It’s a significant feat for any pop star her BFF Taylor Swift is trailing behind at just over 90 million followers right now. But its true significance lies in the fact that it happened during a period of radio silence from Gomez, whose last post was 14 weeks ago.
In August, Gomez checked herself into rehab to confront her anxiety and depression head on, and the act of self-care spoke volumes. But Gomezs hiatus hasnt hurt the pop stars career. Instead, her willingness to expose her vulnerability has only strengthened her fan base.
“As many of you know, around a year ago I revealed that I have lupus, an illness that can affect people in different ways,” Gomez said in a statement at the time. “I’ve discovered that anxiety, panic attacks and depression can be side effects of lupus, which can present their own challenges.”
She canceled the remainder of her Revival Tour, which was supposed to run until December and, true to her word, has stayed out of the spotlight in the meantime.
But Gomez made a rare public appearance on Sunday night at the American Music Awards, and she made it count.
Gomez picked up the award for Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist, beating out Rihanna and Adele for the fan-voted prize. In her acceptance speech, she addressed her hiatus and encouraged viewers who may be struggling themselves to get help.
“If you are broken you do not have to stay broken. If that’s anything, whether you respect me or not, that’s one thing you should know about me is I care about people,” said Gomez. “Thank you so much for this. This is for you. Thank you.”
“In 2014, this stage was actually the first time that I was authentically, 100 percent honest with all of you. I think it’s safe to say that all of you know my life whether I like it or not,” Gomez told the audience, referencing her tearful performance at the awards ceremony two years ago.
At the time, everyone assumed she was distraught over her on again, off again relationship with Justin Bieber, but it’s since become clear that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes.
Gomez finally revealed her lupus diagnosis to fans in late 2015 after keeping her illness private for three years as she processed the diagnosis. Which, of course, was not easy in the public eye. And so she dealt with the incessant rumors about her reasons for seeking treatment in 2014.
“I was diagnosed with lupus, and Ive been through chemotherapy. Thats what my break was really about,” she told Billboard. “I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea. Im in chemotherapy. Youre assholes…’ I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again.”
But eventually, she shared her story with her Selenators, who were quick to support her. Gomez and her female pop star peers are discovering that the terrifying act of making your vulnerabilities public is a necessary defense against the pressures of projecting a perfect public image.
They’ve seen what can happen when women in the public eye crack under the pressure. Britney Spears, the all-American sweetheart, has become a cautionary tale. Though she’s certainly not the first woman to combat the corrosive combination of mental illness and fame, the timing of her rise, fall and redemption made a unique impression.
In 2007, Spears famously shaved her head in public after a brief stint in rehab and a couple years of bad press for her partying and erratic behavior. It was captured by the paparazzi, of course. The following years were not kind to Spears, who spent time in and out of treatment, faced custody battles and was arrested for a hit-and-run accident. Eventually, the courts placed her under her father’s legal conservatorship because she could not be trusted looking after her own affairs.
Nothing was more clickable than the takedown of a young starlet.
This all happened in what some consider a golden era of celebrity gossip. Starting around 2005, websites like Perez Hilton, Page Six and Oh No They Didn’t became unstoppable forces. Gossip was no longer relegated to tabloids and television shows, so it became more accessible to people who might not otherwise seek it out. In the Wild West of blogging, much of it was totally uncensored. And nothing was more clickable than the takedown of a young starlet. The more people like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears turned into public trainwrecks, the better for traffic. They didn’t have social media, so instead, their stories were told in paparazzi photos and mugshots. The virgin/whore dichotomy reigned supreme.
Now, Spears is on the mend, seeming happier and healthier than she’s been in a long time with a successful Vegas show and a delightful new album. What’s more, everyone knows how hard she’s had to work to get there and people want her to succeed because of it.
The pop stars raised on her music, thanks in part to social media, are allowed to present a more complex version of themselves. Moreover, they have a direct line of communication with fans it’s not all about a PR-friendly message, it’s about a conversation. Gomez in particular has had so much success on social media because she’s taken time to interact with fans and has been known to engage with them on Instagram.
“I had to stop, because I had everything and I was absolutely broken inside,” said Gomez at the AMAs. “I kept it all together enough to where I would never let you down but I kept it too much together to where I let myself down.”
Being a pop star in 2016 isn’t about a purely aspirational image revealing your struggles to fans, especially young fans, is more powerful.
“I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram. I want to see what’s in here. I’m not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore,” continued Gomez at the awards show. “All I can say from the bottom of my heart is I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to be able to share what I love every single day with people that I love.”
It’s a lesson Gomez’ peer Demi Lovato learned the hard way, having come back from her own struggles with substance abuse and eating disorders stronger.
Now, Lovato frequently speaks publicly about addressing mental health care. She even co-owns the mental health facility where she sought treatment in 2013 and held mental health workshops at all her tour dates.
Gomez, meanwhile, donated proceeds from her Revival Tour to fund lupus research. So far, she hasn’t laid out her plans for 2017, nor does she have any obligation to, because her fans get it. She’s only valuable to them when she’s valuable to herself.
A revival is not a one-time act it’s an infinite process.