How Selena Gomez Is Revolutionizing the Celebrity Beauty Business

15 minute read
By Lucy Feldman
Elliot & Erick Jiménez for TIME
15 minute read

You would not think the most-followed woman on Instagram would be able to walk through one of New York City’s biggest tourist attractions unbothered. Yet here she is, strolling in a pair of cozy booties through Central Park with a travel mug of tea tucked in her arm, very nearly blending in. If not for the security guard and personal assistant trailing discreetly behind, Selena Gomez might be any other person out for fresh air on a drizzly May morning.

This is, to put it mildly, surprising. But she shrugs it off. “I don’t really have anything impressive going on at all times,” she deadpans, gesturing to her casual getup. “Or anytime, really.”

It’s a funny thing to hear from someone who has been on TV since she was 10 years old, found success as an actor and pop star, and is now the founder of a business reportedly worth $2 billion. Gomez, 31, is one of the most recognizable people in the world, and yet she’s right—as we meander down a pedestrian path and into the mud, most of the people around us seem not to notice her.

Photograph by Elliot & Erick Jiménez for TIME

Gomez has cultivated an everywoman quality and a mastery of public vulnerability—hers is the kind of fame that comes from growing up alongside your fans, offering an example of what it’s like to fall in love, try things, and make mistakes. Her openness about her mental health has endeared her to millions of young people coping with the isolating experiences of anxiety, depression, and other disorders. And she has channeled all of that into her company, Rare Beauty, a rising player she bills as a beauty brand that, instead of selling an unattainable image, aims to help people feel good about themselves.

Mental health and makeup may not seem like an obvious pairing, but Gomez’s vision has paid off. Rare Beauty, not yet four years old, is a top seller at Sephora and available in 36 countries, according to the company. After launching in 2020, annual sales grew 100% from 2021 to 2022, and 200% the following year; they hit $400 million for the 12 months ending in May.

Rare Beauty’s products, from a liquid highlighter to a body and hair mist with names like Positive Light and Find Comfort, are designed to be inclusive in terms of shade range and easy-to-use packaging (crucial to Gomez herself, who takes a drug for lupus that can cause her hands to shake). Gomez says Rare began not with her ideas for specific makeup products but instead with her hope to support people struggling with their mental health. So she launched the company with a philanthropic arm, the Rare Impact Fund, with the goal of raising $100 million in the brand’s first 10 years, and pledged that 1% of all product sales would be funneled into the foundation. With $13 million raised to date, the Rare Impact Fund has given grants to 26 organizations across five continents working to improve mental health.

Gomez and her team are managing to sell millions of dollars worth of product while also promoting the idea that no one needs makeup. “I hope I don’t, and I hope Rare Beauty doesn’t, give off the vibe that you have to do anything,” she says. I ask what she makes of a common double standard, how people can be judged for leaving imperfections uncovered, but also deemed insecure if they wear too much makeup. She points out that she’s gone nearly barefaced today, wearing only some under-eye brightener. “I think it’s bullsh-t,” she says. “If you want my opinion on that.”

When you’re as famous as Gomez is, your personal life becomes global fodder. The Texas native broke out on Disney’s 2007–12 series Wizards of Waverly Place, went on to launch a music career, and built her résumé in film and TV with projects like Spring Breakers and 13 Reasons Why. All the while, interest in her relationships and inner life only grew. In 2016, she was in the middle of a worldwide tour for her album Revival when she suddenly pulled out, revealing she had been struggling with anxiety and depression as side effects from lupus, which in 2017 necessitated a kidney transplant. She says now that she’s “50-50” on whether she’ll ever go on a major tour again. “Nothing makes me happier than 90 minutes of being with my fans and just celebrating together,” she says. On the other hand, “It is very emotionally draining for me. And then you realize you’re just surrounded by a bunch of people that you’re paying.”

In April 2020, just months before she launched Rare Beauty, Gomez disclosed that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She shared with Rolling Stone two years later that she had suffered from suicidal ideation and been to four treatment centers. Her 2022 documentary, My Mind and Me, offered a raw look at her mental health over a six-year period, filling in new details of a story that had been told in headlines.

Gomez often laments the impact of social media on her own health and encourages others to get offline. (She has declared at least five times since 2018 that she’s taking a break from Instagram, where her current follower count is 427 million.) An assistant maintained her accounts for four years. She’s back to posting most of her content herself now, which includes promo for Rare Beauty and her film and TV projects, but she tries not to linger on the apps. And she’s deliberate about who she chooses to spend her time with IRL. “It’s a cliché, but girls are mean,” she says. “It’s a very weird competition, being in the cool girls area—and then I’m just kind of like, there. I don’t know where I’m meant to belong.” Her best friends are a real estate agent, a producer, and a casting director, she says. “I love having levelheaded people around that couldn’t give two f-cks about what I do.”

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, Selena Gomez, and Elyse Cohen speak onstage during Rare Beauty’s 3rd Annual Mental Health Summit on May 1, 2024, in New York City.
Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, Selena Gomez, and Elyse Cohen speak onstage during Rare Beauty’s 3rd Annual Mental Health Summit on May 1, 2024, in New York City.Cindy Ord—Getty Images for Rare Beauty

The importance of building meaningful relationships is something Gomez talks about a lot in her work with Rare Beauty. The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has become a frequent conversation partner with her at events, where they discuss his research on the loneliness epidemic. “It’s hard,” she says. “You could be in a crowd of people and still feel alone. I still deal with that.”

She’s a proponent of feeling your feelings. A younger friend of hers going through a breakup recently asked how anyone manages the pain of heartbreak. “You have to go through it. You can distract yourself and you can deny and deny all you want, but it’ll still be there,” Gomez advised. Covering it up is not the answer. “I just allow myself to have those days.”

I ask if having a partner is helpful when it comes to the big feelings we’re talking about, now that she’s openly sharing her relationship with producer and songwriter Benny Blanco—or if it’s irrelevant. “It’s a little irrelevant, only because he isn’t my only source of happiness,” Gomez says. “I was alone for five years, and I got really used to it. A lot of people are afraid of being alone and I probably tortured myself in my head for like two years being alone, and then I kind of accepted it. Then I came up with my plan, which was I was going to adopt at 35 if I had not met anyone.” Enter Blanco, who Gomez says she’d first thought of as a friend—she even asked him if he knew anyone he could set her up with. But when he brought her to meet his friend at a birthday party, she realized she liked him. “It just happens when you least expect it,” she says. 

Selena Romez Rare Beauty
Elliot & Erick Jiménez for TIME

Blanco recently told Howard Stern he wants to marry and have kids with Gomez. She laughs when I bring it up: “He can’t lie to save his life. If he’s asked a question, he’ll answer it.” She, on the other hand, has a lifetime of experience that has taught her to be more cautious. “I know what people can do to people I love. My own fans, who I adore and feel like have shaped who I am, will say the most hurtful things to me about how I live my life. But he has the strength in him that none of that noise fazes him. It’s really impressive, and I just cherish every moment with him. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that he’s not going anywhere any time soon.”

For now, she’s trying to be present. Acting is one part of life that affords her the chance to be fully focused. Her film Emilia Perez premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May—she and her co-stars received the festival’s best actress award—and she’ll soon wrap the fourth season of Only Murders in the Building, a working environment she describes as feeling like home. (Meryl Streep walks around the set barefoot, singing! Sitting with Steve Martin, Martin Short, Streep, and guest star Eugene Levy recently made Gomez want to cry for the way they made her feel like she belongs. “I’ll ask them, When did you stop caring about what people said?" she says. "And they’ll all just ring off these one liners that'll just kill me.")

And she is well. Her lupus is in remission, blood pressure is good, the kidney is working like it’s supposed to. I ask if she ever feels like it’s unfair—she’s 31 years old, living with bipolar and an incurable autoimmune disease, and knows what it’s like to spend weeks in the ICU. She responds with a story about a boy she met during a hospital visit when she was 18. He wouldn’t look her in the eye until she shared that she, too, suffered from lupus. “It was so sweet,” she says. “In a weird way, I turned the bad things into a good thing.”

Celebrity beauty brands abound, from Ariana Grande’s r.e.m. to Lady Gaga’s Haus Labs to Jennifer Lopez’s JLo Beauty. Creating a line of consumer products is an age-old way for entertainers to diversify their revenue streams in a fickle industry, but stamping an über-famous name on a lipstick is no longer enough to make consumers want to buy it. The formulas still have to be good, and there needs to be a reason for the brand to exist. Kylie Jenner repeatedly sold out of her Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kits, with customers hoping to achieve the same plumped look she had. (She eventually disclosed that she has received filler.) Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, the top-selling celebrity brand reportedly at roughly $600 million in annual sales, differentiated itself when it launched in 2017 by emphasizing its inclusive products for darker skin tones—a priority that aligned with Rihanna’s values.

Rare Beauty’s Soft Pinch Liquid Blush
Rare Beauty’s Soft Pinch Liquid BlushCourtesy of Rare Beauty

Gomez wants Rare Beauty to be a place where customers can go for affordable luxury products (compare Rare’s $30 foundation with Fenty’s $40 or Chantecaille’s $90 product, which went viral when the Euphoria makeup artist revealed she used it on the cast), but stay for a community of like-minded people who are comforted by the affirming ethos of the brand Gomez has created by emphasizing her own struggles. “That means a lot to the mental-health community, when someone is willing to be super honest,” says Rudi Berry, a beauty influencer who also posts about living with OCD. “When you deal with mental health issues, it can feel really isolating, like you’re the only one on earth going through it.”

Rare’s focus on mental health, and its investment in the cause through the Rare Impact Fund, not only fulfills its founder’s vision—it’s also good business. In a 2023 study of Gen Z and millennial consumers in the U.S., 80% said they were more likely to purchase from a brand based on its mission. Another 2023 study found that Gen Z wants brands to focus on mental health more than any other issue, including climate. “We’re at a really exciting turning point in the private sector, where brands can be leveraged in a powerful and meaningful way to contribute to society,” says Elyse Cohen, Rare Beauty’s executive vice president of social impact. As president of the Rare Impact Fund, Cohen and her team identify and vet potential grantees, from well-known organizations like the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, to smaller, grassroots groups like the Mindful Life Project, a California nonprofit that places mental-health coaches in schools.

For Mindful Life founder JG Larochette, two $150,000 grants have meant the ability to expand full-time services from 28 schools in six cities to 50 schools in 13 cities. The exposure Larochette has received through partnering with the brand online and at events has opened more doors to more potential funding, which can be a struggle for lesser-known nonprofits. “There’s a lot to be said when Selena Gomez and her team put a stamp of approval on you,” he says. And his work with Rare Beauty has helped him understand the way his student population is interacting with makeup: “If you look at the social media, it’s about authenticity. It’s about creativity. It’s about expression. You’re beautiful as you are, and you can express yourself as you want.” 

Selena Gomez Rare Beauty
Elliot & Erick Jiménez for TIME

Of all the parts of Rare Beauty, Gomez is primarily focused on the impact fund and product development. She relies on her managers, her lawyer, and the company’s executives to help run the business. “I will admit it overwhelms me sometimes. I have this weird thing in my head where if I focus on the numbers, I’ll lose whatever it is that made Rare Beauty Rare Beauty,” she says. “I never wanted it to be about making a lot of money and that’s it.”

But it is making a lot of money. In 2023, sales of its most popular product, a $23 liquid blush, reached $70 million. Earlier this year, rumors swirled when Bloomberg reported Gomez had brought on financial advisers to weigh a sale or IPO. On our walk, she’s quick to shut down the idea that she’s selling. “I don’t have any plans on that, genuinely,” she says, adding that she’s working on products for the next few years.

CEO Scott Friedman says it took a few years to build the company’s infrastructure while navigating a COVID-19-era launch and managing supply-chain issues; with things more settled, they recently retained investment banks to help envision the future. “We’re going to decide what’s the best way for us to become one of the largest, if not the largest, prestige beauty brands in the world, and it’s not a rush,” he says. “We are making our decisions to grow in the long run.”

Gomez says she gets more comments from strangers about Rare than anything else, and it means a lot that people enjoy the products for what they are, not because she made them. “That’s what makes me most proud,” she says. “When I’m able to have something like Rare or a single that people can relate to, I get so much joy when people say, ‘Hey, that helped me through a difficult time.’” 

Selena Gomez Rare Beauty
Elliot & Erick Jiménez for TIME

This is what we’re talking about—the value of real connection with other people—when we run out of trail. Suddenly, we’re deposited on the street, the noise of midday Manhattan a smack in the face. The bubble has burst and Gomez is spotted by a man dressed in all black. He holds his phone up to her face and walks backward to match her stride as he films her, saying nothing. 

“You don’t feel real sometimes,” Gomez says, continuing on. Half a block later, the guy is gone, and she’s back to observing the people on the street, rather than the other way around. New York is a place where a person can move freely, she notes. She can envision her 10-year-old sister being happy here, like the kids she sees walking themselves to school. “They’re completely fine on their own. They have an ownership—you have to own your life, you have to make a way for yourself,” Gomez says. “I kind of appreciate the realness.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

Set design by Jenny Correa; styling by Erin Walsh; hair by Orlando Pita; makeup by Hung Vanngo

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