How Selena Gomez's Passion for Diversity Led to Her Most Inspiring Projects Yet
By Jennifer Drysdale
Selena Gomez started 2020 feeling like she got her "step back." "I feel like, 'All right, I'm back in the game a bit,'" she told ET at the January premiere of her movie, Dolittle.
The 28-year-old singer was discussing returning to music with her new album, Rare, five years after her last record, Revival. But being "back in the game" described more than just her reemergence on the Billboard charts. Over the last year, Gomez has also found success in film, (Dolittle, A Rainy Day in New York) and TV (Living Undocumented, Selena + Chef) -- while also making headlines and creating an impact for her incredible charitable initiatives and advocacy. The common thread tying it all together seems to be Gomez's renewed connection to her community.
Named after late Tejano icon Selena Quintanilla, Gomez was born in Grand Prairie, Texas, in 1992, to a 16-year-old Italian mother, Mandy, and a 17-year-old Mexican father, Rick. Her parents split when she was five, after which she spent most of her time with her mother, but she still felt a connection to her Mexican roots. "I'm a proud third-generation American-Mexican," the performer said in May, via Define American. "When my family came here from Mexico, they set into motion my American story, as well as theirs. My family's journey and their sacrifices helped get me to where I am today."
Gomez shared her family's "bravery and sacrifice" in a moving Time magazine piece last October, recalling how her aunt and grandparents courageously crossed the Mexican-American border "in the back of a truck." Her family's story -- described as being filled with "shame, uncertainty and fear" but also "hope, optimism and patriotism" -- is one that many immigrants can relate to, and the reason she wanted to produce the docuseries Living Undocumented.
The project, which showcases eight immigrant families in the U.S. from different backgrounds, debuted on Netflix last fall. Like many viewers, Gomez felt moved by the heartbreaking, real struggles immigrant families experience while reaching for the American dream. She felt inspired to do more with her platform.
"Undocumented immigration is an issue I think about every day, and I never forget how blessed I am to have been born in this country thanks to my family and the grace of circumstance. But when I read the news headlines or see debates about immigration rage on social media, I feel afraid for those in similar situations," Gomez wrote in her essay for Time. "I feel afraid for my country."
Though the actress and activist would like America's immigration crisis to be approached less from a political standpoint and more from a place of humanity, empathy and compassion, she knows how policy is made. Earlier this summer, Gomez was announced as a co-chair of When We All Vote, a national, nonpartisan organization launched in 2018 to increase participation in every election. She has used her social media presence to encourage fans to register to vote, head to the polls, and work for the change they want to see in the world.
Gomez has also used her platform to support the Black Lives Matter movement. "Educating ourselves is the first step if we hope to make any progress in bringing an end to systemic racism," she wrote on Instagram on June 18. "As much as one might want to believe things have gotten better we cannot deny any longer that they have not. We need to acknowledge that social, political and economic discrimination against Black communities continues to exist."
The "Wolves" singer lent her profile and 180 million-plus followers to stars, political figures and activists like Kendrick Sampson, Stacey Abrams and Raquel Willis, offering them an opportunity to speak, educate and amplify important causes.
"I was so upset with how people were being treated, and having people in my life that have dealt with that for years, telling me stories that they've never told me before," Gomez said in a recent interview with Allure, during which she also noted that she had two memorable, personal experiences with discrimination in her early childhood, while with her father. "That's why what I did with my social media was extremely important -- having all of these different voices share their experiences. I didn't want to be someone that was going to just post something [or make a] donation."
Gomez's advocacy for Black and brown communities has also intersected with her passion for mental health and work as an entrepreneur. In celebration of her 28th birthday in July, she announced that her beauty brand, Rare Beauty, will help connect underserved communities with access to mental health services.
From the first Rare Beauty product sold onward, one percent of all sales, as well as funds raised from partners, will be dedicated to the Rare Impact Fund, as they hope to raise $100 million over the next 10 years to help address gaps in mental health services.
"Since the brand's inception, we wanted to find a way to give back to our community and further support people who needed access to mental health services, which have had a profound impact on my life," Gomez said in a statement about the Rare Impact Fund. "Rare Beauty is focused on helping people feel more connected to one another and less alone in the world."
Even amid her more lighthearted projects, like her HBO Max cooking show, Selena + Chef, Gomez is making a difference. Each episode of the series, recently renewed for season 2, sees Gomez teaming up with a celebrity chef like Roy Choi, Antonia Lofaso and Nancy Silverton, for a refreshingly real cooking lesson, while also spotlighting a food-related charity. Gomez donates $10,000 to each charity featured.
While discussing chef Lofaso's charity of choice, Beit T'Shuvah, a Los Angeles-based drug and rehab facility, on episode 2 of the series, Gomez opened up about her struggles with mental health.
"I also have bipolar, so I deal with a lot of mental health issues and some of my family members are also addicts, so it's something I'm extremely passionate about as well," Gomez shared. "I think that there is a lot of shame and guilt in it and then there's also this pressure of, you know, wanting to feel like you're a part of the crowd if you do this and do that. So I'm very grateful I now know that that's something that you do and people can check it out."
As a UNICEF ambassador for over 10 years, advocacy has been an important part of Gomez's life. Charity concerts that she's put on to support the organization have raised over $200,000, helping UNICEF provide lifesaving therapeutic foods, clean water, medicines, immunizations and education to children worldwide.
She also recently provided support for kids closer to home, paying a visit to students at Danny Jones Middle School in Mansfield, Texas, which she attended before her Disney career took off as a preteen.
"This district has grown a lot, and I'm really proud of that, just because it has allowed many other kids to have the opportunity to have a good education," she said during her surprise visit last September. "What I would tell them is that it's really hard, but it's worth it."
"I wasn't a straight-A student by any means, but I think it's really important, and I think it's also important to make sure you're being kind to someone, and to see them eating alone like I did when I was here, just to say hi and just encourage them in their schoolwork," Gomez added. "Anything is possible for them."
Shortly after leaving Danny Jones Middle School, Gomez moved to Los Angeles with her mom, and became one of the first Latina actresses to lead a Disney Channel series with Wizards of Waverly Place. That was her "high school," she joked to Allure, crediting her Disney days with building the career she has today. Gomez has since grown as a performer, producer and activist, giving back to her community and paving a way for others to follow in her footsteps, and lean into the "rare" mentality.
"[The word] has become the identity of my brand and who I want to be,” said Gomez, who was recently named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2020, “which is showing people that being diverse and different, whatever was happening, I wanted it to feel like you were included.”