Toward the tail end of 2020, Demi Lovato got a haircut. Pop stars get a lot of haircuts (at the time of this writing, Billie Eilish has just thrilled fans by going blonde). This haircut was different.
Lovato, a 28-year-old megastar committed to regular feats of Olympic-level vocal pyrotechnics, went from flowing, Siren-like locks to a look that she felt reflected who she really was: a blonde spiky shag, buzzed at the sides. In her new documentary, Dancing With the Devil (airing in four episodes on YouTube starting March 23), viewers can see an ecstatic Lovato getting her head shaven. She describes it as a literal shedding of her past and a visual reflection of her queer identity, something she has recently, publicly, embraced.
“Going back over the past year, I thought my life was going to turn out a lot differently than it has,” Lovato says over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, hair now styled into a black pixie. “At one point I was engaged to a man, and now I’m very much not. And so I just wanted to allow myself the freedom to match my outside to what I feel like on the inside, and that’s what I’ve done.”
After a public engagement (and break up) to a cis male actor last year, Lovato is eager to embrace her queerness. “The queer label is fine because to me it’s just this blanket statement of being different,” she says. “That’s what I can commit to. I feel like I’m too fluid to commit to a label.”
Sexuality is just one of many deeply personal topics that Lovato approaches with unflinching candor in Dancing With the Devil. The documentary includes a series of harrowing, acutely painful revelations surrounding sexual assault, addiction and her recovery from a lifelong eating disorder. Lovato stares into the camera and shares everything, an act of steely courage and open generosity. She values extreme transparency (this is her second such YouTube documentary, after 2017’s Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated), and practices a form of radical honesty in the public eye.
“I just wanted to allow myself the freedom to match my outside to what I feel like on the inside, and that’s what I’ve done.”
But that is its own burden to carry; in the film, she unpacks the unfathomable pressure of being perceived by millions as a poster girl for mental health advocacy while continuing to battle her own demons. This documentary will surely help many fans feel less alone. But making it — and enduring the attendant press tour, in which she has to speak to journalists, strangers, about the most traumatizing moments of her life — has been exhausting. Understandably, she does not read her own press, or most comments on her social media.
“I think it was right after I got out of rehab in 2018. I saw an article somewhere that said I was morbidly obese,” Lovato says. “And that is the most triggering thing that you could possibly write about somebody with an eating disorder. That sucked, and I wanted to quit, I wanted to use, wanted to give up. And then I just realized that if I don’t look at those things then they can’t affect me. So, I stopped looking and I just really try not to look at anything negative.”
And yet she still wants to share. “I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” she says. “I think that if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Lovato, born Demetria Devonne Lovato in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started her career at age five, performing in beauty pageants in her hometown of Dallas, Texas. She became a Disney star in 2007 after landing leading roles in the TV movie franchise Camp Rock and series Sonny with a Chance (she prefers not to dwell on this early period in her career — the documentary includes devastating, gut-churning revelations from her Disney days). Her voice, scratchy and huge and beautiful even as a child, was undeniable, and a successful music career arrived quickly. She has released six chart-topping studio albums, including ubiquitous singles like “Skyscraper,” “Sorry Not Sorry” and “Cool for the Summer.”
Both her voice and personality are joyfully outsize — Dancing shows friend and collaborator Christina Aguilera describing Lovato’s trademark “boisterous laugh.” And you see her making spiky jokes with friends, relaxing together in her home’s special “cloud room,” an area featuring a giant fluffy cloud sculpture that this writer wanted very much to eat.
But of course the documentary is often achingly sad, a marathon of endured trauma. One of its chief focuses is Lovato’s July 2018 overdose (during a relapse after six years of sobriety) from smoking heroin and ingesting oxycodone laced with fentanyl. It led to three strokes, a heart attack, multiple organ failure and pneumonia from asphyxiation. Her drug dealer assaulted her while she was incapacitated. She has permanent brain damage from the strokes that has manifested as vision loss (she can no longer drive), and describes the lingering effects as something like sunspots on her eyes. In Dancing, her former assistant says that she watched the singer’s body turn blue before she was taken to the hospital.
Lovato has changed her life a great deal since her overdose. She says she now values her wellness much more than she did six years ago. She spent much of quarantine reading and exploring her spirituality (she calls herself SBNR, AKA spiritual but not religious), and even went to Joshua Tree to commune with aliens (a “close encounters of the fifth kind” experience, AKA alleged human-initiated contact with non-earthlings, with Steven M. Greer, founder of the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Yet though she is healthy, compelled to be totally forthright and wholly aware of how her frankness is a form of advocacy, it is still difficult to put so much out there. Fans are eager to share their own painful stories with her, which can be both an honor and a burden.
“It’s draining, yes, and it’s hard,” she says. “There’s reasons why my meet and greets have gotten a lot shorter over the years. More than a handful of people would tell you each time, ‘You saved my life,’ or they would show me the cuts on their wrists. I know that they mean well, I know that they are confiding in me because they have no one else. But it does take a lot.”
“In my career, it benefits me to be a perfectionist. In my personal life, it definitely doesn’t.”
But for Lovato, the sacrifices of going public with her deepest struggles are worth it. “I don’t ever want to be living in fear,” she says. “And I feel like the best way to not do that is by living my truth.”
One such disclosure is the admission that she is no longer wholly sober — she drinks in moderation, and smokes some marijuana. It’s a lifestyle choice that does not align with most treatment programs for addiction (to quote Sir Elton John, an addict in recovery and one of Dancing With the Devil’s many colorful talking heads: “Moderation doesn’t work.”)
Lovato has lived this way for the past two years. The documentary takes great care to explain that this is her individual choice made under the supervision of doctors, and that it can’t and won’t work for everyone.
“The way that I’ve come about it is, I went back to treatment after [the overdose], in 2019, after slipping up with substances,” she says. “I had done so well with my eating disorder, in comparison to the years before. And when I went back, my therapist, my eating disorder specialist there, was like, ‘How do you feel with food recovery?’ And I was like, ‘I feel really great, but I think it’s because I’ve legalized so much.'”
Choosing to go public about the change was a brave step in itself. “I feel like I wanted to get a great understanding of it for myself before I told the world about it,” Lovato says. “And also, it’s just really important to note that just because I am trying this doesn’t mean it’s for everybody. Just like the dogmatic views of complete sobriety, that isn’t a one size fits all solution for everybody.”
Control — both in excess and as a lack — is a persistent theme across Dancing With the Devil’s four episodes. Lovato recounts pushing back against edicts that she get stone-cold sober at 19 and live on a permanent diet.
“In my career, it benefits me to be a perfectionist,” she says. “In my personal life, it definitely doesn’t. Having been in recovery from eating disorders, body image and perfectionism are not friends in my eyes, and so it’s been difficult to balance. But for the most part it’s just something that you have to walk through with as much grace as possible.”
After taking time off from music to recover after her overdose, Lovato made a triumphant return to the stage at the 2020 Grammy Awards with an instantly-iconic rendition of her mournful single “Anyone.” She followed it up by singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. In January, her cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” was a highlight of the Biden inauguration. Her voice is huge and soulful. She has pipes, she has the range and has displayed a studied interest in various influences since her Disney days. Lovato gave an interview at 16 proudly declaring her love of heavy metal, frequently pays homage to the halcyon days of emo and has worked with everyone from John to Lil Wayne.
“I think less about the future and music and more about living my truth.”
A new album, Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over, will be released on April 2, as a companion piece to the documentary. “Even though [the album] is not technically a soundtrack to the documentary, it kind of is,” she says. “If you were to follow the track listing in order, it really goes to the way my life has played out over the last year.”
The album starts out with power ballads chronicling Lovato’s darkest days (“Anyone,” “Dancing with the Devil,” “ICU”), and then moves into her recovery. The lyrics are specific and autobiographical: she sings about working through her eating disorder on the surprisingly upbeat “Melon Cake” (she was only allowed watermelon covered in fat-free whipped cream on her birthdays for years); and about her biological father, who passed away in 2013 and with whom she had a complicated relationship, on “Butterfly.”
The queer subtext of “Cool for the Summer” becomes text on “The Kind of Lover I Am,” in which Lovato plainly states that it “doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man.” The album takes on a folkier tone and showcases the Voice while still allowing for post-quarantine club bangers. There’s “My GFs are My BFs,” a classic female empowerment anthem featuring Saweetie, and “Met Him Last Night,” a collaboration with Ariana Grande that highlights two of the most powerful voices in pop.
Is it safe to say that the documentary partly exists in order to ensure that Lovato can continue to make music? The maintenance of stardom at Lovato’s level is tricky. Fans want a personal story to latch onto, and so the star gives and gives. But with transparency comes increased scrutiny on already bruised spots, making fame like a snake eating its own tail. But she doesn’t see it that way.
“I think less about the future and music and more about living my truth,” she says. “If every decision I made was based off of my future. I’d just be future tripping the entire time. I wouldn’t be living in the present moment at all.” And that’s where she likes to be.