She’s wrestled with bipolar disorder, life-threatening illness, and tabloid hell. Now, she’s opening up about all of it in incredible ways
SELENA GOMEZ HAS a lot of baggage. She says this is true both “literally and figuratively,” and she says it while I am rolling my own literal baggage across the threshold of her Los Angeles home, having first rolled it past the security gate, then up the verdant hill, then along the glimmering pool, before depositing it in a sort of glam room with a flowery rug and a view of the patio through open glass doors. By this point, I may be perspiring a bit. Gomez hugs me anyway, then scurries off down a hallway to confer with a young woman about the air conditioning. When she returns, she plops into a white leather salon-style chair and launches into a tale of how, just prior to my arrival, she’d been eating an acai bowl only to realize that “my entire face was purple.” The general vibe here is clear: We are human. We perspire. We get food stuck to our faces. We have baggage. Welcome.
For a while now, one could say this has been a signature of Gomez’s appeal, this sort of wide-armed embrace of the human condition. Her recent albums span an emotional register that begins at “personal” and ends somewhere around “crushingly confessional,” songs she says arrived via some alchemy of emotional messiness, Chinese takeout, and serious dishing. “One day I walked in, and the producers were like, ‘How are you?’ And I was like, ‘I want a boyfriend.’ They were like, ‘Oh, should we write about that?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And that’s the whole song: I want a boyfriend,” she says of “Boyfriend,” a standout on 2020’s all-around excellent Rare, an album that continues a years-long streak of dealing with her feelings amid irresistible pop hooks.
Then there’s her acting, specifically her ability to ground whatever project she’s in: providing a dollop of decency in the moral morass of Spring Breakers, offering a cleareyed explanation of synthetic CDOs in The Big Short, being the sardonic, laconic foil to Steve Martin and Martin Short’s comedy fizz in Only Murders in the Building. “Her comedic downplaying and looking at us like we were two insane old men was so perfectly timed,” says Short. “She has, you know, 18 billion Instagram followers because people know that she’s authentic. And they know she’s not afraid to open up and say, ‘I am as hanging-on-by-a-thread as anyone else.’ Most big stars don’t feel that they should do that. Her strength is her honesty.”
It certainly was on her pandemic cooking show, Selena + Chef, a master class in self-deprecation in which, at various moments, she nearly severs her fingers with a rainbow-hued knife, gags while chopping an octopus, and pulls something aflame out of the oven with a look of sheer horror on her face. Speaking of gagging, her beauty line, Rare, is one of the few purporting to “embrace inner beauty” that doesn’t trigger that reflex, in part because of its inclusivity (there are, famously, 48 shades of foundation), and in part because a portion of its proceeds go toward efforts to provide underserved communities with access to mental-health services. Which brings us to the whole baggage thing. And here, it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe with the diagnosis of the autoimmune disease lupus, which is triggered by stress and necessitated Gomez getting a kidney transplant in 2017, after which the organ managed to flip itself over, causing grievous harm to an artery and requiring doctors to rush her into a six-hour surgery during which she very well could have died. So that’s … a lot, even if it weren’t paired with a series of highly publicized breakups with the likes of Justin Bieber and the Weeknd and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which she first shared with the world via a 2020 episode of Miley Cyrus’ Instagram Live show, Bright Minded. Meanwhile, she was popping up here and there to broadcast her allergy to bullshit, to make appeals for kindness and decency, and to rail against the ills of social media while at one point racking up more Instagram followers than any other human on the planet — a mindfuck if there ever were one. It’s difficult to think of another celebrity who has chafed against the trappings of fame so relatably, who has seemed so very conflicted, who has fought back tears so poignantly on so many stages (“I’m not a cute crier,” she’s been known to say, although of course she is).
In fact, the word “authentic” gets bandied about so frequently apropos Gomez that one could be forgiven for assuming that the depths have been plumbed — at least as much as she will publicly plumb them. But then there’s this: Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me, a documentary on Gomez’s struggle with mental illness that debuts Nov. 4 on Apple TV+. Any preliminary ideas that this might be a puff piece or vanity project are shattered five minutes in, when the mental anguish that caused Gomez to cancel her 2016 Revival tour early and check herself into a treatment facility is on full, painful, tearful display. The cameras do not stop rolling, and the next hour-plus provides one of the least sugarcoated explorations of mental illness one is likely to find on film. There are scenes in which Gomez is unable to get out of bed, scenes of her lashing out at friends, scenes of her roaming her house aimlessly, scenes of her coming apart in the middle of a press tour, contemptuously responding to the media circus when she isn’t seeming to disassociate entirely.
The documentary is so raw that Gomez almost didn’t sign off on its release. “I’m just so nervous,” she says of that prospect, pulling her bare feet up onto the chair. “Because I have the platform I have, it’s kind of like I’m sacrificing myself a little bit for a greater purpose. I don’t want that to sound dramatic, but I almost wasn’t going to put this out. God’s honest truth, a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I could do it.”
HERE’S HOW THE whole thing started. Gomez was on a trip to Mexico. While her friends were frolicking about, she was holed up binge-watching documentaries, because that’s the sort of thing she does. She saw a trailer for 1991’s Madonna: Truth or Dare, decided to check it out, and immediately “ran outside with everybody and their piña coladas, and I was like, ‘Guys, you have to watch it.’” Then she promptly reached out to the filmmaker, Alek Keshishian — who just so happened to be her manager’s brother — and persuaded him to do her 2015 video for “Hands to Myself.” When that went well, the two started thinking up another project. Gomez was planning the Revival tour and thought it could be cool to do an artful concert documentary à la Truth or Dare. Keshishian wasn’t sure he was interested in doing another documentary about a musician — been there, done that — but he was interested in the prospect of capturing that fateful transition from young pop star to fully-fledged artist. Along with everyone else in the world, he knew the broad strokes of Gomez’s story: how she’d grown up in Grand Prairie, Texas, born when her parents were 16, still in high school, and ill-equipped to raise a child together, which they didn’t — Gomez lived with her mom, Mandy Teefey, and her mom’s parents. Teefey had wanted to be an actress, and between working jobs at Dave and Buster’s and Starbucks, and searching the seats of the car for enough change to buy ramen dinners, had brought Gomez along to community-theater productions she was in, which is how Gomez had gotten the acting bug. “She was so cool,” Gomez says of her mom. “She was like Drew Barrymore in the Nineties, with her short hair and butterfly clips. She would make her own clothes. I was like, ‘Mom, I want to do what you want to do.’ And she’s like, ‘OK, well, maybe we can put you in theater classes.’ And I was like, ‘Nope. I want to be on TV.’”
Gomez’s first role was in a commercial for Joe’s Crab Shack. At age seven, two years after her parents had separated, she booked a part on Barney, which filmed in a nearby suburb of Dallas, and which helped Gomez feel like she was escaping something. “I didn’t have to live real life,” she says. “I could go play in Barney World, and that was great. Craft services to die for.” By 10, she’d aged out (“I got the boot because I was too old; business was starting at that age”) and was bandied about by Disney, going back and forth from Texas to L.A., living hand-to-mouth on a Disney per diem, sharing a one-room loft in downtown L.A. with Barney co-star Demi Lovato and all her family. When she was back home in Grand Prairie, she was shy, and sort of an outcast: “You try going to middle school and telling everybody you were on Barney.” She left Texas for good when she got the lead in The Wizards of Waverly Place, a dream come true until paparazzi started showing up outside the set when she was 15. Within a few years, her first romance was being mocked and dissected on the covers of tabloids the world over. Her dad was as supportive as he could be, but, she says, “he didn’t want to be a part of this industry life, so it was really me and my mom, our journey.”
Keshishian wasn’t sure how much of that journey she’d be comfortable sharing. “I told her, ‘For me to do this, you would need to give me full access to everything. That’s what Madonna gave me,’” Keshishian explains. “And she said, ‘No, no, I’ll give it to you.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re 24. I want to make sure you’re OK with what you’re promising.’ We had a trial run, and she stayed true to her word. She let me have access to film everything.”
“Everything” turned out to include some pretty serious stuff. “I could feel that there was hesitation with how comfortable she was going to be with really letting me show the tumult of what was going on,” says Keshishian. Eventually, Gomez left her tour; Keshishian shelved the project.
“I’m going to be very open with everybody about this: I’ve been to four treatment centers,” Gomez tells me now. “I think when I started hitting my early twenties is when it started to get really dark, when I started to feel like I was not in control of what I was feeling, whether that was really great or really bad.” Her highs and lows would last weeks or months at a time, prompted by nothing she could put her finger on. Sometimes, she wouldn’t be able to sleep for days. She’d be convinced she needed to buy everyone she knew a car, that “I have a gift and I wanted to share it with people” — a symptom of mania complicated by the fact that, in her case, it was kind of true. Then, a low would hit. “It would start with depression, then it would go into isolation,” she says. “Then it just was me not being able to move from my bed. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. My friends would bring me food because they love me, but none of us knew what it was. Sometimes it was weeks I’d be in bed, to where even walking downstairs would get me out of breath.” She never actually attempted suicide, but spent a few years contemplating it. “I thought the world would be better if I wasn’t there,” she says matter-of-factly.
There were things she thought might be contributing to her distress. She was struggling to find an authentic artistic voice, to shirk the Disney polish, to age along with her fans. Her health was precarious. Her life didn’t look much like she’d imagined it back in Grand Prairie. “I grew up thinking I would be married at 25,” she says. “It wrecked me that I was nowhere near that — couldn’t be farther from it. It was so stupid, but I really thought my world was over.”
And it was hard to share these fears with people whose lives hadn’t been derailed by fame, even as, she says, “I never fit in with a cool group of girls that were celebrities. My only friend in the industry really is Taylor [Swift], so I remember feeling like I didn’t belong. I felt the presence of everyone around me living full lives. I had this position, and I was really happy, but … was I? Do these materialistic things make me happy?” She realized, “I just didn’t like who I was, because I didn’t know who I was.”
By 2018, she was hearing voices, and as the voices got louder and louder and drowned out more and more of the real world, they triggered an episode of psychosis. Gomez only remembers snippets of this time, but she knows she ended up in a treatment facility, where she spent several months suspended in paranoia, unable to trust anyone, thinking they were all out to get her. Her friends have since told her that she was unrecognizable during this period. Her mother learned about the episode from TMZ.
One of the most scary things about psychosis, Gomez tells me, is that no one can predict if or when it will end. Some people come out of it in a matter of days or weeks; others never do. Gomez found herself slowly “walking out of psychosis,” as she puts it. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which helped her make sense of what had happened, but also meant that she was loaded up on medications, doctors throwing things at the wall and hoping something might stick.
She got better, sort of. “It was just that I was gone,” she says, explaining the effect the drugs had on her. “There was no part of me that was there anymore.” After she left the facility, she found a psychiatrist who realized she was on a lot of medications she shouldn’t have been on and pulled her off all but two. Slowly, she felt herself starting to come back. “He really guided me,” says Gomez. “But I had to detox, essentially, from the medications I was on. I had to learn how to remember certain words. I would forget where I was when we were talking. It took a lot of hard work for me to (a) accept that I was bipolar, but (b) learn how to deal with it because it wasn’t going to go away.”
Philanthropy helped. She realized that there was something about talking to other people about real things that grounded her, pulled her out of her own head, if only momentarily. She started caring about politics, talking openly about how her Mexican grandmother had entered the U.S. hidden in the back of a truck, and periodically turning over her social media accounts to people like Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality.” She co-executive-produced the Netflix series Living Undocumented and the Netflix miniseries 13 Reasons Why, joining the cast in getting a semicolon tattoo — a message of solidarity with those who have struggled with suicidal ideation and other mental-health issues — and in defending the show against accusations that it romanticizes suicide. She started the Rare Impact Fund, whose goal is to raise $100 million to do such things as provide a mental-health curriculum in American schools and combat the stigma against mental illness that can keep people from seeking help. She visited the White House earlier this year, started working alongside Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “There’s something very powerful in what she’s doing, not just for other people, but for Selena herself,” Murthy tells me. “When you struggle with mental-health concerns, it can erode your sense of self, your own self-esteem, and then it makes it harder and harder to reach out to other people, and so you enter this downward spiral of loneliness and isolation. Service has the power to break that cycle.”
“It’s kind of like I’m sacrificing myself for a greater purpose,” she says of her documentary. “God’s honest truth, I almost didn’t put it out.”
Much of the ongoing process of trying to break that cycle was caught on film. In 2019, after receiving her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Gomez traveled to Kenya on behalf of the WE Foundation, visiting schools she’d helped raise the money to build. She invited Keshishian along to document the trip. When she returned from Africa, he kept filming. The pandemic started, and he kept filming. Gomez’s lupus came back from remission, and he kept filming. Her mental-health struggle continued, and he kept filming, even when he wasn’t sure that he should. “I was in her home, and she [would be] in tears,” he says. “I’m holding my iPhone, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know whether I should shoot this.’ And she was like, ‘No, I want you to shoot this. I want you to shoot this.’”
She also handed Keshishian her diaries, lines of which narrate parts of the film. Over time, he began to see that there was “a deeper documentary here about a young woman struggling to incorporate her diagnosis — she was fresh out of the mental facility — and trying to reconcile the fact that she’s still a patient, she’s still in the earliest stages of her recovery, but she desperately wants to use her platform for good and to talk about it. There’s some tension there because obviously she’s trying to be an example for others, but she’s still not on the other side of it, so to speak.”
Gomez knows that there’s really no “other side,” that psychosis could return, that her bipolar diagnosis is one she will forever have to navigate and manage. She says she’s viewed the documentary only a handful of times, and while she immediately recognized its stark potential, she went back and forth on whether to release it. “I know it has a big message, but am I the right person to bring it to light? I don’t know,” she states plainly. “I wanted someone to say, ‘Selena, this is too intense.’ But everyone was like, ‘I’m really moved, but are you ready to do this? And are you comfortable?’” Finally, Apple+ set up a screening. Gomez didn’t watch the film, but she did watch the audience response afterward. She saw the emotional impact. “I was like, ‘OK, if I can just do that for one person, imagine what it could do.’ Eventually I just kind of went for it. I just said, ‘Yes.’”
Gomez hopes this was the right decision. At one point, she asks what I think of My Mind and Me — she wants me to be honest. I reply, honestly, that I think it’s profound and powerful, and then suddenly I’m telling her about the panic attacks I’d started having during the pandemic, and how as they’d gotten worse — unmoored, unbearable — my mind started doing things to my body, and that, once done, those things were real and painful and my mind couldn’t handle it, and the loop continued and I felt like I’d never, ever be able to break it. I tell her how I was loaded up on medications, doctors throwing things at the wall and hoping something might stick. I tell her how hard it was to break the cycle, to figure out workarounds, to detox.
I wasn’t planning on telling this story. This article isn’t about me. But then, that’s Gomez’s point exactly: to transpose the narrative, to make it not about her. As I babble on, I realize how profoundly she has succeeded. “That is the greatest gift you could have given me today,” she says quietly after I trail off. “Saying that you understood what that feels like. That’s all I want. I know people who have felt those things that don’t know what to do. And I just want that to be normal.”
ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON IN OCTOBER, Gomez descends from an SUV and totters in heels up a plywood ramp to the back entrance of the Stanford Center for Academic Medicine in Palo Alto, California. Inside, in a sleek lecture hall, are the attendees of the Mental Healthcare Innovations Summit — a hundred or so researchers and bold names (the surgeon general of California; Robin Williams’ son) assembled to “raise awareness of cutting-edge mental-health therapies” and to listen to Gomez and Elyse Cohen, the VP of social impact at Rare Beauty, talk about unrealistic beauty standards (“I don’t look like this. I mean, this took me three hours to do,” Gomez admitted) and creating a “stigma-free company,” and what Gomez did most recently to support her mental health (answer: the night before, instead of holing up to watch Schitt’s Creek in the “safe bubble” of her suite at the Palo Alto Four Seasons, she’d come downstairs and joined some of her team by the fire pit). This was no small part of her life now, these meetings with scientists and health care professionals, these discussions of how to support mental health in a micro and macro manner. “We actually are in communication with tons of different mental-health organizations and resources through Rare Impact,” Gomez says in her suite that morning, clothed in layers of soft knits and sitting at a table spread with the remnants of breakfast. “I love these conversations.” But she also understood the trade-off: In shifting the narrative to a greater cause, she’d implicitly agreed to be a face of it.
When I ask her about this, she visibly squirms. “I don’t necessarily think that I’m the face or want to be the face. There are reservations,” she admits. Then again, she says, “it makes me proud I’m actually talking about things that matter, not sitting here just talking about my brand and ‘I look great, and I have this and this.’ There’s already enough of that.” Before that morning, she had told me, “I just constantly remind myself that there’s a reason I’m here. It sounds really cheesy when I say it sometimes, but I truly don’t know how else I’d be here, simply based on the medical stuff and balances in my head and conversations I’d had with myself [that were] really dark.” If there’s a reason she’s here, she thinks, it must be this.
After the talk at Stanford, Gomez lingers in an antechamber of the center as various mental-health dignitaries approach. At one point, she removes her heels and stands barefoot on the floor, nodding along to a discussion of how therapy sessions of the future might be conducted by bots (a seemingly terrible idea until one learns — as we do in that moment — that 98 percent of Wisconsin has no access to mental-health care whatsoever). Gomez doesn’t say much — she’d been clear that she was not an expert, but rather there to listen — but when people share their own mental-health struggles with her, she takes in these stories graciously, seeming to hum with acceptance and goodwill.
She still has some trouble directing that same acceptance and goodwill toward herself. “I’m not fine and just back to happy life,” she tells me the week before in her glam room. At one point, she mentions that donated kidneys don’t last forever, that hers might have a shelf life of only 30 years. “Which is fine,” she says. “I might be like, ‘Peace out,’ anyway.” She talks about going to visit a friend who was trying to get pregnant and, afterward, just getting in her car and crying: Her need to remain on the two drugs she takes for her bipolar disorder means that she likely won’t be able to carry her own children — and “that’s a very big, big, present thing in my life”— though she’s convinced that “however I’m meant to have them, I will.” She tells me about a recurring dream she has, one in which she’s often traveling, always near water, and voices descend in different forms to subtly condemn her, to ask if she’s learned her lesson, to tell her that she’s not doing enough or doing too much. “I think there’s something over me that is maybe my bipolar that kind of just keeps me humble — in a dark way,” she shares.
She has tried to “make bipolar my friend,” as she puts it: doing dialectical behavior and cognitive behavioral therapy, visiting gurus and her therapist, trusting in “a force that’s bigger,” getting closer to her mom — who she says has been “very open about having struggles with her own mental health” — and working with her to launch Wondermind, a website devoted to mental fitness. She’s tried to have a sense of humor about the whole thing, with some success. “I named my new kidney ‘Fred,’” she says. “I named it after Fred Armisen because I love Portlandia. I’ve never met him, but I’m secretly hoping he finds that out just because I want him to be like, ‘That’s weird.’” She also takes stock of her own indicators of mental fitness. In September, Hailey Bieber appeared on a podcast, spoke of the vitriol she’d received from Gomez fans, and naturally sent the tabloid hive mind into a frenzy. Gomez took to TikTok to defuse the situation by appealing to her fans for kindness. As we talk, she seems to bring up the incident unprompted, as an example of how she’s learning to untangle herself from the manufactured drama. “Somebody made a comment and it involved me, and then for two days I felt bad about myself,” she says obliquely, not mentioning Bieber by name, but raising the point that in the past, such an incident could have set her back for months. This time, it didn’t. “I was like, I’m just going to say, ‘Everybody be kind to each other. Everybody just focus on what’s going on in the real world.’” (A few weeks later, in the real world, Gomez and Bieber were spotted being kind to each other at a gala in L.A.)
Besides TikTok, she remains famously off social media, having long ago deleted the apps and handed over the passwords to her assistant, who posts pictures and messages Gomez provides. She picks up her phone as if it were an object of passing interest. “I don’t even remember what the last thing I read is,” she says. “I’m actually curious.” Her fingers move over the screen and she grins. The last thing she had searched was “updos for the Emmys.” The thing before that was real estate. In three weeks’ time, she would be moving to New York, where the third season of Only Murders would start filming in January. When she’d first gotten the script, she’d worried about the optics — a leading trio of one young woman and two old men — but now she laughs at the thought that she’d ever had that concern. “It feels very familial on set, wildly supportive,” says John Hoffman, who created the show with Martin, and who adds that he, Martin, and Short have a sort of “paternal” relationship with Gomez, even if they didn’t know how fragile she was when shooting for Season One started. “It made me cry when I saw the trailer,” he says of My Mind and Me.
Gomez was lured to New York by the prospect of being back in a city where people more frequently just leave her alone. “I have people literally say to me, ‘Stop saying you don’t like L.A.,’” she says. “But if I’m honest, my schedule in New York is the crème de la crème. I have my system there, I have my workouts there, I have my coffee spots there. I get to walk and breathe there, and be inspired by New York City and the people and the life there.”
She plans to take Spanish lessons, in preparation for a Spanish-language movie she’ll be filming this summer. She plans to have some writing sessions, round out the 24 songs she’s already written for her next album, which she says she may start recording by the end of the year. She’s proud of “My Mind and Me,” the song co-written with the pop production team Monsters and Strangerz that appears in the film, but it is a marker of her current mental health that these 24 new songs exist, that she feels like she now has something else to say. “‘My Mind and Me’ is a little sad,” she explains, “but it’s also a really nice way of putting a button on the documentary part of life, and then it’ll just be fun stories of me living my life and going on dates and having conversations with myself. I feel like it’s going be an album that’s like, ‘Oh, she’s not in that place anymore; she’s actually just living life.’”
This summer, Gomez turned 30 and threw herself a party. “I thought I would be married by now, so I threw myself a wedding,” she clarifies wryly. She invited people who had been important parts of her twenties, whether she was still close to them or not. She wanted to celebrate that time, and also celebrate that it was behind her. The party was in Malibu, at a private home where the modern, concrete angles were softened by profusions of red roses and candlelight. There was dancing. There were gowns, including a pink Versace one, worn by Gomez. It was elegant, she says, classy. Miley Cyrus was there (“fucking love her”), and Gomez’s little sister, Gracie, and her kidney donor, Francia Raísa, and Camila Cabello and Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo and a Barney cake. “We had lovely drinks, and it was beautiful, and then my friend Cara [Delevingne] comes in and brings strippers,” she says, laughing. “So I would like to say it was a mixture of sophisticated and hysterical.”
It’s tempting to frame this new decade as a fresh start. But Gomez knows — and I know — that’s not how her mental illness works. That’s not how real life works. It’s a sign of growth, perhaps, for her to question whether her growth is unerringly linear, to push back against any implications that she’s having a revival — or that such a thing really exists. “I don’t have another reinvention story,” she tells me. “I’m 30, and I’m going to go through moments in my life.” If there is a silver lining, it’s this: “I remind myself that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the psychotic break, if it wasn’t for my lupus, if it wasn’t for my diagnosis. I think I would just probably be another annoying entity that just wants to wear nice clothes all the time. I’m depressed thinking about who I would be.” Sometimes she likes to get in her car and blast that song where Adele sings “I hope I learn to get over myself.” “And I’m like, ‘Yes, real life is happening. Real life is happening.’”
And for her, it’s about to happen in private, or the closest approximation she can manage. She says she’s prepared to do promotion for the documentary, but then she plans to go to New York and disappear. She shows me a picture of the fireplace of the apartment she’s rented. “I like all the slush and grossness,” she says of winter in New York. “I love being near all the Jewish grandmas. Nothing compares to being in your home in a blanket by the fireplace just reading or watching something.” Soon, she’ll sit by that fire. She’ll read and write and maybe watch Portlandia. She’ll have conversations with herself. She’ll do things to support her mental health, and one of those things she will do is simply retreat. “This is probably the most you’ll hear about me for a while,” she says before I leave. “I want this to come out, but I also want this behind me. Every now and then it’s important to just disappear.”
As I gather my things, Gomez hugs me again, tightly. “I don’t know what people expect,” she says of how the documentary will be received. “But thank you.” I thank her, too — for the visit, for listening to me, for all of it. Then I step out into the sunlight, bringing my baggage, literal and figurative, with me. This story doesn’t have a happy ending. But also: This story doesn’t have an ending. “Real life is happening,” as Gomez says. Real life is happening. This isn’t the end.