Just over a year ago, Daniella Pierson took a deep breath and clicked on a Zoom link. The 25-year-old still couldn’t quite believe who she was about to interview — much less on something as intimate as mental health. But when the other windows popped up on her screen, she relaxed. There was Mandy Teefey, the producer known for the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, wearing sweats in her bedroom. And then there was Teefey’s daughter, Selena Gomez, cozied up on her couch in a snuggly blanket.
The interview — for The Newsette, a trendy Gen Z newsletter Pierson started five years earlier in college — had been made possible by a series of fortuitous connections. And maybe because it was explicitly planned to discuss mental health, the conversation got deep fast. Teefey opened up about her ADHD and anxiety. Gomez remembered how the press jumped on her when she started speaking out about self-doubt and self-esteem: “I got so angry that my story was twisted.” Pierson was compelled to share that she suffered from OCD, something she’d never admitted publicly — in part because of stigma in the Hispanic community she came from. There was some kind of magic between the three women. Looking back, Gomez says, “It’s one of the moments I felt closest to my mom — us coming together to talk about something we each have experienced in our own manner. It was wonderful. And then to be understood by Daniella was even better.” None of them wanted the conversation to end, so they decided…it wouldn’t.
Early next year, Pierson, Teefey, and Gomez will launch WonderMind, a media company focusing on mental health in a way that has never been done before. In a heated mental health startup market, crowded with wellness apps and therapy platforms, WonderMind is going after a more deeply rooted, society-wide obstacle: stigma. The founders’ goal is nothing short of normalizing mental health and making it cool to talk about. “We wanted to create something outside the box that gets into the dirt of what could really help people,” says Teefey, who is heading up WonderMind’s creative content.
Rather than taking a medical or preachy tone, that content will be filtered through the lens of lifestyle and entertainment. It will roll out with a podcast network and daily articles filled with tips, resources, and interviews, and follow with a line of innovative tools for mental fitness. It will also bring in revenue through corporate partnerships and development of intellectual property — books, essays, and podcast episodes about a wide range of related topics — into potential TV series and films for the Hulus, Netflixes, and Universals of the world.
“I believe that media plus product equals ecosystem,” says Pierson, who is co-CEO with Teefey. “And we have big brands already expressing interest in advertising and being partners of ours. We’re excited to build a lucrative business. Because the best way to ensure that society pays attention to an issue is to make money from it. That’s how true movements are made.”
Experts agree the idea has real promise. GIMBHI, which analyzes and supports the mental health startup space, predicts VC investments for 2021 will more than double the $2.3 billion in 2020. (WonderMind has raised seed funding from strategic investors.) With telehealth and digital therapeutics getting most of the funding, Shivan Bhavnani, GIMBHI’s founder, thinks a mental-health-focused content company is ahead of the game. “The big problem with apps,” he says, “is that engagement is very low. But what do people do regularly? Consume media. As we further recognize the effect of media and technology on our mental health, I think this will become a very big area.”
If anyone is aware of media and technology’s effects on our mental health — both good and bad — it’s Selena Gomez. With 269 million followers on Instagram, the 29-year-old has the kind of celebrity that often eclipses the human being at the center of it. But Gomez has fought hard not to let that happen, at no small cost.
This year she topped the charts with her first Spanish-language album, Revelación, while executive producing and starring in both HBO Max’s Selena + Chef and Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, alongside Steve Martin and Martin Short. But back in 2016, when Gomez was on tour for her Revival album, she started having panic attacks before going onstage. She had grown up in the public eye, getting her first break as an actress on Barney & Friends at age 7, and then on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place at 14. But as a teenager, her singing career and all that went with it flung her to new heights in the pop star stratosphere. The fame swept in like a category 4 storm of scrutiny — with fans so hardcore they went by “Selenators,” and critics just as vicious. They picked apart every intimate detail, every inch of her body, relentlessly. On tour, the panic attacks kept coming, so she canceled the rest of her shows and checked into a facility to get treatment for her mental health.
Gomez also shut down her social media accounts. She says Instagram “would just make me feel like, Wow, um, I’m a piece of shit. And I don’t look that good and I don’t feel that good.” Ironically, though, social media was where her fans were amassing. At the time she left Instagram, she was the number one most-followed person on the platform.
“There was a huge release of no longer feeling like I’m in this tiny phone where people are saying the most hateful things,” Gomez says. “Why would I fill up my days with that? I also started to realize this entire world of people was living an unrealistic life. They were perfect and beautiful and happy all the time. But once I closed the app and glanced up, I was like, Wait a minute. I’m going to talk to this cashier about my drink, and I’m going to talk to this person I ran into. It’s about having a human connection with people.”
When she reappeared in November 2016 to accept a trophy for Best Female Pop/Rock Artist at the American Music Awards, she tearfully told the audience what she’d been through and announced her new take on social media. “I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram; I want to see what’s in here,” she said, gesturing to her heart. “I’m not trying to get your validation — nor do I need it anymore.”
Going forward, Gomez was determined to reclaim her narrative. She signed back on to Instagram with a mission to show it like it was. The following year, when her lupus (in remission now) required a kidney transplant and her friend Francia Raisa became her donor, Gomez posted selfies from the hospital. Last year, when she revealed her bipolar diagnosis on Miley Cyrus’s live Instagram show, the clip predictably went viral. “It’s gonna be with me for the rest of my life,” she says of the anxiety and depression, “and that’s OK because now I’ve worked with a psychiatrist and a therapist, and I spend time taking care of that part of my health.”
Gomez has made the issue central to her personal brand, including her cosmetics company, Rare Beauty, which she founded in 2019 and last year announced would raise $100 million for mental health services in underserved communities. “Once I understood what was happening in my mind, I gained a sense of purpose,” she says. “Anything I’m a part of — whether it’s with Puma or another deal — has to have an element that’s charitable or in the mental health space.” Meanwhile, she became more strategic about her influence, producing projects like Living Undocumented. (Her father, Ricardo Gomez, was born here to parents who immigrated from Mexico, and she is named for the Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla.) She also began expressing her opinions on social media, whether defending women’s reproductive rights or criticizing Facebook for its role in the Capitol riot and spreading disinformation about COVID-19. “Over the years,” she says, “I feel like I’ve gained this confidence in myself — not like, Oh, I look pretty. It’s confidence that I know what I’m talking about.”
Now that hard-won confidence is what Gomez is bringing to WonderMind, where she’ll be helping with content behind the scenes. “Something I’ve always tried to do in my career is make sure I lend my voice to places where it matters,” she says. “And I have to give my mom credit for that because she taught me everything.”