Selena Gomez’s favourite place to chill is her glam room. A small space on the ground floor of her new L.A.-area house, it opens onto a stone patio surrounding an amoeba-shaped pool. Inside, there’s a hair-and-makeup station stocked with products from her Rare Beauty line; racks of clothes for her cooking show, Selena + Chef; a selection of shoes on a shoebox dais; a green-leather couch (where I’m sitting); a couple of salon chairs (one of which she’s sitting on); a large-screen TV; a mini-fridge; and a snack station. Gomez meets me there dressed in a light-grey fuzzy sweater, black leggings and white sneakers, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She, her roommates and her maternal grandparents—who lived with her prior to quarantine—spend a lot of time down here watching basketball and hanging out. It’s the smallest room in her place, and she loves it.

Gomez moved in shortly before the pandemic, having just sold two previous homes. “I tried out a bunch of different neighbourhoods because I wanted to know what was going to make me feel comfortable in a city that doesn’t make me feel that comfortable,” she says. Looking back, she feels like all the hopping around was slightly irresponsible. But she also understands why it happened. “I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll try West Hollywood,’ but then I was like, ‘No, that’s not my vibe.’ Then I moved to Calabasas, and I thought that would be nice and family-oriented, but it’s actually very overwhelming and trendy now. It took me a while to figure out what was best for me.”

The house she finally settled on has a cozy, eclectic, collective vibe—kind of like a ski chalet or a sorority. “I’m a very communal person,” says Gomez. “I find happiness when I’m with people I love.” Considering the challenges she has faced in the past decade, it’s hardly surprising that she feels most at home surrounded by close family and friends. “My lupus, my kidney transplant, chemotherapy, having a mental illness, going through very, very public heartbreaks—these were all things that honestly should have taken me down,” she says. Gomez speaks slowly and calmly in a surprisingly low and uninflected register. “Every time I went through something, I was like, ‘What else? What else am I going to have to deal with?’” So she decided that she was going to help people. “That’s really what kept me going. There could have been a time when I wasn’t strong enough and would have done something to hurt myself.”

Inez & Vinoodh

Sweater and choker (Chanel) and earring (Cartier).

To say the past decade has been hard for Gomez is a massive understatement. But it has also been incredibly generative. During the pandemic, while most of us were in our pyjamas all day eating Double Stuf Oreos, Gomez was busy shooting the new Hulu show Only Murders in the Building (her first series-regular role since Wizards of Waverly Place). Starring alongside Steve Martin and Martin Short, Gomez, who is also an executive producer, plays Mabel, a lonely young woman who lives in a luxury Upper West Side apartment building. When a resident is found murdered, she meets her neighbours and fellow true-crime fans Charles and Oliver (Martin and Short), and the three of them decide to investigate and create their own podcast, mostly as an excuse to spend time together.

When Only Murders started shooting last November, Gomez was excited, but COVID-19 protocols made the experience stressful. “No one was allowed to be on-set,” she says. “Everybody wore masks and shields, and if I touched a prop, they cleaned it.” For a kissing scene, she was required to wash her mouth out with Listerine after each take—seven to 10 of them. “It burned my mouth. I was like, ‘I want to throw up.’ I’ve never experienced a set like that.”

“She’s a brilliant actress,” Short tells me over the phone. “And there’s an immediate warmth and loveliness to her.” She impressed Martin too. “Marty and I were both knocked out by her understanding that quiet acting is powerful acting,” he says, adding, “Marty doesn’t yet understand this.” The three of them bonded instantly, their on-set dynamic reflecting their playful onscreen dynamic. Gomez, for instance, took it upon herself to educate Martin on certain cultural developments.

“There was a line in the script that said ‘She’s an OG,’” she says. “And Steve walked up and said, ‘Can somebody tell me what “OG” means?’ I started dying laughing.” On another occasion, she taught him the lyrics to “WAP.” “Steve said, ‘Marty, I just heard new lyrics to “Top Hat and Tails,”’” recalls Short.

Gomez loved working with the older actors. “I got to be in a space with so much wisdom,” she says. “They became my uncles.” Martin echoes the sentiment: “We ended up feeling very close to Selena.”

Only Murders wasn’t the only show she shot during quarantine. Selena + Chef was inspired by the food people were posting and Gomez’s inability to make it. “Everyone got so involved in cooking during the pandemic,” she says. She found herself looking at pictures of food and wishing she knew how to prepare it.

So, as one does—if one is Selena Gomez—she called her team and asked what she could do during quarantine that would allow her to have fun with cooking. Shortly thereafter, Selena + Chef was born. In the intro, groceries arrive on her doorstep, and when she goes to get them, she mumbles, “This is what I’m going to burn today.” Then a famous chef appears (remotely) in her kitchen. So far, she has cooked with Nancy Silverton, Ludo Lefebvre and Antonia Lofaso, among others. Gomez’s kitchen is outfitted with cameras and a large TV with a split screen. One side shows the chef’s face; the other the chef’s hands. Gomez tries to keep up while smiling and bantering. “Then I pull [the dish] out of the oven and I’m like, ‘This is what it looks like,’” she says. She feeds the results to her grandparents and roommates.

Inez & Vinoodh

Dress (Prabal Gurung), tights (Commando for Prabal Gurung), earring (Anita Ko), pendant necklace (Chanel), pearl necklaces (Mikimoto x Comme des Garçons), vintage cuff (Tom Binns) and rings (Cartier)

The show makes her happy. In addition to contributing to her philanthropic goals (the show raised $360,000 for 23 non-profit organizations during its first two seasons), it has helped her connect with fans in a very authentic way. “It’s the most ‘myself’ I’ve been to the world,” she says. She realizes she may not be the most talented cook, but she does it anyway. Fans have approached her to say “It’s really awesome that you make mistakes.”

It took time for Gomez, who has lived her life in the public eye since she was seven, to be comfortable showing vulnerability. The former child star, who became a household name when she starred in the Disney Channel show Wizards of Waverly Place, struggled with the lack of privacy and constant media presence in her life. “For a while, I felt like an object,” she says. “It felt gross for a long time.”

The first time Gomez sought treatment for mental health, soon after she’d been diagnosed with lupus in 2014, some assumed that she was going to rehab for substance-abuse issues. “I don’t even know what they really believed I was doing—drugs, alcohol, running around, partying,” she says. “The narrative was so nasty.”

So Gomez decided to flip the script. She posted a caption on Instagram that read “I want to claim back my name.” She talked openly about her struggles: “Yes, I went away. Yes, I struggle with mental health. I have been depressed. I’ve had anxiety.” In 2018, Gomez was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “I felt a huge weight lift off me when I found out,” she says. “I could take a deep breath and go, ‘Okay, that explains so much.’”

One way Gomez has taken control of her mental health is by letting go of social media. Four years ago, she was the most followed person on Instagram. And yet, while beloved by millions of fans, she struggled with the negativity that often surfaced in the comments. “I suffer from mental illness, and [social media] just wasn’t adding anything to my life,” she says. She asked herself “What’s the purpose of this?” Visiting kids in hospital wards, having fans come up to her to say that “Lose You to Love Me” had helped them through a divorce—these things meant more to her than, say, posting a random picture of her nails. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something [more]. After I’m gone, I want people to remember me for my heart.’” And so, in 2017 she handed the reins (and passwords) of her social- media accounts to her assistant. She still provides photos and quotes, but she no longer posts herself. “I don’t have it on my phone, so there’s no temptation,” she says. “I suddenly had to learn how to be with myself. That was annoying because in the past, I could spend hours looking at other people’s lives. I would find myself nearly two years down in someone’s feed, and I’d realize ‘I don’t even know this person!’ Now I get information the proper way. When my friends have something to talk about, they call me and say ‘Oh, I did this.’ They don’t say ‘Wait, did you see my post?’”

I felt a huge weight lift off me when i found out. I could take a deep breath and go, ‘okay, that explains so much.

Eschewing social media cleared mental space for Gomez, allowing her to focus on projects and causes that speak to her on a deeper level. “It was so nice,” she says. “I felt like I was suddenly able to be so present.” She began developing Rare Beauty, a collection of makeup that’s all about embracing your natural beauty and rejecting unrealistic standards. “I’ve spent years of my life trying to look like other people,” says Gomez. “I would see an image and be like, ‘My gosh, why don’t I look like that?’ None of that was good for me.”

Everything that i’m attached to has a charity aspect. If something good isn’t coming out of it, i’m not going to do it.

Inez & Vinoodh

Bodysuit (Brandon Maxwell), fishnets (Wolford), beret (Eugenia Kim), sunglasses (Parley for the Oceans) and mules (Amina Muaddi)

With Rare Beauty, she wants to empower women to wear makeup because they want to, not because they need to. In creating each product, she thought, “What is the easiest way for someone who doesn’t know how to do makeup to learn how to actually do their own makeup?” Like with all her ventures, the brand has a charitable side: the Rare Impact Fund, which aims to raise $100 million over the next 10 years to improve access to mental-health services. “Everything that I’m attached to has a charity aspect,” she says. “If something good isn’t coming out of it, I’m not going to do it. I don’t need money. I need people who want to fight with me.”

She brought the same fighting spirit to Instagram. Recognizing that she had a powerful platform—even without micromanaging it every day—she decided to use her account for social good. Prior to the last election, Gomez had never voted, and she began thinking about why it had seemed so difficult. “At first, it was just me educating people on the voting process,” she says. She became involved with the organization When We All Vote and joined Michelle Obama’s “Voting Squad,” lending her Instagram to activists, philanthropists, teachers, therapists and psychologists. The chaos of the last administration also led her to reflect on her Mexican-American heritage in ways she hadn’t before. She thought about the racism she’d experienced first-hand with her father. “[When I was] growing up, we didn’t have much and we were treated poorly,” she says. “My dad would get pulled over all the time, and he wasn’t doing anything most of the time.” Once, at a Shania Twain concert in Dallas, someone (who clearly didn’t recognize her) called him a “wetback.” Gomez was apoplectic. “I wanted to show him my Instagram!” she jokes wryly. But her dad talked her down. “‘There’s nothing we can do,’” she recalls him telling her. “‘It’s just going to start more trouble for me, not them. We could get kicked out of this place.’”

Nowadays, Gomez is channelling her indignation into action, using her platform to campaign against misinformation and hate speech and raising awareness about human trafficking and the plight of undocumented immigrants on Living Undocumented, the Netflix documentary series she helps executive-produce. She is also using her power and position to celebrate fellow Latinx superstars. Case in point: She is producing and starring in In the Shadow of the Mountain, a biopic about Silvia Vásquez-Lavado, a Peruvian mountaineer and the first openly gay woman to scale the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each continent).

Find the full story in the October issue of ELLE Canada — out on newsstands and on Apple News+ September 20th or read the digital issue.  You can also subscribe for the latest in fashion, beauty and culture.

Inez & Vinoodh

Photographer: Inez & Vinoodh; Stylist: Alex White; Hairstylist: Orlando Pita (Orlo Play); makeup artist: Hung Vanngo (The Wall Group); manicurist: Lisa Peña-Wong (Chanel); set designer: James Chinlund (Magnet Agency); producer: Gabe Hill (Ge Projects).