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.)
Lovato's apparent maturity is born of experience in learning how to deal, as the kids say. In middle school, Lovato says, "I went through a really hard time at school with girls bullying me. I blamed it on myself at the time, but looking back I guess it was out of jealousy." One day, upset and frustrated, she called her mother and said, "I want home school." The next week, they were out buying home-schooling materials.
The mean girls undermined her self-confidence at first. "I'd gone through so much rejection at that point with girls at school that I couldn't do acting anymore, where all I was doing was working hard and hearing 'no,' " Lovato remembers. "But then I started missing it, and once I got back into it that's when things starting rolling. I think that's because there was a new drive in it, there was more passion than there was before."
Her movements are still those of a 15-year-old -- onstage, she's not quite sure what to do with her hands, and she fixes her hair constantly -- but she's already adept at handling interviews. Talking about her experience with bullies, she gets serious, and the toothy grin disappears.
"There's a point where you've gotta not care [what people think of you], otherwise you put too much pressure on yourself and then you turn, like, crazy," Lovato says. "I'm not going out there saying I'm going to be perfect. The way I want to be a role model is not by not making mistakes. . . . What makes an impact on people is when you do something."
In her business, public mistakes are seized upon, magnified, blogged about. Cyrus, 15-year-old star of "Hannah Montana" and icon of tween worship, was burned by her decision to sit for a Vanity Fair photo shoot in which her back was exposed, her torso covered by only a sheet.
But Lovato hasn't succumbed to temptation yet, at least with regard to those dreamy Jonas Brothers. She swears she doesn't have a crush on any of them. "I think I'm, like, the only girl in America who doesn't," she says, laughing. "It's kinda weird because you're hanging out with your friends and all of a sudden there's hundreds of girls screaming at them and you're like . . . why?" She calls the Jonas Brothers "the boys," as in: "Maybe for my birthday [on Aug. 20] it'll just be having a little get-together in someone's room with the band and the boys."
Lovato says she has experienced heartbreak. She loves rock, loves to rock out; she lists Motley Crue and Paramore among her favorite bands. But she slows down in the middle of the set Thursday and pulls out an acoustic guitar. "How many of you guys have really liked someone and they just walked away?" she asks. There are a couple of cheers, but, after all, most of the audience hasn't hit puberty. "Well, um, yeah. Hope you guys like this!"
The pressure of living a life under constant scrutiny does not discourage Lovato in the least. She was born for show business, she says: "I knew from the second I stepped onstage. I was like, yep, this is what I want to do."
Next year, "The Princess Protection Program" comes out, a movie Lovato filmed with best friend Selena Gomez, whom she met during auditions for "Barney" all those years ago. In the fall, Lovato begins filming for her new Disney series, "Welcome to Mollywood." She seems to work nonstop, and the next few months, at least, will be no different.
But for now, it's a ride on the roller coasters at Six Flags after the concert -- they kept the park open just for her -- then a night bus to the next city.