Demi Lovato: How Real Can She Be?
The singer discusses her queerness, a near-fatal overdose, and her quest to live her reality. She said, “I’m ready to feel like myself.”
After a near-fatal opioid overdose in July 2018, Demi Lovato awoke legally blind in an intensive care unit. It took her about two months to regain enough vision to read a novel, during which she slept for ten years, played board games, and ran a single lap around the hospital floor for exercise. Since it was virtually difficult to see straight ahead due to blind spots, she used her peripheral vision to peer at her screen and type using voice notes.
In a recent interview, she said, “It was interesting how quickly I adapted.” “I didn’t give myself enough time to be depressed about it. I was just thinking, “How do I fix this?”
Lovato, a 28-year-old singer, songwriter, actress, and aspiring activist who has been in show business since she was six years old and has been a household name since her teens, is not only adaptable, but also one of the most resilient pop culture icons of her generation. She began her career on children’s television and worked her way up to adult stardom, releasing six albums (two platinum, four gold), serving as a judge on “The X Factor,” appearing on “Glee” and “Will & Grace,” and amassing 100 million Instagram followers — all while dealing with an eating disorder since childhood, drug addiction that began in her teens, coming out as queer, and the constant pressure of becoming a celebrity.
In the documentary “Dancing With the Devil,” which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival this week and will be released on YouTube in four episodes beginning March 23, she candidly recounts her relapse and overdose. The title track from Lovato’s latest album, “Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over,” is a brassy, haunting showcase for her powerhouse speech.
Pop star self-documentaries have become a cottage industry, but most sound like sanitized marketing instruments that grasp for friction, such as fame’s tension or isolation. Lovato’s film, which comes after 2017’s “Simply Complicated,” is high-octane — 90 minutes of mostly interviews directed by Michael D. Ratner — and doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities. She shares gruesome information about a history of sexual abuse, self-harm, and family trauma, one harrowing scenario after another, like dominoes. The film and album are part of Demi Lovato’s comeback effort, which brings a key aspect of her brand to the test: how authentic can she be?
Pop stardom is a high-wire act that straddles the line between illusion and fact, spectacle and authenticity, escape and connection. There are the otherworldly untouchables (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga) who seem tantalizingly out of control, and the seemingly absolutely knowables who seem only an arm’s length away (Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus). How much an artist exposes to her audience influences a lot. Lovato has always been a generous person.
“Dancing With the Devil” is chock-full of new admissions that expose past deceptions. Lovato’s overdose came after six years of sobriety, during which she felt steadily trapped by the efforts taken by her former employers to keep her on track. There were three strokes, a heart attack, and organ failure as a result of it. She got pneumonia after asphyxiating on her vomit, and the strokes left her with brain damage and long-term vision issues. (She is unable to drive, and the lingering effects have been compared to sunspots.) The drug dealer who supplied her heroin that night sexually assaulted her before abandoning her.
Demi Lovato, who talked candidly with the same disarming charm in two lengthy video interviews from her airy new home in Los Angeles in February and early March, scarcely resembled the pop star narrating her recent past in the documentary. Unlike the longhaired, glam-squadded Lovato on screen, this one wore a close-cropped haircut, tall, clear-framed eyeglasses, and oversized sweatpants to serve dorm-lounge pandemic reality. As she questioned when she’d shower next or remembered singing Christina Aguilera’s part of “Lady Marmalade” “way too many times” for a 9-year-old, she let out loud, un-self-conscious laughs. (“I couldn’t tell you what it was about, but I could tell you something about her vocal improv.”)
While Lovato spent the first seven months of her lockdown in a whirlwind romance that ended in a broken engagement, it forced her to take a breath, just like the recovery period following her overdose. (I’ll get to that later.) “Last year, my spiritual healer warned me, ‘Hey, just so you know, things are about to slow down, like, a lot,’” she said.
Lovato had no intention of taking a break in early 2020. She resurfaced with a new team headed by Scooter Braun, the producer and entrepreneur behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s careers, and returned to the Grammys and the Super Bowl. However, re-entering the music mainstream following a highly publicized opioid overdose wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
In an interview, Braun said of their first meeting, “I saw that she was afraid, like no one is going to take me on.” He continued, “I asked Ariana’s opinion, and she said, ‘Let me go to coffee with her.'” “And when she got home, she texted me, saying, ‘You have to take her on, this is my mate.’ I’d like to know she’s okay.”
In 2020, there will be no album or tour. However, the changes Lovato has gone through, especially since her August birthday, have set her on a new path. Despite her vision issues, she’s become more committed to activism, meditation, and reading. She said, “This past year supported me with so much self-growth and was extremely beneficial to my spiritual evolution.” And Braun mentioned his one wish for her in the future: “to live a happy life.”
ON JULY 23, 2011, AMY WINEHOUSE WAS FOUND DEAD FROM ALCOHOL POISONING. Lovato started a night of partying that ended in the I.C.U. on the same date seven years later. At Lovato’s rehab clinic, the 2015 documentary “Amy,” about the British singer, was shown. She couldn’t stand it and couldn’t watch it.
“I did look up to her, and I admired her vulnerability and openness with her audience because it bred the connection,” she said. “And finally, that is how my fans feel about me.”
Lovato had an edgy candor when she was a Disney star that set her apart from the crowd. She was on tour with the squeaky-clean Jonas Brothers a few months before she turned 16 and released her debut album, and she answered a reporter’s questions about her musical tastes. “What fascinates me is metal,” she said, listing some heavy bands. Lovato remembered being nervous about getting into trouble. “I recall thinking to myself that I’m a role model and that I shouldn’t like heavy metal music, but I do.”
After being caught taking cocaine and attacking a dancer on tour at the age of 18, she went to rehab for physical and emotional problems and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; she went public to defend her behaviour and to help dispel the stigma associated with addressing mental wellbeing. (Lovato reports she never got the diagnosis again and now feels it was wrong.) She explained, “It turns out I have ADHD, but I’m not bipolar.”
She explained, “At 18, I could be frank with the world.” “I should disclose all of my filthy, dark secrets to the entire world. I didn’t give a damn. And if I told you my secrets, you wouldn’t have a chance against me.”
Lovato has compassion as she looks back on her teen stardom from the eyes of an adult. “In retrospect, I don’t blame my unhappy 17-year-old self,” she said. She went on to say, “If I’m upset, it means I’m in pain.” “It’s like, hey, maybe just for a second, remember that it’s not that I’m a bad person,” she says of young women in the industry who are branded as “difficult to work with.” It’s just that no one is listening to me, and I’m hungry, exhausted, just overworked, and doing the best I can for a 17-year-old who isn’t on any medications.”
However, showing her shortcomings to the rest of the world did nothing to ease her tension. As her career progressed, Lovato forced herself to be the idealized version of a popular pop star behind the scenes. Her first two albums, released in 2008 and 2009, were full of sassy pop-punk a la Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne. “Unbroken,” her third album, featured the hit ballad “Skyscraper” and the irresistible “Give Your Heart a Break,” and was an artistic leap, with more R&B influences and serious subjects.
She said that she avoids listening to her two subsequent songs, “Demi” (2013) and “Confident” (2014). (2015). “I’m not sure whether it’s because it reminds me of the people who were in my life at the time or if it really doesn’t sound like it,” she said. “After releasing ‘Skyscraper’ for the Grammys, I had a lot of faith in myself. I thought to myself, “I may have a chance now!” After that, I released another album — nothing.”
She re-calibrated after being discouraged by the reaction. “So I delved into, all right, what is the secret for a chart-topping pop star?” On her right side, she counted down the criteria: “She exposes her skin, she’s a lot fitter, and she performs in leotards. So I took on that role for a brief moment. And that didn’t satisfy me in the least.”
“It’s strange to think that I had more sense of belonging as a 15, 16-year-old than I did as a 23-year-old,” she added, fired up.
With its disco-punk chorus powered by grindy guitars, one song from that dark time in 2015 did harken back to Lovato’s earlier work. The song “Cool for the Summer” hit the nail on the head when it came to hooking up with ladies. Lovato first heard the beat at producer Max Martin’s studio and was instantly enthralled: “I was like, we have to write to that.” That’s [expletive] difficult.”
As the song “Cool for the Summer” became unavoidable, Lovato discussed it with her stepfather. “I was like, ‘Ok, I guess I should just tell you, I like girls.’ ‘Yeah, you have a No. 1 song out right now about that, so you’re not fooling anybody,’ he said. ‘That’s a good idea,’ I said. ‘Perhaps I should tell Mom.’
She did, but it took two years before she went on a date with a woman and assumed photos would end up on the internet. “I put a lot of negative standards on that conversation that I wish I hadn’t,” Lovato said, her chin resting on her lion-head tattooed hand. “Growing up in the South as a Christian, I was afraid of how she would react.” (What was her mother’s reaction? “All I want is for you to be happy.”)
Lovato had never hidden her sexuality, but she didn’t make many public declarations about it until her 2017 documentary, when she revealed that she was using a male-female dating app. She began dating a male actor in March, and the relationship grew rapidly in quarantine, culminating in a July engagement. Lovato, however, called it off in September, a month after her birthday.
“I feel like I escaped a bullet because if I had limited myself to that box of heteronormativity and monogamy for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have been living my reality for the rest of my life,” she said, her voice bursting with vigor. “So it took being that close to wake me up and make me know that you have to live your life for who you are.”
The matrix of pop stardom has complicated Lovato’s understanding of her personality, as well as the state of her physical and mental health. However, a new wave of musicians, led by Billie Eilish, is defying long-held standards. “I think the first time I realized I didn’t have to be the super-sexy sexualized pop star was when Billie started wearing the baggy clothes,” Lovato said. “It’s also not something I’ve ever been at ease with. Going onstage in a leotard isn’t the most normal thing for me.”
This change in perspective prompted a flurry of questions: “What am I if not a sexualized pop star with a big voice?” Lovato pondered this. “I feel like I’ve been accepting my freedom since that awakening. I accepted the masculine and feminine aspects of myself in equal measure. And I feel more in control than I have in my entire life.”
Since “I’m going out with a bang,” Lovato presented the People’s Choice Awards in a series of lavish, flowing wigs in November. She then chopped off much of her hair, which she described as “the first step in completely embracing myself.” By the time we spoke, it had shrunk much more. She continued, “I’m still on a journey to find myself, and this haircut was just one step in the process.” “More will come about that in time,” she said as she ended the conversation.
LOVATO COMES FROM A HOUSEHOLD OF MILLIONAIRE POP STARS WHO CAN DEFEAT YOU WITH A SINGLE BELTED NOTE.
“Sorry Not Sorry,” a delectable aural finger wag from her last song, “Tell Me You Love Me,” from 2017, was the smash hit. However, it’s hard to separate the sheer power of her lungs from the personality that drives them: Noah Cyrus, a friend of hers, asked, “Why does she sound like this?” “She’s beautiful in every way, and imperfect in the most perfect ways, with all of her raw emotion on display. And that is what distinguishes the greatest artists.”
Her latest album contains some vocal explosions, but it’s a much more personal record that focuses on telling the tale of the last few years. Its oldest song was released on Valentine’s Day in 2018, and its most recent addition, a collaboration with Ariana Grande, was only a few weeks ago. The catchy “Melon Cake,” which was influenced by the watermelons covered in fat-free whipped cream Lovato used to get on her birthday instead of real cake, is about reclaiming the power she’d lost for so long. And the strummy mid-tempo “California Sober” explains where Lovato is in her recovery today.
She admitted, “I haven’t been sober by the book since the summer of 2019.” “I realized that if I don’t give myself any leeway, I’ll end up in the rough [expletive].” And that is going to be the end of me.”
Lovato isn’t drug-free: she likes marijuana and alcohol in moderation, and she knows she’ll face criticism for sharing her unorthodox lifestyle, which she admits isn’t for everybody. “I found liberation in my eating disorder by enabling myself to eat a Taco Bell Mexican pizza,” she said. “But it was so all-or-nothing and dogmatic with sobriety that I felt like I didn’t know how to live my life in absolute balance.” Elton John, who acts as a fan and mentor in the YouTube documentary, expresses his displeasure with this decision: He claims that “moderation” does not function. “Either you do it or you don’t.”
Braun admitted that he and Lovato don’t always agree, but he advised her to think of herself as a “true model” rather than a role model. “You want to say it as it is. And you’re still learning,” he said. “Perfection is an impossible standard to meet.”
Lovato has always shared more of herself outside of her music than she has inside of it, but that is changing with her new album, particularly because she wrote from a more queer viewpoint. “I feel like I just deprived myself of vulnerability in some of those songs when I look back at music from the past that was more reluctant to be as accessible as I am today,” she said.
She felt at ease when discussing the larger changes in her life, despite the fact that her journey is far from over: “I’m ready to feel like myself.” She gave a warm smile. “At long last, I’m being honest with myself.”