‘I Couldn’t Believe the Things I Was Aspiring to Be’

Selena Gomez is in the midst of a frenetic, painfully banal press tour. Traveling through Paris in an SUV, she’s visibly exhausted, wrung out and drawn, laying her head on her friend Raquelle’s lap. “How are you feeling?” asks Raquelle, looking concerned. “I’m very tired,” replies Gomez. Gently, Raquelle asks, “Do you want to do your morning meds? I know the answer, but you should.” Gomez goes silent in the car, but we hear her shortly thereafter in voice-over, reading from her diary: “Let me make a promise. I’ll only tell you my darkest secrets.”

The scene takes place early on in Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, an Apple+ documentary (premiering November 4) that is profoundly sad and surprisingly raw for a star of Gomez’s standing. Filmed in stops and starts over the course of six years by Truth or Dare director Alek Keshishian, who is Gomez’s manager’s brother and who filmed the 2015 music video for Gomez’s “Hands to Myself,” it covers a wide swath of chronological and thematic ground. The doc begins with Gomez rehearsing for and then slowly breaking down during her 2016 Revival tour, which she cancels partway through due to a fledgling mental-health crisis. Keshishian picks back up with her a few years later, after a long hiatus from performing that included a stint in a mental-health facility, a lupus flare-up that triggered the need for a kidney transplant, and a bipolar-disorder diagnosis. We watch Gomez grapple with the decision to share her diagnosis and the subsequent stage fright and anxiety as she makes her return to the stage; we travel with her to Kenya, where she comes palpably alive while volunteering with a local school; we follow her through that aforementioned London and Paris press tour, where she’s plopped in front of cameras and given excruciating prompts to provoke quirky sound bites. (In one bizarre interaction, a journalist says to Gomez, “One DJ, one word: Marshmello.” Gomez’s incredulous response: “Fluffy?”) Afterwards, near tears and viscerally reminded of the depersonalization she once felt as a young Disney star, she asks her team, “What am I even doing right now?”

Though Gomez hasn’t shied away from speaking publicly about her mental- and physical-health struggles over the years, Keshishian’s documentary is deeper, darker, and more specific about these incidents: Gomez weeps on-camera about her persistent fear of not being “good enough” as an artist or a person, criticizes her body, frankly discusses her suicidal ideation, angrily laments the triteness and vanity involved in self-promotion, bristles at callouts from her close friends, and openly recalls lashing out at her family during her bipolar episodes. Despite being haunted by her past as a child star who contorted herself to please everyone around her, she gamely goes through old family footage and photos and visits her Texas hometown in an attempt to find some internal peace. In these scenes, she’s charming in an unvarnished way, roaming the streets in sweatpants and a medical mask, apologizing to a sick neighbor for her childhood mischief and warmly revealing her superstar identity to a schoolmate’s exhilarated young daughter. She’s honest about her burning desire to abandon the game and start a family, and how that dream conflicts with the responsibility she feels to stay in the limelight and destigmatize illness. It’s a tension she readily acknowledges in our conversation, alongside Keshishian, ahead of the documentary’s release.

Selena, this project began because you reached out to Alek after he filmed your video for “Hands to Myself,” right? What made you want to have your life filmed in this way?SG: So my manager is Alek’s sister, but regardless of that, it was a moment I had in Hawaii that I’ll never forget. I watched Alek’s movie with Madonna, and I was completely blown away. I’ve watched it seven times. I think it’s wonderful to see someone in that light — whether she liked it or not, I think she was so available to people. I think sometimes in my position, you can be unattainable. But she was so relatable that your heart was with her.

I think I wanted to make something that was a little surface-y at first. I was like, “Oh, it’d be nice to do a documentary on my tour.” But Alek, you can speak to this — he doesn’t just do random things. He’s very much a part of the story and what it becomes.

Alek, I know you were unsure at first about doing another music documentary. Can you tell me why you were hesitant, and what changed your mind?AK: It didn’t take me long to realize that Selena was a really special human being. She was 23 when she did “Hands to Myself” and she was 24 when she came to me to film her Revival tour. I already felt this kind of protective feeling for her because she was so young. I could see on the first day of filming that she was going through that struggle between being a young child star and becoming a woman. There were so many things at play. I said to her, “I’m not very good with the superficial docs. Which is why I don’t do them very often.” She said, “Okay, let’s try to do one with more access and see.”

We shot for a few weeks, and I think we both came to the conclusion that, no, the time just wasn’t right. We shelved it, but we stayed friends. And when she came out of the mental-health facility, we had dinner. I remember seeing her and going, “Wow. This is like a little fragile bird. She’s trying to figure out how to fly again.” She came to me and said, “I’m going to Kenya at the end of the year. Do you want to go and document that?” I said yes, and in my own kind of sneaky way, asked, “How about if we just shoot a couple of days now and see what your life is like?” And it snowballed. Selena and I were both testing the water; we didn’t know what it should be, or if it should be.

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Was there a specific moment that made you both realize that the 2016 tour wasn’t the right time for a documentary?SG: I wasn’t well. That’s actually the only answer. I wasn’t well, and I couldn’t continue. I had to cancel what I needed to cancel in order to live.

What were those initial few days of shooting in 2019 like?AK: She wouldn’t watch anything I shot. She doesn’t like seeing herself. Which is very different from most celebs, who are like, “What do I look like in that? Is that the right angle?” She doesn’t have that.

Selena, at what point did you realize, This is going to be extremely personal; it’s going to be about my mental and physical health, no-holds-barred. And how did you come to terms with that level of public vulnerability as a private person? SG: I feel like I was going with the flow, at first. I needed Alek to disappear in order for me to be everything that I was. And then when we got to Kenya, Alek and I had this incredible moment with all of the people there. It was a moment where we both thought, We’re so fortunate and so lucky to be in our position. And realized that people in every part of the world are dealing with the same thing: their minds. Your mind is everything. It provides for your body, for your soul. Once we had all of the footage, I fully believed that this was going to be something bigger than me.

But when I got to London, I gotta be honest, I was kind of frustrated and didn’t even want anyone to film anything. The footage from London is completely accurate to what I felt. But I do want to express to people that interview me, I don’t think that about everyone! I don’t think that about anyone. I was just a little frustrated with some of the questions, that’s all.

I did want to ask you about that, the press-tour moments in London and Paris. Those questions were shitty. SG: Yeah. They kind of were.

To now have to do a press tour about the experience of not liking to do press must be strange.SG: It’s actually been a wonderful surprise. I have had great conversations with people. And that’s the idea of releasing this movie. The conversations need to happen. I’m nervous for this to come out, but at the same time, I love having conversations with people who have an opinion on the subject matter.

AK: I want to add, my intention when filming this wasn’t to throw anyone under the bus. These reporters are under this pressure to ask sound-bite questions. Everyone is trying to be different, but ironically, in doing so, they lose the opportunity to have great conversations. I think that says something about media companies and what they’re looking for, not these individuals.

So many artists, and musicians specifically, have done their versions of “personal documentaries,” in which there is a sense that they’re still controlling the final product — that there’s a level of PR machinations going on behind the scenes. I’m curious how much control or approval you ended up having over the final cut, Selena? Did you ever say, “Okay, I don’t want this specific thing filmed or included”?SG: There were moments where I was so unsure. Only because I am offering a lot of myself. It had nothing to do with creativity, nothing to do with Alek, nothing to do with anything but myself and allowing myself to be there.

I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a bit of that unsure quality staying with me. I kind of feel like, What are people going to think? Is this too much? Did I do too much? But at the same time, I want people to know that there’s a voice out there to represent people who feel the way that I feel constantly. I adore what it’s become now. But it was a bit weird for me at the time. I didn’t know if it was okay. We’ll see, at this point!

Did you push through that feeling of not wanting to film something, or occasionally ask him to stop?SG: There were a few moments, but not a lot, right, Alek?

AK: There were a few. But I tended to be the one who was very careful.For example, the lupus flare-up. We were scheduled to film, but she was crying and I was the only person there. I said, “I guess I shouldn’t film?” And she goes, “You can film.” Sometimes she would shock me with her courage. I think she’s right that there was something about Kenya. It really humbled both of us. We went, “There is a larger world here and our pain can be used to help others.”

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By the end, I really felt Selena in my soul. I said to her, “When I make a documentary, I fall in love with the person. So I’d never want to do anything that they weren’t comfortable with.” So when I was editing, I didn’t need her there; she was there with me already.

But when she saw the initial long cut, we didn’t even need to have a conversation. I witnessed it through her eyes: The two-and-a-half-hour cut is too long.

Selena, what was it like for you to watch that long cut? What was he witnessing you feeling and thinking?SG: I think it brought me back to a time. The things I was watching from 2016, 2017, 2018 — I can’t believe I was that girl. That breaks my heart. I’m grateful to be on the other side, but when I watched, for example, the first part of the film where I discuss my body — I don’t want to cry now, but I was completely upset with myself. I couldn’t believe the things I was aspiring to be. Which really aren’t possible unless you have a lot of money and you’re willing to spend it to do that to yourself. It really broke my heart. That’s not the feeling I want to give anyone. I hope I don’t. So watching it was a bit shocking and upsetting.

But I feel genuinely proud. I’ve had so many moments with people, real genuine moments, where women who are in their 40s tell me about their divorce or something they’re walking through. I can’t help but just love people for who they are, even when it’s frustrating and even maybe when I shouldn’t. I believe in people. Ultimately, I sacrificed my story — which I don’t mind, it’s just a little weird — I hope it has a bigger purpose and can carry on as a conversation for people.

What scene from the film are you excited for people to see, and on the flip side, what are you nervous for people to see?SG: I feel like artists will understand my pain with the promo part. I want a big change there. It’s very simple, but I will say I want change there. I do think people in our position deserve actual questions.

Oh, and talking about my mom was really wonderful, because she deserves every bit of light that shines on her.

AK: My favorite scene is not even a scene, but the decision she made when everything collapsed with WE Charity. She decided, I’m going to do this on my own with the Rare Impact Fund. That was the moment where she finally stares down that earlier statement she makes — that she always grew up not feeling good enough. The courage it took for her to get to that place, where she went, “Maybe I am good enough. Not only personally, but to make a difference in the world, without necessarily needing other people to do this with me.” The movie’s message is one of hope like that, and to show people that Selena doesn’t claim to not be broken. We all are broken. When we stay in our brokenness, we can’t see all the good we can do.

SG: That was so sweet. I’m sorry I started with a little bit of a superficial thing.

AK: There’s a real part of me that wanted to make a statement to young people that pursuing the artifice of fame and whatever — it isn’t a bunch of roses. It’s not perfect, and in some ways, it can prevent actual human connection. That’s what you see in London and Paris. She’s not connecting with human beings after connecting so deeply with human beings in Kenya. That’s really the shock to her system. That’s what makes her feel sad.

Selena, your diary entries that punctuate the movie are similarly sad. The first one you read really stuck with me: “I have to stop living like this. Why have I become so far from the light? Everything I ever wished for, I’ve had and done all of it. But it has killed me. Because there’s always Selena.” I’m curious what that sentence means for you: “It has killed me, because there’s always Selena?”SG: I think it’s about discovering myself through my 20s; I had to do that in front of people, and I don’t know anything different. I think that Selena — and I hate talking about myself in the third person, I’m so sorry — is not a reflection of where I am now. I don’t want people to think that I will forever live in this sad-girl world. Because that’s not true. Alek has said this, and it’s very true, that when people say, “What’s the end of the movie?” The end of the movie is where I am now. Living in New York, and just being. That’s all I want to do.

AK: I chose that as the first entry because to me, what she’s saying there is that the pursuit of fame and success on those terms — you can put all your eggs in that basket and you wake up and realize, it’s kind of empty. So for me, when she says, “It has killed me, there’s always Selena” — for me, that Selena is the construct that the rest of the world has made. Selena Gomez, the pop star, which isn’t true to who she is. That Selena is in quotes. It’s not the real Selena.

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SG: Yes.

AK: It’s a person people are screaming for. We all want to be known for who we really are, and I think for performers especially in the public eye, that persona and projection other people make on you can become very frustrating.

Does that resonate for you, Selena? Are you able to separate from that persona now?SG: Completely. I can now. Thank God I can. I am so happy and lovely here in New York. I love living with the older generation, so I’m on the Upper East Side. It’s very nice for that. I’m currently in a little cave and it’s so lovely and private.

AK: She really is so much more than what people know about her. Over the course of these six years, I really felt — Selena, you should close your ears, you won’t like this — that I was in the presence of something holy, almost, in the way she conducts herself through difficulty and pain.

Since you did hear it, Selena, how does that make you feel?SG: It’s so weird. He knows I’m embarrassed. I don’t receive compliments well, but I’ve learned over the years that you should just say thank you and accept it.

The diary entries are overlaid over these beautiful, dramatic videos of Selena in a sort of Día de los Muertos look, with a skull painted on her face — I wanted to ask about that choice. SG: For me, I wasn’t necessarily wanting to have those moments. We had that material from the Revival tour, and it ended up working beautifully within the movie. But when I watch those moments, it is kind of painful. Because when I filmed them, I wasn’t doing great. But it was beautiful. And that’s kind of what the story is: It is beautiful-looking, but …

AK: The reason I used them was because over those images, she’s giving you her most internal and honest journal entries. I thought there was an interesting dichotomy there — these artistic images are the “Selena” in quotes, juxtaposed with her words, which are deeply Selena. I liked the tension between those two things.

To your earlier point, how did you know when you were done filming? At what point in those six years did you say, “Okay, it’s time to stop”?SG: Oh my God, I don’t think we would have ended, Alek.

AK: It was almost like the universe conspired to tell us we were ending. When she has that amazing conversation with Dr. Murthy, then goes to Texas and has that incredible encounter with a former classmate’s daughter where it’s almost like she sees and interacts with the child version of herself — it’s so metaphorical, but so in your face. While we were editing, she got to go the White House, and I realized, “Wow, this girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Grand Prairie goes through this entire journey and ends up in the White House.” This is a time capsule, but not the ending of Selena’s story.

Then we get that surprise at the end of the film — that the soundtrack the whole time has been seeding the premiere of Selena’s new song, “My Mind and Me.” Can you tell me about the conception of that song, Selena?SG: It happened in a really organic way. I went through this moment where I was allowing people into my life through my journal, these producers who worked on the song and know me very well; we’ve worked together for a very long time. I remember releasing all of this stuff to them, and I was scared of what they were going to think. But “My Mind and Me,” the idea and the chorus, came up, and it was really moving to me. These people took my story and made it something bigger than me. I was really grateful — I keep saying that, but I truly am someone who’s grateful for these moments. It’s crazy to realize it’s about to be released to everyone else who may feel how I felt.

Where are you at in terms of your new album?SG: We’ve actually been working for years on this new record, only because I want to be able to grow through my music. I am the person who’s terrified of what will happen once it’s out, so I want it to be really well done and representative of where I am. There is a bunch of fun stuff that I’m so eager to leak, if I’m being honest. I shall not. But I’m so excited. It’ll be fun and refreshing, I think.

I can’t wait to hear it. I know our time is up, but I also wanted to ask — that recent photo released of you and Hailey Bieber felt full circle. What was the story behind it? I thought it was powerful of you guys to publicly be like, “We’re moving on.”SG: Thank you. Yeah, it’s not a big deal. It’s not even a thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.