Actress-singer Demi Lovato: ‘I’ll have to fight the addiction for the rest of my life’

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Lost Hollywood interviews take place in the lavish surroundings of one of Los Angeles’s top hotels but, in a refreshing contrast, I’m meeting 19-year-old pop star Demi Lovato in the tropical garden of a secluded house (belonging to the owner of a local vintage clothing shop) in the heart of Topanga Canyon, a few miles from Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. Demi, who lives with her family in nearby Sherman Oaks, wafts down a flight of stone steps in a floaty animal-print maxi skirt and lacy bra top teamed with a cropped shirt (and six-inch platforms!) towards the guest house where we have arranged to meet. 

It is an unusually grey, misty morning; without the customary bright Southern California light, the landscape has a dimmed ethereal quality which suits both our surroundings and Demi’s delightful hippie-dippy style. Surrounded by her team – including two publicists from her record company, her make-up artist, hairdresser and stylist – Demi appears both sophisticated and at ease with all the attention, yet her confident aura belies the difficult experiences she’s had to navigate.

Just under two years ago, she appeared to be leading a charmed life. The wholesome-looking star had a popular Disney TV series, Sonny With a Chance, which aired on Sky, a blossoming film career (Camp Rock and its sequel) as well as two hit albums. Her personal life seemed equally fabulous: she was dating teen heart-throb Joe Jonas from squeaky-clean boyband the Jonas Brothers. Then, in October 2010, came the shocking revelation that behind the glossy façade Demi was a deeply troubled young woman suffering from a long-term eating disorder. ‘I had been very upset and depressed for a while, but I could never say I needed help,’ says the talented teenager.

‘I definitely have a lot more confidence than I did a year ago’

Demi checked into rehab after admitting that she was bulimic and had been self-harming for years. What the performer calls her ‘rock bottom’ came in a very public meltdown during a South American tour with the Jonas Brothers (by which time she and Joe had broken up). On a private plane from Colombia to Peru, the singer punched back-up dancer Alex Welch. ‘I was totally shameful and confused and upset,’ says Demi, who won’t specify what sparked the attack. ‘I was so embarrassed. I didn’t just have to pay the consequences in front of the people around me, but in front of the entire world. I came clean after I hit the girl. Before that happened my mum didn’t know exactly how serious it all was. She said, “Why did you do this?” I said, “Because I’m exhausted” and she had to wake up and see that I needed help. My mum was so worried. She didn’t want to believe that her daughter was so sick.’

Demi flew to the Timberline Knolls residential treatment centre in Chicago, spending three months in a programme that she says saved her life. ‘I was very sick but luckily I got the help I needed,’ says Demi quietly, ‘and I’m here today, hopefully preventing young girls from doing the same things I did to myself.’

It’s a courageous step to take. ‘I know that I have a voice and can use it for good or bad. It’s a gift from God. I knew I could share my experience and be of service or not tell anybody and be like the rest of Hollywood and hide my secrets. I didn’t want to do that,’ says Demi, who was raised a Baptist and is now a nondenominational Christian.

Unlike other Disney child stars who have had continued troubles (Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan spring to mind), it is clear meeting Demi that she is taking charge of her life beginning with her powerful new album Unbroken, already a success in the US. (Her previous albums Don’t Forget and Here We Go Again were also substantial hits.) Unbroken includes the emotional ballad ‘Skyscraper’ and some heartbreaking personal tracks. In ‘Fix a Heart’ she sings, ‘I ended up with wounds to bind…and I just ran out of Band-Aids.’ ‘It’s about a break-up,’ says Demi. ‘It talks about bandaging the damage – I’ve been through self-harm.

‘It was my way of letting out my innermost secrets,’ she continues. The album includes a particularly candid song, ‘For the Love of a Daughter’, about Demi’s complicated relationship with her father (her parents Dianna and Patrick divorced when she was a toddler). She sings about ‘family war’ and her feelings of disappointment: ‘How could you push me out of your world, lie to your flesh and your blood?’ 

‘It’s a very personal song. “Oh father, please father, put the bottle down…” The lyrics are self-explanatory about my relationship with my estranged father whom I haven’t spoken to in five years. I wrote it when I was 16 and getting it out is like therapy.’

Demi stirs sugar into a paper cup of coffee. ‘I think I was born with an eating disorder, because I’ve never had a relationship with food that was normal. 

I remember looking in the mirror with nappies on thinking, “You’re fat, change it,”’ says Demi, who believes that, contrary to speculation, the root of her problems had nothing to do with the pressures of spending much of her childhood in front of the camera. ‘I started overeating when I was about eight; I was a binge eater. I would bake a whole plate of cookies and eat them all. Then when I turned 12 I was bullied in school and they called me fat. I went from being an overeater to stopping eating and I lost about 30lb. From then on I continued undereating, but my weight plateaued.’ 

The anorexia turned to bulimia: ‘I started throwing up to lose weight.’ Demi tells her story with remarkable candour but also an air of detachment. Armed with a wealth of scientific and psychological information about her condition, she seems to me like a bright and brave young woman who has had to grow up too fast.  

Part-Mexican, part-Italian with some Irish blood too, Demi’s early childhood was spent in Texas with her mother, older sister Dallas and stepfather Eddie De La Garza; she also has a ten-year-old half-sister, Madison, who plays Juanita Solis in Desperate Housewives. Despite her parents’ divorce and her eating disorders, would Demi describe her childhood as happy overall? ‘Totally. My stepdad provided me with an amazing childhood. I played outside like a normal kid, I rode my bike, I walked to school, but the happiest times were when I was acting.’

With a natural talent for performing, as a little girl she took piano lessons and her career began in earnest aged seven. ‘I started doing beauty pageants and acting. 

I needed to be the centre of attention; I knew that I wanted to be a little superstar,’ says Demi without a trace of arrogance or fake modesty. She landed several TV roles before her big break in the 2008 Disney movie Camp Rock. ‘It was so exciting getting the role. I was extremely blessed.’

Home schooled because of the bullying, the family moved from Texas to Los Angeles when Demi was 15. As her career took off with the Camp Rock films, another Disney movie Princess Protection Programme, and her music career, the addictive behaviour intensified. ‘It was just a matter of manipulating situations and hiding – you get very clever and very secretive. The tricky part about this disease is that you start lying to the people around you and turn into someone that you’re not. It’s scary.’

Compounding her eating disorder, the troubled teenager was cutting herself. ‘I started when I was 12, when I was bullied. It was my way of dealing with the stress and then I often resorted to it when I was feeling overworked. Girls [who self-harm] scratch or cut themselves with razor blades, scissors or sharp objects, or burn themselves. I’ve pretty much tried all of it. My main thing was cutting and that was so horrible. I definitely self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. I would be lying if I said I didn’t,’ she adds.

By the time Demi made it to rehab, she was desperate and ready to change her life. ‘The key is that you have to want it. The problem with a lot of celebrities is that they go into rehab, but they don’t stay for the full amount of time. I wanted to go home after 30 days, but they told me, “No, you’re not better.” I went through 14 hours of therapy every day. It wasn’t fun. There were sessions from seven in the morning until nine at night: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous and Self Mutilators Anonymous. [To addicts like Demi, all meetings are relevant, whatever their own personal addictions.] It was constant emotional work and exhausting; by the end of the day, all you wanted to do was sleep.’

What helped, she says, was being among women of all ages and from all walks of life. ‘It was very humbling. I had been used to waking up in hotels, getting room service for breakfast and having my room cleaned. Now I had to make my own bed. 

I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom by myself because they were afraid that I was going to purge, and we weren’t allowed to have razors, so I had hairy legs,’ she giggles. ‘And we had no mobile phones.’

‘There’s no cure and I may mess up, but I want to be a better role model for my fans’

Today she has her ‘roommate’ Sarah with her, a ‘recovery companion’ who has also been through addiction problems and follows the same programme. Her role is to support Demi in the recovery process and promote a healthy lifestyle. ‘She is living with us, she watches me and makes sure I eat three meals a day,’ says Demi.

Inevitably, one of the most challenging aspects of rehab was learning to eat normally. ‘Breakfast would be at 8.30am, a bowl of cereal with yoghurt or milk and fruit. Lunch would be a sandwich, salad and fruit or vegetables. Dinner might be macaroni cheese with a side of vegetables and milk. I cried often because I was terrified at having to eat three meals a day. I said, “No, this is too much food.” I started eating just so that I could go home. I don’t know what made it click but I realised I just wanted out of my eating disorder. 

‘Now I can eat as many meals as I am supposed to and not throw up any more. There’s definitely temptation – every meal I fight it. It’s an addiction and I’m going to have to fight it for the rest of my life,’ continues Demi. ‘There’s no cure and I may mess up, but I want to be a better role model for my fans and my younger sister. There are days when I look in the mirror and think, “God, my jeans don’t fit today – this sucks.” But I’m in a much more spiritual place now. I can pray and I have a great support system around me.’

That support comes from her family and from friends including reality star Kim Kardashian and fellow Disney performers Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus, who stayed in constant touch while Demi was in rehab. ‘They called me and kept checking in on me and I never forgot that. Now they make sure I am doing good. Out of all the people in the world, they are the three who are really close to me.’

Demi was also reportedly helped in her recovery by her ex-boyfriend, actor Wilmer Valderrama, from whom she has recently split (he played Fez in the US sitcom That ’70s Show). When I ask about him, though, Demi hesitates before saying, ‘I would like to keep my love life out of this. I’ve learnt not to go public with a relationship because the break-up will be 20 times harder.’ 

She does go on to tell me that she has a better idea of what she wants in a boyfriend. ‘I come with baggage,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘I’ve been through a lot and I need somebody who’s going to be there for me at any point, day or night, and is not going to be afraid of my eating disorder and recovery process. I want a man who’s going to be strong.’

‘I know that I could be in a fragile state of mind if I go back in front of the camera; I’m not really confident enough’

As we chat she peruses the gorgeous outfits and sighs at the prospect of trying on clothes for our photo shoot. ‘I’m not looking forward to that. My recovery is still a work in progress; they say that body image is the last thing to change, and I still battle with that every day. But I definitely have a lot more confidence than I did a year ago.’ In fact she looks lovely. Slim but not too thin, her face is make-up free, and her skin is clear with a healthy glow. 

She’s wearing lots of jewellery and there are tattoos covering the scars from the wounds she inflicted on herself over the years. ‘I have nine or ten,’ she says, holding out her arms to show me. On her wrists are the words Stay Strong (one on each). ‘I have Peace, Rock and Roll on my fingers, Faith on my arm, a cross on my hand, feathers on my ribs and a feather behind the ear.’ 

Demi can’t yet face returning to acting. ‘I know that I could be in a fragile state of mind if I go back in front of the camera; I’m not really confident enough. The camera adds 10lb and I feel like I have too many tattoos right now to go back on screen. I want to act again if they can find a way to cover my tattoos and one day I’d love to be respected as an actress.’

For now, music is her focus: ‘When you are on stage singing, you are far away from people, you’re not up close and it’s very liberating.’ Her goal is to ‘win a Grammy’ and interestingly she cites pop superstar Rihanna as her role model. Like Demi, the 23-year-old singer has had her own difficulties. Rihanna was the victim of domestic violence, but since the end of her abusive relationship with musician Chris Brown three years ago, she has become a global phenomenon. ‘I haven’t met Rihanna, but we’ve talked over the phone and I want to meet her so badly. I love her attitude; she’s sexy and confident. She’s gone through quite a lot and has come out strong. I would like to be the calibre of Rihanna and hopefully one day I’ll get there. I’d love to do a duet with her!’

Demi’s single ‘Skyscraper’ will be released on 27 February, taken from her new album Unbroken, out on 5 March through Hollywood Records

Source: Daily Mail

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