You Think You Know Dove Cameron, But You Actually Have No Idea
You’ve seen her on Disney. You’ve heard her sing. And she’s done caring what everyone else thinks.
Dove Cameron and I have just met when the disquieting reality sets in. The 25-year-old actor opens our Zoom conversation with a poetic observation about “atomic, golden sparks” of human connection, and any expectations for pat and easy answers filtered through the peppy teen queens she portrays on screen are out the window. “I hate being on autopilot,” she says with a smile. She removes a piece of gum from her mouth and shifts closer to the camera. “Who’s Dove Cameron?” she muses. “Let’s find out.”
Cameron is best known for playing children, even though she hasn't been one for the better part of a decade. She did double duty over the course of four seasons embodying the titular twins of Disney’s Liv and Maddie; she played Mal, the headstrong daughter of Maleficent, in Disney’s Descendants movie franchise; and holds Broadway stage credits for her roles as teens in Hairspray Live! and Clueless, The Musical. She’s come to be beloved for her wholesome, effervescent mien, a public image built to stoke the adulation of her tween fans and set to put parents’ fears to rest. (You could link her appeal to her bubbly personality, and you’d be correct — she plays Bubbles in Diablo Cody’s forthcoming live-action CW series Powerpuff Girls.) A different side of Cameron comes through in her solo music, moody singles unlike anything in the Disney songbook. On Instagram, another dimension reveals itself. Cameron’s grid is a quilt of glamorous shots of a gorgeous young woman falling in and out of love, replete with crying selfies and captions about anxiety attacks. It is the kind of candor typically saved for the drafts folder, not blasted to 43.5 million followers.
Complicated, agreable, defiant, conventional, carnal, chaste, nuanced, hypocritical. Cameron is all of these things, and to varying degrees, depending on the point of encounter. No matter the medium, though, she is an exciting woman, a 5’2” supernova who has steadily been challenging the dominant paradigm of what a rising star looks and acts like. If Cameron is the latest in a long history of Hollywood girls next door, bolstered by the Disney machine she’ll no doubt one day exit, she’s the latest living proof that the stereotype never should have existed in the first place.
“I’ve had the feeling of being missed — misunderstood based on a carefully curated image I didn’t curate,” Cameron says from her chic Los Angeles loft. “[But] the idea of never being seen is an absolute terror. It is much scarier than being concerned with how you appear. I don’t care at all about public perception as much as I care about my own level of self-awareness. [But] my relationship with validation is evolving.” She adds a joke, “There's a Venn diagram of performers and people who need validation, and they're almost the same circle. Everybody knows that.”
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There she is. Bright green eyes smiling, blonde beachy waves, dark lips ombre’d to the gods, a pitch-perfect laugh, tasteful tattoos, an infectious charisma, Dove Cameron. Ask her a serious question and she’ll take you by the hand and lead you into the confessional booth. For a Disney star, a woman whose life and relationships have been meticulously documented by her fans and herself for most of her life, the truth is: No one truly knows Dove Cameron.
It’s not even her real name. Cameron was born Chloe Celeste Hosterman on January 15, 1996, in Bainbridge Island, WA. (Her good friends and lovers refer to her as “Chloe;” it’s “Dove” for the rest of us.) At 25, she has already lived a few lives. When she was 8, her best friend was murdered by her father, who then murdered his other daughter and took his own life. Cameron was 15 when her own father died by suicide — inspiring her to legally change her name to “Dove,” her father’s nickname for her. When she was 23, Dove’s good friend and Descendants’ co-star Cameron Boyce suddenly passed away from epilepsy, at age 20. The tattoo of a pistol with a rose emerging from its barrel on her wrist is in his honour. “Cameron was very passionate about gun control and giving children artistic outlets and alternatives to violent lives,” she says. “We grew up in a culture that is so desensitized to human loss at the hands of firearms. It's not even a political issue, it's a fucking common-sense issue.” Her activism stems from a deep personal place. “I don't actually feel responsibility for anything, ever. I don't feel like a role model. That’s not purely intended. I act on things because they’re important, and it would be a devastating waste not to use a massive platform to speak up.”
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Of course, Cameron is more than her tragedies: When she was 14, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles so Dove, who had been increasingly involved in regional theater, could pursue her acting career. By 16, she landed the lead on Liv & Maddie — an overnight success by any Hollywood metric — playing twins with opposite personalities. On set she fell for her on-screen love interest, Ryan McCartan. By 20, she was affianced. Six months later, she was not. “I fall so in love with people,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my god, the world is new, everything I thought I knew before is a fucking lie, we're all going to die tonight and live forever.’” Two years after breaking off the engagement, Cameron met Scottish actor Thomas Doherty (he plays queer dreamboat Max in the HBOMax Gossip Girl reboot) on the set of Descendants. They dated for nearly three years before breaking up last year, mid-pandemic, while Cameron was shooting Schmigadoon!, executive producer Lorne Michaels’s (SNL) meta comedy about a couple that gets trapped in an old-fashioned musical. The heartbreak was severe. “It’s messy right now. I’m dating a couple people,” Cameron says. “It’s pretty watery, the intimacy of the world that I find myself in now.”
A bisexual Francophile who falls hard and fast, Cameron has always been a romantic. “There was a girl, her name was Erin, we met in theater [class],” she recalls. “We were having a bath, as 8-year-olds do. She was washing my hair, and she said, ‘I love you, I’m in love with you.’ I was like, ‘I’m in love with you, too.’ We were 8, but it continued from there into our early adulthood — we held hands, we would kiss, it was early love.” She always knew she wasn’t straight. “When girls were getting crushes on boys, I was also getting crushes on boys, but I was also getting crushes on girls.” She waited until an Instagram Live session in 2020 to publicly come out and put an end to the ambiguity. “Guys, I really needed to explain something to you,” she said to her fans. “Maybe I haven't said it, but I'm super queer.” It was revelatory for her followers, but it wasn’t until her June 2021 Gay Times cover that her bisexuality seemed to stick publicly. “People need me to have a fucking megaphone,” she says. “I came out a year ago and thought that was going to be it. I didn’t realize that nobody fucking knew.”
It’s hard to imagine an openly queer Disney starlet thriving even just a few years ago, in the era of Demi, Selena, and Miley. “When I went into the industry, there was so much performative femininity happening, especially around 2012, especially being blonde on the Disney Channel. I didn't stand a fucking chance,” she explains. “Being 15 years old, my father had just passed away, and there was a lot of looking for male validation, right? Trying to please a massive corporation like Disney, I never had a conversation with them about my sexuality. They never asked me to hide anything,” she says of her straight-passing identity. “It’s more that people see me and go, ‘Oh, femme, straight, heterosexual, blonde.’ Who is going to look at me and guess otherwise? Everybody knew Kristen Stewart was gay. Nobody is going to think I'm gay. Nobody.”
Instead of ruminating on the ways in which public perception places limits on who she really is, Dove resolves to “zoom out” of the things she cannot change, what she calls “mortal problems,” and focus on what is most important: her sense of self. “I need to prioritize the quality of my personal life. It feels like it would be exhausting, and disappointing, and unnecessarily disruptive to buck against [my image,]” she continues. “I would have to work unnaturally hard to rage against my public image, and there's something really inauthentic about that.”
If that sounds self-actualized, there’s good reason. She’s motivated by what she describes as “a compulsive and deep need to protect [her] humanity,” which manifests in candid conversations about mental health, the kind of wisdom that comes from therapy. “I don't need the world to know that I have been through unending dark nights of the soul, limitless periods of chronic depression, anxiety, trauma, loss, and tragedy. I don't need to livestream it,” she says. When she does share intimate details about her life, it is a “healthy practice” meant to “refresh my human juices,” she says. “It's the same reason I go and get tattoos so often. It's like, ‘I'm alive, I own this body, I have full autonomy. I'm human.’ I'm always in process. I just stumbled across a troth of depression.”
Schmigadoon!, Cameron’s latest project, coming to Apple TV+ July 16, is a musical comedy that parodies antiquated tropes of the sing-along genre. Set in the 1940s, the series features an all-star cast: Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, Alan Cumming, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kristin Chenoweth, whom Cameron worked with on Descendants and Hairspray, Live. “Professional and kind, giggly and happy,” is how the Broadway legend describes Cameron. “I never had children, but I have many in my life that I love and take care of,” Chenoweth says. “I do consider her mine.”
Cameron plays Betsy, an all-American blonde bombshell in pigtails and a form-fitting country-girl dress. You could call Betsy the physical manifestation of the male gaze. You could also call her a parodic expression of the system that has misunderstood the woman cast to play her for so long, delivered with subversive humour. “Betsy is a joke. Her whole thing is one big joke. Everything that she says and does is sending feminism back 50 years, and that's why it's funny,” says Cameron. “I love playing over-the-top characters. I don't ever want to play a character that I find boring. Obviously, [Betsy]'s sexist as fuck, but we say that.”
The real genius in the performance (no spoilers!) is Cameron’s delivery — toppling a stereotype often used, in real life, to limit so many women. British actor Alan Cumming was dazzled by Cameron’s brilliantly self-aware performance. “She’s the busty wench girl with the angry father,” he says. “She brought such wit to it. It’s great when someone understands the parody that they’re doing and can almost parody themself, in a way… She’s very kind, very thoughtful, and I really think that – when you consider the industry that she’s in and how long she’s been in it – is a miracle.”
While Cameron waits for the July 16 premiere of Schmigadoon!, a series whose sensibility is “so crazy, I just can’t believe we’re getting away with it,” she’s working on her debut solo record. Don’t get too excited, but she has been collaborating with her good friend Finneas O’Connell, Billie Eilish’s brother and producer. “It’s been amazing to spend time with him. We talk about everything from epigenetics to quantum physics, to our favourite bagel place, to the way that we felt like we were freaks our whole life, and what his uncle said.” she explains. Their work is still nascent, and any details under wraps. What she will say is that she’s bending to nobody’s desire to make work that lends itself to categorization.
“I don’t want to pick a sound,” she says. “That makes me hard to market, and that’s what I'm really grappling with right now. But there is a through line in my songs: They have a sense of humour, they have a sense of camp, they have a sense of a nudge and a wink.”
She may as well be describing herself: abstract, fluid, darkly funny, theatrical — a combination of the characters she’s portrayed on screen and the multi-dimensional person she is off it. At long last, and on record, the multiplicities of Dove Cameron will be on full display.