The Selena Gomez supervillain “Arsyn” may have been the most unlikely of all the over-the-top characters adopted by Taylor Swift’s celebrity girl squad in her video for “Bad Blood.” “Nefarious” is not the word that comes to mind when seeing Gomez seated on the rooftop of the Peninsula Beverly Hills on a hot September day, her hair pulled back and lashes liberally fluffed. But then, speaking about the drive behind her new album, she declares: “The hate motivated me.”
Gomez — wearing a Roger Waters’ The Wall Tour tee over burnished black leather pants and stilettos — has been discussing the gossip sites (“Hollywood Life is the worst”) that hound her almost daily. “I’m so f—ing nice to everybody, and everyone is so vile to me. I’ve been working since I was 7. I’ve been a UNICEF ambassador since I was 17. It’s so disappointing that I’ve become a tabloid story. It took away everything I loved about this business.”
At 23, after a bumpy couple of years that brought big changes to her family, love life, health and career, Gomez is on a mission to commandeer her narrative. The title of her second solo album, Revival, isn’t only a marketing concept. It marks a split from the Disney empire that shaped so much of her story, from her star-making role on teen sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place to her five albums on Mouse-backed Hollywood Records (which sold a total of nearly 3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music). Revival arrives Oct. 9 on Interscope, which makes Gomez labelmates with Ellie Goulding, M.I.A. and Madonna — artists who eschew bubble gum in their pursuit of pop.
First single “Good for You” is an unlikely salvo indeed, with a woozy ambience and Gomez cooing, “Let me show you how proud I am to be yours/Leave this dress a mess on the floor.” The song is her highest-charting yet, No. 3 and climbing on the Billboard Hot 100. It also features her first collaboration with a rapper, the louche A$AP Rocky, whose priapic verse pokes fun at her good-girl past.
“She’s developing her sexiness,” says the Harlem MC, who didn’t recognize Gomez when he heard the demo. “I don’t think she’s there 100 percent yet. She’s probably only f—ed Justin Bieber, if that.” He snickers. “But honestly, she wasn’t looking for a No. 1 hit. She did it to excommunicate herself from her image. That’s brave.”
Gomez knows her identity has been hard to pin down — and too often hijacked by her three-year romance with Bieber. While it ended more than a year ago, the relationship keeps generating headlines, including chatter about how her name is graffitied in the background of two of his recent music videos and how his tears at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards were supposedly over her.
Though she’d prefer to not talk about him, she can still spare a kind word for the Biebs, who has been maturing, too. “I’m proud of him,” says Gomez, sipping ice water garnished with a squeeze of lemon. “This is what I always saw in him, why I always believed in him.” Are they talking? “We’re on good terms, but no.” Does she take any inspiration from his career evolution? “No. This is my time. I’ve deserved this. I earned it. This is all me.”
Gomez is clearly tired of being defined by the men in her proximity. Her weariness extends to those who assume “Good for You” caters to the male gaze. In the song’s video, she writhes and caresses herself in and out of the shower, looking happy to have the alone time. “I didn’t want a damn guy in there,” she says. “It’s about how I feel. Yes, it’s sexual and captivating, but that’s what makes a woman. We have that over guys. I love looking at women. I’d rather look at a woman than a guy.”
Unlike her old Barney & Friends co-star Demi Lovato, who fought her demons to become pop’s self-help princess, and her Disney Channel comrade Miley Cyrus, who transformed the slut shaming against her into a thesis on free love, psych pop and glitter abuse, Gomez’s struggle with expectations hasn’t been obvious. “If they think I’m the good girl still, great!” she says, giving a sarcastic thumbs-up. In fact, she strongly identifies with her subversive female peers. “There’s not an ounce of me that doesn’t think that whatever they’re doing is right,” says Gomez. “I’ve been judged too much to even remotely go there. I hear them, genuinely.”
And then of course there’s her closest friend since 2008, Swift, who detonated her “boy crazy” typecasting to become leader of a team of successful, fabulous young women. Gomez attended the VMAs as part of the ever-growing Girl Squad. “Taylor makes me feel empowered, like I can trust new people,” she says. “All of those girls are so dope. We ran around taking pictures, changing dresses, dancing — super-cliche girly stuff, but it rocked. The way she cares about women is so adamant. It’s pulling me out of my shell.”
Not that Gomez is a stranger to the world outside of the shell. In 2012’s Spring Breakers, the bleakly comic art film-turned-hit movie directed by Harmony Korine, she played a wayward, bikini-clad teen. “That [role] drew me into working with her,” says Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick. “I was blown away. I said, ‘Listen, what people see from the outside, it seems like there’s more to it.’ ” Indeed, Gomez lists her dream directors as David O. Russell, for his ability to “capture women in a psychotically beautiful way”; David Fincher, because “I like the idea of being tortured mentally”; and Damien Chazelle, who helmed 2015’s brutal Whiplash. “They could truly pull something out of me,” she says.
In the meantime, “she’s having fun being CEO of her business for the first time,” says Gomez’s manager Aleen Keshishian, who points out the very active role Gomez has taken in her own liberation: “Her work ethic is something I’ve never seen. She executive-produced Revival. She co-wrote half the songs. Every visual, every marketing move, every decision is hers.”
A week after the lunch in Beverly Hills, Gomez sits in a trailer behind Los Angeles’ Palace Theatre, her hair in rollers while an assistant powders her cheeks. The 800 contest winners waiting inside the venue don’t know it, but after they watch a cut of the video for “Same Old Love” (Revival’s second single, co-written by Charli XCX), Gomez will appear from behind the screen for a performance. Their ecstatic responses will be spliced into the final version of the video, which appears online six days later.
“I’ve been sitting in this damn chair for three hours, and I’m about to lose my mind!” she says with a nervous laugh. There’s no break in sight: In fewer than 24 hours, Gomez will be on a flight to Miami for a Hotel Transylvania 2 press junket (she voices female lead Mavis). “It’s fine,” she says. “I feel safe with my fans. I’m going to meet every single one of them. They’re the goodness of what I do.” Today’s meet-and-greet takes four hours, but Gomez does it standing up, in stilettos, and #RevivalEvent ends up trending harder than Madonna’s Madison Square Garden concert that same night — 16,000 Instagram posts to Madge’s 9,000.
In one of Gomez’s uploads, there’s another woman wearing that same Waters tee: her housemate Courtney, who works for a nonprofit; Gomez met her in 2011 at a Valentine’s Day party. In March 2014, Gomez bought a new home in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas. Her other roomie is Ashley, a realtor and pal of Gomez’s going back eight years. “Two very normal chicks. They’re my best friends,” says Gomez. After sharing a roof with her mother, stepfather and six dogs 10 miles away, the 7,200-square-foot mansion was meant to be a solo venture. But when she got there, Gomez found she didn’t want to be alone. “I hated the quiet moments. I feel like I could’ve lived with my parents forever.”
Gomez’s parents were teenagers in Grand Prairie, Texas, when Selena was born in 1992. Her folks, both born in the United States, named her after Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez, whose breakthrough album arrived the month before. They divorced when she was 5, and money was tight — mom Mandy Teefey, a former Dallas stage actor, once said they got by on dollar-store pasta, but “if I knew she wanted to go to a concert I would save up.” Gomez’s first show was Britney Spears in 2002, the same year she landed the Barney gig. In 2006, Gomez got the part on Wizards, and she and her mother moved to California.
“My mom always told me, ‘If this isn’t fun for you, we’re done. You can quit at any time,’ ” says Gomez. Teefey was also her manager. “It never felt like I had to do it. I loved acting.”
For nearly five years she played Alex Russo while working on other Disney shows (including Hannah Montana) and G-rated movies like Horton Hears a Who! She earned her high school diploma via home schooling in 2010, the same year she launched her clothing line with Kmart. But her seemingly effortless rise as a teen star hit its first major hitch shortly after Gomez exited her teens. In 2013, after releasing Stars Dance, she abruptly canceled the end of her tour, saying she needed to “spend some time on myself.” In January 2014, she checked herself into the Meadows, an Arizona rehab facility. The tabloids fantasized about the reason for her stay — pills! booze! a broken heart over Biebs! — but Gomez reveals a less scandalous hardship: “I was diagnosed with [autoimmune disease] lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. That’s what my break was really about. I could’ve had a stroke.”
Why suffer the rumors, then?
“I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea. I’m in chemotherapy. You’re assholes,’ ” she says. “But I was angry I even felt the need to say that. It’s awful walking into a restaurant and having the whole room look at you, knowing what they’re saying. I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again.”
A month after she got her own place, Gomez also let go of her mother as manager, a coming-of-age transition she nevertheless describes as “awkward.” She and Teefey have found a new groove as production partners working on a hush-hush TV show and a film adaptation of a book, Love in the Asylum. At the time, though, “I felt like I’d lost everything,” she says. “Just because it’s not plastered everywhere doesn’t mean I didn’t have my rock bottom. I’ve had my moments, and it’s almost unsafe for me to even talk about them, because I’ll be taken advantage of.”
Sampling my blueberry Moscow mule over lunch, Gomez says, “I’ve never had a problem with drinking.” But she confesses that she was once “extremely insecure” about her husky voice — and feels she has been “trampled” at times, particularly when people close to her have criticized her appearance. “As a woman, especially, you expect it in the business,” she says, “but from the people that I chose to love — that was a bummer.”
Gomez has come away from all this with a deeper, more critical understanding of the world, possibly informed by her “obsession” with Amy Schumer’s feminist comedy. (She was also inspired by Girls, even before Lena Dunham joined the Squad: “I started talking like her character. I would walk around and try to make sarcastic jokes very quickly.”) With regard to her Mexican heritage, she says, “It’s great to have a voice” in such a “male-driven” culture. And while she “can’t help but feel a certain way” seeing Justin Timberlake or Usher shirtless, she sees a double-standard at work. “If I did half the things guys did, I wouldn’t have a Pantene deal,” says Gomez. “There’s a certain standard women are held to because…I don’t know. So many women nowadays are so loud about it. We need to cause a bit of uproar, because I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. It’s absurd.”
Gomez quotes the worship band Hillsong United to illustrate where she’s at now: “I touch the sky when my knees hit the ground.” Her lupus is in remission, and she says the key to staying healthy is “diet, routine and medication,” plus keeping the right kind of friends around. When she hit a wall making Revival in March, she gathered her “favorite people” — “Good for You” writers Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, producers Rock Mafia and Hit-Boy, a few pals — and flew to Mexico.
“Every day was an event,” says Michaels. “We took a boat out, went Jet-Skiing, rode ATVs, saw live music.” And Gomez, says Tranter, “made everyone watch Truth or Dare.” But the outside world rudely asserted itself when paparazzi shot her in the surf, headlines like “Hot or Hefty?” emerged and the Twitter trolls came out. “I was in a bikini and got publicly ripped for being overweight,” recalls Gomez. “That was the first time I’d experienced body shaming like that. I believed some of the words they were saying. When somebody else has your self-esteem in their hands …” She tears up. Posing nearly nude for the cover of Revival was a way of taking control. She says it makes her feel like Linda Ronstadt in the ’70s — free.
Gomez loves her home now. She hosts movie nights (most recently: Dazed & Confused) and often falls asleep in her theater room. When Swift visits, “we cook, eat and sit by the fire,” says Gomez. “Wine is usually involved.” She has been buying ghost-hunting apps (“I like getting scared”) and has a couple of new tattoos: a cursive “g” behind her left ear for 2-year-old half-sister Gracie and a symbol on her left hip signifying the day she met Ashley.
Gomez will also appear in a new film, In Dubious Battle, directed by her Spring Breakers co-star James Franco. “Selena plays a young mother,” says Franco. “She has a birth scene in a bunkhouse, and my character delivers the baby. It was like a performance art piece or something. She blew everyone away.” With the new album imminent, Gomez herself feels like “a pregnant woman at nine months,” she says. “I’m dying for this thing to come out.”