Famous at the age of 10. In rehab at 19. Nearly dead from a heroin overdose at 25. As her documentary, Dancing with the Devil, airs on YouTube, Demi Lovato speaks to Decca Aitkenhead about the price of her childhood fame
Demi Lovato was 15 years old, aboard a transatlantic flight to London, when she got into an argument with the husband of a celebrity. The teen, who had been on national TV from the age of ten, was starring in Disney’s 2008 hit musical TV movie, Camp Rock. “And he threw this flippant remark at me: ‘How do you know you’re not just going to end up like — ?’ ” naming a notoriously troubled former child star. Lovato was indignant.
“You don’t know me,” she retorted. “You know nothing about me.” He didn’t know that the teen had already begun to fear sharing the fate of her Disney Channel predecessors, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, both then very publicly unraveling. “Oh crap,” Lovato had secretly worried, while filming Camp Rock, “in three years that’s going to be me.” She told the man on the plane: “If I’m aware of what you’re already thinking about how I’m going to turn out, don’t you think that’s going to make me work twice as hard not to end up like that?”
She allows herself a wan smile. “Well, I did. I worked twice as hard not to end up like that. And I still ended up there.”
Exactly a decade later, Lovato would be taken to hospital in Los Angeles, having overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl. Minutes from death, she suffered three strokes and a heart attack, leaving her with brain damage. She wasn’t released for two weeks and suffers from impaired vision due to neurological damage. “I tried not to be one of those child stars. And yet I ended up in the hospital for an overdose.”
The pop star and actress’s story reads like a morality tale about the perils of precocious fame. The middle daughter of a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and a drug-addict musician, she was two when her parents divorced. By eight she was a Texan beauty pageant queen; by nine she was performing in malls and auditioning in LA; by ten she was starring in the network children’s show Barney & Friends. Further hit TV roles followed but, convinced she was fat, she became anorexic and then bulimic.
When Camp Rock catapulted Lovato into an A-list celebrity whirlwind, the teen released two hit solo albums in quick succession, landed more lead parts, dated a pop star and went on an international tour. In public she was the all-American Disney princess with the voice of an angel. Off stage she was binge-eating, vomiting, taking drugs, drinking heavily and cutting herself.
Fans were stunned when the 18-year-old checked herself into rehab after punching a female backing dancer in the face on their tour plane in Colombia. The facility treated Lovato for cocaine addiction, depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm and bulimia. Ten months after entering rehab, in 2011, she released her third solo album, Unbroken, followed by a 2012 MTV documentary, Stay Strong, about her recovery. A bestselling book, Staying Strong, observed the same conventional narrative arc of redemption and sobriety, sugared with inspirational mantras and meditation tips.
Everyone wanted to believe she was OK, and for a long while she did seem to be. In 2012 she joined the US version of The X Factor as a judge and mentor for two seasons, released three further hit solo albums, starred in Glee and performed sell-out world tours.
A hint of the unreliability of this happily-ever-after narrative emerged in her 2017 documentary, Simply Complicated, when she admitted she had still been on cocaine while talking on camera about her sobriety for the 2012 film. She hadn’t actually stopped using drugs until a full year after she’d claimed to be clean.
In April 2018, just after the sixth anniversary of her sobriety, Lovato relapsed. She decided she would “drink some red wine”; by the end of that night she was at a party doing hard drugs she’d never even tried before. Within three months, she was in hospital fighting for her life.
Anyone who saw the recent documentary about Britney Spears will recognise many parallels in Lovato’s new film, Dancing with the Devil, released on YouTube. Just as we watched the young Spears unravel under the unconscionable pressure of public prurience, media scrutiny and predatory paparazzi, we now see another Disney child star undone by our impossible expectations. Lovato’s story is at once jaw-droppingly shocking and disturbingly familiar. But whereas Spears herself was absent from her own documentary, still silenced by a 2008 court order granting her father full legal control of the star, Lovato’s voice is at the heart of this film — and she has a lot to say.
She used to speak to the media in the saccharine register of red-carpet platitudes, but when we meet over Zoom I barely recognise her. Her Hollywood mane has been cropped into a gamine pixie cut, her nose is pierced, and she’s wearing clear-framed glasses so big they look like laboratory goggles. Celebrities in recovery often become so accustomed to sharing their addiction stories with total strangers that they can sound strangely affectless, reeling off their darkest secrets with the detachment of a talking clock. Lovato, by contrast, sounds fully emotionally engaged.
Talking from her bed in LA, a downy cloud of taupe linen, she listens closely, often pausing to consider her words, but doesn’t come across as cagey, just compellingly thoughtful. The 28-year-old appears so at ease in her own skin, no one looking would ever guess how much she used to hate her own body.
She says she was two years old when she began to feel fat. “I remember being in pull-ups, still potty training, and running my hand over my stomach. That was the beginning of the rest of my life with body image issues. It never went away in my whole childhood. I always felt like I was larger than other kids.”
Her parents’ divorce was ugly and triggered her mother’s eating disorder. “Me being a toddler and seeing my mom at 80 pounds,” Lovato explains, “I think that really cemented the body image issues I had. That was the first role model for food that I had. I’m not pointing fingers,” she quickly clarifies. “She did the best that she could.”
She knows some people will blame her mother for failing to protect her from the pressures of child stardom. Others will blame Lovato for failing to withstand them. “It’s very easy to have an opinion about the celebrity on the cover of a trashy magazine when you’re buying your groceries,” she reflects. The temptation to say, “Well, they should have done this, they should have done that”, can be irresistible. “But no one will ever know until they walk a mile in someone’s shoes. When I walked a mile in those other child stars’ shoes, I was, like, I get it.”
Just days after we talk, another former child star, Billie Piper, speaks up about Jonathan Ross cracking crass jokes about her eating disorder on his chat show. It’s hard to watch Lovato’s documentary without starting to wonder if child stardom is so dangerous it simply shouldn’t be allowed. I ask if she would agree.
“The thing that blew my mind the most as a 15-year-old was that I started getting followed by paparazzi. I thought it was extremely weird that these grown men were following me around at 15 with cameras. The reason why it was OK was because they had their cameras. How does that make any logical sense?” It’s no surprise that Spears’s public breakdown began with her attacking a paparazzi car with an umbrella.
“So I wish there were laws put in place to protect minors from paparazzi. That pressure of feeling like you have to look good every time you step out of your house, starting at 15 years old, is very damaging to your self-esteem. And with my body image issues it’s so anxiety-inducing.”
Years later, in therapy, she was told she suffered PTSD from fame. “At first I was, like, woah, excuse me? How is that so? And the therapist explained to me the hyper-vigilancy that you maintain when you’re in public. I can hear the snap of a phone from 20 feet away; I can feel it when a camera is pointed at me, even if it’s 100 feet away. It’s that hyper-vigilancy.”
Lovato’s anguished body image and eating disorders have been well documented. What she had not revealed until now is the childhood trauma that turbo-charged them. “I realised when I got to treatment [in 2010] that the reason why my eating disorder progressed so quickly and so badly was that I kept the secret of being raped.”
She was 15, and a virgin, wearing her promise ring, when she was raped by a man in her industry. She told her mother and her closest friends, but nobody else. Raised on the Southern, Christian church values of abstinence until marriage, “when this situation happened I felt so ashamed. That was what was replaying in my head: ‘You’re not married, you’re not married, you’re not married — you’re bad.’ I went three years with ‘I’m bad, I’m wrong, I’m dirty’. This is why I went away to treatment, pretty much. Three years of that will lead to somebody snapping on a plane in Colombia.”
The “most impactful” moment in treatment came when she told “somebody of power” what the rapist had done. “She said, ‘I don’t think they should be in your movie coming out.’ ” Her tone flattens. “That was completely swept under the rug. Nothing was done about it. That person was still in that movie.” It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement exploded in 2018 that “I realised, oh my gosh, this happens in the industry all the time”.
Clean and sober for six years, Lovato tried to be thin and good and obedient. “All my decisions were always made for me. And I thought that was normal. So when I turned 18, I didn’t feel like ‘I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions now’. I just carried on that mentality of giving the responsibilities to other people because I had never really known any different. And I didn’t really stop until it was too late.”
A chef and a nutritionist dictated what she ate. Gym instructors trained her body. On the eve of photoshoots, an assistant would keep guard over her to make sure she didn’t break her diet and binge in the night. Her friends were forbidden to eat in front of her. On her birthdays, cake was banned; she had to celebrate with an iced watermelon. “A lot of people were trying to do the best they could to make sure I didn’t relapse. But ultimately, controlling somebody and their food, or their behaviours, is not going to lead to sustainable recovery.”
By 2017 the secret bingeing and bulimia were back, and she loathed her body. Halfway through her sixth solo tour, in April 2018, “I was miserable and I was burnt out. I was still doing everything that people were asking of me and I was, like, I’m literally living my life for other people. What’s the point? I don’t have any autonomy in my life. I’m 25 and I’m miserable.”
When she took her first drink, in April 2018, did she tell herself she could relapse without spiralling out of control again? “I think at that point I just didn’t care.”
The overdose three months later was reported in breathless detail by the world’s media. The one horrifying fact no one knew, until now, is that the dealer who sold her the lethal cocktail of drugs did not leave after delivering them to her home. He stayed. And when she was incapacitated and barely conscious, he raped her.
I was still reeling from this revelation in the documentary when Lovato’s next bombshell floored me. “I wish I could say the last night I ever touched heroin was the night of my overdose,” she tells the camera. “But it wasn’t.” Just weeks later she called the same dealer and invited him over. “I wanted to rewrite his choice of violating me. I wanted it now to be my choice. I said, ‘No, I’m going to f*** you.’ That was my way of taking the power back.” A decade earlier, she adds, she had done the same thing with the first man who raped her. “And it didn’t fix anything. All it did was make me feel worse.”
To risk alienating public sympathy with such an explosive disclosure takes breathtaking commitment to candour. Sexual assault experts report that Lovato’s response is actually not uncommon, but it’s seldom disclosed by victims for fear of undermining their own credibility. To the general public, the psychological complexity of sexual assault can be highly confusing. To help people understand why victims’ behaviour doesn’t always conform to their expectations, can Lovato explain why she met up with her rapists again?
“I use the term ‘trauma re-enactment’. And there’s a sense of agency that I guess I felt when I was the one to call them back and kind of correct the situation, in my eyes. Because if I was the one in control, then I was fixing it. Which obviously isn’t the case. Like, what happened still happened. And this is not going to make it any better.”
The documentary’s final revelation is scarcely any less brave — so much so that I ask if she felt tempted not to disclose it? She shakes her head. “It was actually one of the main things I wanted to talk about.” For the past two years Lovato has been using cannabis and drinking alcohol. “And I need to talk about this, and share my truth, because I’ve seen how moderation management works for me.”
Lovato is well aware that moderation management is heresy to most addiction specialists, who subscribe to the orthodoxy of 12-step total abstinence. “If you think any differently to them, they say you’re either not really someone with a problem or you’re just not willing to devote yourself [to recovery]. And I just don’t agree with that. I think the dogmatic thinking doesn’t work for me. Abstinence does work for a lot of people, so for those people I encourage them to stick to it. But for the people who have tried a lot, and it’s continued not to work for them, I wanted to show people like that there is a different solution.”
She is tired of having to hide her drink in a restaurant. “I just got so sick of living in this fear of what other people were going to think.” Were she the only person she knows for whom moderation management works, she says, she might have kept quiet. “But the thing is, I’ve seen this work for a lot of people.”
I’m curious to know how her friends and family reacted. Did they tell her she was deluding herself? “The people who were closest to me, they were, like, ‘Obviously we’re gonna worry. Would we be your friends if we didn’t? But we also trust you.’”
I get the feeling that incurring others’ scepticism might not wobble Lovato so much as fortify her. After a lifetime of dieting she has given up trying to be thin, eats exactly what she likes and says she has never felt happier. Cutting off her hair has been profoundly liberating. Having been briefly engaged to an actor last year, she now identifies as mostly queer. “Sometimes, not conforming is the answer,” she offers with a broad smile. “My whole life I’ve conformed, right? I’ve been the feminine, sexy pop star; I’ve been the poster child for recovery; even last summer I was the straight fiancée. I’ve been everything that people want me to be. It wasn’t until I stepped out of other people’s identities and owned what I felt was natural to me that I’ve come into myself.”
She is signed to new management and has an album out next month. “After taking a look at my life in 2018 I made some changes. I work with a lot of women today. And most of the men I work with are not straight. I’ve balanced the energy and it feels really safe now.”
I don’t think I’ve ever met a more radically honest celebrity. The paradox, I tell her, is that for many years her closest family and friends described her as the most accomplished liar they’d ever known. For example, the dancer she punched in 2010 had tipped off her management about the star’s cocaine-fuelled partying. When confronted, Lovato demanded to know who had informed on her. When her managers refused to say, she begged and pleaded. She wasn’t at all angry with the person, she promised. On the contrary, she wanted to know who to thank for looking out for her best interests. Eventually persuaded, they gave her the name. Lovato calmly boarded the plane, marched up to the dancer and hit her.
Throughout the years of secret drug-taking and binge-eating, was all the lying an unpleasant necessity — or was it, in fact, part of the appeal? “Oh, secrecy was definitely a part of the appeal. Secrets in my position could make me feel empowered. For someone in my position, with such a public life, a secret was very alluring. They were mine, not anyone else’s.
“But now I don’t need secrets to have that autonomy, thank God. In fact, my life is the opposite of a secret. I live such an authentic life today that any ounce of dishonesty just feels so weird to me. Anybody that knows me knows exactly who I am and what I’m doing and how I feel. I’m an open book,” she breaks into a smile, “with healthy boundaries.”
The third part of Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil is released on Tuesday on YouTube Originals. Her new album of the same name is out on Friday