Recently asked to ruminate on her relationship with Justin Bieber, his ex-girlfriend admitted it was a bit...complicated.
"Justin and I were friends for a long time. I met him when I was really young and he was one of my best friends," she noted to The Times UK this May. "Everybody knows that at a certain point in time that turned into something else, but that just happens when you're 18, 19. It was what it was."
Having done the whole on-off thing, "We went through a long period of time when we weren't friends," she admitted. "We didn't speak for quite sometime and there was a lot of weirdness that went on. We've moved past that."
Sounds like Selena Gomez, right? Not quite.
While the world has sat anticipating his eventual happily ever after with the former Disney star, 25, the girl he first fell hard for at 16, the one who caused him to muse, "When you love someone that much, even if something comes between you, it's a love that never really dies," they failed to notice the other woman. The one that's more or less been there the whole time. Bieber didn't. When he reconciled with 21-year-old model Hailey Baldwin this June, some seven years after she first joined him at the premiere of his Never Say Never biopic, the pop star quickly realized she was the person he couldn't live without, an insider tells E! News.
"Ever since they reunited, they have been inseparable," explains the insider. The 24-year-old's decision to offer up a sizable oval engagement ring this Saturday during their trip to the exclusive Bahamian resort Baker's Bay was "sudden," admits the insider, "but Justin always knew Hailey and him had a special bond that was incomparable."
Just months ago, that's what people were saying about him and Gomez. While the duo weren't each other's first relationships—by 15, the baby-faced heartthrob, plucked from the relative obscurity of YouTube, was already bragging about having "had a couple girlfriends," and Gomez was previously linked to Nick Jonas and Taylor Lautner—they were by all accounts their most serious.
More than a year after they met through a coordinated manager introduction, the pair were able to carve out time in their competing schedules for a breakfast date at a Philadelphia IHOP in December 2010. Within weeks, the teenagers were vacationing together on a yacht in St. Lucia like your average high school sweethearts and by February 2011, they were walking arm-in-arm at Hollywood's most extreme version of prom: the Vanity Fair Oscars party.
At one point, perhaps right around the time Bieber put a (sparkly J-shaped) ring on it, they took their puppy love to the most serious of levels.
"I moved in with my girlfriend when I was 18," he'd reveal to Complex years later. "Started my own life with her. It was a marriage kind of thing. Living with a girl, it was just too much at that age. But we were so in love. Nothing else mattered. We were all about each other."
But being so intrinsically wrapped up in another person while still solidifying who you really are—and knowing the whole world is judging every pap photo and Instagram caption—is challenging in even the best of circumstances. Reflecting back on their ups and downs, he told the magazine, "Your full identity can't be in that person. My identity was in her. Her identity was in me. When stuff would happen, I would lose my freakin' mind, and she would lose her mind, and we would fight so hard because we were so invested in each other. Love is a choice. Love is not a feeling. People have made it seem in movies that it's this fairy tale. That's not what love is. You're not gonna want to love your girl sometimes but you're gonna choose to love her. That's something in life that I had to figure out."
And for a while, everyone just assumed that Jelena would work through that particular puzzle together. But with each dramatic breakup, starting with the first in November 2012, the couple seemed to be drifting further and further away from forever.
There was the time they seemingly battled over his Parisian outing with Kendall Jenner, a moment that led Gomez to tweet, "Sometimes we think we aren't good enough. But then I realize when I think I'm alone I have God."
And then there was her unfortunate decision to interject herself in his feud with the fans who derided him for daring to move on with then-love interest Sofia Richie—a particularly troubling phase that saw Bieber delete his Instagram and Gomez escape to a Tennessee treatment center to focus on her mental health.
As their history grew far less cute and increasingly more concerning, fans wondered if Gomez would be better served moving on from her same old love.
Which she did. First with record producer Zedd, then sales and merchandising exec Samuel Krost and finally, most promisingly, with three-time Grammy winner The Weeknd in 2017.
But after each split she returned to Bieber. When it happened again last fall, fans had every reason to believe that this time might actually be different. The years had given the now-twentysomethings time to mature. Gomez was becoming increasingly more open about her struggles with depression and anxiety and a battle with Lupus that led to a 2017 kidney transplant while Bieber seemed to have firmly put his immature antics behind him. The twosome seemed to solidify this more adult version of their union by enjoying date nights at church of all places.
"Everything is so different this time around," a source told E! News at the time. Echoed another insider, "Justin is behaving like a gentlemen and showing how much he cares about her. He's is a lot more open about his feelings towards Selena, which has been a big sign of him maturing."
Even as pals revealed the two were taking a step back "to reevaluate what's going on and what direction they want to go in," the move felt more like a short detour than a definite split. Sure, he moved on rather quickly with model Baskin Champion, but we've seen this story before and knew enough to let things play through to the end.
Everyone was so focused on figuring out how Gomez and Bieber would reunite in act three, that no one predicted the plot twist.
But if you flip back through Bieber's history, you'd realize his decision to cement his union with Baldwin wasn't such a curveball. Yes, it was quick, but he and the model (she's posed for Vogue, W, Glamour and landed the cover of Marie Claire) have existed in each other's orbits for years. "I've known him since I was so young—since I was 13—and we've just been good friends over the years," Baldwin told E! News in 2014, right around the time people began speculating their relationship had shifted from it's platonic state.
They swore at the time they were just friends ("We have just stayed close and there's nothing more to it than that," she told E! News), but the attraction was growing. By the time a pal was characterizing their coupling as "more than just a fling" in early 2016, Bieber was reaching for the right words to define it as well.
You see, he'd learned a bit from his rollercoaster romance with Gomez. He wasn't going to recklessly dive into this union, hands in the air. Though he described the Drop the Mic host as "someone I really love" in his February 2016 GQ profile, he was careful not to label the connection they shared. "I don't want to put anyone in a position where they feel like I'm only theirs, only to be hurt in the end," he shared. "Right now in my life, I don't want to be held down by anything. I already have a lot that I have to commit to. A lot of responsibilities. I don't want to feel like the girl I love is an added responsibility."
This wasn't about being free to party with groupies, he insisted, but rather a different, and dare we say more mature, way of approaching a relationship. "I know that in the past I've hurt people and said things that I didn't mean to make them happy in the moment," he continued. "So now I'm just more so looking at the future, making sure I'm not damaging them. What if Hailey ends up being the girl I'm gonna marry, right? If I rush into anything, if I damage her, then it's always gonna be damaged. It's really hard to fix wounds like that. It's so hard.… I just don't want to hurt her."
She, too, seemed to innately understand what she was diving into with the international pop sensation—a man whose every relationship has been measured against his love with Gomez.
Telling E! News she found his viewpoint to be "awesome," she agreed they weren't doing the exclusive thing. "He's about to go on tour," she explained, adding, "Relationships at this age are already complicated."
So perhaps they landed on a sound strategy when they decided to keep theirs as unfettered as possible. With no promises made, maybe it was easier to shake off the fact that he would go on to date a series of models and actresses (Richie, Paola Paulin, Nicola Peltz) before giving his union with Gomez one final try. And he could ignore her decision to attend the Met Gala on the arm of a different pop star, though she was careful to explain she was single after hanging out with the "super-lovely" and "very, very nice" Shawn Mendes.
There were certainly no hard feelings when the exes reunited for a weekend of praying and partying at Miami's VOUS Church Conference June 9. "They both have two things in common; they love to party and they love their church organization," a source told E! News. "They have finally cleared the air and rekindled their friendship, and realized they genuinely have a lot of fun together. Justin and Hailey planned to attend the church organization together and decided to make a fun weekend out of it. They both are single, and were very flirty with each other the entire night. They were inseparable the entire weekend."
Now they may be entwined for life. Because right around the time he and Baldwin were kissing their way through New York City and the Hamptons last week, he realized he wanted to propose, reveals an insider, and snuck off to make arrangements for the ring—one that closely resembles Blake Lively's, a diamond Baldwin once admired.
"Hailey was taken off guard," admits the insider. In their weeks together, the couple had found time to bring up the topic of marriage, she just never imagined they'd run with it so soon. Still, says another source, "Justin is happier than ever and wants to be with Hailey." (As for Gomez, their most recent split taught her once and for all that Bieber is not what her heart wants. An insider told Us Weekly, "Selena doesn't care. She's over Justin and the last time they broke up allowed her to get over him fully.")
So this may not have been the ending the Beliebers had always predicted. But it certainly seems like a happy one.