It was a long, hard-fought battle, but Selena Gomez showed up and won the night at the 2016 American Music Awards.
The actress and pop star (and social media tastemaker, fashionista, paparazzi magnet, etc.) made her first public appearance in two and a half months Sunday after a self-imposed break from the spotlight, and what she said on stage indicated that no longer will she be content to be your average pop princess.
Thanks to social media, in the last couple of years we've seen an increase in just how frank some celebrities are willing to get about their own struggles, their honesty alternately celebrated or chewed up and spit out, depending on who's lurking online at any given time. No admission is without its backlash, as the likes of Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber, the members of Fifth Harmony and other young stars who have an intense give and take with their fans have realized.
But it was impossible to not appreciate what Selena Gomez had to offer last night in her brief but brutally honest speech at the AMAs, because she spoke not only her truth, but the truth. Look elsewhere if you want to be B.S.'d into thinking the abyss isn't real and lurking dangerously close to some of the most visible people on the planet.
"In 2014, this stage was actually the first time that I was authentically 100 percent honest with all of you," Gomez began, referring to her gut-punch of a performance of "The Heart Wants What It Wants," a thinly veiled ode to her seemingly never-ending breakup with Justin Bieber (who performed remotely last night from Italy, so he couldn't be in a seat to watch his ex's win for Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist).
She continued, "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."
And with that, Selena ascended to the ranks of the Demis and Lady Gagas of the world who have made their pain available to their fans—like, really, and not just via catchy song lyrics—by not insisting that everything's OK after a glossed-over hiccup.
"Broken" is a strong word, and to admit to that in front of millions of people... Even if it's an after-the-fact admission, it takes guts.
So much about celebrity is branding—there are too many celebs and too many ways to become famous nowadays to allow for everyone to be judged by talent alone—and it can be a risk to add "emotionally vulnerable" to the overall perception of one's persona.
But being able and willing to show that vulnerability can also be endearing to fans, a way to further connect with them in a world where it's increasingly difficult to form meaningful connections—and yet easier at the same time, if that makes any sense.
Two people can meet at any given time despite being physically across the world from each other—and yet who knows how meaningful any communication truly is when it never gets to transcend the confines of the Internet.
An accidental benefit of the glut of online communication, however, is that people are more skeptical than ever, which makes it harder for celebs to get away with being phony if they choose to put themselves out there. If a celebrity has a social media presence, it can be difficult to switch seamlessly from levity to self-promotion to seriousness and back around again, and there's always a faction chomping at the bit to remind others (anyone, really, let alone famous people) to stay in their lane.
And we've realized—especially this past calendar year, in 2016—that there is no star whose pedestal is too high, who's untouchable by the unprecedentedly high yet oxymoronically low standards of today.
So while Gomez could've had every career motivation to not punctuate her comeback appearance with remarkable candor but instead wait for a magazine spread or perhaps even a TV interview to shed some light on what she'd been dealing with, she instead took the temperature of the room and savvily discerned it was her fans who were owed the honesty.
We know Selena's issues didn't pop up overnight. Almost three years before making the decision in August to take time off to focus on her emotional health—particularly anxiety and panic attacks associated with her ongoing battle with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes the body's immune system to attack healthy tissue—she canceled some tour dates in Australia to focus on her health.
No real explanation was given at the time, but Gomez's battle had just begun. She had to undergo chemotherapy as part of her lupus treatment, and she ended up in treatment in 2014 to deal with the onslaught of emotional trauma. All the while, she stayed vague about what was wrong.
The 23-year-old not only removed a weight from her shoulders by opening up in 2015, she did the world a service last year when she confirmed that she was indeed battling lupus, prompting a conversation about the condition, what it entails, its side effects and other pertinent information. Lady Gaga, whose aunt Joanne (her new album's namesake) died of lupus and who has tested "borderline positive" for the disease herself, watched Gomez's speech last night with tears in her eyes.
Moreover, throughout her ordeal, physical ailments aside, the former Disney Channel star had already become a topic of endless fascination stemming from her relationship with Bieber—which first ended in 2012 but history has seemingly repeated itself a dozen times since then.
Some of her music signaled the aftermath of a breakup, but really almost every pop star has a pertinent tune for any post-split playlist, whether they're singing about a real experience or not. Yet Gomez could never, regardless of what she sang (and with whom) never managed to fully extricate herself in the public eye from the Jelena days. Outside her circle of devoted fans, her overall image was often that of a side effect of Bieber fever.
Getting tangled up once again with Bieber—who has also been experiencing his own growing pains this year as he tries to bargain with a fan base that has always enjoyed a certain level of access to his private life—on Instagram when she lightly chided him for clapping back at his fans seemed to be what broke her already fragile handle on her well-being.
Two weeks later, she was done.
After releasing a statement to clarify that she was experiencing panic, anxiety and depression related to her lupus battle, she checked into a treatment center in Tennessee for her emotional well-being. There were some local sightings of the "Hands to Myself" singer during her stay, but for the most part she was off the mainstream grid—social media included. (She has yet to return to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or any other platform.)
By using such painfully relatable terms to describe her experience when she spoke up last night, Gomez showed both vulnerability and unqualified strength. She admitted she had run herself ragged, not just physically but mentally, and letting herself get to such an unhealthy place benefited exactly no one in the end.
Her message was one of thanks, hope and hard-fought wisdom, touching in its simplicity. Her subtly defiant tone in quietly declaring that she no longer needs validation from anyone other than herself was also most encouraging.
At only 23, it's unlikely that this is the last hurdle Gomez is going to have to clear, the last time a few storm clouds are going to block out the light. But by sharing such an intimate sentiment at the AMAs—an award show where the honors are doled out according to the whims of the public and where Gomez let the world see that everything wasn't OK two years ago—Selena assured her fans that, no matter what happens, they're all on a journey together.
And while it was lovely to see her back in the celebratory mix last night, here's hoping that she doesn't feel compelled to re-enter the fray too fast, that she continues to come back as she sees fit.
We have a feeling her fans will understand.