Pop Culture

Demi Lovato is confronting her demons in real-time

The pop star opens up about sobriety, identity and starting over
(Emily Berl for The Washington Post)

Demi Lovato holds up a small bottle of coconut oil containing a mix of musky scents — tobacco, vanilla and Palo Santo — with crystals at the bottom. “This one’s my more masculine scent,” she explains. “On days I’m feeling more feminine, I have one that’s amber, lavender and vanilla.”

Crystals and their healing properties are widely embraced in Hollywood, but this — not so much the body oils, but the time to create them for herself — is fairly new to the pop star, who is gearing up to release her first album since she suffered a near-fatal overdose in 2018.

She runs her fingers through her short hair, a drastic change from the flowing style she wore most of last year. Shedding her long tresses was a fresh start for Lovato, who told Ellen DeGeneres in February that the new cut felt “more authentic” than the locks she “used to hide behind.”

She’s still experimenting, and has recently been wearing her new pixie in various lengths and shades of pink: a bubble gum hue in the music video for “What Other People Say,” her collaboration with Australian crooner Sam Fischer; hot highlighter pink on the cover of Glamour; a softer, cherry blossom shade for President Biden’s virtual inauguration party, where she sang a stunning rendition of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” against a sunrise backdrop. But on this day in early March, she’s back to her brunette roots, appearing on a video call from her home in Los Angeles for an interview with The Washington Post.

Lovato documents the haircut in a newly released docuseries, in which she opens up about the pain and trauma that led to her overdose. “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” breaks down the hours before and after the incident in harrowing detail. “I had three strokes. I had a heart attack,” she reports in the series, which also features interviews with her friends, family and team. “My doctors said that I had five to 10 more minutes.”

The docuseries is full of revelations including that Lovato, like many who battle substance abuse, suffered a relapse following her overdose. This level of candor is rare for celebrities. But it’s familiar for the singer, a longtime mental health advocate who has been open about her struggles with drugs, eating disorders and depression. “Dancing with the Devil” is Lovato’s third documentary effort, and the four-part series — directed and executive-produced by Michael D. Ratner — is a window into the pop star’s self-exploration at a pivotal moment in her life and career.

At 28, Lovato has been in the public eye for nearly half of her life. Her childhood in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine offered proximity to her early start in showbiz with the Texas-produced children’s program “Barney and Friends,” which she filmed (alongside Selena Gomez) from 2002 to 2004. Her big break arrived when she was cast as the titular lead in the Disney sitcom “Sonny With a Chance” and as aspiring singer Mitchie Torres in “Camp Rock.” That “was when everything changed for me,” Lovato says. “I hit the ground running — the day I turned 15, I started production on ‘Camp Rock.’ ”

From left: Nick Jonas, Joe Jonas, Demi Lovato and Kevin Jonas in a 2010 photo for “Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam.” (Bob D'Amico/Disney Channel/Everett Collection)

“That was literally like the catalyst for the rest of my life,” she adds. “And I didn’t realize that it would just never really slow down until I said, ‘Slow the f--- down.’ ”

Just a few months after “Camp Rock’s” 2008 premiere, she released her debut album, “Don’t Forget.” She’s since packed a lot into her career: In addition to her numerous Disney credits, she has made guest appearances on “Will & Grace,” “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and served as a judge on “The X Factor.” Her upcoming album, “Dancing With the Devil … The Art of Starting Over,” will be her seventh.

Lovato’s early rise to fame was rocked in 2010 when reports surfaced that she had punched a backup dancer while on tour with the Jonas Brothers to promote “Camp Rock 2.” She checked into a treatment center, revealing months later that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (which, according to the new docuseries, her doctors now believe was incorrect). She openly talked about her history with self-harm and eating disorders in MTV’s 2012 documentary “Stay Strong.” But it wasn’t until 2017 when YouTube released “Simply Complicated” that Lovato seemed to put everything on the table: “The last time I did an interview this long,” she noted in that film, “I was on cocaine.”

“Dancing with the Devil” avoids the sweeping proclamations Lovato has made in the past about sobriety as the docuseries finds her reevaluating her approach to substance recovery. She was friendly with director Ratner (who also helmed Justin Bieber’s YouTube docuseries “Seasons”) before working with him, and her manager, Scooter Braun, is an executive producer on the film. That familiarity, she says, made her feel safe while being so unyielding in her discussion of what she’s been through.

It’s not hard to see why Lovato and other social media-savvy pop stars — Bieber, Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga among them — gravitate to the documentary format to communicate their deepest thoughts on the world and their place in it. It gives them creative control as subject and oftentimes producer while they lay their emotions bare, though it’s ultimately up to their fans to decide if they truly have.

Lovato first stepped back into the spotlight after her overdose with an emotional performance at last year’s Grammys ceremony; a week later, she fulfilled her dream of performing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Since then, quarantine has offered her additional time to reflect on her past and to heal — she got into meditation after eschewing it for years, and grew closer to her family — but it was not without setbacks.

Last fall, she ended her brief engagement to actor Max Ehrich, but Lovato — a longtime LGBTQ advocate, who has identified as sexually fluid in recent years — says in the docuseries that the breakup helped her realize that she’s “too queer” to date a man at this point in her life.

Lovato says she still has lingering issues from the overdose, including brain damage and blind spots in her vision. She can no longer drive. But taking what amounted to nearly three years off had another silver lining for the singer: “My voice has never been stronger,” she says.

An internal struggle

In “Dancing with the Devil,” Lovato reflects on the pressure she felt as a “poster child” for addiction and recovery. (Emily Berl for The Washington Post)

The part of the docuseries that’s most difficult for Lovato to watch isn’t about her overdose or its harrowing effects. She says it’s the moment in March 2018 when she was performing at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Kehlani and DJ Khaled, who appeared as special guests on the singer’s tour that year, surprised her onstage to congratulate her on being six years sober.

Entertainment Weekly and other outlets reported on the “emotional” speech Lovato gave that night. But “Dancing With the Devil” casts the moment in a different light. It was truly a surprise, the singer says, one that played out live (and partly in DJ Khaled’s booming delivery) in front of roughly 15,000 people.

“It’s so uncomfortable to me to watch that part of the documentary,” she says. “But it’s so important because it shows the internal struggle that I’m having.”

Lovato had referenced the same six-year milestone in a tweet just days earlier, and says she doesn’t blame DJ Khaled and Kehlani for the thoughtful gesture. But “it wasn’t authentic to me anymore,” she says. “There’s a part [of the speech] where I’m like, ‘Mental health is so important.’ The tone of my voice just sounds fake.”

“It’s not that I believed that it was fake,” she explains. “It was just that I was preaching about mental health while so active in my eating disorder and so miserable and not even really convinced by what I was doing.”

Mental health advocates have lauded Lovato as a pioneer in her willingness to speak openly about her struggles, and experts say celebrities can be invaluable in encouraging other people to get help when they need it. Lovato’s day-to-day manager, Scott Marcus, says Lovato “knows that things could have gone very differently [for her], and because of that, she is ready to share her story.” That openness has become an invaluable part of her brand.

In “Dancing with the Devil,” Lovato reflects on the intense pressure she felt as a “poster child” for addiction and recovery. One month before her overdose, she released “Sober,” an aching ballad suggesting she had relapsed. “I wanna be a role model, but I’m only human,” she sings on the track.

There’s a pedestal that you’re put on when you’re in the public eye and you talk about recovery,” Lovato says. “I was in a position where I was already the poster child for this before I even could collect enough time of sobriety to decide if I wanted that for the rest of my life.”

Lovato performs at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia as part of her 2012 summer tour. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)
Lovato headlines the Hot 99.5 Jingle Ball in D.C. in 2015. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Lovato performs at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia as part of her 2012 summer tour. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Lovato headlines the Hot 99.5 Jingle Ball in D.C. in 2015. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

As she made great strides in recovery for her eating disorder, following her overdose, Lovato began questioning whether sobriety — true abstinence from all substances — was the best decision for her. She broached the topic with her treatment team and ultimately decided to smoke marijuana and drink alcohol in moderation. “The dogmatic all-or-nothing thinking does not work with food recovery, so why is it going to work with my substance recovery?” she reasons.

Lovato expects backlash from those who believe full sobriety is the only option but says, “This discourse is healthy and needs to be had.” There are people in her own life who disagree with her approach, and two of them — Braun and Elton John — say so in the docuseries. John, who has publicly spoken about his own battle with substance use, tells the camera, simply: “Moderation doesn’t work, sorry.”

That is the truth for some people,” Lovato says. “It just isn’t the truth for me, and I can’t worry about what people are going to say because I’m living my truth and that’s what’s important to me. I’m not going to alter my truth for anyone else because when I did that, it almost killed me.”

As part of her quest to have more autonomy over her life and approach to her recovery, Lovato changed management, signing with Braun in 2019. Despite his reservations about her views on sobriety, Braun said he’s “here to be her friend and support system.”

I want her to always feel like she’s loved,” he says. “For me, the conversation is always the same, which is regardless of what comes, you have a safe place here to have a conversation and know that you’re not ever going to be abandoned.”

The art of starting over

Lovato performs during the Grammys last year. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for the Recording Academy)

Lovato is a singer’s singer. She knows when to belt, when to hold back and when to go for a breathy note. From a young age, her voice had a rock edge to it that set her apart from her peers, even as her music sampled from various genres. When she performed “Hello” several years ago at a Grammys tribute to Lionel Richie, he gave the universal singer’s approval: nodding and swaying his head, leaning into every note, fist-pumping between vocal runs. “Yes!” he cheered at one point.

Emotion runs like a palpable undercurrent through her songs. You feel her heartbreak when she sings about a lover who has moved on in “Stone Cold,” her frosty pettiness in “Sorry Not Sorry,” her playful longing in “Cool For the Summer,” and, more recently, her resolve in “I Love Me.” Lovato says her upcoming album, slated for release on April 2, isn’t officially a soundtrack to the docuseries, but “if you listen to it in order, from top to bottom, that’s the way a lot of my life played out over the past couple of years.”

The album features collaborations with artists including rapper Saweetie and Ariana Grande, another superstar artist on Braun’s roster (and the person Lovato calls her “most supportive friend” in the industry). Lovato says it’s easily her most personal album yet.

“This is my life’s work. All of my albums have led to this … all of my touring, all of my songwriting. This is the first time I’ve ever taken time with an album,” she says, noting that she extended the deadline multiple times. “I really didn’t say, ‘It’s done,’ until I felt like it was totally done.”

Time is also what prepared Lovato to tell her story in unflinching detail — both in the docuseries and in public as her career ramps back into full swing. In one of the most heartbreaking reveals of the series, she shares that she was raped as a teenager before she had even lost her virginity, and that her rapist faced no repercussions even though she disclosed the rape.

She also says she was sexually violated by the drug dealer who supplied her with the heroin — likely laced with fentanyl — that led to her overdose. (“I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me,” she says in the docuseries.)

Lovato says she didn’t talk about her rape for many years because she reasoned she should keep something “for herself” after being so open about her issues. When the #MeToo movement reverberated in 2017, she still wasn’t ready to talk about what happened.

“I needed time to process it. I finally have had time, and I realized that I wasn’t having compassion for myself. I was just trying to wear the fighter identity and bulldoze my way through my trauma, and I can’t do that,” Lovato says. “I have to sit with it, and I have to journal about it. I have to cry it out.”

“I did, and I’m in a much better place, and I feel like that’s why I was able to talk about it,” she adds, “because it doesn’t hold as much weight for me as it used to.”

She has also been open about her ongoing body image issues. Appearing on model and body positivity advocate Ashley Graham’s “Pretty Big Deal” podcast last year, Lovato admitted that she compulsively exercised for years without realizing how connected that was to her eating disorder.

Something Lovato said in that widely viewed conversation has stayed with Graham, who befriended Lovato after meeting her at the 2017 Time 100 Gala, where they were both honored for their advocacy.

“Demi taught me the difference between body positivity and body acceptance,” says Graham, who made history as the first plus-size model to be featured on the covers of magazines including Vogue and Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. “I realized that we have to make space for everyone in this conversation, no matter where they are in their journey.

Free of the constraints that resulted from her all-or-nothing commitment to sobriety — including, at one point, having to request drug tests from people she hung out with casually — Lovato says she has made newfound connections with people in and out of her industry.

“Women are really coming together to support one another and lift each other up,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had on [direct message] or texting with another female artist … them confiding in me, or me confiding in them, and just being there for one another.”

That’s a welcome contrast from the early days of her career when Lovato — who switched to home school as a preteen because of bullying from her peers — says she was so haunted by memories of being taunted in middle school that she was fearful of her own audience; she knew what girls her age were “capable of.” Bullying was the first issue Lovato ever spoke out about, and she says sharing her experience with her fans was “healing.”

“I wanted to try to reinforce that message of ‘just because you’re bullied doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you’ — that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Lovato says. “When I learned how therapeutic that was, when I learned how it helped so many people — it gave me a taste for how much I could actually make a difference.”

That was perhaps when Lovato first realized that a personal struggle could not be separated from a public persona, that she has more to gain by sharing the truth than holding it all in. That’s why her songs sound so confessional. That’s why she makes documentaries about herself. Speaking out about childhood bullies came with a reckoning that continues to inform Lovato’s work.

“That’s why ever since the beginning of my career, I’ve never stood down to injustices or quieted my voice in order to stand up for what I believe in,” she says.

“You can turn your troubles into motivation. That’s what I did.”

“When I learned how therapeutic that was, when I learned how it helped so many people — it gave me a taste for how much I could actually make a difference,” Lovato says of publicly sharing her experience with bullying. (Emily Berl for The Washington Post)
Photo editing by: Moira Haney | Design by: Eddie Alvarez | Portraits: Photos by Emily Berl. Makeup by Jill Powell. Hair by Rena Calhoun. Nails by Natalie Minerva. Styling by Siena Montesano.

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