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Selena Gomez is the boss now.
“She’s exhausted,” her manager tells me. Even though she’s ahead of schedule, everything is still a little frantic. Her new album, Revival, debuted at number one, and two singles are sitting comfortably in the top 20. She’s already done four interviews by the time she gets to me, and though she seems genuinely happy to chat, there’s a bit of a darkness following her.
Two days ago, she was in New York City filming The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, and before that she was in Europe for a few days. The press tour for her new album Revival is non-stop. Today, Selena is in Los Angeles. She gets to stay at her home in the city, but she’s here to work. She’s been up since at least 5:30 a.m. and in this building filled with lights and cameras since 7 a.m.
When she sits down on the couch for our interview, she’s fidgety. The lights have to be moved higher. Her microphone cord is bothering her. She adjusts her knitted dress to sit flush with her skin, and pulls her mane of hair around and over her shoulders. When she blinks, her eyelashes seem eight miles long. Around her, a dozen people move quickly to get the camera in place. They are asking her questions rapidly, with a kind of rushed importance. She nods. She shakes her head. Things change.
Someone asks her for a mic check and she brightens. She looks away from her entourage of people and at the camera and smiles. It’s a full smile and the happiest she’s looked since she started getting settled. “One, two, three, four,” she says in a monotone before lifting her voice into a sing-songy progression, “hi, hiiiii.”
Somewhere a switch flips. Suddenly, Selena Gomez doesn’t look exhausted at all. She looks at me and in that same sing-songy voice says “all riiiight,” and her crowd of people behind me hush.
Selena Gomez has a very precise definition of fame. She seems to think fame is something that happens to you. It swoops in overnight like a houseguest and makes a space for itself on your couch. Fame never tells you how long it’s going to stay, or when it’s going to leave. Fame can be coaxed into visiting, but it acts on its own volition.
“There’s just a huge difference from being famous and being successful,” Selena tells me. “I’ve been working since I was 7. I’ve never had anything handed to me.”
She’s not famous, you see. Selena Gomez is a success story.
Born in the suburban sprawl of Fort Worth, Texas, Selena Gomez was branded for pop stardom at birth. Her father, who is Mexican, worshipped the music he grew up with and named his daughter after Selena Quintanilla-Perez, who was the biggest Tejana star when Selena was born.
In 1995, her namesake was murdered by a crazed fan in a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas. Quintanilla-Perez’s death wouldn’t have even made an impression on her memory, as Selena Gomez was only two years old then, but the late Selena’s enduring legacy and loyal fan base certainly did.
Selena Gomez worked hard. At only 23 years old, she’s already been working for 16 years. After her parents’ divorce when she was five, Selena and her mother Mandy Tefey moved to Los Angeles, a city not unlike her Texas birthplace–a landscape with splashes of Mexican culture, stretched-out strip malls and warm, golden sunlight. Los Angeles is a land of promise, a place where everything—from opportunity to the perfectly setting sun—seem like they exist just for you.
Selena found opportunities and seized them. In 2002, at age 10, she joined Barney & Friends, working long days to film episodes and honing her ability to act and sing. She had cameo appearances on Disney shows. She took minor roles on movies. By the time she landed her breakthrough role on Wizards of Waverly Place, Selena already had an IMDB credit list a mile long. “I’ve constantly worked my whole life, and that’s how I wanted it,” she told me.
She never got comfortable. There was always more work to be done, more opportunities to thrive. Singing and acting were her passions, and she excelled at both.
At 16 years old, she signed a five album contract with Hollywood Records, a pop music label owned by Disney.
Like her fellow Disney contemporaries Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez’s start as a pop princess was very carefully regulated. Selena Gomez & the Scene, a pop-rock group with a thumping electronica inspired sound, released three albums, full of empowerment anthems for teen girls. In 2012, she ditched the band, and by 2013 she was a solo artist. A pop star promoting Stars Dance, an album that was both her debut solo album and her fourth studio production.
“I feel like there’s so many different phases of my life that I’ve lived where I would say that that’s exactly what represented me at the perfect time,” she tells me. “Stars Dance, for me, was such an exciting album because I was able to kinda get a little bit more of myself.”
But from her business decisions after Stars Dance, it’s obvious that she wasn’t really happy. To get out of her contract with Hollywood Records, Selena released a greatest hits album in 2014 titled For You. It had 15 songs on it, but only one of them was new: “The Heart Wants What it Wants.”
It’s a song that Selena probably wrote about her past relationship with pop star Justin Bieber. But the timing of the song’s release wasn’t what Selena wanted. “”The Heart Wants What it Wants” was supposed to be on Stars Dance—fun fact,” she told me.
There’s a hint of bitterness in her voice. In our conversation, she doesn’t talk a lot about her previous album and her experience with The Scene—and at the same time, she cannot stop talking about it. Everything she says about her new album Revival is a comparison. Before Revival, no one asked Selena what she wanted. No one cared what ideas she had.
“[Revival] was the first time somebody just kind of looked and me and were like, ‘All right, so what do you wanna do?'” she tells me.
Someone should have asked sooner, because it’s obvious Selena knew exactly what she wanted all along.
There’s something a little off about a 23-year-old titling her second solo album Revival. To revive means to reemerge—to come back to life. What exactly is Selena Gomez reviving from?
The easy answers can be found on the front of any tabloid at the grocery store. Maybe she’s reviving from her former relationship with Justin Bieber. Maybe she’s reviving from her battle with lupus. Maybe she’s reviving from the lights, the rumors, and the constant pressure.
But Revival doesn’t sound like a pity party. It sounds like an arrival.
She tells me her goal was to have the album represent everything she was feeling in the period after Stars Dance. “Hopefully it’s just overall an emotional record, but fun. It’s powerful and it’s empowering.”
“Two years went by and so much in my life changed so quickly from personally to professionally,” Selena told me. “And I think all these decisions came in my life and you could hear it. I had never expected my life to be where it was.”
That’s the kicker to this album. It’s all Selena. Sure, she had co-writers and worked with some of the best producers in popular music. But she was sitting in the Director’s chair for the first time in her career. “I think I like throwing myself on the fire, I really do,” She says. “I feel like that’s the only way I’ll be able to learn.”
After the release of For You, Selena got out of her contract with Hollywood Records, and shopped around for a new label. As a successful 22-year-old pop star with a strong fanbase, Selena had her pick. She chose Interscope because they’d let her have control.
“I really wanted to be able to go into the studio and talk about stuff. And just—the moment I went in, I would say that to people. I would be like, “here’s where I am.” I don’t really wanna work with anybody who doesn’t wanna work with me.”
Revival is her brainchild, and it’s clear from the way she talks about it. Often, pop stars are portrayed as pawns in some kind of greater game. Because pop is a collaborative process that requires the input of many, it’s easy to try and strip the women making pop music of their power of creation. It’s far too easy to discredit them for not being the sole creator.
Selena Gomez won’t be discounted. She executive produced this album. She wrote six songs for it. She chose which songs made the album and which ones didn’t. “There were a lot of songs that they were probably not happy that I maybe didn’t want,” she laughs. “But that was the point.”
From the naked pose on the cover to the viral campaign on the horizon, Selena made every single decision for this album.
“If I’m like, maybe I’m not happy with that, they’re like, you made the decision,” she tells me. “That’s what you have to do. I think that’s what I needed. I didn’t need any excuses. I needed to really kind of get my shit together.”
And she did.
“I’m a lot more honest, when it comes to my music,” she says. “I’m unapologetic about my work. Nothing I do is going to be perfect, but I think I’m able to understand that and as long as I have a healthy perspective on it, that’s all that matters.”
The questions she lights up for, that she deviates from a prepared script to answer, aren’t about her, personally—they’re about her work. She wants to talk about being in the studio, creating the album. She wants to talk about building a hit song, building an empire. She has plans. She’s been thinking about how a music video can change a song.
“The biggest thing before is—I would feel embarrassed to ask questions, because then I would feel like, maybe I’m not smart, and maybe I won’t know what I’m talking about.” It was imposter syndrome, and it kept her from speaking up when she wanted to. But now, Selena says, things are different. “I’m like why are you doing that? Says who? Why? Tell me this, this, and this.”
Selena Gomez isn’t taking orders anymore; she’s giving them.
“I’m not like, full-on got it all figured out,” she says. “But it is nice to kind of become a boss, and learn how to be that.”
The last thing Selena tells me before the camera shuts off and the lights are folded back into boxes is that she loves what she does, but she pairs it with a goal.
Hands folded on her lap, she looks at me and says: “I constantly want to be better.”
She doesn’t expand that idea because our time is up. It’s unclear what she wants to be better than. Better than her friends? Better than her contemporaries? Or just maybe better than who she is in this moment, at this time, on this album.
I want to ask her, but some member of her staff has arrived to help her get up from the couch gracefully. I stand up, too, and extend my hand for a handshake, but she ignores it, swerving around my outstretched arm and wrapping her arms around me in an entirely unexpected—but not unwanted—hug.
And then, in a flash, she’s gone. Surrounded by an entourage and hurried on to whatever her next event might be. At 5’ 5” she’s shorter than most of them, but they all move in deference to her.
That’s the thing about Selena Gomez. She’s authentic, and vulnerable, and honest. But she’s also the fucking boss.