Even by tiny celebrity standards, Selena Gomez is of practically Borrower proportions.
Before we meet, we pass in the hotel lobby, and I assume she is someone's nine-year-old daughter until a small clatter of BlackBerry jockeys sweeps behind her. Ask a pre-teen, however, and they'll tell you Gomez is one of the biggest stars in the world.
With 15.6m Twitter followers, millions in album sales, tens of millions in box office dollars and countless headlines as the on-off girlfriend of Justin Bieber, she is one of the most successful of the Disney Channel alumni. Not the comparatively ancient generation that once produced Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling and Christina Aguilera, but the new breed, who are primped and propagated like prize roses; toothy munchkins given TV shows and then slapped on backpacks, pencil cases and, if they can carry a tune without significant wobble, album covers. Gomez has appeared in 106 episodes of Wizards of Waverly Place (a show about magically gifted kids which aired on Disney) and released three albums with her band the Scene. She will shortly turn 21.
Gomez does not look like a woman trying to conquer the world. In a fairly modest hotel room she's curled up in a huge chair, swaddled in an oversized jumper, with her hair scraped back off her make-up-free face. She looks more like someone readying themselves for a DVD and an early night. But we meet as Gomez is in the midst of a global plan to become an adult. Two days previously she was in Las Vegas, performing at the Billboard Music Awards, and a couple of hours after we meet she's off to Paris for more promotion. She has had to cancel most of her other interviews in London due to a mystery illness (she coughs through our interview and insists I wash my hands when I leave). But this is her normal. This is the level of work she's been doing since she was school age. "It's pretty constant, yeah," she says with a shrug. "But I get weekends off now and again."
Where the Miley Cyruses of this world try cropping their hair off and gyrating semi-naked in order to be seen as adults, or the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes lose all semblance of a plan and spin off into pitiable tabloid notoriety, Gomez's transition has been rather smarter. Earlier this year she appeared in Spring Breakers, playing an innocent Christian getting her first taste of hedonism for the director Harmony Korine, whose films are more likely to feature unsimulated masturbation than a lovely song-and-dance number. OK, she spent most of it in a bikini, but it was a critically acclaimed departure, with the film being nominated for the Golden Lion award at Venice Film Festival. Now she's about to release her first solo album, Stars Dance, the lead single of which, "Come and Get It", is efficient, infectious pop. But with album tracks like "Lover in Me", "I Like it That Way" and indeed "Come and Get It", is she, too, about to go all out on the adult message?
"Now you say them back to back, they do sound a little…" she says, carefully leaving off the final word. "I didn't intentionally do that. 'Come and Get It' was just very up front and outgoing… It's not technically what people will think. Oh God, you're the first person who's made me realise that."
Gomez is not so media trained that she can get through an entire interview without seeming to conjure a single independent thought, and she makes engaging company, frequently poking fun at herself. Yet she talks about "the business" as if she's been around for decades and has the air of someone much older. How does she feel about being viewed as a child star at 20?
"Oh, I don't know if that's a bad thing," she says. "In acting it's definitely a good thing that I look younger because I can play younger roles. But, at the same time, I'm becoming a young woman and wanting to dress more mature and getting comfortable in my own body. I'm very conscious that everything is being watched, and so I have to respect that. I'm not going to do anything wearing just a piece of tape."
In the past she has spoken of reading fan feedback on the length of her hair and taking it on board. Is it a recipe for madness, to fall prey to the fanbase? "It's all I've ever known," she admits. "And I don't know if that's sad, but it's my life. So I don't know. I still feel very normal and just like a Texas girl, but then this is how I grew up, in this industry. I don't really know any different."
Gomez was raised in Grand Prairie, Texas, by a 16-year-old mother. Her parents divorced when she was five. When her career took off at the age of 10 – a childhood of performing in the living room led to a stint jollying around with Barney the purple dinosaur in the 90s series Barney & Friends – Gomez's mother, Mandy Cornett, became her manager, a relationship Gomez now describes as "like a Gilmore Girlsbond, except the dialogue's not as clever". "We're both growing up," she says. "She's Mom first before she's my manager, but she knows what she needs to do." On this trip to London, Cornett is notably absent. "She gives me space. When I was 18 she let me do things on my own. But she's part of my life every day. I mean, she knows everything! Like last night, I went to eat with my friend Jaden [Smith, son of Will] and I called my mom to check in and she was like: 'Oh, I know already.'"
When I ask Gomez if she needed protection from the potentially sinister world of Disney, she almost laughs. "Oh, it's a machine!" she squeaks. "I've heard all of it. I've heard everything under the sun." She does not believe its stars are exploited too young to have control of their own careers. "But the promo they're very good at," she will say. "The promo aspect was interesting. [Wizards of Waverly] was a small show at the beginning, nobody was watching, and then all of a sudden they sent me overseas. They just passionately broadcast it. And that's that. They don't make you sing as well," she adds. She would hit the recording studio on her weekends, "because that was just a fun thing I loved to do".
In this second stage of her career Gomez is aware that her success at Disney may well be the biggest obstacle to her future. Projects like Spring Breakers "are great, because they push me", but "not many people will take the chances, not like Harmony did. They'll say: 'She's just a Disney kid – she doesn't have it.' Whereas Harmony said: 'Oh, she's a Disney kid. So I want to push her to have it.'" On set, there were times when the old and new worlds clashed. Korine was supportive. "There was one day when I had a bit of a meltdown on set – we had about 200 people outside and I was shooting an intimate scene. You're already in a bikini and I'm doing a scene where I'm drunk. And it was… I just started sobbing. I said: 'Harmony, there are kids watching me. I don't know what to do. Sometimes I just want to escape.' And he shoved me in the pool! He said: 'Say everything you just said to me on camera.'"
She has since gone on to make Rudderless, the forthcoming directorial debut of actor William H Macy, but says: "I know they wouldn't have even have looked at me if it weren't for Spring Breakers. They even said that to me." The level of tabloid attention she receives due to her relationships with at least three very famous boys [Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas and Taylor Lautner] – she laughs when I use the word "men" – also has an effect. Barely a week goes by when she won't be papped somewhere, not necessarily doing anything. "There'll be days where I'm not bothered at all and I can just go out with my friends to the movies or walk around the park," she says. "But when it gets frustrating, that's when I call Taylor [Swift]. Or Demi [Lovato, both long-time friends]. Sometimes it will just be, like: 'Urgh, people are talking about me!' But then it feels gross [to complain], because it comes with what I love to do."
She is careful not to mention Bieber's name, even when talking directly about him. How does she deal with the scrutiny that comes with being his girlfriend? "Sure, I knew people would talk about it," she says. "But I can't be afraid to live my life. I had my first 'boyfriend' [Nick Jonas], which wasn't really a boyfriend, at 14, 15. You're young and you don't know how to be. You don't think: 'Now I have a boyfriend – let's keep it super-private and low key,' because that's not what you're thinking about. You're thinking about: 'Oh my God, we're holding hands!' You're just thinking about stuff like that. Everybody falls in love and you would never want to hide something you're so happy about. But I've learned a lot. You keep the things that are super-private to yourself. I definitely want to do that now. But it's so hard."
She mentions wanting to work with Martin Scorsese as an ambition for the future, but is self-aware enough to joke that the feeling might not be mutual. She's not even sure of her career beyond this record. "You can't say what's going to be, because you don't know. I could be gone tomorrow. Nobody would care if I sell another record and nobody would hire me again. It's that simple."
It's a conceivable scenario – it's happened before – but something tells me Gomez is different. She's no Minnie Mouse, that's for sure.
Selena's album StarsDance is out on 22 July
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image: © El Hormiguero