Disney Demi-Goddess

By Laura Yao
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Demi Lovato, 15, bounces onstage at Six Flags America in Largo, microphone in hand. "How are you guys doing tonight?" she asks her fans, who are mostly girls, and mostly just a couple of years younger than she. They scream, cheer, wave their arms in the air. "Wow, you guys are a fun crowd, not gonna lie!" More cheering. This is one of more than 50 concerts this summer for the Texas teenager who's poised to become one more star in the Disney pantheon.

Born Demetria Devonne Lovato in Dallas, Lovato has a big voice and a bigger smile, and exudes confidence in a loose black Pat Benatar T-shirt and black jeans. A pianist, guitarist and singer, she is the star of Disney's newest made-for-TV musical, "Camp Rock," which premiered yesterday on the Disney Channel. Her first album of self-written songs comes out next year.

While it's great that she's made it -- her face will probably end up on a backpack this fall -- it's hard not to be reminded that the laws of physics are never more brutal than they are in tween popdom. She's following a tried-and-true formula for fame, stepping in line behind Miley Cyrus, Vanessa Hudgens, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera -- all stars, all of whom got their start at the Mouse House, all eventually brushed by scandal. Lovato is on a roller coaster that can take her very high, or stop and then plummet at a moment's notice.

Lovato got her start acting on "Barney & Friends" seven years ago, singing and dancing with the eponymous purple dinosaur. "Some people might think this is an overnight thing, but really it's been about eight years in the making," Lovato says after the Largo show, talking about her newfound fame.

Disney has been relentless in marketing "Camp Rock." With "High School Musical," the most successful Disney original movie ever produced, the hype more resembled a quiet storm. This time, the studio has truly grasped the power of preteens: a lucrative market that never gets tired of the same thing. "Camp Rock" merchandise, and a "Camp Rock" rock-a-long on the Disney Channel next Saturday, are just two parts of a veritable hurricane of publicity.

Lovato's popularity is due in part to the long-haired, guitar-slinging Jonas Brothers, her co-stars in "Camp Rock." She will open for them on their 43-city Burning Up Tour, which begins July 4 and ends in early September. Just as the brothers' tour with Miley Cyrus launched them into pop-star orbit, so Lovato has benefited from her association with the Jonas boys. (Centreville sisters Sarah and Sophia Zahory, 14 and 12, were two members of the audience yesterday who say in unison that they know of Lovato because they "love the Jonas Brothers.")

Lovato's stepfather, Eddie De La Garza, will be with her on that tour, just as he's been by her side through this solo one. At the Six Flags concert, De La Garza stands to the side of the stage, alternately watching his stepdaughter and surveying the surging crowd. A large man, he is stern-faced and unreadable for as long as she's performing, but backstage, he is affable. He chuckles when a girl's jaw drops as she looks from De La Garza to Lovato. " You're her dad?" she asks. "You're her dad?" He doesn't explain that he is, in fact, not.

De La Garza, a Ford dealership manager, quit his job in January to be Lovato's manager and travel with her. In the topsy-turvy, sometimes dangerous world of teen stars, Lovato relies on her family to keep her grounded. She says they're "very protective" but not overbearing. "We have a lot of trust in each other."

"We said when this all started that we'd keep our family values, and that's what we're doing," De La Garza says.

Dianna De La Garza, Lovato's mother, is a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and country music singer. ("I got my voice from her," Lovato says.) She and Lovato's two sisters, Dallas, 20, and Madison, 6, are in Dallas, packing up the family's home for a move to Los Angeles in the fall. Dianna De La Garza worries about her daughter as much as any mother would, but she trusts Demi.

"I think I would worry more about the fame if I didn't know Demi's level of maturity when it comes to doing what she loves to do," De La Garza wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

Lovato does seem sensible in person. A Christian, she says a group prayer with her band before they perform. She sometimes wears on a chain around her neck a plain silver ring, inscribed with the words "True Love Waits." (But then again, former Disney Mouseketeer Britney Spears made that same pledge years ago, when her own star was rising. And we probably don't need to mention that Jamie Lynn Spears, 17-year-old star of Nickelodeon's "Zooey 101," gave birth out-of-wedlock to a daughter on Thursday.)

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