Inside the Moment That Launched Selena Gomez's Life-Changing Comeback in 2017

Her raw and honest speech at the 2016 American Music Awards heralded the start of a new era for her personally and as a performer

By Natalie Finn Nov 16, 2017 1:00 PMTags

Selena Gomez's relatively short but poignant speech at the 2016 American Music Awards meant a lot to a lot of different people.

To her concerned fans who were just glad she was back in the public eye and all glammed up, it was a reassuring message that she was going to be fine. To the zeitgeist, it was a splashy, "I'm back, baby!" To Justin Bieber, it may have sounded like buh-bye. And to young women everywhere, she made an empowering statement about listening to yourself, trusting your instincts and reminding yourself that what you want matters, that you have to take care of yourself first before you can go out and achieve your dreams. 

Perhaps her most important message, projected inward and radiating outward, was that sometimes you just won't be able to please everybody—and that's perfectly OK. 

Selena Gomez's Best American Music Awards Looks

"In 2014, this stage was actually the first time that I was authentically 100 percent honest with all of you," Gomez told the AMAs audience last year, referring to an emotional moment she had onstage. "I think it's safe to say most of you know my life whether I liked it or not. And I had to stop. Because I had everything—and I was absolutely broken inside. I kept it all together enough to where I would never let you down, but I kept it too much together to where I let myself down.

"I don't want to see your bodies on Instagram. I want to see what's in here," she patted her heart. "I'm not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore. All I can say is I'm so grateful that I have the opportunity to be able to share what I love every day with people that I love. And I have to say thank you so much to my fans, because you guys are so damn loyal, and I don't know what I did to deserve you.

"But if you are broken, you do not have to stay broken. And if that's anything, whether you respect me or not, that's one thing you should know about me is, I care about people. And thank you so much for this, this is for you."

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

2016 may have been the year of Gomez's "break" and her trip to treatment. But this year she underwent one life-changing experience after another, from enjoying a fun, mutually supportive, baggage-free relationship with someone to undergoing a kidney transplant and experiencing the most touching definition of friendship.

After breaks both from the spotlight and social media, Gomez made her return at the AMAs last year, where she was named Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist. This year she'll return as a performer and, at the end of the month, Billboard will honor her as its 2017 Woman of the Year.

What a difference 12 months can make.

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"Balance the power of saying no and self-care," Gomez reflected in a recent interview with Business of Fashion. "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."

But Selena Gomez didn't arrive at that conclusion overnight.

Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images

She had taken time off in the past, but last year was the first time she really opened up about the need to tend to her mental health as much as her physical health—and that that's something no one should feel ashamed about doing. Over the years, in various interviews, she would often allude to things that had happened to her, indicating that those experiences had helped frame wherever she was at in her life at any given moment, but never revealing what those things actually were.

"There's a lot of things I've been able to experience on my own," she told E! News in 2013 while doing press for the film Getaway. "So there's a lot of things people don't know, which is fine, and I like to keep it that way. But they enjoy talking, so"—she raised her eyebrows—"I let them talk."

On the surface, people knew a few things: she had broken up once with Bieber but hadn't quite been able to shake him, she had burst out of her Disney-cultivated shell in the gritty Spring Breakers and she was making her way as a solo pop artist, having just released her debut album, Stars Dance. But that only scratched the surface.

Warner Bros.

"There's a sense when you're young that everything lives and dies on a razor's edge—and you can make mistakes and screw your life up, but really there's a lot of time," her Getaway co-star Ethan Hawke mused to E! News about what sort of advice he wished he'd been given when he was Selena's age. "And when we do these questions, people ask you [he turned to Gomez] about your relationship to music versus acting and whatever it is, as if there's one answer to that—as if she has to choose.

"She doesn't have to choose, you know. People try to make you fit into one little peg that makes them comfortable."

Singers Turned Actors

While the next few years were going to have been challenging enough on their own, coming of age in the spotlight and all, Gomez was diagnosed with lupus, a life-threatening autoimmune disease—and unbeknownst to all but those closest to her, she underwent intensive medical treatment in 2014, necessitating a hiatus that had people speculating their heads off about what sort of issues she was tackling behind closed doors.

"I was diagnosed with lupus, and I've been through chemotherapy. That's what my break was really about. I could've had a stroke," Gomez told Billboard in October 2015, talking about a 2014 stay in a treatment facility that prompted rumors she was in rehab for other reasons." She continued, "I wanted so badly to say, 'You guys have no idea. I'm in chemotherapy. You're a--holes.' But I was angry I even felt the need to say that. It's awful walking into a restaurant and having the whole room look at you, knowing what they're saying. I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again."

At the time she credited "diet, routine and medication" with keeping her lupus in remission.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Back in the spotlight in the latter half of 2015, as the vixenish villain in Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" video and then with her own album, Revival, life started to speed up again. So much so, that by August 2016, Gomez was spent, physically and emotionally. The last public straw may have been letting herself get sucked into some Bieber Instagram drama swirling over his then-relationship with Sofia Richie. She pulled the plug on her Revival Tour and went away.

Because, as she would say at the 2016 AMAs, she was "absolutely broken" inside.

"I went away for 90 days and it was the best thing that I ever could've done," Gomez told InStyle this summer about last year's sojourn. "I was in the countryside and never did my hair; I took part in equine therapy, which is so beautiful. And it was hard, obviously. But I knew what my heart was saying, and I thought, 'OK, I think this has helped me become stronger for other people...I'm in a really, really healthy place."

This time after she emerged at the AMAs looking like a million bucks, instead of going from zero to 100 overnight, she paced herself, not rushing into a new album or touring. Not that she didn't get back to work—she has said she's recorded two LPs' worth of material, and she served as an executive producer of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, one of the most buzzed-about series of the year. But at the same time, it just looked as if she was enjoying life.

Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

After connecting over the phone, more than a year after they first met, Gomez embarked on a new relationship with The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, a relationship that those who've been following Selena's love life closely for the past five years strongly felt she deserved. They traveled all over the world while the "Can't Feel My Face" singer was on tour and made a dazzling red carpet debut at the Met Gala together.

"I love being supportive," she said in a June interview with SiriusXM's Morning Mashup. "I love just being there and having someone's back. It feels good. I haven't had that feeling in awhile."

And as she continued to re-ingratiate herself into the scene, releasing singles like "Bad Liar" and "Fetish," Gomez—though always appreciative of her fans and altruistically minded—seemed more hellbent than ever on using her fame to effect positive change.

Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott/Vogue

And the world was waiting with open arms. As she personally donated and raised money for the Lupus Research Alliance and became another prominent voice in the ongoing global conversation about mental health awareness, she appeared on one 2017 magazine after another, including her first-ever covers of Vogue and Time, the latter of which touted her in its "Firsts" issue as "The Tastemaker."

"Sometimes it's incredibly difficult to wake up every day knowing there is so much going on in the world," Gomez wrote on Instagram in appreciation of her inclusion on the list of 46 women. "At times I feel selfish, I ask why, I ask how can this change? Will it actually ever change? I try to contribute my heart before anything because it can be so easy to lose the desire to have hope when sometimes all I want to be is angry. When I read about the beautiful women who wake up consciously every day to make a change, it inspires me to want to do so much more. Not really sure how I got so lucky @time but thank you for highlighting the power of what we can and will always strive to be. I believe in the goodness in the land of the living. I hope this is just the beginning of more change."

She also took pains to ensure that the scene didn't get too scene-y.

"It's good to be connected, to see things, and to get a sense of what your friends are up to," Gomez, InStyle's 2017 September issue cover girl, told the magazine, speaking about her self-imposed break from social media last year. "But it also allows people to think they need to look or be a certain way... Now it feels more zoomed-in—you have ugly people trying to get negative things from you, and the energy makes you feel bad about yourself. You can't help it. It's very hard to find out who you are during all that mess and pressure."

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Taking time to focus on one's self also, as it would happen, helps you realize who your real friends are. Selena may have more Instagram followers than anybody else in the world (current tally: 129 million), but she can count the members of her inner circle on her hands.

"You are who you surround yourself with—100 percent," the artist, who has collaborated on signature fashion lines with Kmart, Adidas and Puma and signed a multifaceted deal with Coach earlier this year, told Business of Fashion in September. "If you're around people who think that [tending to one's mental health] 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."

And she knows the difference between 129 million followers and people who actually care about you.

"I feel like I know everybody but I have no friends," she mused. "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."

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And Selena knows of which she speaks.

In September, she revealed that she had undergone a kidney transplant over the summer, a consequence of her lupus battle—and it was her dear longtime friend Francia Raísa who gave her a kidney.

"I guess I got to the point where it was really life or death," Gomez told Today's Savannah Guthrie last month, recalling the direness of the situation. "It's really hard to think about, or even to swallow."

It was Raísa who insisted she be tested as a potential donor match, much to Gomez's initial protestations at first.


"She lived with me during this interesting time when my kidneys were just done. That was it," Gomez revealed. "I didn't want to ask a single person in my life. The thought of asking somebody to do that was really difficult for me...The fact that she was a match, I mean, that's unbelievable. That's not real."

The star concluded, "I just hope that this inspires people to feel good to know that there [are] really good people in the world."

One of them being The Weeknd, whom Gomez previously described to InStyle as "more of a best friend than anything else."

"It's great," she said of their relationship. "I don't depend on one area of my life to make me happy. It's really important for me to love and nourish my friends and family and to make sure that I never get influenced by a guy. I've wanted to be in a strong headspace for years, and I really wasn't. Before, I was so young and easily influenced, and I'd feel insecure. You want someone to add to your life, not to complete you, if that makes sense."

Vasquez-Max Lopes / BACKGRID

Of course, it was conversations like that that made it all the more surprising, not that she and The Weeknd broke up (competing schedules, having fun didn't translate into forever, etc.), but that she is once again spending time with Justin Bieber.

Ever since their initial split in 2012, she would usually say she was on good terms with Bieber, even though she probably wanted to scream at every interviewer for constantly asking about him. But obviously their rekindled...something...triggered some concerns.

"Justin and Selena are seeing each other and will continue to be spending time together but haven't described it as [being] an official couple," a source told E! News earlier this month after Gomez was spotted wearing Bieber's jersey after she watched him play hockey. "Right now, they are figuring out if it will work again between the two."

Added another source, "Things have been moving really fast but they are not officially together as of now."

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Considering all she's been through just this year alone, Gomez would be the one who understands more than most 25-year-olds that life is short and, if her heart wants something, she better go and get it.

"Justin was Selena's first love," an insider told People. "He will always have a special place in her heart. She's always held out hope that one day the circumstances and timing would be right."

And though their reunion has caused mixed feelings among Jelena 'shippers and watchdogs, she's apparently happy.

Added our source, "They are just working on their friendship at this point. Justin has always loved Selena and he always will. If she got fully back together with him, no one would be a surprised."

Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

We're told that Gomez's amicable split from The Weeknd had been a long time coming and was not caused by her hanging out with Bieber.

But while the chips will fall where they may with her ex, Gomez has new goals and a renewed purpose in life moving forward. Justin will either keep up or not, but Selena's gonna soar.

First of all, she's got a new album coming "a lot sooner than I think people anticipate." She told Apple Music's Zane Lowe last month when her latest single, "Wolves" (with Marshmello), came out, "I wanted my music to be a lot more meaningful, to be honest... I just wanted to take my time. I didn't want it to be crowded by over-glamorized things and the pop world can just be really distracting sometimes. This year, I did it at my own pace."

Which we noticed.

As Gomez told Business of Fashion: "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."

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