a soft, bruised quality. I find myself, as many fans and casual observers of Gomez have found themselves, wanting to protect her, to make her happy, to cheer her up. Gomez is so invested in preserving a sense of normalcy that she swallows, in most moments, the strange side effects of having been on camera for two-thirds of her life. It’s a lifestyle that both exposes and insulates: Gomez seems acutely attuned to cruelty in all its forms, emotional and political, and also stunned by it every time. What’s most unusual about her—what distinguishes her from other celebrities in her echelon—is the way she’s grown softer, rather than harder, as she’s gotten older. The confidence came first; then came the confidence to let it drop.
In between, though, there was a non-negligible amount of chaos. At 18, when she was still filming Wizards, Gomez entered a serious relationship with a teen heartthrob, an entanglement whose off-and-on ups-and-downs were dissected constantly and voraciously until it ended in 2018. She was also releasing music—three albums before she was 20—with the pop-rock-lite band Selena Gomez & the Scene. In early 2014, in the middle of an international tour for her first solo album, Stars Dance, Gomez checked herself into a rehab facility. She was burned out and depressed, she tells me. She realized that she couldn’t understand the problem or work through it without help.
Gomez had also been diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that, in her case, was severe enough to require chemotherapy and send her to the ICU for two weeks. Eventually, she needed a kidney transplant, which caused one of her arteries to break; a six-hour emergency surgery followed. Gomez woke up with two significant scars—one on her abdomen and the other on her thigh, where the surgeon had removed a vein—and the jarring news that she had, for some time there, been fairly close to the edge.
Throughout this, Gomez continued to work: acting in movies, routinely going platinum with her music, producing projects like Netflix’s controversial hit 13 Reasons Why. But she also retreated to treatment centers for two more prolonged stays, in 2016 and 2018. “I knew I couldn’t go on unless I learned to listen to my body and mind when I really needed help,” she says. She still has a hard time with late-night anxiety: the kind where you forget how to sleep and start thinking about what you want, what you have to do to get there. “And then I start thinking about my personal life, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ and it becomes this spiral.” She’s become a staunch proponent of dialectical behavior therapy, and she feels proud when the Selenators, as her fans call themselves, talk openly about finding help with mental-health struggles. She viewed her recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder as an important step to managing her life more soundly. “Once the information was there, it was less scary,” she says.
Gomez maintains steadiness in part by avoiding social media. “I woke up one morning and looked at Instagram, like every other person, and I was done,” she tells me. “I was tired of reading horrible things. I was tired of seeing other people’s lives. After that decision, it was instant freedom. My life in front of me was my life, and I was present, and I could not have been more happy about it.” And on Valentine’s Day of 2019, she wrote the spare and graceful ballad “Lose You to Love Me” with her favored collaborators, the songwriters Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. The song hit number one; women came up to Gomez and told her that it got them through their divorces. Like you, probably, I’ve heard “Lose You to Love Me” several thousand times, and I still hold my breath a little at the tenderness in the melody, at the way Gomez offers a story of mutual culpability and weakness with a kind of grace that gives her the final word. “Once I stopped, and accepted my vulnerability, and decided to share my story with people—that’s when I felt release,” she says.
One of the side effects of having become so famous so early is the worry that people mainly know you for having become so famous so early. “I still live with this haunting feeling that people still view me as this Disney girl,” Gomez tells me. It’s partly a matter of her face, which remains stubbornly youthful: Even when she’s going full bombshell, you can still imagine her cheeks surrounded by flowers and cartoon hearts. Also, I suggest, her essential Selena Gomez–ness, the way she transmits her selfhood as readily and simply as a lamp gives off light, was there from the beginning. A person can’t rewrite the fundamental nature of her charm.
Over the phone, Steve Martin, her costar on Only Murders in the Building, tells me, “You get a list of names, you know, you’re thinking, Sure, they’d be good, they’d be good, and then they say, ‘What about Selena Gomez?’ and it’s just—yes, of course. There was no question except ‘Can we get her?’ We knew she would enhance the show in so many ways, the number one being talent.” Martin had never seen Gomez on the Disney Channel. “Her performance is rich and adult,” he says. “She’s learned to underplay when necessary. Marty and I are pretty manic, and she’s this solid, solid rock foundation. She’s nicely, intensely low-key.” When Gomez is on set, Martin says, there is no sense of her stardom. “She’s just working. And Marty and I joke around constantly, and we weren’t sure if she’d be game for it. But now we think of ourselves as the Three Musketeers.”
For now, though, Gomez remains better known as a singer than as an actor. This is partly because her music is autobiographical: It’s an avenue for Gomez to reveal herself on her own terms and conditions. (On “Look at Her Now,” a track on Rare, Gomez sings about losing trust in a lover who “had another,” adding, “Of course she was sad, but now she’s glad she dodged a bullet.”) Acting, conversely, requires her personal fame to be sublimated and transformed. The Spanish EP, wonderfully, allows Gomez to do both at the same time. On “De Una Vez” and “Baila Conmigo,” the first two songs to be released from Revelación, she moonlights as an alternate version of herself, working in the key of sunset melodrama, singing songs that are meant to be played on hazy afternoons, on old radios in rooms where lace curtains sway in the breeze. “It’s a Sasha Fierce moment, for sure,” she says.
Revelación was produced by Tainy, one of the reggaeton masterminds behind Bad Bunny’s debut album and the Cardi B juggernaut “I Like It.” He was inspired, Tainy tells me, by Gomez’s readiness to work in another language. “It’s a huge task. It’s not easy; it takes courage. And she sounds amazing.” Revelación melds the percussion patterns and the instinctual pulse of Latin music with strings and piano, all beneath the forthright melodies that have become Gomez’s signature. “She has this tone that’s so distinctive,” Tainy says. “She can hit high notes if she wants to, she can explode in a chorus, but there’s this softness. It’s angelic. You want to leave space around her vocal. What I’ll say is, a lot of artists generate emotion through power—what’s different about Selena is that she generates emotion through subtlety.”
“The project is really an homage to my heritage,” Gomez says. Thanks to her paternal grandparents, whom she still—pre-pandemic, at least—visits in Texas frequently, she was fluent in Spanish as a child, but she lost the language after she started going to school. (Before each recording session for Revelación, she did an hour with a Spanish coach and an hour with a vocal coach. “It’s easier for me to sing in Spanish than to speak it,” she says.) Gomez—often implicitly figured, along with her Disney peers Lovato and Vanessa Hudgens, as part of a vanguard of Obama-era “post-racial” young stars—has been delving more consciously into the question of what it means for her to be Mexican-American. “A lot of my fan base is Latin, and I’ve been telling them this album was going to happen for years. But the fact that it’s coming out during this specific time is really cool,” she says.
Gomez has recently spoken about the fact that her paternal grandparents were undocumented. “It wasn’t for any reason that I didn’t share it before,” she says. “It’s just that as I started to see the world for what it is, all these things started to be like light bulbs going off.” Her grandparents came to Texas in a “back-of-the-truck situation,” Gomez tells me, “and it took them 17 years to get citizenship. I remember that being such a huge deal. My grandpa was working construction, hiring hundreds of people, and still they were living on the edge, covering up how scary it was.” Gomez remembers being a teenager, at a Shania Twain show in Vegas with her dad, when a stranger yelled that her dad was a wetback. “I started crying,” she says. “But my dad grabbed me and just walked away. I cried even more. I thought, I hate that my dad feels so depleted by this.” Over the past few years, Gomez started learning more about the immigration system, having conversations with friends who had firsthand experience with its bureaucratic snarls. In 2019, she served as an executive-producer for the Netflix series Living Undocumented. “My goal was to communicate that these people are not ‘aliens’; they’re not whatever names other people have given them. They’re humans—they’re people,” she says. The author Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, who wrote the dazzling, defiant 2020 book The Undocumented Americans about this very subject, tells me, “My dad was an undocumented delivery man on Wall Street, and he catered galas for the fanciest New York City families, and very important men sent him to the freight elevator with the trash because they didn’t think he was human.” She sent her book to Gomez because she felt a kinship—“another Latina young woman who was self-made and clever and beautiful and successful and kind, who struggled and reinvented herself and metabolized her suffering in her art”—and sensed that Gomez understood the elemental sin of this dehumanization. When Gomez championed the book, lending it her endorsement and speaking about it in interviews and on Instagram, it was “a special moment for thousands of Latinx youth, many of them undocumented and queer. They felt like she had our back. I felt like she had our back too.” Cornejo Villavicencio says that some of her most loyal readers now are Selenators. “And I love them fiercely.”
Gomez, Cornejo Villavicencio suggests, is a figure like Princess Diana: someone who “entered a vulturistic institution really young, heart totally open.” (In an interview last year, Gomez brought up Princess Diana as a role model, citing the royal’s famous quote about wanting to be “queen of people’s hearts.”) Cornejo Villavicencio reminds me of Gomez’s Rare Beauty Rare Impact Fund, which has pledged to raise $100 million for mental-health services, specifically targeting communities that lack any such infrastructure. “She is a global superstar who is listening, who is learning, who is growing, who doesn’t need to be doing it but wants to,” Cornejo Villavicencio says. “She’s sort of peerless in that regard.”
Several days later, on another frozen afternoon, Gomez and I meet up again in her village hideaway. When I walk in the door, an episode of Friends—the one with Barry and Mindy’s wedding—is paused on the TV. She’s watched the series through many, many times. (“Thursdays at eight, seven Central, on channel 33,” she recites automatically when I ask her if she watched it growing up.) She and her assistant tried to do a Friends puzzle to pass the time but gave up on it, just tacking up a poster of the cast drinking milkshakes on the living-room wall.“It looks like a kid’s room,” she says, laughing. We agree that the characters will always seem older than us, even though they’re in their mid-20s when the series begins.
Gomez is wearing a cream-colored sweatshirt and sweatpants and fuzzy Uggs; she’s drinking a chai latte from Starbucks. “Intense week this turned out to be,” I say. Two days previously, at the behest of President Trump, an armed right-wing mob had stormed the Capitol, fueled by online conspiracy theories about a stolen election.
For the past few years, Gomez has been criticizing social-media companies for the way their platforms intensify despair and aggression; more recently, she’s castigated Facebook for allowing COVID-19 misinformation to spread. “She comes to this work ready to learn and eager to use her platform to dismantle misinformation,” says Abrams, whom Gomez supported in her fight for an accurate 2020 census. “Selena reached out through her manager last fall, wanting to understand why exactly things were going so wrong and what specific things she could do to make things better,” Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, tells me. In September, with the CCDH’s guidance, Gomez wrote an email to Sheryl Sandberg, pointing out Facebook ads containing lies about election fraud and Facebook groups that were openly preparing for civil war. On the night of the riot, Gomez tweeted, “Today is the result of allowing people with hate in their hearts to use platforms that should be used to bring people together and allow people to build community.” Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai, and Susan Wojcicki, she wrote, had all “failed the American people.”
“As soon as I saw the way she communicates,” Ahmed says, “I understood why her brand is so, so powerful. There’s just this goodness to her. She’s very moral. And she gives these issues a broad appeal beyond any individual political party. As you can tell, she’s not a party-political person. She’s someone who really believes in people.” Gomez had cried, she tells me, when she saw the pictures of the Capitol riot. “It felt like someone was pissing all over our history. It’s just anarchy. There’s been a complete division,” she says mournfully.
Gomez places a premium on what we owe to one another: respect, decency, kindness. In some contexts, this makes her bold, and in others, cautious. At one point, she’d talked to me about her frustration at feeling that her work hadn’t yet transcended her persona. “It’s hard to keep doing music when people don’t necessarily take you seriously,” she’d said. “I’ve had moments where I’ve been like, ‘What’s the point? Why do I keep doing this?’ ‘Lose You to Love Me’ I felt was the best song I’ve ever released, and for some people it still wasn’t enough. I think there are a lot of people who enjoy my music, and for that I’m so thankful, for that I keep going, but I think the next time I do an album it’ll be different. I want to give it one last try before I maybe retire music.” When I ask her about this again, she winces and says, “I need to be careful.” She clarifies that she wants to spend more time producing and to “give myself a real shot at acting.”
I tell her that I’ve been imagining what it might have been like to be 18 and get a cold and have to cancel performances and worry that you’re disappointing thousands and thousands of people who love you—and to have that sense of responsibility only ever increase. In the midst of the pandemic summer, she’d posted a video on her Instagram explaining why she’d gone silent for a bit. It had felt insensitive, she said, to post anything that felt joyful or celebratory. “I feel guilty for my position a lot,” Gomez says. “I feel like people are hurting, and I feel responsible with my platform to do something about it. To share that it’s hard for me, too. To cheer them up. I know that this wasn’t just given to me, I know that I’ve worked so hard to get here. I know that all of this is my purpose. But, because of the way I was raised, I just can’t help but think, I wish I could give people what I have.”
What a masterwork of casting it was, Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers in 2013. Her presence—her prudence, her sweetness, her sadness—is the movie’s anchor, which lifts after 45 minutes and sets the whole thing adrift. She narrates Harmony Korine’s neon bacchanalia in voiceover, murmuring, against footage of bare breasts and beer bongs and vulgarly sunny beachscapes, “This is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” Faith, her character, wears a sideways cross around her neck; she has an innate dignity and conscience. She wades into a sea of madness, searching for epiphany, and then, when the great yawning darkness of 21st-century America starts to reveal itself, she hugs her friends and retreats.
Gomez, approaching the end of the third hour of the 10,000th interview she’s done in the 28 years of her life, brings the pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life down the stairs, along with a spiral-bound journal with desert flowers on the cover and the lines “You Are Here. Now Everything Is Possible.” Gomez has read Warren’s book three times. “I’m very, very spiritual,” she says. “I believe in God, but I’m not religious. I’ve been a Christian for a while now. I don’t talk about it too much—I want to, but it’s gotten a bad rep. I just want to make it clear that I love being able to have my faith, and believe in what I believe in, and that truly is what gets me through.” I ask her when in her life she’s felt closest to God. When she was sickest, she tells me. “You don’t necessarily even need to believe to know that there’s something above you that’s bigger than you. You’re throwing your hands up, going, ‘I actually have no idea what is next.’ ”
Gomez believes—she has to believe—that she ended up here for a reason: that whatever irreducible glow brings people to her, whatever metaphysical pull led her from anonymity in a living room in Grand Prairie to the placeless state of being irrevocably famous and irreversibly known, it’s all part of a larger design she can’t perceive and doesn’t need to. She can only try to fulfill this plan with an open heart. And even with all of this, she knows, she’s barely even started. “I haven’t even touched the surface of what I want to do,” she says. “The parts that I want are the ones I need help with. I can’t wait for the moment when a director can see that I’m capable of doing something that no one’s ever seen.”
A melancholy tenderness surrounds Gomez’s memories of the last time in her life that her own potential felt uncomplicated. It was when she was first filming Wizards, when she and her mom would get to the set in the morning, and her TV family would be there too, and everyone would sit around and drink coffee and go over lines. “They were there before any of it,” she tells me. “They loved me for me, and they still do. I can’t say that I have that anymore. I can’t meet someone and know if they like me for me.” On the white couch, with her dog curled up on her legs and the single string of Christmas lights behind her, she says, “To be honest, I just want to start over. I want everything to be brand-new. I want someone to love me like I’m brand-new.”