once known more for her relationships with Barney the dinosaur and Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez has broken free of all of that prehistoric shit with a sexy, smash-hit album and new films with Seth Rogen and James Franco (not to mention a planet-Earth-leading 74 million Instagram followers). But here’s what we really love about her: She survived the car wreck of child fame—the trolls and the paparazzi, the bad breakups and the exhaustion—and emerged from it, well, more human than ever.
Salena Gomez isn’t really the type to name-drop, but she’s got a Diddy story she likes to tell. It’s not much of a story, actually—more like an anecdote. It’s about one of those nights you have when you’re Selena Gomez, “when you’re around four people and everybody has the champagne glass, and somebody says something and they laugh but they didn’t say a joke.” Fame—a.k.a. daily life for Selena Gomez—is “that situation all the time.”
“Or when P. Diddy gave me his valet ticket once. Do you know what I mean?”
Wait, no, I don’t—why did he give you his valet ticket?
“Because he thought I was the valet lady.”
Yeah. What a surreal life she’s already led. Try to imagine it for a second. A life determined largely by decisions she made when she was a teenager—enormous, consequential choices to first become a child actress, rictus-grinning on Barney (a decision she made circa age 10), then signing up as a Disney company player on Wizards of Waverly Place (a decision she made circa age 15), and then, finally, to date fellow child star Justin Bieber (a decision she made circa age 18), a seemingly innocent young man who went from fresh-faced YouTube star to heavily tattooed mop-bucket-urinator in the four on-and-off years of their courtship. Imagine one day—and this happened just a few weeks ago to Selena Gomez—you become the most followed person on all of Instagram. Seventy-four million followers! Who are all those people?! Some of them are fans from way back, mostly young women. There’s an unsettlingly large contingent of adult men, whose motivations she surely would prefer not to think about. Also bots. So many bots! Selena Gomez is drowning in bots.
Selena Gomez is also drowning in attention. I know, I know. All of us here in the celebrity-industrial complex we call America have learned to be especially skeptical of famous people who complain or otherwise seem uncomfortable with their fame, right? We have decided, as a society, not to let folks have it both ways. But Selena’s a throwback. She’s got angry ‘90s-alt-rock blood running through her Disney veins. Remember Fiona Apple? Trembling on an MTV stage, saying “This world is bullshit” while clutching a 1997 Best New Artist Moonman as if it were the monkey’s paw? That’s Selena. Young and absurdly talented and here to tear the system down, despite being a stone-cold product of it. Because she’s a stone-cold product of it.
Imagine your early 20s, trying desperately to shed your old skin, as people in their early 20s do, in order to become a new, more complex and more interesting person. Imagine trying to live down rehab—which she either did or did not go to, more on that later—as well as a debilitating auto-immune disease, lupus, which she was diagnosed with three years ago. Imagine trying to do this while scores of people—a multimillion-dollar gossip industry, quote-unquote fans, journalists who resemble the one typing this sentence—keep tossing buckets of your old life at you like the pig’s-blood scene in Carrie.
In the past year, she’s released an addictive, convincingly louche album, Revival, which still had two singles lingering in the Top 10 as recently as February; she also made a killer blackjack-table cameo in The Big Short, announced her own TV series with Netflix and Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, and is about to star in Neighbors 2. And all that’s fine. Impressive, even.
But I want to make the argument that what’s most interesting about Selena Gomez right now, in 2016, is that—despite the plastic, unreal world from which she comes—she’s working her hardest to become a socially maladroit weirdo. A human, in other words. A human who would probably gently suffocate the last living northern white rhino if it guaranteed she didn’t have to be a public figure anymore. Or at least, a public figure at the titanic scale at which she’s a public figure.