Selena Gomez first found fame on the Disney Channel, but over the past decade she’s blossomed into a chart-topping pop star, acclaimed actress and successful TV producer. In the powerful new documentary film ‘Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me’, we see the toll this has often taken on her mental health. The film is directed by Alek Keshishian, whose previous credits include one of the most-acclaimed music documentaries of all time: ‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’. Here, exclusively for NME, he shares what he learned about Gomez from shadowing her during a pivotal and ultimately transitional period of her life.
Alek Keshishian, director: “My sister happens to be Selena’s manager and it turns out she’s a little bit obsessed with Truth or Dare. Actually, she recently told me she watched it seven times in a row. When I first met Selena in 2015, she wanted to be a badass strong woman, but she was feeling like she wasn’t taken seriously because she was seen as this Disney star. So when she saw this woman in Truth or Dare who had such agency and strength – Madonna – I think she really responded to that.
Anyway, Selena asked my sister if there was any way I would ever work with her. She was about to put out her first album outside of Disney [2015’s ‘Revival’] and though I wasn’t really doing music videos at the time, she persuaded me to direct her ‘Hands To Myself’ video. So we struck up a friendship, and then when she was getting ready to tour the ‘Revival’ album, she asked if I would consider doing a tour doc with her. I said, ‘I don’t think you really want me to do a tour doc with you, because I don’t make the sort of tour docs that everyone’s been doing in your lifetime. I shoot cinéma vérité and I’m spoiled because my first experience was with Madonna who gave me access to everything all the time.’
Selena was like, ‘No, no, I really want to give you that access’, so we did a little test run. I brought in my crew and we shot for two weeks, then I cut it down to a five-minute [short] so she could see the kind of film I would make. She was like, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful, but could you not show me crying? I don’t want my fans to see me break down like that.’ And so I said I didn’t think it was the right time for me to make a documentary with her. We agreed to just shelve the footage.
Selena and I stayed friends but I never thought that footage would see the light of day. But then in 2019, she asked if I would chronicle her charity trip to Kenya for her website. I agreed because it was for a good cause, but then something happened on the first day of shooting which is very similar to what happened with Truth or Dare, which was never meant to be a movie either. I realised there was a documentary here, and it was a story about a girl who’s just coming out of a mental health facility. She’s right at the beginning of her recovery journey, but she also feels the need to have a purpose and help others. So I was like, ‘This is fascinating, please let me keep shooting.’
We carried on shooting in Paris and London and this interesting conundrum kind of came through. Selena is a very reluctant pop star in some ways, but she loves connecting with people. As Raquelle [Stevens, Selena’s longtime friend and assistant] says in the documentary, it’s her platform as a pop star that allows her to connect with people. But I think some of the artifice that comes with the job really takes it out of her – the movie shows how she physically and emotionally recoils from that.
Honestly, I think she’s happier when she’s acting. She said at one point that the thing she doesn’t like about being a pop star is the fact it’s all about her – whereas when she does acting, it’s about the project. I think she feels embarrassed when all the attention is on her, but she loves music as a form of expression and she really loves her fans. I also think humanitarian work is going to be a big part of her future. That and acting are the two worlds I could see her really inhabiting.
The Selena you see in 2019 [in the movie] doesn’t feel like she’s good enough to move the needle in any meaningful way. She still feels kind of broken. But I think the movie shows this journey where she realises she can be broken and still give a lot to the world. At the end of the movie, I think she’s much more in the moment. She really feels agency over what she can bring to the table on mental health. Earlier this year she even visited The White House to discuss her mental health journey.
Ultimately, I think Selena Gomez and Madonna are two very different women from very different times, but they’re both incredibly brave. When we made Truth or Dare, Madonna was saying something important about sexual freedom, LGBTQ rights and respect. We’re in a very different time now, but Selena is willing to do something that’s actually kind of guileless. She’s willing to have those difficult conversations about mental health in the hope that it could help someone else.”
‘Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me’ is on Apple TV+ now
As told to Nick Levine