Inside Selena Quintanilla’s World Domination 22 Years After Her Death (Exclusive)
By Elisa Osegueda
It’s been 22 years since the death of Selena Quintanilla, a Tejano music singer who captured America’s heart in the early ‘90s with songs like “Como La Flor,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and “Dreaming of You.”
After conquering a male-dominant genre, a feat many deemed impossible, the GRAMMY winner had blossomed into a cultural icon at the time of her death.
On March 31, 1995, Selena was shot and killed by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club. She was 23 years old. The news sent shock waves around the world, prompting several vigils across the U.S. and Mexico. Saldivar was later found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in March of 2025.
While the passing of time can be a detrimental factor for any celebrity, in Selena’s case, it’s only helped broaden her legacy. Her cultural resonance can, in part, be attributed to her growing fan base and numerous pop-cultural markers -- including the 1997 movie, Selena, as well as tribute concerts, a wax figure, a special edition makeup line, statues and a festival in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas -- that continue to place the late singer center stage.
ET spoke with Selena’s sister, Suzette Quintanilla-Arriaga, earlier this month, who opened up about her little sister’s legacy and how her family continues to carry out Selena’s wildest dreams, one project at a time.
“When Selena passed away it was just a total surprise when we realized how much our music had touched people, how much Selena had inspired others,” Suzette told ET exclusively. “Her legacy is alive through her fans and everyone who continues to listen to her.”
“We are in a different phase now,” Suzette continued. “New generations have grown to love her, look up to her and want to be like her.”
Before her untimely death, Selena had been working on a crossover album, Dreaming of You, which was released posthumously on July 18, 1995 by EMI Latin and EMI Records.
“It was a long time coming,” explained Suzette, who along with her older brother, A.B. Quintanilla III, was part of Los Dinos, the musical group that Selena fronted since 1980. “It was something that, you have to understand, our ancestors and great-grandparents are from Mexico, so we’re third and fourth generation. We grew up on English music, and we learned [Tejano] music through my father and that’s how we made a living. As we grew up, it was one of Selena’s dreams and [the band] to do a crossover album.”
“Just because you live in Mexico [or other parts of Latin America] doesn’t mean you don’t listen to English music,” she added. “And just because you live in the U.S. doesn’t mean you only listen to English music. You listen to different genres of music, and I think when people look and listen to Selena, they can identify with her.”
“Unfortunately, Selena wasn’t able to fulfill her dream completely,” Suzette said. “She was only able to record just some of her songs off of her Dreaming of You album.
The album sold 175,000 copies on its first day of release in the U.S., a then-record for a female vocalist. It went on to win Album of the Year at the 1996 Tejano Music Awards and Female Pop Album of the Year at the 2nd annual Billboard Latin Music Awards.
Following in Gloria Estefan’s footsteps, Selena understood the importance of bilingual music and having her cultural experience represented in her sound. Her crossover album ultimately helped open doors for others. Four years after “Dreaming of You” was released, Ricky Martin dominated the music charts with “Livin' La Vida Loca,” his first single from his self-titled English album debut. Shakira soon followed with her first English single, “Whenever, Wherever.” Now, in present day, it’s hard not to think of Selena’s legacy when you listen to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” and J Balvin’s “Mi Gente.”
Selena’s musical talent wasn’t the only reason fans of all ages fell in love with her. She had a physical appeal that resonated with Latinos worldwide, especially young females.
“When you look at Selena, she has dark hair and darker skin, and a curvaceous body, which I think resonates with who we are as a majority,” Suzette explained. “When you see her in interviews, she was who she was, and she didn't pretend to be anything else.”
“She had this really hearty laugh and she didn't care,” she continued. “You could see the genuine and good-hearted person that she was. I think that’s another major aspect as to why people view her the way they do. She was beautiful physically and she had this amazing voice that was able to draw you in whenever she sang.
Selena wasn’t one to shy away from the cameras, agreeing to countless interviews and television performances in an effort to feel closer to her fans. To date, her musical performances, music videos and television interviews are considered prized forms of media for loyal fans, who continue to consume Selena-related digital content in record numbers. Her music video for “Amor Prohibido” has almost 80 million views on Vevo, followed by “No Me Queda Mas” with 65 millions and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” with 50 million.
In 1997, Warner Bros. releasedSelena the movie. Directed by Gregory Nava, the film starred a then unknown dancer-turned-actress, Jennifer Lopez.
“He took our story and created an amazing movie,” Suzette shared. But, the production process brought emotional challenges for Selena’s family.
“To be honest with you, there were just a lot of emotions going on. I was just trying to pick myself back up. I was going through a rough time after losing her,” she recalled. “It was two years after her death, I was still lost. I had mixed emotions about the movie.”
“I was surprised when they picked Jennifer Lopez. It’s kind of hard to find someone that is going to be your sister,” she continued. “Selena didn’t have that normal body, she was curvaceous and had this amazing way of moving onstage. Those are things that are very hard for someone to mimic. I thought, ‘How is everyone going to accept it?’”
When Suzette finally saw Lopez in full hair and makeup, the experience was spellbinding.
“She gave me chills,” Suzette told ET in March. “I literally, for a split second, I thought it was my sister.”
"I honestly believe God sent me that role for a reason," Lopez told ET in January. "So, I could learn from her and I could always have her as an inspiration. It's just a great lesson to know you're not promised tomorrow and you have to love and live for today."
"That character taught me so much about life," she continued. "[She'll always be an] inspiration and somebody to look to in my life, to help guide me on how to navigate this business."
The film, which also starred Edward James Olmos, the late Lupe Ontiveros and Constance Marie, was record breaking at the time of its release. Lopez became the highest-paid Latina actress in Hollywood, taking home $1 million. And, thanks to Selena’s loyal fan base, the biopic opened at No. 2 at the box office, making $11.6 million in its first weekend. It currently ranks as the 12th highest-grossing musical biopic of all time. Fans can watch the film via Netflix and on television via HBO2.
Described as the Latina Madonna, Selena captivated audiences with her own fashion designs. She began designing clothes at a very young age and crafted most of the outfits she wore onstage throughout her career.
“She definitely got that from my mom,” Suzette said of Selena’s fashion style. “We learned so much about being a lady from my mother. Even to this date, my mother likes to accessorize according to her outfit.”
In 1994, Selena opened two boutiques, which have since closed, one in San Antonio and the other in Corpus Christi, where she sold her clothing designs, in collaboration with designer Martin Gomez.
“She was becoming a businesswoman, but she’s always had that knack even when she was younger,” explained Suzette. Now, national stores like Forever 21, Hot Topic, Target and Urban Outfitters carry merchandise inspired by the Queen of Cumbia.
“She had other goals in mind, her perfume, makeup line and boutiques,” Suzette added. “She was trying to get a makeup line going at the time of her death.”
Last year, MAC Cosmetics made one of Selena’s dreams come true with the creation of a limited-edition Selena-inspired makeup line.
“It was the best moment ever for me,” Suzette said, explaining how an online petition created in 2015 by Patty Rodriguez, a senior producer at Ryan Seacrest's morning radio show in Los Angeles, set everything in motion.
After the petition went viral, Suzette got a call from MAC representatives asking if Selena’s estate would be willing to sit with them to talk about a potential collaboration. A year later, the makeup line debuted nationwide, followed by an international launch.
“When we were coming up with the palette colors, I told them during a conference call that I had Selena’s makeup case and asked them if it was OK if I sent them photos of [all her makeup items] so they could match the color palette to what she wore,” Suzette explained.
“They loved that idea. They matched everything to her own makeup,” she continued. “We added a purple eyeshadow that we named after her. It was something from me to her, a type of dedication. It was literally a full circle moment for me.”
“This is her line,” she said. “She is a part of it, it’s not just her name. It is her.”
2015 continued to be a year of firsts for the Quintanilla family. While collaborating with MAC and planning the 2nd annual Fiesta de la Flor Festival, representatives from Madame Tussauds called about the possibility of a Selena wax figure.
“That was such an honor,” said Suzette. “The process was very interesting for the Madame Tussauds figure. They came from London, measured and took photos of Selena’s outfits. We talked about her hair, they took pictures of my eyeballs and eyes, because Selena and I had similar eye color. They Skyped me from London when they started molding the statue and I would give them direction. ‘More booty, too much hip. OK, too much booty, bring her leg in,’” she recalled.
Selecting the outfit for the wax figure was also a well-thought-out process. Originally, Selena’s mother, Marcella Quintanilla, had her heart set on the singer's famous GRAMMY dress.
But, unfortunately, a GRAMMY Award cannot be reproduced since it’s trademarked by the The Recording Academy, which meant Selena’s wax figure would be displayed sans trophy.
“We all talked about it, we were just afraid that if you didn’t know who Selena was and you saw her at Madame Tussauds standing there in just a white beautiful gown, would you know if she’s a singer, what she did?” Suzette explained.
“So, we thought, if we can’t have the GRAMMY then we can put her in the outfit that she won the GRAMMY for,” she added. Selena won her first GRAMMY in 1994, for her album, Selena LIVE, performed at the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi on Feb. 7, 1993.
Selena’s GRAMMY dress and trophy, along with other memorabilia, are currently on display at her museum in Texas.
“It’s crazy, trust me. It’s surprising to me. I’ve been here for the past 22 years just watching her legacy grow,” Suzette said.
“She’s timeless,” she continued. “All the great legends are. Look at Michael Jackson, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, all these people who made a mark in our world. I’m very honored to say Selena is a legend. She is still much alive today and that brings me, as a sister, that makes me very happy. Her legacy is also my legacy. Our music is what fuels everything.”
“Selena is here,” she said, overcome with emotion. “I feel like she’s here with us.”
For more on the iconic singer, watch the video below.