She’s a pop powerhouse, TV star, and a guru to millions. But the most remarkable thing about the multitalented Demi Lovato is her unbridled ambition. By Kate Williams. Photographed by Marvin Scott Jarrett
It’s the golden hour in Los Angeles, when the sun sets while palm trees silhouette black against a pink sky. In the more picturesque neighborhoods, every boulevard could belong on a postcard, but the corner of downtown where Demi Lovato is shooting her “Neon Lights” video is not so scenic. Although the streets are lined with No Parking signs, some cars appear to have been left there for months: a station wagon with busted windows, a sedan with the door permanently ajar and long-forgotten clothes piled in the back seat. The air smells like weed, or skunk, or maybe both. But walking through the plastic-sheathed doorway of the brick warehouse where Lovato is filming, all signs of decay vanish. Assistants and camera men and stylists swarm over and under electrical wires and through wardrobe rolling racks, and a visibly harried PA weaves his way through the crowd balancing a tray of coffee drinks: iced, hot, espresso or a chocolately concoction topped with whipped cream. At the center of it all, on a mirrored stage, is a camera-ready Lovato. The music blasts on, and she begins another take, jumping up and down and pumping her fist to the chorus. Her neon blue hair, fuschia lips, and lime green nails are illuminated under black lights. The director observes the monitors and yells, ‘Yeah, Demi!’ to no one in particular, while a chorus of backup dancers clap and cheer. When the take wraps, Lovato sticks her tongue out at the camera and pulls a strand of hair out of her lipstick.
Lovato’s family—mom, dad, sisters, even family friends—hovers around the set, a swarm of Uggs and Louis Vuitton bags and Texan hospitality. Although chairs abound, Lovato’s mom, Dianna De La Garza, refuses to sit, seemingly convinced that someone will come along who deserves a seat much more than she does. The clan consists of stepdad Eddie, who served as Demi’s manager when she was a teen, mom Dianna, a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, older sister, Dallas Lovato, in a rainbow raver wig and sequins, and 11-year-old younger sister, Madison de la Garza, an actress who is on break from filming the CBS series Bad Teacher, based on the Cameron Diaz movie. Combined, Lovato’s immediate family has 1.2 million followers on Twitter; everyone but Eddie is verified.
Lovato walks off stage and swaps her four-inch heels for a pair of flip-flops before heading over my way with a publicist. “You’re going to make me look really cool, right?” she teases. This exchange is overheard by one of Lovato’s friends, who shakes his head in mock disagreement. “Really, she’s not,” she says, wrapping her in a hug. She groans and returns the embrace.
Pleasantries aside, this is not a good time to talk, so Lovato invites me over to her apartment to regroup a few days later. There are many things about the modern high-rise that prove she is, as the tabloids go, “just like us:” grocery bags half-unpacked in the kitchen, blankets thrown on chairs, pink walls and an imposing rendering of Marilyn Monroe. There are also many things that prove she is not: an oil painting depicting her appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a Teen Choice Award in the kitchen, an elevator that deposits guests directly into the foyer.
“Don’t judge me!” Lovato calls from down a dark hallway, then emerges wearing a blue face mask. She’s home from a long day on the X-Factor set and flies to New York early in the morning, so she’s trying to cram in as much pampering as she can in the few hours she has off. The chiropractic masseuse has just left—I passed her on my way in.
This multi-tasking is a fact of life. Earlier this year, “Heart Attack,” the first single off her third album, Demi, debuted at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and went double platinum in the US and Canada, establishing Lovato, previously best known for her stints on Disney, a global tour with the Jonas Brothers, and a well-tread rehab-to-redemption storyline in her personal life, as a musical force. Meanwhie, she’s sparring with Simon Cowell as a judge on the X-Factor, has a recurring role on Glee as Santana’s love interest. And then there’s the capsule collection of nail art for The New Black, and even a new book called Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year. In February, she will headline her first arena tour. When you’ve got almost 50 million fans on social media (20 million on Twitter, 25 million on Facebook, 4 million on VEVO, 3 million on Instagram, 500k on Keek…), you can’t start slacking.
Lovato settles into a plush purple velvet chair, and a colorist starts painting her locks with shades of Manic Panic. “I love all of it, or else I wouldn’t do it,” she says. “I look at my life and think, there’s not enough time. I co-directed my last two videos, and I have this dream of being behind the camera and maybe one day directing my own movie. I want to host my own talk show and be a younger Oprah. I want to write songs for other artists. I want to be an author. I want my own make-up line, and my own skincare line. I want to do a lot more philanthropy work, and for a while there I thought I wanted to go to law school.” Law school? She laughs. “Yeah, I love crime dramas. I thought maybe I’d go when I had a kid. You know, part-time law student, part-time new mother? It makes no sense whatsoever.” She’s also interested in politics. “I like knowing what goes on in the world,” she explains. “Most people don’t know that about me, and then they’re shocked to hear me talk. Like, ‘How do you know that?’ Duh—CNN!”
Staying Strong is the reason for tomorrow’s trip to New York, where she will promote the book on the talk show circuit. It’s is a collection of inspirational quotes and daily meditations, inspired in part by her tendency to tweet maxims, such as like “I’d rather feel every kind of emotion than not feel at all,” late at night.
“People would be like, ‘are you high?’” she says with a laugh, leaning back in her chair. “But my mind just races—I’m always coming up with quotes or sayings I want to write down. I had been in talks for writing a book about my story, but I’m not ready. I’m so young and I haven’t finished my journey yet. But my fans would always ask things like, ‘Once you’ve tackled your problems, how do you keep working on them?’ Part of my recovery was making sure that I started the day off right, so I would read a quote and a passage, and that would set the intention for the day.”
By now, Lovato’s grappling with eating disorders, depression, self-harm and addiction are as much a part of her story as the fact that her career started with a role on Barney and Friends alongside Selena Gomez. After Barney, she starred in Disney’s Camp Rock and Sonny With a Chance after being discovered at an open casting call. She released her first album, Don’t Forget, in 2008 and also toured as the opening act on tours for both the Jonas Brothers and Avril Lavigne that same year. In 2010, after a punching a back-up dancer on a plane back from Peru, Lovato checked into rehab. While there, she was diagnosed as bipolar, and when she moved out, she chose to stay in a sober living facility. From the outset, she’s copped to everything on talk shows and in interviews; her first post-rehab tour was the subject of an MTV documentary.
“When I went into rehab, I deleted my Twitter and I just didn’t want to face anything,” she says. “My parents came to visit and I asked if people knew yet, and they said, yeah, it’s everywhere. And they were like, ‘How do you want to handle this? We can say it’s a personal time and we don’t have to tell them what you’re in here for, or we can just be 100 percent honest with people and show them that you can get through it and other people can get through it too.”
Earlier this year, she was given an award in Washington, DC as part of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, and she also partnered with CAST Recovery Services, where she went for rehab, to establish the Lovato Treatment Scholarship to honor her biological father, who passed away in June after suffering for years from untreated mental health and addiction issues. “I went through an entire life without my birth dad because I assumed that he was a bad guy and never took into consideration, even after I went through my stuff, that he was just ill,” she says. “And I thought, well, maybe this can save somebody’s dad.”
But still, she says, “I would like to separate myself from being the girl who overcame her issues, or the Disney chick who ended up in rehab while she was still on Disney. I don’t want people to hear my songs on the radio and be like ‘Oh, that’s the girl who cut.’ Now I have probably the best relationship between any artist and their fans, because I have no secrets.”
Lovato catches a glimpse of herself in the window. Her hair has now been totally blued with dye, and the face mask is dry and cracking. “That,” she says, pointing at her reflection, “is frightening.” “The only thing that sucks about being in the public eye is doing some appearances,” she continues. “I don’t like award shows. Sometimes, a fan will come up and automatically put their arms around me and I just shut down and start hyperventilating. I don’t want to sound like a dick or a diva, but I really do have anxiety problems. If I get stuck in a crowd, I’ll start to think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ Something’s going to go wrong and someone’s going to stab me. There was a time when people started trying to kiss me, or creeps would buy backstage passes and reach for my face and try to make out with me. That was completely violating, and ever since then, I always fear what someone is going to do when they come up to me.”
Has she ever felt let down by the adults in her world? She shrugs. “My parents tried to control me, but I’d be like ‘Oh, really, I’m grounded? Well, I pay the bills.’ They did the best they could. And I think that’s why a lot of young stars struggle when they’re making the money or providing for their family. My mentality was, ‘Work hard, play hard.’ It was hard to listen to the word ‘no.’ I wanted to make my own rules. I thought that if I was adult enough to get there, then I could party like an adult,” she says. “And obviously, I couldn’t.”
Though Lovato has just recently turned 21, she gives off the air of an eternal adult, and in many ways, she has always been one. She remembers having wanted her own apartment since she was five. “I was best friends with my aunt Lisa, and she had her own apartment, and I liked spending time with her, not my friends at school,” she recalls. “So I asked if I could move in with her. My mom was like ‘What? You’re still sucking your thumb, for Christ’s sake. You’re five!’” That same year, she sang in front of others for the first time, and there was no going back. “It wasn’t even like it was a revelation or anything. It was just like, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”
Her confidence has made her a perfect fit for the X-Factor, where she’s the youngest judge by at least 11 years. “It’s definitely intimidating,” she says. “I was like, ‘What if I sound like an idiot up there?’” she says. “But my manager was like, ‘They didn’t offer it to you because they thought you’d sound like an idiot. You might as well just go for it.’ I told myself I was going to just go up there and do me, so that’s what I did.”
Now in her second season, Lovato has proved herself the perfect foil to Cowell’s carefully honed curmudgeon: faking a British accent when she needs to deliver criticism, and never missing an opportunity to call out their three-decade age difference. “When I first saw Demi a couple of years ago, I thought she’d be interesting to work with because of what she’s been through, coming through the whole Disney system, being a bit of a rebel, and also a very marketable artist. People like that are always going to be what I call ‘lippy,’” Cowell says. “One of the things I really like about Demi is that she's been in the business since she was very young, and she has had her ups and downs, but she's always been very open and honest about her experiences and she's turned negatives into positives in both her life and her career. She is one of the most ambitious people I have ever met. She can do whatever she puts her mind too, and most important, she’s very talented.” And, he adds sarcastically, “She’s a total brat.”
Naya Rivera, who Lovato locked lips with on Glee (“She tasted like talent,” Rivera famously said) shares Cowell’s sentiment. “We were going through a tough time after having to film that third episode,” Rivera remembers, referring to the tribute episode to Cory Monteith. “So the mood was down, and when she came on it was just like having a new friend and she brought a light and energy to the set.”
Lovato is a relentless optimist, and while she doesn’t linger too long on her wounds, she is willing to expound a bit on her tattoos. They’re found on every part of her body, but she can’t, can’t, or won’t, name an exact number. “It’s so confusing, so I just say I don’t know,” she says, flipping over a wrists to reveal the mantra “Stay Strong,” which was inked over a cutting scar. “When I was on the Disney channel, I wanted to get my nose pierced in the middle, so that I could flip it up during filming, and flip it down at night to let the wild child side come out,” she says. “Turns out, I didn’t need the nose ring.”