By Nojan Aminosharei | August 03, 2011
Photo: Daniel King; styled By Christopher Niquet
She was a squeaky-clean disney dream, the one parents were happy to see on their tween’s iPod. Then Demi Lovato hit the skids. Now, channeling the languid fall style of her brat-pack-era namesake, she discusses her ordeal with a spectacular honesty—setting the tone for a bold new career.
Demi Lovato’s laugh precedes her down the wide, powder-blue stairs of New York’s Mondrian hotel. It’s the unmistakable lilt of a Disney Channel princess—one who, only three years ago, was inducted into the network’s teen-millionaire-making machine via the smash TV movie Camp Rock. The Jonas Brothers’ answer to the High School Musical franchise starred 15-year-old Lovato as an effervescent music-camper whose voice wins over a young rocker played by Joe Jonas, the middle and studliest of the good-Christian-boys brood. That led to another widely coveted offscreen role as Joe Jonas’ real-life girlfriend. And the Demi Lovato phenom—charming, enviable, bankable—was born.
Jonas wasn’t the only one to fall for Lovato. “She has a voice like she swallowed Pat Benatar,” says Rich Ross, the former Disney Channel president (now Disney Studios chair) who took the network from edu-tainment ghetto to hit-maker, largely by creating megastars such as Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus. Some pegged Lovato as the new Cyrus: a natural double threat with, according to Ross, the vulnerable-yet-spunky charm of Mary Tyler Moore, perfectly repackaged for the Twitter generation.
But that giddy girl from Camp Rock—wide, excited doll-eyes; delicate face just a touch too made up—is not the one who twirls down the stairs of the Mondrian. This 19-year-old oozes breezy, sophisticated L.A. cool: dark maxidress; cropped, loose-knit beige cardigan; knuckles covered in chunky brass rings that spell trouble.
Lovato has careened into adulthood over a rocky 12 months, roller-coastering from fever-pitch success to near-derailment and now, she hopes, back again—this time with staying power and a new maturity. A spate of erratic behavior starting last summer was followed by a stay at a don’t-call-it-rehab treatment center, and then a surprising announcement: She’d been seeking help for cutting, multiple eating disorders, and a recently diagnosed bipolar disorder. Other Disney alumna have been felled for lesser hang-ups. But Lovato came out fighting. Instead of euphemisms and the usual scripted excuses, she set herself apart by being brutally honest about her behavior—and unashamedly admitting her emotional struggles.
Lovato debuted on camera at 9 years old on Barney & Friends. “That’s when I fell in love with performing,” she says, “the smell of the set, the way the lights felt on my skin.” The feeling is evidently in her DNA. Her older sister, Dallas, is an aspiring singer-actress still waiting for her big break; her younger half-sister, Madison, plays Eva Longoria’s elder daughter on Desperate Housewives. All three were raised in Dallas, where their mother was a Cowboys cheerleader. Demi’s father left for New Mexico when she was 2. Her stepfather, Eddie, whom she calls Dad, has an MBA in finance and has been one of Lovato’s managers for the past four years.
And there’s plenty to manage. Lovato made a reported $3 million in 2010 but has seemingly unlimited earning potential. More than 10 million people tuned in to Camp Rock, the most-watched entertainment cable telecast of 2008. Last year, Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam, was a similar hit. Sonny With a Chance, Lovato’s Disney Channel sitcom, swept the tween demo for two seasons (she left in April). Her 2008 pop-rock album, Never Forget, went gold this year; her sophomore, Here We Go Again, debuted at number one in 2009.
But when news of her backstage theatrics on tour with the Jonas Brothers got out, the blogosphere dubbed her “Demi Drama.” “I was completely out of line all summer,” she says. “Just the worst attitude—totally ungrateful.” During a flight to Peru, Lovato walked up to her backup dancer, then friend Alex Welch, and socked her in the face. “I just felt like she’d betrayed me,” Lovato says. “That’s the bottom line.” (Lovato’s attorneys reportedly settled a suit brought by Welch in December.) The incident was Lovato’s moment of reckoning. “When you punch someone on a plane, enough is enough,” she says. “Right after, I texted my mom and just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ ” Because she and Jonas had broken up, rumors persisted that Lovato went off the rails over his then romance with Twilight star Ashley Greene. She admits that heartbreak was an aggravating factor—she and Jonas have had no contact since—but insists the crisis ran deeper than teen angst. “I wouldn’t credit my meltdown to a guy. There was so much other stuff in my life.”
In October, her family checked her into an Illinois treatment facility. When Lovato reemerged three months later and articulated to the public the private, painful reasons for her absence, her candor elicited a novel response from fans and tabloids alike: respect. Even the Internet’s id, Perez Hilton, abstained from snark. “She just seems different,” Hilton says. “She’s not just generic Disney pop.”
For years, Lovato has been a vocal activist against bullying, which she says forced her into homeschooling at age 12. “Those girls never gave me an explanation for why they were bullying me,” she says. “One of the words they called me was fat. At that age, you think, Oh, so I don’t have friends because I’m fat.” At 9 years old, she began alternating between anorexia and bulimia; at 11, she started cutting herself. Her parents sent her to counselors, but in 2008, at Miley Cyrus’ Sweet 16, red-carpet photos showed four fading scabs on Lovato’s left wrist. Before the singer even knew the pictures existed, her PR team had issued a statement that the marks were indents from gummy bracelets. “I don’t think I would have been ready to talk about [my problems] then, but I could’ve come up with something better than gummy bracelets,” she says now. “Needless to say, that publicist is no longer with us.” Pause. “I mean, she’s alive.”
Despite this hard-line honesty, Lovato doesn’t lack discretion. In June, reports broke that her mother had also checked into treatment for reasons she’s kept private. In addition, Lovato kept a 13-month on-off relationship with 31-year-old Wilmer Valderrama solidly under wraps, even while going public with her emotional problems. But in general, no holds are barred. Michael Keller, board member of Teens Against Bullying, for which the singer has been a spokesperson since 2009, credits independent-minded Lovato with leading by example. “She was so open and willing to get involved,” Keller says. “She said yes before any of her handlers could get their arms around her.”
The first single from her as-yet-untitled third album, out September 20 through Disney-owned Hollywood Records, is destined to be the new anthem for every girl going through a rough patch. When recording “Skyscraper” in L.A.’s Studio City, says Lovato, “I doubled over, tears streaming down my face. It was a sight to see.” Against soft, bare piano keys, her voice—emphatic and all-natural—comes close to breaking as she belts out the lyric, “Go on and try to tear me down/ I will be rising from the ground.” Writer-producer Toby Gad, who’s worked with Fergie, Beyoncé, and the holy trinity of Disney ingenues—Lovato, Cyrus, and Selena Gomez—says, “She’s got the range, the full emotional spectrum, incredible control….Vocally, she’s the best thing Disney’s had since Christina Aguilera.”
Indeed, insiders say that unlike some Disney discoveries, Lovato has the talent and depth to join a short list of former teen stars—Aguilera, Justin Timberlake—who have made it from bubblegum to the big leagues. Disney’s Ross, the man who put her on the map, has high hopes for Demi 2.0. “What was always markedly different about her was that adult quality,” he says. “When you meet her, you know this isn’t a girl in stiletto heels—this is a woman.”