Selena Gomez hasn’t disappeared. Not exactly. But in the past few months, the most followed person on Instagram (140 million and counting) has removed herself from the Tabloid Industrial Complex. In January, Gomez quietly moved to Orange County, where she and a friend from Hillsong Church, Raquelle, are playing house. “It’s been such a release. L.A.’s just gotten really claustrophobic for me. I can’t do any of the things I do here in L.A. It’s just impossible,” she says.
After selling her Calabasas estate—$3.3 million, to French Montana, of all people—she has now also put her Studio City bungalow on the market for $2.8 million. (Her Texas mansion, one of the most expensive homes near Fort Worth, is for sale at $3 million.) We’re sitting in a coffee shop, and Gomez, dressed in a denim jumpsuit, her hair pulled up behind a linen head scarf, opens a plastic container of pasta salad. “I think everything in my life is being majorly downsized, in a very good way,” she says. “I’m going back to simplicity. That’s always who I’ve been. It’s not me saying, ‘I feel the best I’ve ever felt,’” she continues. “It’s me saying, ‘I’m exactly where I am. And I’m so happy I’m in this place.’ It’s a lot of self-discovery. From 20 to 26? Oh my gosh. I feel like a totally different person. How so? “For a while, I think I did certain things because I thought I had to. Like, one of my friends looked at me one day—we were at lunch, and I think I purchased something, and she kind of looked at me and said, ‘Do you feel adequate enough?’”
“YOU CAN BUY A NICE THING TO FEEL GOOD. BUT IS THAT MY WORTH?”
That’s pretty harsh. “No, it’s the truth!” she says. “I’m not a materialistic person. [My friends] wouldn’t judge me on that anyway. I like getting massages, I love getting nice things…it’s just, is it connected to my worth? You can buy a nice thing to feel good. But is that my worth?”
These are heady questions. And it hints at where Gomez is these days. Because the thing is, she’s changed more than her address. She’s a singer, actress, producer, and fashion designer (her second Coach collaboration debuted in August)—and now she’s added a new role to her multihyphenate résumé: intern.
Earlier today, in a faceless office park, we met at A21, the global anti–human-trafficking nonprofit where Gomez has been volunteering. The Southern California office (there are 14 locations worldwide) is unmarked, and the website doesn’t list the address. It’s a safety precaution, the organization’s global volunteer coordinator, Laura Staph, tells me. But Staph invited me inside the windowed, open-plan space, where dozens of employees sit in front of computers—an army in stylish separates. A sign hangs beside the door, in gold letters, that reads, “Propel Women.”
Of her reluctance to talk openly about her work here before now, Gomez says, “I wasn’t going to immediately start discussing it. It’s out of my comfort zone. I needed to be fully immersed in it.” She knows what you’re thinking. “What a great thing another celebrity is doing.…” she says with a smile. “That’s not why I want to talk about it. I can’t be silent about this.”
Gomez began volunteering here in March at the invitation of cofounder Christine Caine, also a member of Hillsong Church, who invited Gomez to visit on the hunch that the pop star might be inspired by the mission. A21 recently teamed with the U.S. Department of Transportation to launch “Can You See Me?,” a multiplatform campaign to raise awareness of slavery. What Gomez learned in her first visit to A21 shocked her. “The idea of human trafficking to me is…I’m flabbergasted.” Gomez rattles off statistics and horror stories—of women being forced into sexual slavery until their organs fail, of places in Thailand where young children are sold on restaurant-style menus.
The invitation came after a challenging 2017. Gomez, who has the autoimmune disease lupus, received a kidney transplant that summer. In the fall, it was announced that she’d split from Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. She’d go on to spend both New Year’s and Valentine’s Day with her ex Justin Bieber, leading to speculation that the pair were back together. (Bieber, of course, is now engaged to model Hailey Baldwin.) Gomez says that earlier this year, she sat down with some “amazing women who were very close in my life. It was kind of a rough moment. And I just had all of them there, encouraging me, and it was one of those moments that you imagine when you’re a young girl and you go talk to your aunts and your mom and you’re like, This is what’s going on in my life.” She’d been going at breakneck speed, finishing up her next album, which could come out as early as this fall. “I had been working for so long, and I don’t like taking things in my life. I just wanted to serve.”
Shortly after that heart-to-heart, Gomez found herself in a three-day orientation at A21.
I wonder if the staff there ever doubted her commitment. Gomez shouts, “Maybe!,” and her supervisor lets out a big laugh.
Gomez immediately started working five days a week (pending studio commitments and, say, meetings with Puma, with whom she has a long-term partnership, in Germany). She got an email address and a key to the office, like any other volunteer. We decide to go to this coffee shop not by accident, but because “it’s the one that all the volunteers and people go to,” she says, adding with a laugh: “It’s our Central Perk.”
While her security guard drives us to “Central Perk,” I find myself thinking about the first time Gomez and I met—three years ago, for her last cover story for ELLE, when this second act was still largely hypothetical. It was 2015, and she’d recently split from her mother, who’d been managing her career, and she’d left her record label and signed with Interscope. She was hard at work on her album Revival, which she’d hoped would help her shed her Disney image. During a hike in Calabasas, she’d told me how she’d convinced her label to send her and her songwriters to Mexico—for inspiration. I remind her of that story today—three years later, but a lifetime away—and she laughs, emanating a lightness that feels new.
“SOMEONE SEES ME HAVING A GLASS OF WINE? I COULD GIVE TWO SHITS. I’M NOT TRYING TO HIDE.”
“Oh my God,” she says. “Wow. Isn’t it weird? I was in such a curious place. I mean, that’s what your twenties are. You’re thinking, ‘I want to explore, then I’ll get inspired. I’ll go sit in the rain!’ Then you sort of realize—at least I did—that it’s not about me removing myself from anywhere. I’m still taking my shit with me.”
Gomez is draped in an oversize camel cardigan from Free People, and she could be mistaken for any young professional (well, one with a bodyguard hovering nearby). “Kate [Young], my stylist”—who also works with Margot Robbie—“laughs at me. She’s like, ‘When you’re with me, you’re wearing designers. When you’re with your friends, you wear Free People.’ I love comfort.” Gomez has credited Young with helping raise her fashion profile by dressing her in a Saint Laurent tuxedo suit in 2014 and later in a red Valentino pantsuit. In 2016, Gomez appeared in a campaign for Louis Vuitton.
“I FEEL VERY SURE OF WHERE I AM. I DON’T FEEL ERRATIC OR EMOTIONALLY UNSTABLE. OR LIKE I CAN’T HANDLE MY EMOTIONS, LIKE I USED TO.”
She looks around the coffee shop—a stand-in for her new life. “It’s peaceful. It’s weird. The moment I turned 26, I felt 26.” I laugh because it’s the kind of thing a 26-year-old would say, but I know what she means. “Right now,” she adds, “I feel very sure of where I am. I don’t feel erratic or emotionally unstable. Or like I can’t handle my emotions, like I used to. It’s kind of understanding myself a little more. By all means I don’t have myself figured out. But it feels good.”
This is as good a time as any to ask about working on A Rainy Day in New York with Woody Allen. It’s hard to square the idea that Gomez is volunteering for an organization that deals with sex trafficking but would still choose to act in a film by Allen, who was accused of molesting his seven-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992. (Allen was never formally charged, but a flood of actors have publicly said they regret working with him.) For a role model for young women, it seems like an odd choice. Gomez’s mom and producing partner, Mandy Teefey, felt similarly, posting to Instagram earlier this year, “Sorry, no one can make Selena do anything she doesn’t want to. I had a long talk with her about not working with him and it didn’t click.”
Last year, a reporter from Billboard asked Gomez if she’d considered Allen’s past before signing on to A Rainy Day in New York, and her answer was…not great. “To be honest,” she said, “I’m not sure how to answer—not because I’m trying to back away from it. [The Harvey Weinstein allegations] actually happened right after I had started [on the movie]. They popped up in the midst of it. And that’s something, yes, I had to face and discuss. I stepped back and thought, ‘Wow, the universe works in interesting ways.’”
When I ask if there’s anything she’d like to say now, she declines. “I think it’s best not to.”
That comment—or noncomment, really—is the kind of kindling that ignites a fire across the Online Outrage Machine. She used to monitor all that feedback in real time, and the noise was incessant. She wanted to scream: “I can do whatever I want! Don’t put words in my mouth!” But she doesn’t seem to care anymore. “I’m not on the internet,” she says plainly. “I haven’t been on the internet in months. I don’t have my password for Instagram. I have no apps on my phone, no photo editing apps. I have Peak, a brain game.” (Gomez still updates Instagram from her friend’s phone, who has access to her account.)
“The reason why is, it’s not real to me,” she adds. “I know my voice is very prominent, but I’m not careless with it. I’m selective. As far as my personal life, someone sees me having a glass of wine? I could give two shits. I’m not trying to hide. That’s my life. I’m living it the way I want to live it. But it’s about making a conscious effort—if I can have a moment to be with my friends, I’ll take that time. So I don’t have any of it. I had to make that decision.”
The paparazzi still trail her whenever she’s in L.A. After the news broke that Demi Lovato, her childhood friend, had suffered an apparent overdose, a photograph of Gomez, looking upset, appeared online. It’s six days later, and Lovato is still in the hospital, reportedly due to complications from the overdose. And it is devastating. Gomez starts to talk about it, then gets choked up. “All I’m saying is, I reached out personally. I didn’t do a public thing. I didn’t want to. I…I love her. I’ve known her since I was seven. So…it’s…that’s what I’ll say.”
Our time is nearly up, and Gomez is due at the recording studio shortly, where she’s putting the finishing touches on her album. She’s been releasing singles slowly—including “Back to You,” from the second season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, on which she also serves as an executive producer. No inspirational trips to Mexico were necessary, she says, just patience.
We’d initially planned on going to the recording studio together, but her management team nixed the idea, feeling it was too soon to share it. But Gomez can’t help herself. She says the music is different from anything she’s done before—immediately acknowledging that’s something artists always say but rarely deliver on. She calls the new music “funky.” “They’ll probably kill me,” she says, before telling her security guard to pump up the volume and hitting Play on a new track.
A thumping bass line kicks in. There’s Selena’s voice, sounding confident; the track feels more like Prince than something from the girl who cooed, “Come and get it.”
“See!” she says. She wants to prove the music is a departure, and it definitely is, but there’s more to it, I think. She hasn’t wanted to talk about her love life today—or ever before, really. And she certainly won’t comment directly on Bieber and Baldwin’s whirlwind engagement (they, too, are affiliated with Hillsong). Like her famous friend Taylor Swift, who saves her vitriol for her lyrics, it seems Gomez also wants to let the music tell you precisely where her heart is.
I have to jot down notes quickly. She sings about cutting a man out of her life after “1,460 days” and “cleaning my slate.” “Without you,” she sings, “I don’t overthink it.” The hook goes something like this: “I’m drunk and I might as well tell you, Get you ooh ooh ooh out of my head now.”
She can’t help but sing along, looking happier and more relaxed than she has all day, and certainly more so than when we’d met previously. The song ends, and she hits Play on a second track—which also addresses her independence, this time from a man who doesn’t respect her. “Were my ambitions too high?” she sings, declaring: “Baby, you’re so distant. Why don’t you recognize I’m so rare?”