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Selena Gomez: Liked by Many

How Selena Gomez came to be the most popular girl in America.

On a Wednesday night in mid-December, Selena Gomez was sequestered inside a cinder block dressing room deep in the bowels of Chicago’s Allstate Arena, where she was performing at the annual Jingle Ball, a yuletide-tinged Lollapalooza for the teen set. She had just finished the meet and greet, during which she embraced, with practiced efficiency and unflagging enthusiasm, around 100 fortunate attendees in less than five minutes. She had two hours to kill before taking the stage. She was hungry. Having spent the better part of the day at Gomez’s side, I had come to understand her as someone governed by a variety of appetites, most of them complicated in ways that few of her fans (aka Selenators, defined by the Urban Dictionary as people who love Selena Gomez and support her in everything she does) could relate to. We had already spoken at considerable length about the cravings that have consumed her for the past year: controlling her destiny, defining herself as an adult, and distancing herself from the emotional tornado that is her ex, Justin Bieber. At present, however, Gomez sought a more primal form of sustenance.

“Chick-fil-A,” she said. “How amazing does that sound?”

She is a tiny young woman, giving the impression of being pocket-size, who, in person, emits the coiled energy of a Thoroughbred and sheds much of the adolescent softness that clings to her in red-carpet photographs, in which she often looks like a doll. Her hair, thick and bouncy and the color of dark chocolate, seemed, even in the windowless room, to be reflecting California sunbeams. She was wearing a cotton-rib peplum top and matching skirt designed by Victoria Beckham—information I knew not because I am observant, but because, while sitting next to her, I Googled “What is Selena Gomez wearing?” and discovered that the outfit was already being dissected on Twitter. Surrounding her in the room were various members of her team: hair, makeup, security, assistant. Using their cell phones, arguably the most critical weapon in cultivating and disseminating the Gomez brand, they began searching for the closest branch of the fast-food chain known for its tasty chicken sandwiches and aggressive right-wing politics.

“There’s one 40 minutes from here,” her assistant, Theresa Mingus, said.

“Yum,” Gomez said.

“Want me to go?”

I want to go.”

“Well, you can’t. You have to be onstage.”

“I just want to get out of here for a bit.”

The urge was understandable. The room was cramped and very cold. More to the point, Gomez, 23, has spent much of her life in such places—the charmless antechambers where the famous are primed for public consumption. She landed her first gig at 7, on PBS Kids’ Barney & Friends, and by 14 was known to millions of prepubescent youths as Alex Russo, the sarcastic wizard-in–training on Wizards of Waverly Place, a Disney show that ran for five years, reaching 163 countries. Emanating a cherubic beauty that’s equal parts exotic and nonthreatening, with a streak of sass complementing a disarming vulnerability, Gomez emerged, along with Disney cohorts Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, as a new breed of star, harnessing a preternatural fluency with social media to pollinate her brand across a number of platforms: television, music, film, and the requisite midmarket clothing line (Dream Out Loud by Selena Gomez, a partnership with Kmart). Gomez’s success can be measured by her net worth, reportedly around $20 million, but also, perhaps more tellingly, by her legions of followers on Instagram. They currently number more than 60 million—more than Kim, more than Bey, more than twice the population of the state of Texas, where Gomez was born and raised.

And yet, if you are not an adolescent (or the parent of one), you may have only a faint understanding of Gomez as a uniquely bright star in an otherwise foreign solar system. She embodies a particular strain of American fame: You know who she is without quite knowing who she is. Earlier in the day, she and I had met in the penthouse lounge of her hotel, where I confessed that my familiarity with her résumé was limited. I knew her as the dewy-eyed girl who dated Justin Bieber, and who costarred in 2013’s Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s debauched commentary on American values, in which her role was deemed subversive precisely because she was the dewy-eyed girl who dated Justin Bieber. Gomez was hardly offended. It seemed, in fact, that she had spent much of the past few years not quite knowing who she was either.

“Once Disney was over, I was like: Oh, shit,” Gomez told me. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I had to learn to be myself.”

“To me it was: I’m 18, I have a boyfriend, we look cute together, we like that.”

That was a challenge, given that her post-Disney years dovetailed with her Bieber years, a topic Gomez referred to often and freely without ever mentioning his name. She did this not to be coy, I suspect, but because she assumed (correctly) that the Internet had provided me with the salient details: the early days of a very real and innocent love giving way to the on/off years that were turbulent at best, soul-dismantling at worst. As Bieber reinvented himself as the tattooed personification of pseudo-gangsta teenage rebellion, Gomez became an unwitting bystander onto whom tabloids projected a variety of unsavory narratives, feeding the nation’s insatiable need to see how long it takes for the famous, and the young and famous in particular, to turn to ash under the rays of lurid curiosity. “At first I didn’t care,” she said of the sudden scrutiny of her personal life. “To me it was: I’m 18, I have a boyfriend, we look cute together, we like that. Then I got my heart broken and I cared. Because people had no idea what was going on, but everywhere it was a million different things.” She paused. “I was kind of in a corner, banging my head against the wall. I didn’t know where to go.”

Gomez spoke with a kind of analytical detachment, like a therapist reading over the notes of a patient, never sounding remotely wounded or cynical, so much as wise. While talking to her, I often had the sensation of trying, and failing, to relate to a grown-up, which was odd since I’m more than a decade her senior and have seen my share of bullshit. Then again, my bullshit has been mine and mine alone, and the cauldron of showbiz ages its charges in curious ways. When Gomez was 18, for instance, she told a writer for this magazine that the age she felt closest to was 15, which surprised me. “I’ve been raised around adults, but I’m still very naive,” she said at the time, sounding like the groomed and stunted product of the Disney tween machine. Reminding her of this, I asked what age she related to now. “I probably feel, like, 40?” she replied, letting the thought linger before releasing a burst of throaty laughter.

As part of her quest to “learn to be myself,” Gomez has made a number of changes in her life in the past couple of years. She replaced her manager, her mom, Mandy Teefey, with one of her choosing, which was not easy, because it gave tabloids an excuse to write that she had “fired” her mother, implying divisive family drama where there was none. “I was like, ‘Mom, I gotta figure it out on my own,’ ” recalled Gomez, who lived with her mother, stepfather, and half sister until 2014, when she moved into a Los Angeles spread with two close friends. “It was the kid-going-to-college moment in my mind.” In pursuit of a less treacly public image, she cut ties with Kmart and designed a capsule collection for Adidas, all while landing roles in diverse films: a cameo in The Big Short, another in the forthcoming comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and a lead in the indie drama The Fundamentals of Caring, which recently premiered at Sundance. “I know that I can go into a room and convince someone that I can be a character,” Gomez said. “I’ll cut my hair, I’ll shave it, I’ll dye it. I’d go there in order for people to let Selena go.” (Given that she recently signed an endorsement deal with Pantene, reportedly worth $3 million, one imagines she would be contractually bound to find a less drastic means to such ends.)

While Gomez aspires to one day be known solely for her acting, it is through music that she has discovered the most immediate exit strategy from the saccharine incubator in which her career was hatched. She parted ways with Hollywood Records, the pop branch of Disney, where she had recorded three gold records and issued a greatest-hits compilation, and signed with Interscope. Last October she released Revival, a title that would be absurd for any other 20-something. Debuting at No. 1, the album earned her an invitation to perform at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show and nudged her into territory occupied by Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift—her longtime friend and informal career adviser. Unlike Cyrus, who slithered out of her own Disney husk as brashly as possible—replacing the purity rings with cigarettes and transforming herself into a kind of gender-neutral sex doll—Gomez has taken a subtler route. On Revival, she is frisky and sensual and a touch angry about the Bieber-tinged past, declaring in the breakout single “Same Old Love” that “I’m so sick of that same old love, that shit, it tears me up.” But she remains goofy and sincere enough to avoid alienating fans who are still in braces. “Every single girl has done it completely differently,” she told me when asked to compare her transition with Cyrus’s. “Obviously, she wouldn’t want to be doing what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t want to be doing what she’s doing. But I’m a fan of her music—I don’t know if she’d say that about me.” Before meeting Gomez, I had read an exhaustive timeline documenting her “heated feud” with Cyrus and couldn’t help but wonder if (scoop!) I was being treated to a sly dig. “We never feuded,” she assured me. “We both liked the same guy when we were 16. It was just a Hilary Duff–Lindsay Lohan thing: ‘Oh, my God, we like the same boy!’ We are now completely settled in our own lives.”

“I’m so exhausted,” Gomez said of Justin Bieber. “I honestly am so done. I care about his health and well-being. But I can’t do it anymore.”

And what about Bieber? A month after Gomez put out Revival, he released Purpose, a kind of album as indulgent forgiveness plea, with much of his winsome apologizing aimed at her. When I broached the subject, she replied with a deep sigh. “I’m so exhausted,” she said. “I honestly am so done. I care about his health and well-being. But I can’t do it anymore.”

In the dressing room at the arena, Gomez remained intent on finding food and temporary escape before going onstage and had taken it upon herself to locate a more viable option.

“There’s a McDonald’s half a mile away,” she announced after consulting Google Maps on her phone. “Can we go there?”

She was not really asking. With her new team, she is relaxed and jokey, but she is very much in charge, the puppet master where she was once the puppet. Within a minute, she and I, along with her assistant, were being ushered out of the stadium and into the frigid night, where a black SUV had been stealthily summoned via walkie-talkie—a spontaneous outing, carefully choreographed. Near the vehicle, a cluster of kids stood shivering. Had they detected our exit the way canines can hear certain high-pitched frequencies? At the sight of Gomez, they erupted into shrieks, using their phones to take photos and videos to be uploaded onto Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.

“My favorite is when they FaceTime,” Gomez said, waving to the group as we passed.

If you’re skimming this article for scoops, here you go: “In a few years,” she confided, “I’ll give all of it up.”

It is impossible to overstate the importance of mobile technology and social media when it comes to understanding the Gomez phenomenon. She has enough vocal chops to carry a candy pop anthem, and may very well prove herself an actress with range, but what she can do with unrivaled skill is connect. In person, she radiates a sincerity so infectious that I found myself sharing with her plenty of information about my personal life, which is exactly how she communicates with fans, albeit with tens of millions all at once. In the process of interacting with them, of course, she also diminishes the leechy power of the paparazzi and gossip columnists to shape her public identity, guaranteeing that whatever she posts will supersede anything else. “I’m utilizing social media right now because of my age and because, to be honest, everybody else in the world was talking about me, so I wanted a fucking say,” she had told me earlier. “I honestly had to, because I didn’t really expect my life to be as public as it was. Is this going to destroy me or make me? I still have to make that choice on a daily basis.” While she recognizes social media as a necessary tool for this phase in her life, she is not wed to it. If you’re skimming this article for scoops, here you go: “In a few years,” she confided, “I’ll give all of it up.”

As we made our way to the McDonald’s, Gomez noticed a Chili’s in the same strip mall. Her eyes widened. “Yesss!” she said. “I love Chili’s. Taylor and I eat here all the time.” (They really do—go ahead, Google it.)

The SUV stopped. Her security detail hopped out first, scanning the restaurant and securing a table for us in a secluded corner. As we sat down, Gomez, who was raised by a teenage mother and retains visceral recall of the days when money was tight, was clearly in her element. “I had to learn to like fancy food,” she said.

The restaurant was, for the most part, empty, but it didn’t take long for other diners to notice Gomez’s presence. She was in full celebrity getup, a radiant spectacle, and as we spoke, people made their way over, asking for selfies, for autographs, for hugs. Gomez did not betray a trace of annoyance during those repeated interruptions. She posed, she signed, she hugged, she related. I noted that her fans seem oddly comfortable around her. “Yeah,” Gomez agreed. “They feel like they know me.” Is this not a peculiar way to go through life? “I guess it is. But I don’t mind it, because I don’t know any better.”

While waiting for our food, Gomez glanced at her phone. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Look at what my manager wants me to post.” On the screen was a photo of a generically hunky blond man sipping an orange soda. “He’s my ‘boyfriend’ in my video for ‘Hands to Myself,’ ” Gomez said, referring to one of Revival’s singles. “It comes out next week.” As a kind of viral teaser, her manager suggested that she share the photo. I was surprised, momentarily, that Gomez was so casual when it came to exposing the calculated nature of such a ploy. But then I realized that Gomez simply better grasps what everyone knows about Instagram: that every post, on everyone’s feed, be it Kim Kardashian’s or your mother’s, is invariably contrived. The most authentic approach is to embrace the inherent artificiality without overthinking it.

Chips and guacamole arrived, along with a melty vessel of cheese. Gomez dug in, ravenous. “No caption, nothing,” Gomez said as she posted the photo. “Watch—it’ll be crazy.”

What did she mean, exactly, by “crazy”? Within 12 hours, the post had received 1.2 million “likes” and had become an international story. On Cosmopolitan’s website, the next morning: IMPORTANT QUESTION: WHO IS THIS HOT MYSTERY MAN ON SELENA GOMEZ’S INSTAGRAM? The Internet ignited in speculation. Was he her new “bae”? Was Gomez “trolling” Bieber? Her sleuthing fans were quick to reveal the man to be Christopher Mason, a model whom Gomez had turned into a global fetish between bites of guacamole at a chain restaurant in the Midwest.

A half-hour later she was onstage, strutting around in a sequined catsuit, shot back into the orbit from whence she came. We never got to say a proper goodbye. When we returned from Chili’s, her performance had been bumped up by 15 minutes, and her team descended upon her with focus: prepping, tweaking, adjusting. After getting a final glimpse of her leading a kind of prayer circle with her dancers, I made my way out into the arena to watch the show. Although I tried to keep my eyes trained on the actual Gomez onstage, with whom I’d just shared a meal that suddenly felt like a distant memory, I found myself fixated on the Gomez filling up the two massive screens flanking her. She seemed somehow more real in the projections, below which was a live Twitter feed telling me exactly what I should be feeling: Still not over the fact that I’m breathing the same air as @selenagomez.

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