Selena Gomez is backstage in her dressing room in floods of tears. It’s 2016, and she is rehearsing her Revival tour. Things are not going well: “It sucks. It looks so bad. I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing,” Gomez cries. The faces of her inner circle register panic.
To the outside world Gomez is projecting the image of a young woman coming into her own as a confident grownup pop singer – leaving behind her Disney child star persona. Behind the scenes, she is falling apart: self-critical and overly concerned about what others think. Does she look old enough? Sexy enough? Studying the monitor, she says her body is too young, “like a 12-year-old boy”.
So begins the incredibly intimate new film Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, filmed over six years. I sat down expecting it to be fly-on-the-wall-lite, the usual bland and flatteringly edited celebrity documentary. What I hadn’t banked on was Gomez being so likable; for a woman with more Instagram followers than Beyoncé, she has a self-deprecating sense of humour, too. Also, judging from what we see here, she is nice to the little people, including a server at a drive-thru – thus passing the not-ruined-by-fame test.
Most unexpectedly, My Mind & Me is rawer and less filtered than your standard authorised celebrity documentary. Looking back at my notes, I scrawled “vulnerable” and underlined it twice to describe her.
“So vulnerable,” says the film’s director, Alek Keshishian, nodding over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. Vulnerability was the first quality he noticed when he was introduced to Gomez, then aged 23, in 2015. “I have met every celebrity known to man. Most of them have developed a kind of armour to present themselves to the world.” He pulls on imaginary arm protection. “For someone who’s been doing this since she was seven, it doesn’t feel like Selena’s got all these layers of facade.” (Gomez started acting at seven; her career really took off when she was 10, in the kids’ series Barney & Friends).
Keshishian is best known for directing 1991’s In Bed With Madonna, one of the best music documentaries ever made. On Instagram, he occasionally posts throwback snaps of himself with Madonna. Back then he looked like a hip young film-maker crossed with a thug from a Scorsese movie: dark and handsome, all eyebrows. Today he would pass for a cool professor, hair a shade of distinguished steel grey arranged in a vertical quiff. Frankly, he is the last person you’d expect to find directing a film about Gomez, who, back in 2015, was mostly singing to screaming nine-year-olds in sold-out stadiums. As he says himself, “I’m a cinéma vérité guy at heart”.
In fact, Keshishian said no when Gomez asked him to direct a tour video for her. This was in 2015 over dinner. His sister, a talent agent, had just signed Gomez, who, it turned out, is a huge fan of In Bed With Madonna: “She watched it seven times in a row.”
Why did he turn her down? Keshishian chuckles as he remembers their conversation. “I said to her: ‘I don’t think you’d ever want to give me the kind of access Madonna gave me. It’s intrusive, Selena. I shoot everything. I feel bad even thinking about it.’” (In Bed With Madonna notoriously featured Madonna giving a blowjob to a mineral water bottle, to the delight of her dancers: “She swallows!”)
A year later, Keshishian relented and spent two weeks filming Gomez putting the final touches to the Revival tour. After 55 shows, in August 2016, she cancelled the tour to focus on her mental health. In a statement Gomez explained that she was suffering panic attacks and depression. In 2017, she received a kidney transplant for the autoimmune disease lupus. When Keshishian showed her the footage he’d shot on the tour – including that backstage meltdown – Gomez was shocked. “She was like: ‘Oh my God! I don’t want the world to see me breaking down crying like that.’ Much of that footage ended up in My Mind & Me.
The following year, Gomez was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Her friends and family recall that time in the film. A former assistant remembers Gomez telling her: “I don’t want to be alive.” Her mother, in tears, reveals that she found out about Gomez’s breakdown from the gossip site TMZ: “I was scared she was going to die.”
Keshishian and Gomez stayed in touch. “I did fall in love with her a little bit. She’s very easy to fall in love with,” he says. Soon after Gomez was discharged from hospital, they met up. “I was having dinner with her and my sister. I said to my sister afterwards: ‘Selena’s like a little bird.’ She was very fragile-looking.”
It was around this time that Gomez asked him to make a “little charity film” for her website. Would he film her in Kenya visiting girls’ schools? Before they flew out, he shot some background footage, the usual day-in-the-life stuff.
One moment really hooked him. Flying on a private jet to give a talk at a psychiatric hospital gala, Gomez announced to her inner circle that she was going public with her bipolar diagnosis. In the film, we see the tense conversation that followed. A concerned-looking publicist, anticipating the media frenzy, advises against it: “You are 27. You have a lifetime to tell the world that exact thing. It will become the narrative.”
Keshishian instantly spotted the potential for a documentary. “I was like: this is the movie. This is a movie about a girl who’s trying to figure out her place in the world and wants to connect.” He got to work, shooting with small crews, often on his iPhone.
Did it take a lot to persuade Gomez to make a film focusing on her recovery and mental health? “No! That’s what got Selena. She started to feel like there could be a way that her story could help somebody else. That’s her achilles heel. She wants to help others.” All celebrities have one in his experience, an achilles heel. “Sometimes it’s vanity. You say: ‘We have to get this because you look better like this.’ Selena doesn’t react to any of that. But if you tell her it’s helping people …” He laughs, then hurriedly adds: “That wasn’t a lie.” The film’s purpose is to make a difference; he believes that. “Can we make something that even just helps one person? Sorry, that sounds a little bit Hallmarky but it’s really true.”
Still, he wasn’t convinced it would ever be released. “Every single day we thought, like: Well, maybe this will never see the light of day.”
For me, the most moving scenes are the most personal: Gomez wandering around her old neighbourhood in Texas where she grew up, raised by a single mother. Hanging out with her cousin, visiting her old high school. She walks around chatting to people with a warmth and everydayness that feels unfakeable.
In one scene in Texas, she pops in to visit an old neighbour, Joyce, who is frail and in a wheelchair. It’s her ankles, Joyce explains. In an instant Gomez is squatting down to take a look. “I’ve watched that scene so many times now,” says Keshishian. “She touches her ankles, on her knees. I think that was the moment where – sorry Apple, I don’t want to get in trouble – this girl’s not a pop star; she’s almost like Princess Diana type. I really do think she connects with people in such a deep way.”
Gomez has a love-hate relationship with fame. The paparazzi are a constant presence in her life, popping up like a spiteful chorus. “Selena, where’s the alcohol?” (Referring to rehab rumours.) “How are you feeling about Justin?” (Her former on-off relationship with Justin Bieber). Keshishian was shocked by the intensity of it. “The paparazzi, they’re like the voice in your head, taunting you. The things they say just to get the picture. They’re gunning for her with their words.”
But what strikes you, watching the film, is that Gomez seems to genuinely get a kick out of her fans. A hugger, she can’t resist stopping for a squeeze. “Yeah. It gives her energy,” Keshishian says. “That’s the conundrum of her pop stardom. On one level she hates it, but on another level, it gives her a chance to connect with people.”
I ask if anything was off limits? “Nothing was off limits,” he answers firmly. I only wondered why Justin Bieber barely rates a mention. He takes a deep breath. “The movie I’m trying to tell is something that’s bigger than just Justin and Selena.” Besides, Keshishian doesn’t like the way women are often defined by their relationships in the media. It has a whiff of misogyny: “They are always the one that’s been cheated on. They’re the one that’s alone; the guy is having a great time. You see that with Jen Aniston. You see that with Selena. It’s really cruel and it’s unfair and it kind of makes women out to be less than.”
Keshishian’s superpower as a director is eliciting intimacy from the celebrities he collaborates with. “I do fall in love with my subjects. Really, it’s about my relationship, our relationship,” he says. “And once you build that trust, I almost become that person. I almost literally can feel Selena’s mood. I almost became like a big brother, rather than just a director.”
But is there ever a conflict, I ask, feeling so deeply about a subject and making a documentary about them? He shakes his head. “I’m an empath. On some level I probably have boundary issues. I become like them, you know?” It’s emotionally draining, he adds: “Because I not only become their friend, but on some level I get into their brain and emotional life, so I can feel their pain.”
Being sensitive to people helps get the footage, he believes. “Both Madonna and Selena trusted me. They knew I would never hurt them intentionally. I wasn’t out to get a gotcha doc.”
• Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me is released on 4 November.