Putting together January's Rare, Selena Gomez felt she'd hit all the right notes.
She had the killer opening single, the painfully raw "Lose You to Love Me" climbing to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 after she released it last October, the title track Billboard labeled as "a bewildering and brilliantly constructed piece of pop" and the empowering anthem, "Dance Again".
She thought that maybe there was something missing, she just wasn't sure what, she reflected during an April episode of New Music Daily with Zane Lowe. So she texted one of her co-songwriters Julia Michaels and "I said, 'Well, it's like I feel like I've covered everything on the album.' I was like, 'I don't know. Life's good. I want a boyfriend. That's about it.' And she's like, 'LOL, whatever.' And I come in the studio and that's literally the title."
The resulting "Boyfriend" so encapsulated what she was feeling at that moment—that she by no means needed anyone in her life, but sometimes companionship can be nice. "It's a lighthearted song about falling down and getting back up time and time again in love," she explained to her 183 million Instagram followers, "but also knowing that you don't need anyone other than yourself to be happy."
Because the multi-hyphenate is just that—happy.
As she celebrates her 28th birthday, more than a year and a half after seeking treatment to help with her ongoing anxiety and depression, the singer-actress-producer-style icon feels confident she's living her best life. She's contentedly self-coupled ("I've been single for two years. I'm on God's timing not mine," she shared on Instagram, dispelling rumors she was reuniting with ex Samuel Krost), celebrating her third number one album and exploring a myriad of other creative projects (a beauty line! a cooking show! documentaries!). As she told Amy Schumer in a recent Interview chat, "I love music so much, but there are different stories I want to tell. I want to talk about important things."
That starts with her health, the star revealing in April that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. "Recently, I went to one of the best mental hospitals…McLean Hospital and I discussed that, after years of going through a lot of different things, I realized that I was bipolar," she explained to Miley Cyrus on the musician's "Bright Minded: Live" Instagram series, "and so, when I go [to the hospital] to know more information, it actually helps me. It doesn't scare me once I know it and I think people get scared of that."
For her, it was a lot like facing a childhood fear. "When I was younger, I was scared of thunderstorms and my mom bought me all these different books on thunderstorms, so she's like, 'The more that you educate yourself on this, the more that you're not gonna be afraid' and it completely worked and that's kind of something that helps me big time."
Calling the time before she sought help "one of the scariest moments of my life," she told the crowd gathered in September to watch her receive the 2019 McLean Award about the clarity that followed.
"The doctors were able to give me a clear diagnosis," she shared while accepting the honor, bestowed upon those that help further the public's understanding of mental illness. "The moment I received that information, I actually felt equal parts terrified and relieved. Terrified, obviously, because the veil was lifted, but relieved that I had the knowledge of why I had suffered for so many years."
But her palpable contentment is about more than just getting answers, about more than starting the proper course of treatment, telling WSJ Magazine, "I got on the right medication, and my life has been completely changed."
Her 2018 involved a thorough cleanse from social media, from sources of negativity, from friendships that simply weren't authentic. "I think everything in my life is being majorly downsized, in a very good way," she told Elle at the time. "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.' It's me saying, 'I'm exactly where I am. And I'm so happy I'm in this place.'"
As for what has remained alongside her, it all brings her joy. "Selena has truly had a transformative year," an insider tells E! News. "She feels more stable and healthy than she has in the last couple of years and has been on a great path."
That starts with her health, both physical—the insider notes that she hasn't had many lupus flare-ups of late—and mental. "I'm just fortunate enough to be able to work with some of the greatest doctors and psychiatrists and amazing people to help guide me personally through my journey," she shared in her September speech. "Although this does not mean that it has all gone away, I can say that after a year of a lot of intense work, that I am happier, I am healthier and I'm in control of my emotions and thoughts more than I've ever been."
She also holds the reins on her social calendar, preferring to fill it with quiet evenings at the Orange County home she purchased following her escape from L.A., a place she's labeled as "claustrophobic." (And, okay, a few enviable pre-COVID jaunts to Mexico and Italy.)
"She has a new approach to every aspect of her life," the source explains. "She has a really good group of friends that she hangs out with regularly and loves to do low-key activities like an early dinner, hang out at home or hang outside in her backyard chatting."
The lucky few on her speed dial include Taylor Swift (someone she told WSJ Magazine "has showed up for me in ways that I would have never expected,") Francia Raisa, who notably donated a kidney to Gomez in 2017 and producer Andrea Iervolino.
And while she gives followers the slightest glimpse into her nights at home cooking and her close knit bonds, much of her social media is reserved for promoting her latest projects or moving the conversation forward on social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The new Selena, the source says, "really enjoys staying out of the spotlight and focusing on what matters most."
In other words, she's not venturing onto a step-and-repeat without some thoughtful consideration.
Of the handful of public events Gomez has ventured out for in the past year or so, four were in connection with her zombie fantasy film The Dead Don't Die, four to promote causes near to her heart, one to treat 7-year-old sister Gracie Teefey to a sneak peek of Frozen 2 and also a brief cameo on the Coachella stage to perform alongside Cardi B and Ozuna because a girl's still got to live.
One such appearance was an Oct. 2 screening for Netflix's Living Undocumented, a project she co-produced and championed with a Time essay she wrote, opening up about her aunt crossed over from Mexico while "hidden in the back of the truck."
Her grandparents followed, giving birth to her dad in Texas soon after, and on July 22, 1992 future actress-singer-producer-world changer Selena Gomez entered the world as a United States citizen. "Over the past four decades, members of my family have worked hard to gain United States citizenship," she shared. "Undocumented immigration is an issue I think about every day and I never forget how blessed I am to have been born in this country thanks to my family and the grace of circumstance."
Not one to claim an understanding of the complexities of the country's immigration system, something that was messy and complicated even before the current crisis, her goal was to put human faces to the cause. "It's time to listen to the people whose lives are being directly affected by immigration policies," she continued. "It's time to get to know the individuals whose complex stories have been reduced to basic headlines."
Far from simple lip service, her dedication to human rights also led her to take on a five-day-a-week internship (save for the times she's tied up in the studio or honoring commitments for brand partnerships such as Puma and Coach) with A21, a global anti-human-trafficking nonprofit. "I had been working for so long, and I don't like taking things in my life," she told Elle. "I just wanted to serve."
The move came from her internal drive to be part of things that matter more than platinum records and Billboard chart toppers.
"I've been wanting something I could contribute most of my time to because I love what I do, but I feel a little selfish sometimes and I've always said that...I take it extremely serious and my friends are heavily involved with me because it's not something happening a million miles away. It's actually happening here," she told E! News' Jason Kennedy. "I would love to do everything I can, along with one of my heroes [A21 founder Christine Caine], to just be a part of it and learn. So I am honored to be a part of it."
Having toiled in this business since she was a 9-year-old on Barney & Friends, she's better at balancing than most. So she's spent the past year of her life juggling philanthropy with her roles as a producer, brand ambassador and an in-demand pop star.
"I wanted a record that made people feel something," she told Billboard of her painstaking process for putting together Rare. "Whether that was a hard relationship to get through, or gaining your confidence back, or being okay with just having fun. So there's different layers to it, and I'm so grateful that it ended up becoming what it is now, after four and a half years."
At times she needed to sit with a song for a beat, working through the emotions attached to it, but reflecting back on the process to InStyle late last year, she was confident it was a worth-the-wait situation. "I can say this, and it might not sound right, but I've tried my hardest to make this the best album I've ever done," she shared. "And I feel like I lived up to the expectations. Hopefully that doesn't come back to bite me in the ass."
At that point, before the praise and rave reviews poured in, before the sales confirmed everything she'd hoped and believed, she knew that at least she'd lived up to her own standards.
"I think every time the holidays come up, there's some part of you where you kind of sit and reflect on the year," she said. "This year was really, really powerful for me. I can say that I'm so proud of how hard I worked, and that I truly am excited to just sit back with my family, and enjoy, and turn off everything. I always just think about what happened, and where I want to go in life, and hope for the best."
(Originally published Nov. 22, 2019, at 4 a.m. PT)