Selena Gomez: ‘There was a lot of self-discovery that needed to be done’
Pop star Selena Gomez explains how music helped her through a rough year, how social media helps her handle fame, and giving birth in her new film.
“I’m so exhausted right now. I would love to fall asleep on your lap.”
Selena Gomez is officially cream-crackered. The pop star is making a brief pit-stop in London as she jets home to Los Angeles from Paris Fashion Week – but rather than take it easy, she’s popped into BBC Radio 1 at the break of dawn.
There, Nick Grimshaw teases the singer about an over-enthusiastic fan who accosted her at the Eurostar terminal five hours earlier.
“He kissed me, and then he held my hand as I walked through the train station,” she laughs. “He was actually very nice. He just wanted to date me for a couple of seconds.”
Photos of the encounter show Gomez taking it all in her stride. But then, she’s an old pro.
She first stepped into the limelight at the age of seven, in kids’ TV show Barney & Friends. By the age of 14, she was known to millions as Alex Russo, the sarcastic wizard-in-training on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place.
Gomez (right, on the yellow ball) starred with fellow pop-star Demi Lovato (centre, on the blue ball) on Barney & Friends
When the show ended in 2008, Gomez pursued parallel careers in film, pop and fashion, as well as becoming a Unicef spokesperson; but that was all overshadowed by her three-year relationship with Justin Bieber. (It still makes headlines now, more than a year after they broke up.)
During the course of our interview, she never mentions Bieber by name, trusting (correctly) that people will fill in the gaps when she discusses the “chaos” in her personal life last year.
But it wasn’t just her relationship status that went through an upheaval. The 23-year-old asked her mother to step aside as her manager, and revealed that a much-publicised “stint in rehab” was actually a course of chemotherapy to battle the auto-immune condition Lupus.
With the disease in remission, she went back to the recording studio to make her fourth album.
“I found music to be a real outlet,” she says. “I needed a voice in all of the noise.”
The result was Revival, an unexpectedly assured collection of grown-up pop music. Its release was trailed by Good For You, a steamy, sotto voce ballad, where Gomez leaves her “dress a mess on the floor”.
It instantly changed perceptions of the former teen star and, as she tells the BBC, she’s keen to capitalise on the momentum.
The video for Good For You was accused of being “anti-feminist”
I’ve appreciated that reaction because I released my first album when I was 14. What on earth was I going to be talking about at 14? I think one of the songs on that album was called Crush. I mean, that’s as intense as my emotions became.
That’s probably why Good For You took people by surprise.
What did you think when you first heard it?
It was the second song that was submitted to me. There was no track, it was very, very raw. Just singing. But it was one of those songs that I felt so deeply. I had previously released [Bieber-inspired break-up song] The Heart Wants What It Wants, which was very sad and vulnerable. It was good for me to get that off my chest but I was in a place where I felt this sense of empowerment and Good For You expressed that perfectly.
Were you taken aback when people accused the lyrics and the video of catering to male fantasies?
No, I wasn’t because, first off, anything that I do people are going to say something. The video isn’t about me catering to any sort of audience. I’m in jeans and a T-shirt, or I feel sexy in a silk robe. It’s just my definition of a woman being beautiful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with embracing that.
You say that people – and I assume you mean the press – always have an opinion, no matter what you do. Is that what Kill ‘Em With Kindness is about?
Oh yeah, that’s my theme song for life! I contemplated tattooing it on me at one point.
Most of the time, people say negative things for a reaction and I can’t even bear to give them the satisfaction. So there’s something that I gain from feeling like I’m the bigger person, from walking away from a situation.
The star appears with Dr Richard Thaler, the father of behavioural economics, in the Oscar-nominated movie The Big Short
How often are you poised over the send button on Twitter, thinking: “I’ll tell you a thing or two?”
Oh, I’ve gone off, don’t get me wrong. I’m not perfect!
Does social media take some of the power away from gossip sites like TMZ and Hollywood Life?
Absolutely. It’s insane how much press my Instagram will get [With 69.5m followers, Gomez is Instagram’s most popular celebrity]. It’s weird, in a way, that I can dictate the agenda – but I love being able to have a say in all of that. Especially having being raised in it.
Have you seen the darker side of the industry? Do you look at what’s happening to Kesha and see elements of the business you recognise?
I’m very sensitive to that subject. It’s difficult to be a woman in this business, and I don’t wish those situations upon anyone. but I’ve been very fortunate. For years, my life was Disney Channel and I had a wonderful experience. Then, after that, I had my mom with me at all times.
‘I’ve been very fortunate to have the experiences I’ve had’
Your new single, (Can’t Keep My) Hands To Myself, is really taking off in the UK. There’s a moment where you sing – “I mean I could, but why would I want to?” – that turns the lyric completely on it’s head. When that was written in the studio, did you know it was special?
Oh yes, instantly. Julia Michaels is one of my writing partners and she’s 22 – so she’s actually younger than me – and we’re extremely similar when it comes to how playful we are. We just thought, how could we make a sexy song just stop and take control of it?
It’s a little bit of a talking track and I loved that because it takes my voice into a whole different area.
You sing in a lower register to most pop artists…
Yeah, and I talk in a deep register. That’s where I’m most comfortable, that’s where I shine. I think that’s what separates me.
That’s what was cool about this album – I got to learn what my strength was as an artist. Before, I would think, “if I can’t hit this note, that must mean I’m not a good singer,” and that wasn’t ever the case.
You recently appeared in Adam McKay’s movie about the financial crisis, The Big Short, talking about collateralised debt obligations. Can you still explain them today?
Absolutely not! When the producers called me, I said: “I have no idea what I’m talking about. And I don’t know if that’s sad, or if it’s scaring me in the right way.”
That’s the point of the film, I guess. All of our lives are affected by these big financial institutions, and we don’t really understand how or why they work the way they do.
That’s the case in a lot of aspects of life, especially for my generation. The kids are fixing their eyes on social media, and the stories they’re looking at may not be the most important things.
I’m guilty of that, too, Do you want to look at Instagram or the news? It’s a difficult, and weird, situation.
The video for Hands To Myself sees Gomez play a stalker, who breaks into the home of a Hollywood movie star
Your next film role is in James Franco’s In Dubious Battle, where you play a mother who gives birth. How did you research that?
I was there when my mom gave birth to my little sister, so I got a little bit of the idea. Hopefully I did it justice. There was a lot of screaming.
But filming that scene was very awkward, I have to be honest. People were down there in that area, looking and shooting. It was very weird.
You’re also producing the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why – and you recently signed up Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy as a director. That’s quite a coup.
I’m hugely excited. My mom found this book about four or five years ago – and we originally wanted to adapt it into a film for me to star in but, you know, it took a couple of years. I couldn’t be more thrilled that we got him – especially in this moment.
Did you sign him before or after he won the Oscar?
It was right before – so the ceremony was really exciting. I was tweeting and watching along like I knew him. I was so proud of him!
At this point, you’re an executive producer on the series – you’re no longer going to star in it?
Correct. I don’t know if there’s anything I could do acting-wise, but I want to be part of the music.
The star is a close friend of Taylor Swift, whom she accompanied to The Grammys last month
Meanwhile, you’re already working on the follow-up to Revival. Why so fast?
I think my label wanted me to start last year! But releasing this record made me feel liberated. I definitely think I’ve found my own lane and I’m excited to explore that.
Will you work with the same team?
Absolutely. I want to fly a few of my writers out and just be on the tour bus with them, writing and creating. It’s funny – I only wrote six songs for Revival but I find it hard to listen to [other people’s] demos now. Now that I’ve been able to tap into that creativity, I’m kind of addicted to it.
Hands To Myself is released on 25 March by Polydor Records. Selena Gomez goes on tour from May.