Demi Lovato Phones Home

Demi Lovato Phones Home

Story by Jocelyn Silver / Photography by Dana Trippe / Styling by Siena Montesano / Hair by Cesar Ramirez / Makeup by Mario Dedivanovic

Editor's note: After publishing our cover story, Demi Lovato shared in May that they're nonbinary and use they/ them pronouns. That is now reflected in the interview, below.

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 they felt reflected who they really were: a blonde spiky shag, buzzed at the sides. In their new documentary, Dancing With the Devil (airing in four episodes on YouTube starting March 23), viewers can see an ecstatic Lovato getting their head shaven. They describe it as a literal shedding of their past and a visual reflection of their queer identity, something they have recently, publicly, embraced.

Dress: Balenciaga, Necklace: AREA, Earrings and rings: Jen Fisher

"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 their 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 their queerness. "The queer label is fine because to me it's just this blanket statement of being different," they say. "That's what I can commit to. I feel like I'm too fluid to commit to a label."

Dress: Balenciaga, Necklace: AREA, Earrings and rings: Jen Fisher

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 their recovery from a lifelong eating disorder. Lovato stares into the camera and shares everything, an act of steely courage and open generosity. They value extreme transparency (this is their 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, they unpack the unfathomable pressure of being perceived by millions as a poster person for mental health advocacy while continuing to battle their own demons. This documentary will surely help many fans feel less alone. But making it — and enduring the attendant press tour, in which they have to speak to journalists, strangers, about the most traumatizing moments of their life — has been exhausting. Understandably, they do not read their own press, or most comments on their social media.

Dress: Tom Ford, Earrings: Jen Fisher

"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 they still want to share. "I think the positives outweigh the negatives," they say. "I think that if they didn't, I wouldn't be doing this."

Dress: Bottega Veneta, Gloves: Meryll Rogge, Earrings: Anabela Chan

Lovato, born Demetria Devonne Lovato in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started their career at age five, performing in beauty pageants in their hometown of Dallas, Texas. They became a Disney star in 2007 after landing leading roles in the TV movie franchise Camp Rock and series Sonny with a Chance (they prefer not to dwell on this early period in their career — the documentary includes devastating, gut-churning revelations from their Disney days). Their voice, scratchy and huge and beautiful even as a child, was undeniable, and a successful music career arrived quickly. They have released six chart-topping studio albums, including ubiquitous singles like "Skyscraper," "Sorry Not Sorry" and "Cool for the Summer."

Both their voice and personality are joyfully outsize — Dancing shows friend and collaborator Christina Aguilera describing Lovato's trademark "boisterous laugh." And you see them making spiky jokes with friends, relaxing together in their home's special "cloud room," an area featuring a giant fluffy cloud sculpture that this writer wanted very much to eat.

Dress: LaPointe, Coat: Christian Cowan, Earrings: Kallati

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. Their drug dealer assaulted them while they were incapacitated. They have permanent brain damage from the strokes that has manifested as vision loss (they can no longer drive), and describes the lingering effects as something like sunspots on their eyes. In Dancing, their former assistant says that she watched the singer's body turn blue before they were taken to the hospital.

Lovato has changed their life a great deal since their overdose. They say they now value their wellness much more than they did six years ago. They spent much of quarantine reading and exploring their spirituality (they call themself 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 they are healthy, compelled to be totally forthright and wholly aware of how their 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 Lovato which can be both an honor and a burden.

Dress: Balenciaga, Necklace: AREA, Earrings and rings: Jen Fisher

"It's draining, yes, and it's hard," they say. "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 their deepest struggles are worth it. "I don't ever want to be living in fear," they say. "And I feel like the best way to not do that is by living my truth."

Dress: Tom Ford, Coat: Cong Tri, Earrings: Jen Fisher

One such disclosure is the admission that they are no longer wholly sober — they drink in moderation, and smoke 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 their individual choice made under the supervision of doctors, and that it can't and won't work for everyone.

Dress: LaPointe, Coat: Christian Cowan, Shoes: Tom Ford, Earrings: Kallati

"The way that I've come about it is, I went back to treatment after [the overdose], in 2019, after slipping up with substances," they say. "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."

Earrings: Jen Fisher

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 they get stone-cold sober at 19 and live on a permanent diet.

"In my career, it benefits me to be a perfectionist," they say. "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."

Dress: Balenciaga, Necklace: AREA, Earrings and rings: Jen Fisher

After taking time off from music to recover after their overdose, Lovato made a triumphant return to the stage at the 2020 Grammy Awards with an instantly-iconic rendition of their mournful single "Anyone." They followed it up by singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. In January, their cover of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" was a highlight of the Biden inauguration. Their voice is huge and soulful. They have pipes, they have the range and has displayed a studied interest in various influences since their Disney days. Lovato gave an interview at 16 proudly declaring their 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," they say. "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."

Dress: Bottega Veneta, Gloves: Meryll Rogge, Earrings: Anabela Chan

The album starts out with power ballads chronicling Lovato's darkest days ("Anyone," "Dancing with the Devil," "ICU"), and then moves into their recovery. The lyrics are specific and autobiographical: they sing about working through their eating disorder on the surprisingly upbeat "Melon Cake" (they were only allowed watermelon covered in fat-free whipped cream on their birthdays for years); and about their biological father, who passed away in 2013 and with whom they 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 empowerment anthem featuring Saweetie, and "Met Him Last Night," a collaboration with Ariana Grande that highlights two of the most powerful voices in pop.

Dress: LaPointe, Coat: Christian Cowan, Shoes: Tom Ford, Earrings: Kallati

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 their 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 they don't see it that way.

"I think less about the future and music and more about living my truth," they say. "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 they like to be.

Dress: Tom Ford, Coat: Cong Tri, Earrings: Jen Fisher

Watch the official trailer for Demi Lovato's Dancing With the Devil, below.

Photography: Dana Trippe
Styling: Siena Montesano
Hair: Cesar Ramirez
Makeup: Mario Dedivanovic
Nails: Meagan Knight
On-set production: Katrina Kudlick

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