At an unpretentious nail salon in a strip mall in the Valley, Demi Lovato lounges deep into her chair, apologizing to the manicurist for her persistent cough. She is surrounded by a collection of waters and green teas, salves for the bronchitis that’s been plaguing her for weeks. Later this afternoon, a doctor will be dropping by the house Lovato shares with her longtime boyfriend, Wilmer Valderrama, to administer an IV drip to bolster her system for a big weekend of performances. It’s a cliché to bring up a celebrity’s makeup-free face, but Lovato’s bare skin and bedhead are a reminder of just how young this woman is — a woman with a loving reminder to “Stay Strong” tattooed on the undersides of the wrists she once sliced into. Just 23 years old, and so many lifetimes already lived. Here’s the story you probably know: Lovato has been performing for us since she was 7 years old, then just an eager girl in glasses on the kids' show Barney & Friends. She spent her teen years hawking her lacquered Disney charm on screen and concert stages, while behind the scenes, she was living out the dark, child-star narrative of drug addiction and horrific self-abuse. Rock bottom came in 2010, when, at age 18, she punched out a backup dancer while on tour with the Jonas Brothers. She then went to rehab for her eating disorder and cutting and cocaine addictions — and it all made for the sort of lurid headlines that the worst part of our human nature gobbles up on Twitter and tabloid sites. Look at that mess.
And now for the refreshing twist: That toilet-flush of innocence is not this woman’s whole story, nor, it turns out, the most interesting chapter. In four hard-won years of sobriety — and we’re talking the grinding, unglamorous work of it, the sober companions and living houses, the daily mindful avoidance of triggers — Demi Lovato has thrown herself deeply into a useful and engaged life. In the last year alone, she hit up Capitol Hill to advocate for the mentally ill, has been a vocal ally of the LGBT community, rallied the Latino vote, and stumped for Hillary Clinton at the Iowa caucuses. And with the release of her album Confident last fall, she’s made a conscious decision to concentrate on music that showcases her vocal chops rather than slick, poppy hooks. In other words, she’s trusting and using her voice, which we may have underestimated all this time. At the Grammys in February, Lovato took the stage as part of a tribute to Lionel Richie. When she launched into “Hello” — as perfect a song as any to reintroduce one’s self to an audience — she says it was like she watched the crowd wake up to her as an artist. “I remember Lionel was sitting next to Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson,” Lovato tells me. “Lionel looked so happy, and when I hit that first big note, Bruno almost fully stood out of his chair and he put his fist in the air. I was like, ‘Oh, shit, this is really going well.’ When I got off stage, I just started crying. It’s taken me so long to get to the Grammys, and to finally get to perform there was amazing.” Her longtime manager Phil McIntyre greeted her in the wings, holding up his cellphone that was already ablaze with industry congratulations. “I really campaigned for her to have that moment,” he told me in an email, “because I knew she would rise to the occasion and show the world just how talented of a singer she is. I believe that was a game-changing moment for her in her career.” Today, clad in workout gear and coughing into her elbow, Lovato strikes me as calm and present. Because she’s spent the last several years working so openly through her demons, there’s an ease to our free-flowing conversation that can be rare in interviews with famous people, particularly those who have grown up with media trainers. “I’d rather live my life free and open than closed off, where people like me for something that I’m not,” she says matter-of-factly. She seems like a grown-up, and when I share that I too am sober, she responds to me in the measured, supportive voice of a sponsor.
That willingness to communicate both her anxiety and gratitude in simple, unapologetic language is worlds away from the valley of drama she used to carry inside. At her lowest point, Lovato says she couldn’t go an hour without using cocaine. When her parents or team would try to pull her reins, she’d shake them rudely loose. “‘Try to ground me — I pay your bills,’” she recalls telling them. “Prior to getting sober, I was one of those people who was like, I don’t give a fuck, whatever. And I used that as an excuse to do whatever I wanted. I was a nightmare to work with.” Asked to describe her bad behavior, she is unforgiving of her former self: “Just bitchy, a cunt.” When her tour meltdown finally forced her into rehab, she went for three months, if only in search of a respite from being so angry and sad. Upon release, Lovato assumed her problem was her previously undiagnosed bipolar and eating disorders, and that substance abuse wasn’t the real demon. At just 18, an age when most teenagers are still flirting with the allure of experimentation, Lovato suffered some late-night stumbles back into using, and realized she had to 180 her lifestyle. “I had to learn the hard way that I can’t do parties anymore,” she says. “Some people can go out and not be triggered, but that’s not the case for me.” She’s redefined her happy place as on the sofa in elastic pants with her yorkiepoo, Batman, curled up alongside her, or out for date nights with Valderrama, who's been her stalwart partner for six years. And by the by, being open doesn’t mean living without boundaries. To all the friends and fans hungry for engagement news, she says they can all kindly back off: “It’s nobody’s business but ours, and when it happens, it happens.”
You’d think a person so devoted to self-preservation would run screaming from the minefield that is social media.But Lovato seems to strap a bullseye on her chest when she pops onto Twitter, tweeting her disgust for Donald Trump and righteous support of Hillary Clinton, or posting bikini pictures in which she unapologetically accepts her curves, embracing a biscuit pinch of belly to honor how far she’s come in her battle with body acceptance. “I’ve been doing this so long I literally laugh at the things people say,” she says. “You’re not going to agree with everybody and you’re not going to please everybody.” Lovato was an early, vocal supporter of her friend Kesha during her legal battle against Sony Records and producer Dr. Luke, whom Kesha accused of rape (a charge he has denied). “I don’t know what happened, and it’s none of my business, to be honest,” Lovato says. “My thing was whether it did or didn’t happen, this is somebody coming forward. And unfortunately, there’s way too much shame put on victims coming forward talking about being date-raped, raped, sexually abused. So then people feel like they can’t come forward anymore because they’ll just be torn to shreds.”
“I got too passionate,” Lovato tells me, echoing a statement she's made in previous interviews on the matter. “I get carried away on Twitter, and that’s what I said, and that’s that.” When asked how dismaying it was to witness a necessary conversation about the treatment of victims get sidelined by headlines about spatting female stars, Lovato is thoughtful: “Listen, there’s nothing positive that comes from pitting women against each other. There are women that I don’t get along with, and that’s fine. My thing is, don’t brand yourself a feminist if you don’t do the work. I have an immense amount of respect for women like Lena Dunham...or Beyoncé, who make amazing political statements through their work.” The hoopla around her #FreeKesha Twitter exchange — however beside-the-point much of it became — won't make Lovato reach for a filter button. “I’m not going to stop saying what I believe in,” she says. “I have no problem standing up for myself. Maybe I got it from growing up in Texas, but I never took shit from anybody. Now I know how to do it without pushing people away. You just don’t approach things with a Fuck You mentality. Instead it’s: This is the way I’m perceiving things. There’s nothing wrong with my beliefs or feelings. So let’s agree to disagree, or let’s just disagree.” What Lovato believes in right now is her voice. In readying Confident, she says she was gunning hard for the charts, and admits it was initially deflating when her first two singles, “Confident” and the lesbian winky-wink, “Cool for the Summer,” didn’t hit No. 1. “I was really bummed about it because that’s what I was going for,” she says. “I got to a point where I was like, Oh my god, it does not fucking matter. At the end of the day, I’m going to be on tour and I want to be performing songs on stage that I can sing my ass off to and really feel when I’m on stage. So now I have a much better sense of my music.”
In the last several months, Lovato has been making the rounds singing the strongest track on Confident, the stripped-down ballad “Stone Cold,” which she says best represents her new artistic direction. She co-wrote the song with the Swedish singer-songwriter Laleh Pourkarim, who’s also worked with Adam Lambert. “Usually there are always 10-20 people involved in the process of making these big projects,” Pourkarim tells me via email. “But when me and Demi get together, we create whatever we want to create without having to compromise with anyone, and I love that about her. She is in control over her career and that is so important.” Hungry for more songs as satisfying as “Stone Cold,” Lovato has spent much of the spring in the recording studio. “By the time I go on tour, I want to be able to perform new songs,” she says. “Ideally, I would release a single next month.”
Lovato knows all of this hard work doesn’t guarantee people will ever see her as more than a former child star. And that’s okay with her. Because she sees herself as more than that. “I’m still underestimated,” she says. “I still have more things to prove — not just about the things I can do with my voice. Some people think that because I’m young, I can’t stay sober. But these are things I want to prove to myself.”
While our nails dry (she chose an elegant nude), and before Lovato’s discreet security man whisks her away in a black Suburban to zoom off to a fitting, we play a quick game of rapid-fire questions.
What do you sing in the shower?
“Some Aretha for sure.”
First childhood crush?
“Douglas McDonald. He was in the fifth grade, I was in kindergarten, ha!”
Movie that always makes you cry?
“The Notebook, without fail. But I cry at everything.”
Go-to TV trash?
“Crime shows like 20/20 or the Forensic Files. They make me happy to be alive.”
Current celebrity crush?
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
“That’s easy. Me.”