Demi Lovato imagined herself in the middle of the ocean. As the 27-year-old tread water, long black hair skimming over dark waves, she was given a command: Raise your hand if you want to lose weight. Because Lovato is a pop star who has produced nine Top 20 Billboard singles under the scrutiny of 86 million Instagram followers and a BMI-obsessed tabloid press — and because she has dealt with eating disorders for more than a decade — Lovato raised her tattooed and extravagantly nail-arted hand.
While Lovato kept herself suspended in the open water with one limb, she was given another directive: Raise your hand if you’re willing to do something about your eating disorder. Because Lovato was, at that point in 2018, not in an ocean but in treatment for that eating disorder — as well as for addiction issues that led to an opioid overdose — Lovato obliged the counselor’s command and lifted her other hand. Which, of course, left her with no paddles to keep her from drowning in the metaphorical ocean. So Lovato made the choice to pull down her salute to thinness.
“I used to have people watching me the night before a photo shoot to make sure that I didn’t binge or eat and be swollen the next day,” Lovato says right before her late-June Bustle cover shoot. “It’s just a totally different world now. … I don’t prepare for photo shoots, even. I can eat Subway for breakfast.” Lovato delivers this news from a table in the Los Angeles house she rents with her boyfriend, actor Max Ehrich. She is resplendent in full glam but sans bra under a Selena Quintanilla shirt. Lovato left her high-rise apartment in March when another tenant tested positive for COVID-19, and she initially moved in with her mother and stepfather before realizing it’s “a little difficult to be in a new relationship at your family’s house.” Behind Lovato, in her temporary living room, sits a surgically masked team of people who do not spend their time monitoring her weight.
The new squad is led by Scooter Braun, whom Lovato approached in 2019, a year after her overdose. It was time to move on from longtime manager Phil McIntyre, who had worked with Lovato since she was a teenager. “In the past,” Lovato says, “I projected my own abandonment issues onto other people, especially male figures that I looked up to as father figures. I had to reflect on, ‘What do I want my relationship with my manager to look like without enmeshing my own father issues onto him?’” (Lovato’s estranged birth father, who she has said was abusive and suffered from mental health issues, passed away the week after Father’s Day in 2013.)
Braun honed his ability to manage trauma and talent in a gantlet of wounded musicians. “I’ve been through that with Justin,” Braun says, not needing to clarify the surname of Bieber, who very publicly grappled with his own substance use and mental health issues, which manifested in behavior including mop bucket urination and monkey abandonment. “I’ve been through that with Ariana, you know?” (Grande has talked about exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. The next year, her ex, rapper Mac Miller, passed away after accidentally overdosing on fentanyl, cocaine, and alcohol.) “I felt like, because I’ve been through that a couple of times with people who started off very young,” Braun says, “I can understand [Demi’s] struggles a little bit.”
In Lovato’s meeting with Braun, he says, “my intention was to be respectful and decline.” He simply didn’t feel he could take on another client. “She was nervous,” Braun says. (“I was nervous because I wanted him to manage me so bad, and I was terrified of rejection,” Lovato explains. “Also, having gone through such a public overdose, I didn’t know if anyone would want to manage me after that.”) Then Braun had a revelation. “What I saw is that she needed someone who didn’t need her. And about halfway through the meeting, [my partner Allison Kaye and I] both looked at each other and instinctually kind of laughed. And then Allison texted me and goes, ‘You’re thinking the same thing I am.’ I knew I could help her. I knew Allison could help her. I knew that we were in a position, in our lives and our careers, that if Demi needed to take three years off, she can do that. And if Demi needs us to go and have an honest conversation and get her out of something, it doesn’t affect my reputation.”
The implication is that Lovato is the kind of person who repeatedly finds herself needing to get out of something. “The people that are there with me every single day,” Lovato says, “I have to feel very connected with them and that I can trust them. That I can be totally vulnerable, transparent, and honest. And if I’m having a panic attack in the middle of a photo shoot or something that I can sit in the dressing room with whomever is there, and they can help me with it.”
Asking for help instead of forgiveness feels like a newer approach for Lovato, whose problems, in the past, seemed to be hastily dealt with when they erupted in public. But she is also singular among celebrities in her fame bracket in her willingness to go into detail about her low points. In 2015, Lovato chastised a tattoo artist for inking a “drunken teenage girl” after the woman went on Instagram to complain about Lovato’s behavior during an inebriated tattoo session. Earlier this year, Lovato went on the Ellen DeGeneres Show to explain that her eating disorder fueled a 2018 relapse, describing how her old management team gave her watermelon with fat-free whipped cream every year on her birthday in lieu of cake. Lovato’s mother Dianna De La Garza wrote a bracingly revealing memoir of her own anorexia, depression, and substance use issues, Falling With Wings. The autobiography features anecdotes like the time Lovato texted her “I’m sorry ahead of time.” (De La Garza was somewhat relieved to learn this apology was merely in reference to Lovato physically attacking a backup dancer and not a suicide note. Lovato wrote the foreword to the book.) When Lovato finished her first attempt at rehab, triggered by the 2010 punching incident, she took the advice to give her first interview just three months after completing treatment. “It was too soon, in my opinion,” Lovato says now. “But nobody knew any better, because we were looking to people in the [recovery] field for guidance.”
“I just felt like here’s someone who is so sweet, so nice and has obviously been through some shit,” Braun says. “And she made mistakes along the way, but also as a child was put in positions…” He doesn’t need to say what the positions were.
To put herself into more advantageous situations, Lovato says, “I had to learn the hard way from ignoring my needs and wants for so many years.” Really, she says, she didn’t even know what those desires were. Self-destructive behavior was, Lovato says, “just doing something because I didn’t know what to do.”
Before quarantine, it was very difficult for me to cry. I had programmed the thought into my head when I was 16 that I’m only going to cry if people pay me to.
2020 was supposed to be Lovato’s post-relapse comeback year, beginning with the wrenching Grammys debut of torch single “Anyone” and her Super Bowl performance of the national anthem, both delivered in head-to-toe angelic white. Lovato acted opposite Will Ferrell in the June Netflix comedy Eurovision Song Contest, has been hired to host a Quibi interview show, and will release a four-part YouTube docu-series that promises to “show fans her personal and musical journey over the past three years.” Lovato had also planned to release her album and go on tour, endeavors that are now postponed until those kinds of droplet-spreading events are less potentially deadly. Now, Lovato’s project is Lovato. She is painting Hawaiian eucalyptus trees and Black Lives Matter-inspired portraits of George Floyd — “I’m kind of embarrassed about how that turned out because it doesn’t look anything like him,” Lovato says, accurately — and working with a vast constellation of dietitians and coaches and spiritual advisers, one of whom she says warned her this pause was coming. “She was like, ‘Don’t panic when your work stops. It’s going to slow down drastically,’” Lovato says of the prophecy. “So I was kind of prepared in a weird way, and I just adapted. I think the universe — God — shifted that to happen in my life.”
God recently re-entered Lovato’s life, courtesy of Braun, who took her to church for the first time in years this winter. Tears are another recent re-addition. “Before quarantine, it was very difficult for me to cry. I had programmed the thought into my head when I was 16 that I’m only going to cry if people pay me to.” Now, Lovato says, “I started doing all this work, allowing myself to feel the pains of all the losses that I’ve had or the adversities or traumas that I’ve faced. I think my ability to be vulnerable and be more intimate with people has really heightened.”
The pandemic has been a graceless slam on the brakes for everyone lucky enough to safely abstain from public life and quarantine with their existential problems. Lovato has experienced hard stops before, in the form of multiple rehab stays. But this is the first time the halt was not a reaction to her own behavior. It’s an opportunity instead of a rebuke. A chance to feel for herself, not for an audience or a paycheck. After acknowledging the sacrifices of frontline workers and expressing sympathy for the sick and dead, Lovato admits the time has been “really good” for her. “It’s very common for people to only really work on themselves when crisis happens or when they notice that they’re slipping into old patterns or behaviors,” Lovato says. “So to be able to walk into this experience without a personal crisis and just be like, I can do the work on myself now because I have the time. … It was a beautiful thing.” As an added benefit, she says, “I wasn’t in rehab; I was outside in the world with Netflix. So when I was too tired of therapy, I’d put on Schitt’s Creek.” (For those who haven’t experienced inpatient rehabilitation facilities, there’s generally no Wi-Fi there.) “I was given this opportunity,” Lovato says of quarantine. “And I was like, I’m going to adapt. I’m going to shift to this. I’m going to learn from it.”
The day before we spoke, Lovato wrote a letter to her father. Though they never reconciled before his death, it was a love note, albeit a backhanded one. “I am who I am because of you,” Lovato wrote. “And I’m grateful for that. Because of your absence, I am an independent woman now. Because you were a pathological liar, I am honest to a fault.”
Like many things Lovato says, the content of the statement feels at odds with its delivery: a deluge of raw truth relayed with the bright tone and smile of the former Disney star. Though Lovato had an eating disorder before she became famous, she says, “I kind of looked around and had a moment where I was like, ‘Wow. This is so terrifyingly normalized.’” So many beautiful people around her were grinning through self-abuse. Lovato’s exploits with substance use became increasingly well-documented, and when she got help, she wanted to both explain that the slender bodies people saw on TV were not “normal” and destigmatize the painful consequences of trying to look like that. “When I went to treatment in 2010,” Lovato says, “I came out of the experience with the choice of talking about my struggles or my journey with the possibility of helping people, or keeping my mouth shut and going back to Disney Channel. And I was like that doesn’t feel authentic to me. So I chose to tell my story. And I had this, like, savior complex, where I thought, ‘Oh, I made this pact with God when I was young’” — in which Lovato would become a successful singer in exchange for doing His work — “and now I have to save people.”
In 2013, Lovato published Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year, a New York Times best-selling book of anodyne daily wisdom like, “If you spend too much time living in the past, you aren’t able to live in the now. Make an effort to move forward today.” After procrastinating until just before her publisher’s deadline, Lovato wound up writing the book in what she describes as a matter of days. “But it was more people-pleasing than anything, and then I realized through all of that people-pleasing that I wasn’t being authentic.” Earning praise for her relationship with recovery and rehabilitation was a way of “fueling those patterns that I had and that were bringing me to destruction,” Lovato says. “I think that’s what you’re hearing when you read back that book. … I binged on recovery, where I switched my addiction from the actual addictions to the recovery.” Now, Lovato tries to balance an impulse to expose with a refusal to flay herself doing so. “I have to set boundaries in interviews so I don’t treat them like therapy sessions,” she says pointedly. “But I’m able to hear my progress through the words that I’m saying when I read them back.”
You can see the impact of Lovato’s honesty in celebrity culture, and the need for continued public processing. It’s hard to imagine Taylor Swift revealing her own eating disorder in Netflix documentary Miss Americana without Lovato’s precedent. Meanwhile, Beyoncé was lauded for being transparent in the Netflix doc Homecoming about her disciplined Coachella rehearsal diet: “No bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol.” (Beyoncé perhaps needlessly clarified, “I’m hungry.”) Previously, Lovato says, “I would have prepared for something like Coachella or a photo shoot. I don’t look like Beyoncé. But I can’t risk my mental health because I have things in my history that Beyoncé doesn’t or may not have. For me, it’s a riskier thing.”
Lovato’s friend Jameela Jamil met her more than a decade ago, when Lovato was a teenager and Jamil was a radio host. Jamil has watched Lovato navigate radical honesty as a celebrity and let it inspire her own activism around eating disorders and body image. “She is revolutionary in how open and forthcoming she is with her truth,” Jamil says. “It comes at huge cost and risk; once you open the door into your personal life, people feel entitled to you. And people project this savior complex onto you, which is impossible to maintain.
“She takes on so much scrutiny and does it boldly in the name of making sure her fans aren’t harmed the way she was growing up,” Jamil continues. “Nobody else has done what she’s done. I can’t stress it enough when I tell people she’s a big part of where I drew strength to really start speaking my mind.”
Jamil was motivated by Lovato to self-advocate, but Lovato says during that time, “Even though I had a big singing voice, I didn’t have a big speaking voice for myself. I didn’t express my needs… And then after a while of your needs and your wants being ignored, you burst.”
To keep from bursting, Lovato needed to finally figure out what she wants. “I want a career that has nothing to do with my body,” she says, imagining the possibility of being neither an object nor a statement against objectification. “I want it to be about my music and my lyrics and my message. And I want a long-lasting career that I don’t have to change myself for. Music brought me so much joy when I was younger, and I lost that joy throughout the hustle and bustle of the music industry. I got miserable. And I don’t ever want it to be like that again. That’s what I want.”
The question, then, is who Lovato is when she’s not experiencing trauma. Will she become a “normal” star instead of one constantly fighting the normalized standards of stardom? When a singer so publicly tied to her pain is happy and sober and at peace and with God, are the tragedies just bad things she experienced, or are they a part of her? “I don’t think there’s a correct answer to this question,” Lovato says slowly. “I know these things happened to me. They shaped me into who I am. So maybe it’s a bit of both.” As Lovato says this, she lifts her right and left hands, palms open to all possibilities. She smiles. She’s still afloat.
Top image credit: Carolina Herrera pants; Totême courtesy of Farfetch tank; Zero + Maria Cornejo cardigan; Jennifer Fisher earrings; Jordan Road necklace.
Video credit: Mara Hoffman dress; Olgana Paris shoes; Jennifer Fisher ring; Lana Jewelry earrings.
Photographer: Angelo Kritikos
Hair: Paul Norton
Makeup: Rokael Lizama
Manicurist: Natalie Minerva
Stylist: Siena Montesano
Set Designer: Kelly Fondry
Art Director: Erin Hover
Fashion Direction: Tiffany Reid
Bustle followed current guidelines from the CDC and put measures in place to maximize the safety of our talent and crew.