This Is Me

It took Demi Lovato many years and many wrong turns to learn to love herself, and now the singer/songwriter is paying it forward
 
This Is Me

Cover star

Photo by Mike Rosenthal

Not for the first time during this Tuesday-morning walk through her sleepy San Fernando Valley neighborhood, Demi Lovato feels the backward tug of the leash and turns to face the inevitable.
 
“Oh, Batman,” the 23-year-old pop star says, her soft brown eyes fixed on a jet-black hairball squatting in the middle of the sidewalk on his tiny haunches. “Oh my God. Sorry. That’s not a good spot, Batman.”

Beneath the brim of a New York Yankees cap, Lovato isn’t wearing makeup, and the hazy sun highlights the freckles across her cheeks and nose. A zippered white sweatshirt hides a profusion of tattoos — the words Stay and Strong across her wrists, and a flock of birds flying up her right forearm.

Batman has chosen to do his business in front of the local middle school. There must be dozens of hard-core fans — or “Lovatics” — slogging through morning classes inside, unaware how close they’ve come to getting a glimpse not just of Lovato but of the Yorkipoo she’s tidying up after. Through social media, legions of Lovatics welcomed Batman into the home she shared with her longtime boyfriend, That ’70s Show star Wilmer Valderrama. (Lovato and Valderrama split last month, vowing to remain “best friends.”) For those Lovatics, the Yorkipoo has more star power than Christian Bale, Michael Keaton or any other leading man who’s played the Caped Crusader.

 In the eight years since Lovato became a pop star, her hit singles have spent a combined 219 weeks on the Billboard charts, and five of her six studio albums have been certified gold. On tour, she fills stadiums from Los Angeles to São Paulo to Ho Chi Minh City. But the most telling indicator of her reach is her social-media presence.

As of this spring, Lovato could claim 36 million followers on Twitter — an audience about the size of the entire population of Canada. On Instagram, she was closing in on 40 million. She uses social media to advance her brand, alerting her vast constituency to new music videos, upcoming tour dates or the latest addition to her Devonne By Demi skin-care collection.

But Lovato also has shared with her followers the anguish of her childhood, her psychological struggles, her eating disorder and drug and alcohol addiction, and her time in rehab. In recovery, she has emerged as a therapeutic force that touches the lives of girls and young women everywhere.

“I didn’t go into treatment thinking, ‘OK, now I’m going to be an inspiration,’ ” Lovato explains, while Batman resumes his stride. “At times I was resentful for having that kind of responsibility, but now, it’s really become a part of my life. It holds me accountable.”
During the fall of 2007, 15-year-old Demi Lovato was in Ontario, Canada, shooting Camp Rock for the Disney Channel. She had landed the starring role as Mitchie Torres, a shy kitchen worker brimming with hidden talent at a music camp. As the male lead, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers falls in love with her voice, and then with her. Toward the film’s end, Mitchie emerges from anonymity to belt out “This Is Me.” The song serves as much as a declaration of Lovato’s arrival as that of the character she portrays.

Nearing her coronation as the next Disney Teen Queen, Lovato couldn’t avoid noticing the wreckage of those who had preceded her. Britney Spears had gone from a cast member on The All New Mickey Mouse Club to world tours and platinum albums, but in 2007, her singing was eclipsed by a spectacular meltdown. She provided nonstop content for the National Enquirer, Inside Edition and the internet gossips as she shaved her head, checked in and out of rehab, repeatedly crashed her car and lost legal custody of her two young sons.

Actress Lindsay Lohan was also generating lurid headlines. The former star of Disney blockbusters such as The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday had pled guilty to DUI and cocaine possession, spent 84 minutes in county jail and made her own retreat into rehab. Her once-promising movie career has never recovered.

Watching Spears and Lohan come crashing down just as her own career was about to take off, Lovato became certain that she too would wind up a well-publicized object of pity and ridicule. “Making Camp Rock,” she recalls, “I was definitely like, ‘Oh crap. In three years, that’s going to be me.’ ”

Lovato had already proved her mettle as a cast member of Barney & Friends a few years before she nailed her Disney Channel audition. The focus and drive she maintained throughout her childhood and early teens were all the more remarkable because, for much of that time, she was wrestling with depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harming impulses and a troubled relationship with her body.

Demetria Devonne Lovato was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the summer of 1992, although the family soon relocated to suburban Fort Worth, Texas. Her father, Patrick Lovato, was a musician and studio engineer who would become overtaken by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Her mother, Dianna Lee Hart, was an aspiring country-western singer.

Lovato’s parents separated when she was 18 months old. Hart’s mother had been bulimic, and as a young girl, Dianna too had begun showing symptoms. After her breakup with Patrick, her condition worsened. Lovato dates her own body-image problems to around this time. She remembers being in diapers and looking down at her belly, wondering if it would ever be flat. “Even though I was 2 or 3 years old,” Lovato says, “being around somebody who was 80 pounds and had an active eating disorder … it’s hard not to grow up like that.”

In the early ’80s, Hart had been a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, placing the figure she had such issues with before a national audience. “If I had to wear that cheerleader’s outfit — thank God I chose a profession where I don’t have to,” Lovato says, “because I would drive myself crazy.”

Nonetheless, at age 7, after watching a cousin participate in a child beauty pageant, Lovato began competing herself, and panels of judges would scrutinize her appearance for the next five years.

The talent portion of the pageants gave her an audience to sing to, while the Q&A segment improved her public speaking. “We had to do these interviews, even as 7-year-olds,” Lovato says. “They made me more articulate than I might have been, and when I started auditioning, it really came in handy.” In 2000, she was crowned Texas State Cinderella Mini Miss.

While Lovato has mostly good memories about the pageant world, she wonders now whether it was the healthiest place for a girl who was already so uncomfortable with her physical self. “My body-image awareness started way before that,” she says, “but I do attribute a little of my insecurities to being onstage and judged for my beauty.”

A year after her split from Patrick Lovato, Hart married Eddie De La Garza, a sales manager at a local Ford dealership. During Christmas week of 2001, Lovato welcomed a new half sister, Madison De La Garza. (She too would become a child TV actor, playing Eva Longoria’s daughter on Desperate Housewives.) Lovato and her older sister Dallas spent weekends with Patrick until his alcoholism and mental disorders made that impossible. As he disappeared from Lovato’s life, De La Garza filled the void. “My stepdad, he’s really my dad,” she tells me. “When I had to stop seeing my father, then my stepdad really took us in.” By the time Patrick died of cancer in 2013, Lovato had been estranged from him for seven years.
At age 12, Lovato participated in her last beauty pageant. As she left the land of tiaras behind, the scary-skinny models taped to her bedroom walls became new reference points. “When I was gaining weight because I was becoming a woman,” she says, “I would look at those images and say to myself, ‘Wait, this is not what I look like. I’m getting fat on the hips and on my butt.’ ” She’d started binge eating when she was 9, but she now began cutting her arms and purging. The girls at school bullied her, but she kept her beauty-pageant poise as she acted and sang her way through auditions and won a few supporting TV roles.

Then came Camp Rock. Within months of its first airing, Lovato had a solo debut album at the top of the Billboard charts. She was playing arenas with the Jonas Brothers and starring in her own hit Disney sitcom, Sonny with a Chance. In the title role, she played a regular girl who became an actress on her favorite TV show and then amusingly negotiated the pitfalls of sudden fame.

Off-camera, Lovato was adrift. With celebrity inevitably come the hangers-on and enablers, plus the unlimited funds and the license to indulge one’s worst instincts. To remain grounded as a teen star requires a level of internal clarity and iron restraint that most teenagers simply don’t have. And Lovato had spent years in a fragile physical and emotional state by the time she was swept away by torrential success.

After she rented a luxury L.A. home and invited her family in, Lovato made it clear that she was no longer going to accept parental discipline. When Hart tried to put a stop to her daughter’s late nights, she got nowhere. “I’d say, ‘What are you going to do? I pay the bills!’ ” Lovato remembers. “I put my parents in an uncomfortable position. There’s no manual on how to parent a pop star.”

 Lovato began self-medicating with alcohol, cocaine and OxyContin. “I lived fast and I was going to die young,” she says. When asked whether she thought she’d be alive at 40, she seems taken aback. “I didn’t think I would make it to 21.”

A relationship with Joe Jonas ended quickly, but the singer still joined him and his two brothers on another tour that fall. A few months in, Lovato punched one of her backup dancers in the face — a woman she considered a friend. She texted her mother to tell her how sorry she was. Abandoning the tour, she sought help at a rehabilitation center in the Midwest where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated for bulimia. “So now I’m in rehab,” Lovato remembers, “and I thought, ‘Oh great, now the world thinks I’m just another stereotype.’ ”

She left with her bulimia and bipolar symptoms under control, but not her addictions. “I thought, ‘I’m not in treatment for a drug and alcohol problem,’ ” she says. “But once I started eating again, the other issues got worse. It was like whack-a-mole.” To get clean, she checked into a West Hollywood sober house and remained about a year.

Lovato took her last drink in January of 2012 and continues to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. One Friday night, she and a few other recovering addicts showed up for a session, only to find that it had been canceled. They decided to go to a park and have a makeshift meeting there. “There were two guys who had just gotten out of prison for murder,” Lovato recalls. “There was a Valley girl you’d never guess would have addiction issues. There was me — the pop star — and a Russian businessman. At the end of the meeting, we all held hands and prayed.”
How did Lovato avoid becoming the Hollywood stereotype she feared she would be?

There was the decision to seek treatment in a recovery center. Whatever setbacks she may have had during those weeks were beyond the reach of paparazzi. While in subsequent years Lohan and Spears plodded on with their careers, Lovato incorporated her anguish and healing into her public persona and her music — which turned out to have commercial and artistic, as well as therapeutic value. The albums she released afterward had more weight and emotion, stripped of the sticky residue of Disney bubble gum.

For former Disney Channel singer and actress Miley Cyrus, coming of age as an artist meant graduating from the wholesome artifice of Hannah Montana to the raunchy artifice of twerking and stripper pasties. For Lovato, breaking from her Disney past meant exposing her fragile self — on Ellen and Good Morning America, in a column she wrote for Seventeen magazine, and most significantly, to her followers on social media. She told fans who were going through what she had gone through to no longer hide their torment as she once did. She wrote a book of affirmations, Staying Strong: 365 Days A Year, that debuted as a number-one New York Times best-seller.

She is now arguably America’s leading celebrity advocate for the mentally ill, heading a national awareness campaign and lobbying Capitol Hill for a stronger federal commitment to treatment. “The more you talk about mental illness, the less of a taboo it becomes,” Lovato says. “As a pop star, I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got bipolar disorder — it’s nothing that anyone can be ashamed of.’ ”

During a 2011 concert in Los Angeles, the singer made a plea from the stage. “If there’s anybody out there tonight that doesn’t feel beautiful enough or worthy enough, you’re wrong, because you guys are all so incredible,” Lovato said, smiling and trembling in a loose white bodice. “If you’re dealing with any of the issues I’ve been through, don’t be afraid to speak up, because someone will be there for you. And if you think you’re alone, put on my music so that I’ll be there for you.” She launched into a searing rendition of “Skyscraper” — her hit song of abandonment and resurrection — and finished in tears.

When this performance was posted on YouTube, it evoked more than just “Likes.” “This just stopped me from going up to the balcony on the top floor of my hotel and jumping,” wrote one fan. “I nearly drank bleach until I watched this,” wrote another. “Demi Lovato saved my life.”

Even now, four years after Lovato turned her life around, fans continue to line up to give voice to their suffering and uncover their wounds. “When I have meet-and-greets, I can’t tell you the amount of times that girls will show me their arms covered in scars or cuts,” she says. “They’ll tell me, ‘You helped me get through this. Because of you, I stopped self-harming,’ or ‘I got sober.’ Hearing those things gave my life new meaning.”
Around noon, Lovato, Batman and I reach the bustle of Ventura Boulevard. A half-hour in, the walk has been free of Lovatics or any other pedestrians save her bodyguard, who’s been trailing about 20 paces behind.

At a sidewalk table, sipping a nonfat soy Frappuccino, Lovato explains her creative process. She writes songs with collaborators, she says, “because I like what other people bring out of me.” The 34-year-old singer-songwriter Laleh — whom Demi describes as “kind of like Sweden’s Adele” — cultivated her soulful side on “Stone Cold,” which was released as a single from 2015’s Confident.

Last spring, the collaborators had a long conversation about Patrick Lovato as the second anniversary of his death approached. “It was really uncomfortable coming up on that time of year again, knowing he passed around Father’s Day,” Lovato recalls. “I said to Laleh, ‘I have to just figure this out, I have to get it off my chest.’ ”

The resulting ballad, “Father,” is the least radio-friendly and most ambitious song on Confident — and perhaps on any Demi Lovato album — with her voice overdubbed in several states of agony. “I don’t know if I’ll ever perform it live,” she says. “The therapy was just in writing and recording it.”
Lovato’s mother has just completed a memoir that touches on her marriage, her bulimia and raising her pop-star daughter. “I’m excited for the world to read it,”
Lovato says. “You think my story’s crazy? Her life story’s pretty crazy.” If Lovato does start a family someday, she wonders what kind of burdens she might pass down. “I’m nowhere near having children,” she says, “but already I ask myself questions. My grandma had bulimia, my mom had it, I had it, and hopefully my kids won’t have it, but it’s kind of like addiction. It’s hereditary.”

On the cover of Confident, Lovato appears in a shiny, deconstructed sleeveless top and sheer bikini underwear. A less-idealized version of the singer was shot for Vanity Fair. She dictated the terms for her October 2015 photo spread — no makeup, no retouching, no clothing. “That’s where I was last year,” she says, keeping with Batman’s accelerated pace as we near her home. “Growing up, I had so many body issues, and I was just super focused about feeling good in my skin.”

As for the remainder of 2016, Lovato’s fans can expect to hear more of her — and perhaps see a little less. “I’m like, ‘Cool. Been there. Done that. You all know what I look like naked,’ ” she says, smiling. “Now I’m just going to go back to my voice.”
 
 
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