Selena Gomez hands me her phone.
Here is a young woman who, at just 23, has lived more than half her life in the spotlight, having grown up on the Disney series Wizards of Waverly Place, starred in more than a dozen movies, and sold nearly 12 million records. She’s famous around the world — and famously wary of reporters, because we poke around in her personal life, specifically, about her past relationship with a certain Canadian pop star and which famous friend she is supposedly feuding with.
So, for her to casually hand over a device that is undoubtedly a repository of some of her most fiercely-guarded secrets — selfies? Taylor Swift's phone number? — is a pretty radical act of trust.
We’re talking about her new single, “Same Old Love,” which is already stirring speculation about Justin Bieber references (more on him in a moment). “I can’t wait for you to see the video,” she says, her deep-set eyes widening to take up even more real estate on her heart-shaped face. “Here, you can watch a rehearsal.”
So here I am, holding her iPhone 6. It’s encased in a basic black cover, incognito in a way that she can’t be anymore (even here, at a quiet rooftop restaurant in Beverly Hills). When the video starts playing, she looks across our table a few times to peek at the screen. So, I get up and crouch down beside her, and together, we watch her slink around a mirrored studio while a reverse harem of male dancers contorts around her. “I’m so stoked,” she says with an air of nonchalance. I’m not sure if this is cool confidence or anxiety. Both would be appropriate.
Gomez spent the past year pouring herself into her new album, Revival, which was released October 9 and has been met with warm reviews. It's only her second solo record, her first since severing ties with Disney (her employer since age 7) and all of its marionette trappings. It's a good album: confessional, catchy, provocative. And, it's poised to transform Gomez from that girl who's a former child star and has dated a couple of famous guys into a grown-up pop star who dares you not to take her seriously.
To record the album she wanted, on her terms, Gomez made other major changes beyond breaking up with Disney. She fired her longtime manager (her mom, as it happens), hired new management, and signed a recording contract with Interscope. And, along the way, she ended her relationship with Bieber.
“The year wasn't just me trying to transition in my career — it was my whole life. I had to reconfigure everything,” Gomez says, sitting up tall and looking me in the eye. “That was a little uncomfortable and very scary. I didn't have anything to fall back on.” Not that she felt like she had a choice. “At the same time, the public perception of me was unfair and very invasive. I was trying to figure out all my own stuff in my personal life while everybody had an opinion.” Those opinions weren’t so kind. Scan the headlines from that time, and a sad portrait of Gomez comes together: She was “desperate,” “angry,” “heartbroken,” “insecure” — a “girl” who just couldn’t get her shit together.
I can see why she wouldn’t be into talking to me, another nosy reporter. So, I'm pleasantly surprised when she arrives and greets me with a warm hug that lasts longer than I expect it to. Her raven hair and impossibly long eyelashes are every bit as dazzling in person as they are in her glamorous Instagram selfies. Save for a bit of sparkle shadow on her lids, she appears to be makeup-free. She is only 5-foot-5, but she seems statuesque in her cropped sweater, high-waisted leggings, and heels. The outfit gives the illusion that she is nearly all legs.
After the hug, Gomez sits down, tucks her hair behind her ear, folds her hands — nails painted a deep, slate gray and carefully filed into pointy talons — and waits for the first question. She’s all business. After spending years being judged in the press and media-trained by the Disney machine, she has built up a protective wall that can seem impenetrable. Finding out who she really is — beyond the gossip — is like digging for fossils with a Q-tip.
She responds to my first few questions — How have you changed? What do you want the world to know about yourself? How are you misunderstood? — with ready-made answers, including, “When people hear the album, they will be able to tell.”
But by 20 minutes in, we’re getting somewhere. We talk about the complexities of female self-confidence — at best, it’s schizophrenic — and we laugh about an Amy Schumer joke that she roughly translates as, “Some mornings you wake up and you're like, 'Everything about me is amazing!' And the next morning you're like, 'How did anybody ever sleep with me?'”
After an hour, Selena Gomez is giving me a tour of her tattoos. There are six in all: a tiny music note on her right wrist was her first. “I wanted something small to test the waters,” she says. “Now I’m addicted.” There’s the initial “G” behind her left ear for her 2-year-old sister, Gracie; her mother’s birthday in Roman numerals on the back of her neck; a Bible verse on her right hip that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The date on her left hip represents when she met one of her best friends eight years ago, and the phrase in Arabic on her back means, “Love yourself first.” She’s contemplating getting a seventh tattoo to celebrate her own revival — the album and the personal reinvention.
For all her supposed skittishness, Gomez actually wants to show the world who she is — and, in the coming months, she’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that. Besides the new album, she’s joining The Voice as an advisor, handpicked by Gwen Stefani for her “confidence and creativity,” Stefani said via email, adding, “Selena is incredibly passionate about her craft, and her talent far exceeds what one would expect from a woman her age." Gomez will also appear in four upcoming movies, including a hush-hush part in December’s financial-crisis drama The Big Short, starring Brad Pitt and Christian Bale. And, in a role that seems to be the definition of "giant leap," she portrays a Depression-era young mother in the onscreen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a performance her director (and Spring Breakers co-star) James Franco promises will reveal the depth of her acting talent.
“If she were allowed to play [more] roles beyond just teenagers with teen interests, she would show her innate maturity and strength,” Franco said via email. “She has had to face pressures and scrutiny at a young age that most never face in a lifetime. So when she is able to display the strength and leadership she has developed, she shines.”
So yes, you might say this is a big moment for Selena Gomez. After a rough 12 months, she’s picking herself back up and taking control of her career.
Not bad for a 23-year-old who got her big break dancing with a plushy.
Gomez was born in Grand Prairie, TX, a sprawling suburban town 20 miles outside of Fort Worth.
Her father, Ricardo Joel Gomez, is Mexican, and so worshipped Tejano music that he named his daughter after its martyred superstar, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, who was killed by a crazed fan in 1995, when Gomez was just 2 years old. Her parents divorced three years later, and at age 7, she and her mother, Mandy Tefey, moved to L.A. so they could both pursue acting careers. Obviously, only one of them found success. In 2002, Gomez landed a role on PBS’s Barney & Friends, where she honed her showbiz chops by singing and dancing with the perpetually upbeat, purple T-rex. By 15, she hit the child-star jackpot when she was cast as the lead of Wizards of Waverly Place, the Disney Channel’s colossally successful series about a magical family of New Yorkers. The show put her on the radar of every little girl with cable.
A music career followed — standard business when you’re a member of the Disney family — and Gomez recorded three albums as part of the group Selena Gomez & the Scene. “I sang about crushes,” she says. “I wore tutus on stage. I performed at state fairs. I was a baby.” Highly produced teeny-bopper affairs, her Disney records often drowned her vocals in synthesizers or heavy dance beats. They were safely PG, broaching no-no topics like sex in that ambiguous way many pop songs do: by substituting metaphors about the thrill of the dance floor or the beat of the drums for actual carnal coupling.
By 2014, Gomez was a platinum-selling superstar — and headed for her first heartache. Her courtship with Bieber was bubble-gum cute; the breakup was less so. Every on-again, off-again fight, makeup, and meltdown was broadcast in the tabloids and dissected — viciously — on social media. In the space of six months, she cancelled tour dates and checked herself into rehab, which she has said she needed to recover from treatment for Lupus, including chemotherapy. She says felt overwhelmed in her personal life and stagnant in her career.
No wonder she wanted to start over.
When Gomez signed with Interscope last year, she demanded complete freedom. She got it. She picked her collaborators, including rapper A$AP Rocky, singer-songwriter Charli XCX, and mega-hit producer Benny Blanco, who has worked with Jessie J, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears. She decided which single she would release first and demanded creative control as Revival’s executive producer.
“We never thought to say no,” says Aaron Bay-Schuck, president of A&R for Interscope. “Before signing, Selena was vocal that she wanted to be very involved in the making of her album. She felt it was time to change her narrative and the story of her journey, and transition to a more adult artist. It all began and ended with her.”
After three months in the studio in L.A., Gomez and her crew headed to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for some inspiration. “I think [the label] thought I was trying to get a free vacation,” Gomez says. “I got to find myself there. It does not mean I have everything figured out and I'm awesome. Not at all. I just felt this sense of groundedness and structure and stability I had been craving for a long time.”
Gomez and her team spent the days jet-skiing, riding on ATVs, and listening to local music wherever they could find it. At night, they huddled in the studio writing and recording, often until the sun came up.
“At first, she was a little guarded — of course, she was exposing herself,” says Julia Michaels, who co-wrote six songs on the new album and has also worked with Kelly Clarkson. “She knew exactly what she wanted to say and she didn’t hold back. Once everything was done, there was a sense of release. She just looked like she could finally breathe again.”
Gomez came back from Mexico giddy about what she’d done there. She had the title of the album and an arsenal of songs she believed in. “Good for You” reached No. 1 on iTunes within hours of its release in June, and a second single, “Same Old Love,” became the most shared track on social media just days after it was offered as an advance download with album preorders in September.
Gomez refers to the year she spent working on Revival as her “dark season” — as in going underground. She did her best to stay out of the public eye and talked mainly to her four best friends: her two non-famous roommates, who often star in her Instagram feed (one works as a real estate agent, the other for a nonprofit); her cousin, whose new baby is Gomez’s godchild; and Taylor Swift, whom she’s known for eight years. (Gomez, you might recall, played the head-busting #squad foe in Swift’s epic “Bad Blood” video.)
“I have a lot of friends in the business, but at the end of the day, [these four women] are who I call crying,” Gomez says. “They see my best and my worst.”
Her squad may get the intimate details about what’s going on in her head — and in her heart — but Revival gives us the rest. You can hear Gomez’s frustration on songs like “Kill Em With Kindness,” a beat-heavy dance track whose biting message I suggest is a “fuck you” to invasive, mean-spirited members of the press. She laughs at my analysis — and goes even further: “It’s for everybody.”
On “Same Old Love,” a pop song gone gritty, Gomez seems to be shedding the skin of past relationships.
"Take away your things and go / You can’t take back what you said… / I'm not spending any time, wasting tonight on you."
Everyone on Earth has already concluded that the song is about Bieber. Gomez insists it’s about getting rid of everything toxic in her life. “You can try to work on things and fix them, but at the end of the day, you have to accept what is in front of you, and that's sometimes hard to do,” she says. “I think there are people who have been in my life who are seasonal. Even people who I have dated have been just that. It's part of growing up.”
Okay, now we are talking about Bieber…right?
“I think people really wanted to see me fail,” Gomez says, staring at me blankly, then sighing and looking away. This is not an easy subject for her. “I'd sit down in an interview and get the most harshly asked questions. Of course I got my heart broken. Of course I was pissed about it. There, everybody has it. I was so disappointed, because I never wanted my career to be a tabloid story.”
I ask her if she has any final words on the matter, so we can pack it away and move on — as she’s been begging to do since last November, when she released “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” her raw confessional about being imperfect in love. “Ha, I wish,” she laughs, shaking her head.
“At this point, there is no anger. There's closure in a very good, healthy way,” she says. “We’ve seen each other. I'm always encouraging and I am proud of his journey. I think people are making it out to be something that is more tragic than it really was. We grew up together. We both made mistakes. That's it.”
As waiters come and go, dotingly checking in on the multimillionaire in their midst (she only wants lemonade), I decide it’s time to ask Gomez about sex.
It’s all over Revival. Before “Good for You” was released, Gomez teased her 46 million Instagram followers with photos of different parts of her presumably naked body. The video to that song features her rolling around on a couch, the floor, and in the shower. The artwork for the album’s cover is a black-and-white portrait of her sitting cross-legged and topless, staring into the camera. It’s not a come-hither stare. The expression seems to say, with self-assured attitude, “Yeah…what?”
“It's not something where I'm like, let me glorify what I do in the bedroom,” she says. “But I think I have a very healthy perspective on my sexuality. It's part of being an adult, and I'm still figuring out how to be one of those, too.” (A happily single one, at the moment. She issues this PSA to potential suitors: “Do not try to date me right now.”)
But when you’re young and famous and female, owning your sexuality is a minefield. Women can’t just be sexy. They have to be just the right amount of sexy. Too little, and they’re prudish and treated like children. Too much, and they’re branded sluts. When I talk to Gomez about this — in a bit of a feminist rant, I must admit — she nods along. She references the Nicki Minaj documentary, My Time Now, which aired on MTV in 2010. In it, Minaj talks about the double standard for women in the industry:
“When you’re a girl, you have to be everything,” Minaj says to the camera. “You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy…and you have to be nice. It’s like, I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being.”
“I used to watch that every single day,” Gomez says. “I had to remind myself that it's an unrealistic expectation that people have with women.”
We talk about how Gomez’s fellow Disney graduates Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus have handled the transition into adulthood. (Yes, they’re friends. Nope, no one’s feuding.) Lovato found edge early, embracing a rock vibe and an even heartier interest in tattoos than Gomez. And Cyrus obliterated all traces of Hannah Montana when she swung naked on a wrecking ball, started to twerk, and declared her “fluid” sexuality. “Everyone has found their identity in a really interesting way. We didn't come out as these robots that looked and dressed the same,” Gomez says. “We had to go through our own shit. At the end of the day, it’s respecting every female artist’s choice in how she expresses herself, because that’s what she wants.”
That’s the goal, anyway. The reality is a little uglier. Take what happened in April, when paparazzi photos of Gomez in a pink two-piece swimsuit surfaced, and online trolls picked her apart, criticizing every inch of her: thighs, stomach, breasts, face, even teeth. “It was appalling. I had never experienced that before,” Gomez says, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. “I was sad. I was angry. I feel all of it. But I also got motivated.” She crafted the perfect response, posting her own swimsuit photo on Instagram with the caption, “I love being happy with me yall #theresmoretolove.” Her fans instantly responded, sharing stories of low self-esteem. They cheered her on to the tune of 1.6 million likes.
“I don't want to become little or hurt or a victim. I want to be strong for girls,” she says. “I just want them to know that there is an option of standing up for yourself.”
She’s lucky that she’s had some stellar role models. Jennifer Aniston invites Gomez over to make pizza and talk about life. Kerry Washington tracked down the young star at this year’s Met Ball just to give Gomez her phone number, so she could call to talk if she needed to. “I treasure these women,” says Gomez, who considers herself a proud Gladiator — i.e., a die-hard fan of Washington’s ABC series, Scandal. “I'd rather be around women than men. I think they are interesting, complicated, and beautiful.”
When asked about Gomez, Washington gushes like a protective sister: "I love her so much! I'm so proud of her. I think she's just such an elegant young woman — she's so filled with grace and poise and intelligence and generosity. She's just a real girl, you know?"
I’m beginning to think I’ve found the real Selena Gomez.
And I really like her.
She’s an adult who is unafraid to talk about sex, tell her haters to suck it, and take credit for her hard work. She says she feels confident, graceful, and sexy. Which is kind of the best revenge against everyone she believes wanted her to fail.
As our conversation winds down, Gomez mentions that she’s heading to a photo shoot, then a rehearsal. She looks at me, instantly recognizing the question in my hopeful eyes. “I’d love for you to come to rehearsal,” she says.
Umm, yes! I would, too.
Ah, but there are limits to freedom when you’re a celebrity. Gomez calls her publicist.
Rehearsal request denied.
She’s apologetic and waits patiently, asking me if there’s more I want to talk about. Of course there’s more — there’s always more! Do you follow who your exes are dating (the buzz over Nick Jonas and Kate Hudson is quite the doozy)? Do you ever feel squeezed out of your friendship with Taylor Swift with each new BFF she acquires?…
I don’t ask these questions. I’ve already taken more time than I’d been allotted. So we say our goodbyes — another hug, this one shorter — and off she struts, past the Italian family who extended their brunch to gawk at her, past the hostess stand, where she pauses briefly to pay for our lemonade and iced tea. (She beat me to it.)
But before this departure, I do ask her a final question — one that she dodged earlier: What do you want people to know about you now? She smiles, looks at me with those big, kind eyes, and says, “I’m just a nice person.”