In the opening lines of her book Staying Strong, Demi Lovato advises every woman to have a mantra. Hers is, ‘You are beautifully and wonderfully made.’ It may sound faintly new-agey but having just spent two hours watching Demi channel her rock-chic vibe in skintight skirts and skyscraper heels for the YOU photo shoot, I am in no doubt that it works.
In front of the camera, Demi exudes confidence – preening, posing and whooping on demand. But now the photographer has declared it a wrap, she has changed into leggings and biker boots, and something about the way she is sitting hug-kneed on a cavernous sofa tells me that the mantra is no longer quite weaving its magic.
‘That was fun, I loved it,’ she says. ‘But actually I wouldn’t say I am comfortable in my skin today. I’m having one of those once-a-month moments when I’ve got a little belly and my clothes don’t fit. But I’m a woman and that happens, so thank goodness for airbrushing! Real-life beauty is fine for selfies and Twitter, but when it comes to photo shoots, well, airbrushing is no bad thing.’
That any performer, particularly a multi-platinum- selling pop diva like Demi, should occasionally rely on a little digital enhancement is hardly surprising. That she should readily admit to it is more so. But, as Demi’s 17 million Facebook fans and 23 million Twitter followers already know, she is not a star who plays by the rules.
Last year, Demi confessed to having had a cocaine addiction so bad that she carried the drug on to aeroplanes to ensure she could get a fix. ‘I would smuggle it on and just wait until everyone in first class was asleep and then I would sneak to the bathroom.’ It was a shocking revelation – all the more so for coming from the lips of a former Disney princess whose on-screen career began at the age of seven when she starred as one of Barney the Dinosaur’s friends. To the casual observer, Demi appeared to be the girl with a golden future; the reality was that she had grown into a troubled young woman with myriad problems, including an eating disorder, self-harming and alcohol and drug dependency.
Of course, child stars who, behind the scenes, start pushing self-destruct buttons are not a new phenomenon – Demi’s friends Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez spring instantly to mind. The difference with Demi seems to be that not only has she confronted her demons and got her career back on track – she is currently promoting her fourth studio album Demi, while juggling collaborations with The Vamps, before embarking on a world tour which includes joining Enrique Iglesias as his special guest for four UK dates in November – but also that she has made a conscious decision to be utterly candid about her mental-health struggles.
Her primary motivation, she says, is to use her story as ‘a beacon of hope for the next generation’ – she has a massive teen following and at her recent sellout gig at Koko in London, fans were sleeping outside overnight to get a glimpse of her. But she concedes there is a payback for her, too.
‘When you are no longer hiding anything, you don’t worry about what is going to get out. I don’t care who knows about my life, and now that I am an open book a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.’
Now 21, Demi was born in New Mexico, the daughter of Patrick, who was an engineer and musician, and Dianna, a one-time country-music singer. By the time she was two, her parents had divorced and Demi moved to Texas with her mother and elder sister Dallas, now 26. Dianna married again, and with her new husband Eddie De La Garza, a former car-dealership manager, went on to have Demi’s half-sister Madison, who is now 12 and also a successful actress – she played Juanita Solis in Desperate Housewives.
Demi says she can recall, aged five, watching her mother perform with artists such as Hank Williams Jr and George Strait and thinking that she, too, wanted to be a singer. But she was also spurred on by sibling rivalry. ‘I used to feel I was in my big sister’s shadow,’ she says. ‘Dallas didn’t mean for me to feel that way, but I felt I could never fully shine because she was the gorgeous, popular cheerleader and I was the awkward little girl with chubby cheeks and huge eyebrows.’
Both Dallas and Demi took part in beauty pageants and went to acting and dancing classes, and before long Demi had her first break alongside Selena Gomez on Barney & Friends. She played Angela, the geeky, bespectacled one, while Selena was the more cutesy Gianna. By her early teens, she had won the lead role in the Disney Channel film Camp Rock, which led to tours with teen boy band the Jonas Brothers and the signature part of Sonny Monroe in the Disney sitcom Sonny with a Chance.
But although Demi’s success masked her insecurities, it couldn’t make them go away. For behind the glossy veneer was a complex web of emotional trauma. Demi’s birth father was bipolar, schizophrenic and battling alcohol and drug addictions and her mother had an as yet unacknowledged eating disorder and was also suffering from depression. Demi was barely old enough to understand what her parents were going through, but the impact of their illnesses meant that she became an anxious child who was old before her time.
‘I was always the girl who would rather hang around adults, eavesdropping on their conversations, than play hide and seek with kids my own age,’ she says. In particular, she can’t remember ever having a normal relationship with food. By the age of eight, she was compulsively overeating (‘I would bake cookies and then eat the whole pan’) and that led gradually but inexorably to a cycle of bingeing and starving and forcing herself to be sick until she vomited blood.
At 12, Demi left school after a spate of bullying. With hindsight, she can see that the perpetrators must have envied her success. ‘I’d just performed with an artist called JoJo; my friends were fans of hers but they didn’t get to meet her and I did. I felt uncomfortable saying that they were jealous, so I told myself that they hated me because I was fat. They were telling me I was fat, so it made sense – and that is what got programmed into my brain.’
Around the same time, she also suffered minor injuries in a car crash and was prescribed painkillers. ‘That was how the substance abuse started. I liked the feeling they gave me – they sort of numbed everything – and I also liked the sneakiness of taking extra pills out of my mum’s bag without her knowing.’
And so, as outwardly Demi’s success soared during her early teens, her life began to spin out of control inwardly.
Being home-schooled meant that her timetable was flexible and she could take on more work. ‘Everything skyrocketed, which was awesome, but the negative side was that I thought, “Right, I am working like an adult so I should be able to party like an adult.”’ Largely to capitalise on Demi’s success, the family moved to Hollywood when she was 15. (Dallas also tried her hand at acting, but has since become an acting coach.
‘I think watching me in the public eye made her realize she didn’t want my life,’ says Demi.) Eddie gave up his car dealership to become Demi’s manager and she was effectively the family breadwinner. ‘I was making a bunch of money and when my parents [she means her mother and stepfather] would get on to me for drinking and staying out, I would say, “I pay the bills, so what are you going to do?” I was riding this wave of entitlement and superiority and they were in an impossible position because there’s no manual that explains how to deal with the sort of teenager I was.’
The one person who wasn’t dealing with Demi at all by her mid-teens was her increasingly erratic birth father. During their sporadic contact, she recalls, ‘he had started having delusions and I could no longer decipher when he was telling the truth and when he was lying. It just hurt too much, so in the end I cut off all communication.’
Many of the songs Demi has written centre on her strained relationship with Patrick Lovato. In ‘For the Love of a Daughter’ on her album Unbroken she sings, ‘Oh father, please father, put the bottle down.’ And in ‘Shouldn’t Come Back’ – a track she says she can no longer listen to that features on her current album Demi – her lyrics read, ‘Trying not to forget should be easier than this. And all the birthdays you’ve missed, I was only a kid.’
Yet that experience of witnessing the damage alcohol and drugs had wreaked upon her father was not enough to prevent Demi going down a similar road. ‘I always tried to convince myself that if I was drinking and using with other people, I wouldn’t be like him. As long as I was partying, I was just a regular teenager,’ she says. The reality was that she did secretly begin to drink and take drugs on her own – and she had also been self-harming for years.
Demi’s breaking point came in October 2010 shortly after her 17th birthday when, during a tour of South America with the Jonas Brothers, she punched a backing singer whom she regarded as a friend. ‘I was performing concerts on an empty stomach. I was losing my voice from purging. I was self-medicating and I was so emotionally whacked out that I took it out on someone that meant a lot to me,’ she said afterwards. Accepting 100 per cent responsibility for what was a very public meltdown, she agreed to go into rehab. An added incentive was an edict from her mother that she would not be allowed to see her little sister unless she got help. ‘Mum saying that made me realize that my life was a shambles and, although I had a lot of success, I was also very alone and miserable. I love Madison and one of the main reasons I wanted to get better was because I didn’t want to be apart from her.’
During three months of inpatient treatment at the Timberline Knolls residential center in Illinois, Demi learned that she had been using all her addictions – the drugs, alcohol, self-harming and her eating disorder – to give herself a false sense of control. ‘I was working to this grueling schedule and while I couldn’t stop the momentum of that, I believed, wrongly, that my addictive behaviors were something that I was in charge of.’
She also learned that, like her father, she was bipolar. ‘I remember the day I got the diagnosis, finally it all made sense. I’d been living with this mania – moments when I was up all night writing songs, thinking I could take on the world, and also these deep, dark depressions, when all I wanted to do was shut the door and not talk to anyone. And that is why I had been isolating myself – to try to deal with the pain.’
Demi’s recovery wasn’t an overnight success. Despite releasing her third album Unbroken in 2011, she had several relapses, so a year after leaving rehab, she moved from the luxury Los Angeles apartment she owns into a ‘sober-living house’ where she could have instant access to counsellors and gain support by sharing her experiences with other addicts. She stayed there during 2012 while working alongside Simon Cowell as a judge on the US version of The X Factor. Meanwhile, in an extraordinary turn of events, Demi’s therapists pulled her mother to one side and suggested that she also needed to address her own issues. ‘I had a terrible eating disorder, which I had had for many years without realising it,’ Dianna has since said. ‘And a lot of what [Demi] went through with an eating disorder had to do with what she had seen growing up.’
‘My mum is my hero,’ Demi says. ‘There aren’t many parents who would speak out publicly the way she did and I am so proud of her.’
While Demi and her mother have become closer than ever – indeed, her mother is part of her entourage in London – the story surrounding her father has an irredeemably sad ending. Patrick Lovato died last year, aged 54, of cancer. He never recovered from his mental-health problems and he and Demi were never reconciled, but Demi did attend his funeral. While at the ceremony, she met for the first time her half-sister Amber, who was her father’s daughter from an earlier relationship and is now in her 30s.
‘She and I reached out to each other and it was this bittersweet day. She said she had never made contact with me before because she hadn’t wanted me to think that she wanted something from me. Since becoming famous, I have had tons of cousins who have come out of the woodwork, so to have a sister who held back – it made me realise I could trust her.’ Did they find things in common? ‘Yes, we’ve had similar experiences and issues, but we are both strong and we have got through them. And we are definitely staying in touch.’
In a determined effort to ensure other positives emerged from her father’s death, Demi also launched The Lovato Treatment Scholarship in his memory. The scheme is managed by Cast Recovery – the same centre that ran Demi’s sober-living house in Los Angeles – and covers the expenses of someone struggling with mental-health and addiction issues. Today, the thread-like scars from Demi’s self-harming days are hidden by tattoos on her wrists, which say ‘Stay’ and ‘Strong’ – one word on each. She has a mass of other tattoos, including a feather behind her ear and a flock of birds on her right arm – ‘They symbolise freedom for me,’ she says. She also has multiple ear piercings and regularly experiments with her hair colour and style – for her recent Neon Lights tour, she shaved one side of her head. ‘When I was impulsive before, I was making bad choices, so this is a way of expressing myself that is harmless. Some days, you just want to dye your hair pink, and I am not afraid to do that.’
She takes daily medication to manage her bipolar disorder, but illicit drug use is in her past and it is more than two years now since she last had an alcoholic drink. ‘It’s one day at a time,’ she says. ‘If I think that I am never going to be able to have a glass of wine with dinner, I get anxious. And sometimes I do feel like I want to go to a bar and have some shots, but I know where I will be in six weeks’ or six months’ time if I do. We are a different breed, we alcoholics, but it is just like having any other disease – you have to learn to live with it.’
Rather than force herself to stay sober at a blow-out party for her 21st birthday last August, she went to Kenya and spent several weeks building a village school. ‘I wanted to do something that took me completely outside myself and helping others is the best way to make yourself feel better – selfishly enough.’
As for her eating disorder, that, too, is one day at a time. She monitors her food intake closely. ‘It’s about eating what is good for your body, even when you don’t want to, and not letting those voices get inside your head,’ she says.
The one area of Demi’s life that she chooses not to be wholly open about is relationships. She’s had a couple of high-profile boyfriends, including Joe Jonas and the actor Wilmer Valderrama, ‘and the problem when you go public with a personal relationship is that when it ends, it ends publicly as well,’ she says. She does acknowledge, however, that anyone who takes her on needs to be able to cope with her emotional complexities: ‘I would be slightly overwhelming for somebody who is not at a level of maturity to support me mentally.’
Reading Demi’s book – a collection of her insights delivered in a 365-day format that is a powerful guide not just for teenagers, but also their parents – I am struck by the thought that she is an old soul in a young woman’s body. ‘I do sometimes think I’ve had three lifetimes in one,’ she says. ‘But I’m still learning about who I am; I don’t think I am there yet.’ During treatment, she recalls telling her case manager: ‘I can get sober but I don’t think I can ever be happy, that is just not possible for me.’ And now, she says, ‘I am happy, but I’ve realised experiencing that bliss is something you earn when you put in the work.’
It’s time to head back to her hotel, but before she does, she tells me she has one more appointment: ‘My AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting. To be honest, I’m exhausted after this photo shoot and I don’t exactly feel like it, but I’m going to go because I know it’s good for me.’ Whenever she is on tour, she makes it a priority to find out where the nearest AA meeting is ‘because I start to feel wobbly if I don’t’.
There, among strangers, she will continue to share her story: ‘It’s being able to do that that makes me feel normal in this world that is not normal at all.’
it's a really good interview. she talks more about her own addiction and continued recovery