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Inside the Millennial Mind of Selena Gomez

The pop superstar speaks to BoF's Imran Amed about mental health, the power of authenticity, aligning herself with Coach and why it’s important to separate what you can see on your phone from real life.
Selena Gomez | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Imran Amed

LOS ANGELES, United States — If you want to better understand the millennial generation, who better to start with than the world's most famous millennial?

I reach Selena Gomez in Los Angeles, via Facetime, naturally. On the other side of the screen, she's perched on her bed, dressed casually in a sweatshirt. I've apparently interrupted a "Game of Thrones" binge session. She says she is a little disturbed by the overt sexuality and violence in the hit HBO television series, but she quickly shifts her focus to our conversation.

At first, she strikes me as your average 25-year-old. She fiddles with her hair-tie as she pulls her hair back into a loose knot. She giggles a lot and uses American idioms. “Super. Like. Cute.” Her phone buzzes constantly with incoming alerts.

But clearly this is no ordinary young woman. Over the course of the previous few days, I have immersed myself in Selena’s expansive digital life. I’ve scanned her Instagram feed, which has more than 125 million followers. I’ve read endless articles about her breakup with fellow child superstar Justin Bieber and her new relationship with Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd. I’ve read the news about her role in Woody Allen’s upcoming film and marvelled at her eloquent and polished interviews from her days as a child star at Disney, watched several of her music videos and learned about her mental health issues.

Before she became a pop singer and actor, Selena Gomez grew up poor in Grand Prairie, Texas, raised by a single mother who was only 16 years old when Selena was born. In 2002, she was selected to appear on the popular children’s television show “Barney & Friends” and, after being spotted by Disney, moved to Los Angeles. By 2007 she was cast in the lead role of Alex Russo in the quirky television show “Wizards of Waverly Place” and became one of Disney’s rising stars.

“She was very, very poised. She had this confidence about her,” recalls Ryan Seacrest, the multi-tasking Hollywood impresario who has known Gomez since her Disney days. “I say about Jennifer Lopez that she has compound eyes, that of a fly. She sees everything in 360, everything that’s happening in front of her and around her. Selena has that as well. She doesn’t miss a beat. That is a very good thing to have when you’re in her position.”

Gomez’s career-defining moment came during the release of the video for “The Heart Wants What It Wants”, which now has more than 509 million views on YouTube and opens with a powerful personal confession on the heart-break caused by her breakup from Justin Bieber: “When I was on stage, and I was thinking, I felt like, ‘I know him though, and I know his heart, and I know what he wouldn’t do to hurt me.’ But I didn’t realise, feeling so confident and so great about myself, and then it could just be completely shattered by one thing, by something so stupid. And then you make me feel crazy. You make me feel like it’s my fault.”

We’ve all been there, but these are the kinds of feelings most people would admit only to themselves or their closest friends. Gomez admitted them to the world — and, in the process, transcended her status as a mere pop sensation, becoming something more like the everywoman of her generation.

“When she was younger, she was probably given music to sing,” reflects Seacrest. “I don’t think at that point she had had the chance to speak to her fans in such a direct way through lyrics. From that breakthrough song on, she found success in it.”

Mental health has become a defining theme for Gomez. In an emotional speech at last year’s American Music Awards, her first public appearance in months after cancelling her world tour and checking into a psychiatric facility to address her ongoing battle with anxiety, Gomez once again opened up.

Stuart Vevers and Selena Gomez | Source: Getty

“I think it’s safe to say that most of you know a lot of my life, whether I liked it or not, I had to stop. Cause I had everything and I was absolutely broken inside,” she said to a room of music industry legends and peers, as well as millions of people watching on television around the world. “I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram. I want to see what’s in here,” she continued, gesturing to her heart. “I’m not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore. But if you are broken, you do not have to stay broken. And whether you respect me or not, that’s one thing you should know about me, is I care about people.”

Gomez is also executive producer of “13 Reasons Why”, the controversial Netflix series that documents in detail the fallout from the suicide of high-school student Hannah Baker, telling stories of modern-day teenage tribulations including cyber-bullying, depression and sexual identity. “What 13 Reasons Why has represented was an authentic story of what every kid deals with in every day life,” Gomez wrote on Instagram in February. “The pressure, the unrealistic expectations of what they believe they should be. It’s a story of what every kid does and will continue to go through — unless we keep talking about it. People are hurting and deserve to be heard. Tired of others portraying a false idea of what every day life is. I hope @13reasonswhy can enlighten people to what words mean when you say them.”

In recent years, Gomez has also developed a closer link to fashion — facilitated by Hollywood stylist Kate Young. "I don't have any experience with young pop stars, so when her management first asked me I was like, 'What on earth do I do?'" Young recalls. Still, the stylist formed a strong connection with Selena and soon learned she was dealing with an exceptional professional talent. "She's a product of Disney. Those kids, it's like going to the med school of professionalism."

“I got hired at the time in Selena’s career when she was ready to take it up [a notch]. She wanted to stop being a kid — she was working on albums, already had one movie come out, she had new management. She really trusted me, and I said, ‘You really need to wear no jewellery with this, and wear black, keep it clean, take off a lot of it. It may seem like you’re not wearing anything and it’s boring, but I promise. We just need the fashion people to start noticing you.’ The whole idea was to shift the way people perceived her.”

And that they did. In rapid succession in late 2014, Young dressed the then 22-year-old Selena in a Saint Laurent tuxedo suit, a red Valentino pantsuit and a micro-mini red Dior dress, landing her on best-dressed lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Soon, she developed a relationship with Louis Vuitton's Nicolas Ghesquière and appeared in the brand's Autumn/Winter 2016 campaign. Earlier this year, Selena's fashion cred was finally cemented when she landed her first cover of American Vogue, photographed by Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott.

Soon afterwards, Coach began rolling out a milestone partnership with Selena, worth a reported $10 million. After news of the deal first leaked in Page Six last December, as with all things Selena it spread like wildfire, picked up and dissected globally by business media, entertainment industry websites and gossip rags alike. Within days, Coach confirmed that Gomez would indeed design a line and front its ad campaigns. Meanwhile, her ravenous fan base of more than 230 million followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter let out a collective scream. "HOLY FUDGE ON EARTH!" wrote one Selena fan account on Twitter.

The Coach ads featuring Gomez debuted in June. Shot by Steven Meisel, backed up by a power team of fashion creatives including Karl Templer, Fabien Baron, Pat McGrath and Guido Palau, they depicted Gomez lounging in the back of a blush-toned classic 1976 Plymouth Fury. In August, the brand unveiled the "Selena Grace" bag, designed with Coach creative director Stuart Vevers and set to arrive in stores this month.

“Selena came into mind very quickly because she has this really authentic connection with the next generation,” explains Vevers. “Her fans are really excited about something that Selena has been a part of creating, but it’s also been an opportunity to reinforce all the things that we’ve been doing at Coach, to let people know that Coach is changing, and that we’re doing something new.”

Indeed, for Coach, a business in the midst of a huge turnaround, the affiliation with Gomez is a powerful tool for helping the brand to reposition itself as an upscale lifestyle proposition that’s appealing to Millennial and Gen-Z consumers.

It’s easy to be cynical about such deals, but Young insists there is something more at play. “Celebrity partnerships used to be really just about money. It was something they did, so that they could do more indie movies. But it was like swallowing a bitter pill for them, and they put the minimum required,” she says. “Now, the new guard seems to get more from it. They want to do something collaborative, they want to do something that benefits a charity. They feel validated by a big brand embracing them and investing in them. It becomes more of a collaborative thing: the brand supports the actor; the actor supports the brand.”

As part of the partnership with Coach, Gomez has been working with Step Up, an organisation that received a $3 million pledge from the Coach Foundation and works with girls in underprivileged areas — something close to Gomez’s own experience growing up — empowering them to graduate on time and plan for life after high school.

It remains unclear whether the tie-up will translate into measurable impact on Coach’s bottom line, but Vevers says this is also about giving back — and learning. “Probably the most important thing, for me, was to be able to sit down with a cool, smart 25-year-old and riff off each other on what she would love about the bag. It’s not something I get to do every day,” he laughs. “Of course, I have a great team, but she’s definitely coming to the table with a fresh eye.”

So, who is this captivating young woman, powerbroker, digital influencer and global superstar? Here is a look inside the Millennial mind of Selena Gomez.

Imran Amed: What do you think is the biggest challenge for your generation, the Millennial generation?

Selena Gomez: The biggest challenge is separating what you see on your phone from what is your life. A lot of young girls are getting involved with things that I didn’t even know about, quicker. There are 13-year-olds who look like they’re 25, and I was still wearing pigtails and running around like playing with dolls with my girlfriends and maybe listening to Jesse McCartney on a CD player [at that age]. That wasn’t a long time ago, which is why it scares me. I see a disconnect from real life connections to people, and that makes me a little worried. I do think social media is an amazing way to stay connected, to learn more things about what’s going outside your little bubble, but sometimes I think it’s too much information.

The biggest challenge is separating what you see on your phone from what is your life.

IA: Is there a plus side to being part of this generation?

SG: Yes. I think that we can pave a way that not a lot of people had the opportunity to do when they were younger. We have a voice and we have a platform, so we’re able to reach people from all the way across the world just by getting on our phones, which is pretty remarkable. I’ve always wanted to connect with people everywhere when I was touring and that was the only way I could, and now I can through this weird device, which is great.

IA: What are the key things that make your generation different — apart from social media and technology?

SG: There’s more freedom in expression, not just through social media, but through fashion, and the ability to say things and be vocal about how you’re feeling, maybe your sexuality or your personality. It’s become a little more open for conversation. My mom and my grandparents have told me crazy stories, just to see how far we’ve come. I know there’s a lot more work to do, I’m not oblivious to that, but I do feel we’re in a new wave that kind of shakes everything up — that’s through our actions, through community, through everything, through fashion, and music. We get to pave that way. It’s really cool.

IA: What do you mean by crazy stories?

SG: My story is a little different. My mom had me when she was 16, we’re not from the best area ever, my grandparents lived in the same house for a really long time and they have a lot of stories. And I’m from Texas in the South. There’s this whole other factor of southern living that is beautiful, and I think a lot of who I am is a Texas girl at heart. But also there is just that way that everybody’s parents grew up. They were afraid, they were shaken up by experiences that happened. They weren’t as able to speak up as much as they can now. My mom has been through a lot of stuff that isn’t fair. Obviously she was a young white girl with a Mexican man and that — even in my mom’s high school — that was a little weird in the beginning. It’s just different now. I don’t have to experience certain things the way they did.

IA: Let’s go back to your early days. I spent some time looking at interviews that you did when you were at Disney. You were always so poised and confident.

SG: I’ve been doing it since I was seven. To be honest I don’t think I know anything different. It was good training, but I’m going to give the credit to my mom, because she was very aware, for some reason, of what could happen to me. She always said to me that I should have fun, and if it wasn’t fun or if I wasn’t learning something or I wasn’t growing as a person, she wanted to take me out of it. She said, “This entire industry is going to tell you you’re perfect and you’re great, and I’m going to tell you that you’re no better or bigger than anyone. You are the person that you are, and you are very lucky.” That’s something that’s always been replaying in my head. She just taught me to be kind, and that’s about understanding where I’m at. But it got harder the older I was getting. I was actually more confident when I was younger than I am now.

Selena Gomez | Photo: Petra Collins

IA: When you were just starting out, did you find the idea of fame appealing? And has that changed over time?

SG: I think it changed when I started getting known for things that weren’t [related to] my work. That’s when my passion started to really feel like it was going further and further away. And that scared me. When I was younger, it was all fun to me. When I did state fairs and 100 people would show up, I would be stoked. That was the best feeling in the world. But when I got older, I started to become exposed to the truth behind some stuff and that’s when it flipped a little bit. I realised that, “Oh this is actually really hard, and kind of slimy in certain areas,” and I didn’t realise that certain people wanted certain things from me. My confidence went through a lot with that.

IA: Do you remember what was going on at the time when it started changing for you?

SG: I remember just feeling really violated when I was younger, even just being on the beach. I was maybe 15 or 16 and people were taking pictures — photographers. I don’t think anyone really knew who I was. But I felt very violated and I didn’t like it or understand it, and that felt very weird, because I was a young girl and they were grown men. I didn’t like that feeling. Then, I would say the last season of my show, I was probably 18 years old, is when I felt like the flip happened. I didn’t feel like it was about my art as much. I was on the fourth season of the show, and I felt like I was outgrowing it. I wanted something different and obviously I fell in love for the first time. There was all this stuff that was happening and I didn’t know what to do.

IA: And still you continued...

SG: Well I stopped as well. I stopped and then I continued, because I realised that I needed to challenge myself. Do I really love this? Is this worth it anymore? I would look at my crowd on tour and think, “Yes, this is worth it, right?” But then I would look at myself in the mirror and I just felt like “I’ve had enough, I don’t know if I can go on anymore.” And I stopped it for a second. But it didn’t mean that I didn’t love it, I just had to find what I was going to do with it. As long as I’m healthy and happy in my mind, I’m all about it.

IA: Yes, you’ve spoken quite openly about your own mental health issues. Is mental health the defining issue for your generation? Or do you feel like it’s always been there and people are just talking about it more now?

SG: I feel like it’s always been there. When I took time to learn about my feelings and my frustrations, and where things stemmed from, there was this huge fog lifted from my life because then I understood it. I think it should be a part of middle school. You know how in kindergarten they teach you the smiley face and the sad face and the angry face — “these are the feelings you’re feeling.” I love that, but I think it should be more sophisticated and brought into middle school and high school because it is something that we need to figure out. People are struggling with something every day and they think, “Oh it’s just high school, or I’m not great enough, or it’s because I’m so great.” It’s all about learning. I hope we are the generation that gets to bring that up a little bit more, but I do believe it’s always been there.

IA: What are the most important things young people should know about mental health?

SG: First to educate yourself, to ask somebody that you respect. Don’t say, “Oh I should ask everybody around me in my class if this is something I should do,” but ask somebody you respect. I asked teachers, coaches, managers, people that I respected [because of] the way they’ve lived their life. I asked them, “How did you get to this place? What were you like when you were 25? What were the things that you were thinking about?” And then from there, being with like-minded people. You are who you surround yourself with — 100 percent. If you’re around people who think that stuff is dumb, that think it’s ridiculous — “You’re crazy! You’re fine!” — but you don’t feel that way, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate that. It’s a lonely journey to really figure out where all this stuff is coming from. And to detach from it. It becomes an addiction, it becomes a habit, retraining your mind to not go to these negative places when you say something wrong, do something wrong, when you wear a certain thing or represent a certain culture. But it is lonely, I had to lose a lot of people in my life to get there.

IA: What do you mean?

SG:: You have to figure out the people that are in your circle. I feel like I know everybody but have no friends. [Laughs] I have like three good friends that I can tell everything to, but I know everyone. I go anywhere and I’m like, “Hey guys, how’s it going?” And it feels great to be connected to people, but having boundaries is so important. You have to have those few people that respect you, want the best for you and you want the best for them. It sounds cheesy, but it’s hard.

IA: How much of your own personal issues were magnified by being under the spotlight? Do you think it would have been the same?

SG: [Laughs] All of them! Would I think it would be the same if I was in regular school?

IA: Yeah, I mean, say you weren’t Selena Gomez, international superstar and the most followed person on Instagram, and you were Selena Gomez, regular everyday person doing a regular job.

SG: No, I think I would have all of the same issues. I think mine are amplified just a little bit only because of the public aspect, but I do think they’re very similar. When it comes to the internal stuff — the insecurities, growing up, friendships, family, mental health, all of that stuff.

IA: Let’s talk about the social media thing for a minute. First of all, how do you think you became the most followed person on Instagram?

SG: I couldn’t tell you.

IA: You have no idea?

SG: [Laughs] I don’t! I don’t even understand it, no. I really don’t. I love the app, and that’s all that happened. I think I was probably too vocal on it. Maybe too real, and have gotten myself into a little bit of trouble occasionally, but I think people liked the authenticity that I represented — poorly sometimes. I don’t have a formula, I don’t really think about it. Maybe that’s why, because I don’t think about it.

IA: It’s such a powerful platform. You’ve been using it not just for showing your creativity, but also for being quite transparent about the things going on in your life.

SG: I’ve done it about people who are mean to other people, or comments that reflected my character, all of this stuff. It got to me. I got so invested in it that I felt like I forgot there’s a whole other world going on, that most of what I was looking at didn’t come from an authentic place. Half of that isn’t necessarily words I should take in. I had to really train myself to be careful with it.

IA: Do you mean reading the comments?

SG: Yeah because they’re there! I remember when I got the app when it first was created, not because someone was like, “Hey, try it!” but just because it everybody was talking about it, so I thought I’d try it. And with my phone, it just changed everything. When I don’t have it, and I don’t have the app on my phone for a second, it’s good. But then I get excited when it’s back and it’s a weird thing.

IA: So, when did you first start developing your relationship with the fashion industry?

SG: I would say maybe four years ago. It was honestly through Kate Young. Having a relationship with Kate really opened my eyes. I’m still learning, but that’s what created the relationships and opened the doors. I didn’t understand a lot about the fashion world, the things most people don’t see. They see the immediate image, they see, “Oh here’s a beautiful photo of a beautiful person wearing these clothes”, but they don’t understand what goes on behind all of that. Once I started understanding the craftsmanship and how dedicated people are to making it, and how delicate everything felt, my eyes were really opened to it. There’s something that happens when I put on a beautiful piece of clothing. And it’s not just through characters or music videos. I feel like it completely affects how I’m stepping into an environment. I’m very dramatic, I love being expressive with stuff. So if I have on a good outfit and my hair looks poppin’ I feel great! I have a whole new aura about myself.

There's something that happens when I put on a beautiful piece of clothing.

IA: Fashion makes you feel good!

SG: I think so! But I have learnt to understand both sides, I do. But I think once you understand what’s behind it, then you have the respect factor that not a lot of people get to see.

IA: We’ve done a lot of research for this issue and one of the things that people keep saying — it’s almost cliché now — is that, “Oh Millennials, they don’t want to buy stuff, they want to buy experiences.” Do you agree with that?

SG: Interesting. I think yes, probably. The reason why I think that’s true is because of how much they do see [on social media]. I think a lot of people show the highlights of their life. And don’t get me wrong, I’m sitting there saying, “I would love to go do that! Having sushi on some island somewhere that’s fresh and right in front of you!” I get that. It’s so interesting, I’m going to ask my friends this question.

IA: We surveyed 800 Millennials and Gen Z, and 74 percent said they’d rather spend on a great experience than on a luxury brand.

SG: What?! Wow!

IA: So what do you actually spend your money on then?

SG: I just got a new house, so for me, I love trinkets and memorabilia and antiques. I love music, so I buy a lot of stuff and movies. My house is so bare, this is literally my room. [Pans her phone camera around the room.] It's very simple and cute. Then I have two closets, so there's something that makes me feel beautiful, when I get to reward myself with something special. My boyfriend just got me a beautiful Chanel bag, and [I love it.] It wasn't because it was a Chanel bag, it's because of where it came from and what it meant. So I wear it so proudly, and I feel cute when I have it on. I feel like, "I love this!" it makes me so happy. It literally just happened so all my friends are laughing because every time I have it on, I feel a certain way. And that to me is an experience. I see both sides, because I get to work and do different things. My job requires me to travel but I've been to a lot of places and I've seen nothing, so there's that too.

IA: Why do you think the fashion industry has become so enamoured with you?

SG: I have no idea! It’s a weird question and I don’t want to be like: “Oh this is why!” because I really don’t know. I would like to say that maybe it’s the connection that I’ve had with my fans and being able to go into everything that I do with so much compassion and love and respect. That’s what I’m hoping it is.

IA: The collaboration with Coach took things one step further. How did that happen?

SG: I met Stuart first, actually, with a few of his team members, and he came into the office. I wasn’t actually looking for anything. I don’t actively look for things, I always feel like things will come in as they’re supposed to and then you deal with all the nonsense later. So I met Stuart and his heart was so genuine. I want to work with people who want to work with me. I don’t want it to ever feel forced to work together. That doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it, it doesn’t feel good. On both ends. So let’s just do something we’re both passionate about. And that’s what it was. I remember thinking: “I just love his personality, would I be able to create something?” He was like, “Yeah! I’d actually love for you to design something with me.” I had never done that before but the biggest thing that I love when it comes to putting something together is accessories. I could wear black all day, but if I have a good accessory, I feel complete. So, it started with that. It started with, “How could we do something together, what would it be? What would it represent?” And then I had to bring in the philanthropy part, because that’s something that I always do with everything I have, so we talked about the foundation and how the bag would have certain proceeds that would go to any foundation that I want. I do a lot of work with the Lupus Foundation and my health stuff, so that always excited me, and kids. I work closely with that. Everybody on the team was so nice and then I met all the big heads and all that stuff came in.

IA: The big heads!

SG: Oh you know! That’s a part of it. I realised that everybody is going to be working together and from there we created something amazing. When you have a good personal relationship, it reflects in everything else that you do. What I’ve realised the older I’ve gotten, is you can just read it on someone’s face if they don’t want to be there. For me, we would have dinners and genuinely enjoy everybody’s company with everyone in the Coach family. From there, it would go, how are we going to create this into the campaign? How are we going to contextualise the relationship? It became all about the bag and how personal we were going to make it. It was just fun to be able to sit there and have all these dreams and put them together.

IA: There was a time when you were working closely with Louis Vuitton, the big European house. Do you find a difference between European houses and American houses when you were doing that stuff with Vuitton?

SG: Maybe the accents? [laughs!] To be honest, it’s different when you’re creating versus when you’re representing. Nicholas was so beautiful, I loved the way he treated his team. It was a step in the right direction and from there I could create my own stuff. That’s always what I want to do. I just want to progress. If I’m not progressing, I’m standing still, and I’m not good at standing still.

IA: Yes, I get that sense! So, where do you go from here?

SG: I’ve been through a lot, and I was so young, and there were so many moments where I felt like, “You know what, I’m done.” But there is this fire in me that I can’t explain. I’ll have two days off and it burns. There’s something inside me that knows I’m supposed to be doing something. I want to be communicating and creating and being stimulated. I want to keep doing things, keep progressing. I always want to challenge myself. So, I want to do the best that I can possibly do. It’s cheesy but it’s the truth.

IA: You’re back in the spotlight again, after having gone through that very difficult period. What tools do you use now to cope so that you don’t fall back into that place?

SG: Balance the power of saying no and self-care. I have to take care of myself and not feel guilty about it. I will say no when I need to say no, and I will make sure that I will not overdo everything because I feel like if I don’t accept everything that’s happening then maybe it seems like I’m ungrateful, or I’m not doing enough. I just have to take care of myself. Therapy, faith, hard work, kindness. That’s it.

Epilogue
I end our FaceTime chat and reflect on my 45-minute conversation with Selena Gomez. I realise that the fashion industry could actually take a leaf out of Selena's own playbook. If she is right, her generation is looking for something altogether different from the fashion consumers of old. It's the authenticity, experience and access that get them excited. Like old-school Hollywood, so much of old-school fashion is still so contrived and controlled. Gomez broke the Hollywood pop-star formula with her openness and authenticity, striking a chord with millions of young people in the process. Perhaps it's time for fashion to do the same.

This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: “Generation Next”. The issue is available for purchase at shop.businessoffashion.com and at select retailers around the world.

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