Selena Gomez is just 19 years old and already, the Disney child star is scaling some dizzying Hollywood heights, as a film actress, as a top-charting pop singer with her band Selena Gomez & the Scene, and of course, as the girl who won teen idol Justin Bieber’s heart. And she’s not taking any of it for granted—her rags to riches story (she was born to teen parents in small town Texas) mean this is a starlet who counts her blessings, each and every day. “The best piece of advice I ever got was from my mom,” she says. “Always remember where I started.”
Unlike some other young actresses who become consumed by their own celebrity, Selena makes a habit of keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground. “It’s a very vain industry that I am in, and I want to make sure I don’t get caught up in that,” she says. “So far, knock on wood, I’ve done a good job of that.” Her straightforward confidence and likeability remind top Hollywood producer Denise Di Novi of a young Sandra Bullock. “She has a sophistication and emotional intelligence that is way way beyond her years,” says Di Novi, who worked with Selena on 2010’s Ramona and Beezus. “You just instantly root for her, and love her. And she works incredibly hard—she reminds me of a racehorse in that way. She knows what she wants to do, and she’s happiest when she is completely immersed in her work.”
Raised in the small town of Grand Prairie, just outside of Dallas, Selena’s mom Mandy was just 16 when she had her, and her dad Ricardo was 17. “I’d have a three-year-old child by now if I’d had a baby at the same age as my mom—that is terrifying for me!” she says. Money was always tight, and Selena remembers when her mom’s car would run out of gas on the school run and they’d have to dig around for quarters to buy more fuel. “Oh my God, that happened like 12 times,” she recalls.
Her mom took her to museums and to the theatre, which is where Selena got the acting bug. “I don’t think I would have gotten out of the mindset of Grand Prairie if it hadn’t been for my mom,” she says. Obsessed with Britney Spears and Hilary Duff, little Selena became focused on her career when most girls her age were still playing with Barbie dolls. She got her start aged 7 with a role in Barney & Friends, broke through in 2007 with Wizards of Waverly Place, and continues her rise to the top with lead roles in feature films including 2010’s Monte Carlo and Ramona and Beezus.
Today, Selena lives in a sprawling ranch-style estate in Los Angeles, where we find her hanging out with a team of stylists picking out clothes for MTV’s EMAs, a music awards show she is hosting in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her slim, toned frame is clad in a simple purple chiffon shift dress, her hair is pulled back in a high pony tail and she’s wearing hot pink nail polish on her toes. On her wrist is a silver cuff encrusted with amethysts and jade, which she downplays in her warm, jokey style. “This? It’s just a beat-up metal thing I like to wear.” She sits with her back straight in an office chair, neatly-piled scripts arranged on the desk. It’s her mom Mandy, 35, who keeps things organized she confesses (“you should see my closet, it’s a mess”), although Mandy might be needing some help with the tidying soon—Selena Tweeted on November 25 that her mom is pregnant with her new baby brother or sister.
Warm and friendly as she is, Selena admits she’s actually pretty cautious when it comes to getting close to people. “I’m very guarded,” she says. “It’s hard for me to just trust, and because of that, I don’t have that many friends.” But the friends she does have, she loves with all her heart. She’s still very close with her childhood pal actress Demi Lovato for instance, whom she met when they both attended an open call for the Barney & Friends show. Demi was standing in front of Selena in line, and out of 1,400 kids, both girls were offered parts, launching their acting careers, and their friendship. They moved to Los Angeles together, living in the same house with their families as they tried to break into Hollywood. “We didn’t have that much money coming out here at first, so we were living together to save expenses,” says Selena. “So basically there were seven of us girls living in one loft, including sisters and moms and everything. It was really interesting.” Their friendship has had its ups and downs (Lovato had a recent stint in rehab) and there was a point where “she and I were going our different ways because we were figuring out who we were, but now I would say we’re better than we’ve ever been.”
An only child, Selena found an older-sister figure in Leighton Meester, her co-star in this year’s Monte Carlo. Although as Meester points out, the eight year age difference between them wasn’t as noticeable as you might think. “I’m 25 and hanging out with a 17 year old, and it didn’t feel like that at all,” says Meester. “She’s really wise beyond her years. But she has this innocence to her that I hope will never go away, because she sees the beauty in everything. She’s quite a romantic, poetic soul.”
Growing up onscreen has had its pros (she’s worth an estimated $4million) and cons (she had her first kiss in front of four cameras—“I was shaking”). And as Selena blossoms from girl into woman, she’s still growing up on camera, venturing into edgier acting territory. She’s slated to star alongside James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens in “Spring Breakers”, a film by controversial director Harmony Korine, who penned the gritty, sexually explicit 1995 drama “Kids”. “I am choosing roles and movies and music that might be a little different, and might kind of freak people out,” says Selena. “But it’s just me evolving and growing and taking baby steps.”
She’s just starting to get comfortable with becoming a sex symbol. “I’m not Mila Kunis,” she protests. “I’m not one of those ‘hot’ girls.” She recalls a photo shoot aged 15 where “they kept telling me to smile more’. And I was like, why won’t they let me be serious?” The photographer told her it was because she looked too sensual when she wasn’t smiling. “And he didn’t want to make me sensual, because I was a teenager.” At the time, Selena didn’t even know what “sensual” meant—now, she’s just about starting to figure it out. “I’m gradually working my way toward it—not toward being a sex symbol or anything, but becoming more confident in just being a woman.”
Thanks to her on-screen charm, and her off-screen romances, she’s become one of the most photographed young women in Hollywood—but unlike so many young actresses, she wont be getting drunk and falling out of limousines any time soon; she just doesn’t have it in her. “I don’t know if at some point I will have the urge to go out and explore that partying side of adulthood,” says Selena. “But like my old acting coach in Texas said, ‘I don’t think Selena’s going to have that phase’. And I don’t know if I am either.” In fact, she’s a homebody, who likes to hang out with her five dogs, watch movies, eat pizza and IM with her boyfriend, the Beebs.
Selena and Justin started dating New Years Eve 2011, and she officially confirmed the relationship in March 2011, after they walked the red carpet together at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in Los Angeles. “Most of our dates have been online,” she says, and she’s only half joking—between them, Selena and Justin have among the busiest schedules in Tinseltown between them. It’s a miracle they’re ever in the same place at the same time.
Bieber isn’t her first high profile squeeze—her exes include Taylor Lautner (whom she dated in Vancouver while she was filming Ramona and Beezus and he was filming New Moon) and Nick Jonas, her on-again, off-again 2010 love. “I was in a relationship before where I had to completely hide everything, and it wasn’t my choice,” says Selena. “I had to go through different exits and take separate cars and do the craziest things, and it just really wasn’t worth it. It was like a year of my life completely wasted.”
Things are shaping up very differently for Justin and Selena, or ‘Jelena’, who are rapidly becoming Hollywood’s favorite teen couple. While they’re not talking marriage just yet (“sometimes you just want to enjoy life and be 19, you’re not even thinking about the future”) they are having a blast traveling the world together and posing for photographs on the red carpet. The alternative—hiding their relationship from the world—just didn’t appeal, explains Selena, an old-school romantic who says love is the “most powerful thing” in her life. “I’m just like every single 19-year-old girl,” she says. “If you’re in love, you’re in love to the fullest, and you just want to go to the movies, hang out and be as normal as possible. I’m very fortunate that I’ve found someone who also has that same philosophy.”
NB: This is the unedited draft I sent to Cosmo...to read the final published version you have to buy a copy of the magazine, as the interview is not available online.