For Demi Lovato, No Airbrushing Required

11 03 2013

On a recent sunny afternoon, Demi Lovato emerged from a black tractor-size SUV and made her way onto a stage set up at the Grove, an upscale outdoor mall here, where she was to perform at the opening of a new Topshop. As screaming Lovatics (as Ms. Lovato’s fans proclaim themselves) flashed iPhones and waved Magic Marker signs at the pop star, she looked a little sheepish. This was understandable: her right foot was encased in a black silver-studded cast that resembled a giant ski boot.

But as Ms. Lovato hobbled over to the microphone, dressed in a biker jacket and tight black pants, she overcame the awkwardness, her dark-painted lips breaking into a dazzling smile.

“I’m feeling great,” she yelled to the crowd, gamely kicking her injured foot into the air before launching into her chart-topping song “Give Your Heart a Break.” “I’m ready to rock!”

Embracing unairbrushed moments has become a defining characteristic of Ms. Lovato, 20, one that has helped propel her back into the spotlight after a sudden fall from grace (in late 2010, she entered rehab for issues related to an eating disorder and cutting) that brought her career, which accelerated on the Disney Channel, to a halt.

Rather than adhere to the Hollywood playbook of dismissing or softening the facts, Ms. Lovato has openly aired her troubles, tweeting to her 12 million fans about how she spent New Year’s Eve in rehab, and talking to Katie Couric about feeling fat while still in diapers.

Instead of tarnishing her image, these candid revelations seem to have bolstered her. She is in negotiations to return as a judge for the next season of the Fox reality singing show “The X Factor.” She was arguably the breakout star of the show last winter. And her new song, “Heart Attack,” was No. 1 on iTunes its first week of release. Some critics compare her to the reality-show hall-of-famer Kelly Clarkson.

Ms. Lovato’s second act stands in vivid contrast to that of Miley Cyrus, Ms. Lovato’s direct predecessor in the Disney ranks. Ms. Cyrus’s transition from teen queen to adult star was marred by a steady drip, drip of scandalous revelations and a near-nude photo spread in Vanity Fair, which left many of her fans feeling alienated and confused; her record sales plummeted.

Ms. Lovato’s approach has proved far savvier, as was her decision to use “X Factor,” which last season averaged eight million viewers, as a comeback vehicle. Nowhere did she seem more “authentic,” as her handlers like to say, than on that show, emerging as a lively, relatable judge who was far more at ease than her fellow panelist Britney Spears. While Ms. Spears offered terse, generic-sounding critiques to contestants and appeared to be in a state of quiet distress throughout the season (she is not returning), Ms. Lovato was a nurturing den mother, at one point walking on stage to console a crying singer, Jillian Jensen, who said she had been bullied at school. (Ms. Lovato attributes her own struggles to being bullied when she was 12.)

“When I read about her story and the problems she had, how she’d overcome them and how she spoke openly about them, I was very impressed,” said Simon Cowell, the creator of “X Factor” and its alpha judge, in a phone interview. “I just thought, here’s a girl who’s been through a lot, who’s experienced a lot, is very confident, has this fanatical following, and I thought it was important for the show that someone represented that audience.”

“X Factor” also allowed Ms. Lovato to cultivate her image as a fashion idol with Gwen Stefani and Joan Jett leanings: bright pink bangs, winged eyeliner and lots of leather jackets to go with her multiple tattoos. Virtually all of her looks were supplied by Topshop, for whom Ms. Lovato has become an unofficial spokeswoman ever since she bonded with the chain’s owner, Sir Philip Green, while shopping in the store’s London flagship last year.

“We walked around the store chitchatting,” Sir Philip said on the phone. “I thought she was a sweetie.”

After she landed the “X Factor” gig, he said, “we had one of my girls look after her to see how we could help develop her styling. She became a lot more interested in clothes generally.” (Ms. Lovato’s stylist is Soulmaz Vosough, Topshop’s global head of personal shopping.)

The relationship appears to have paid off for both parties.

“She looks amazing,” said Dana Mathews, senior entertainment editor of Teen Vogue, which featured Ms. Lovato on the cover of its November issue. “People really look at how she dresses, and her hair. On the cover, her hair was dyed blue on the bottom and our readers loved it. Katy Perry was on the cover last May with blue hair, but it was completely dyed, not half and half. Demi kind of takes risks and people like that.”

Ms. Mathews said that Ms. Lovato is popular with young readers also because she is going through what many of them are. “As do a lot of other superstars,” she added, “but Demi is one of the few people who’s actually honest about it.”

Indeed.

In a suite at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard one recent afternoon, Ms. Lovato was nursing a cup of tea (she’d just had bronchitis) while curled up on a white chair wearing black leather pants and an army-green jacket, courtesy of, yes, Topshop.

“Two years ago, I was in treatment and I was spending New Year’s Eve in rehab,” she said. “And that was really difficult. I looked at my life and was like, What have I done to myself? I can’t believe it’s come down to this.”

Cut to this past New Year’s.

“It’s me on the beach literally sipping espresso in a cabana at night with my closest friends,” Ms. Lovato said. “It was just a moment where I was like, wow, yeah. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard to do. But there are so many great things that come about when you start to do that for yourself.”

Ms. Lovato is still deep in the self-reflective world of recovery. Admitting that there “have been slip-ups” and that “you don’t go into rehab and come out totally fixed,” she has spent the last year living in a sober-living facility, where she came home after taping “X Factor” “to a house full of girls, which was really nice.”

She said she meets with a therapist regularly. And she even has recovery professionals on her oft-referenced management team. None of these topics were off limits, even with her day-to-day manager Nikki Bohannon sitting a few feet away, punching away at a smartphone and every so often shooting Ms. Lovato a watchful glance.

“My team isn’t the type of management that will lie,” Ms. Lovato said. “Because, one, it’s not fair. And two, everything comes out anyways. So you might as well save yourself the trouble and not have a reason to make up an excuse for the other excuse.”

Plus, she said, “Nobody hates me for it, which is cool.”

So it seems. At the Grove event, one Lovatic with braces and purple-painted fingernails waved a sign urging Ms. Lovato to “Stay Strong,” a nod to one of the star’s tattoos. Another broke down in tears at the sight of her.

During “X Factor,” Ms. Lovato’s fans were especially revved up, devoting entire Tumblr pages to what she wore each night and accusing Ms. Spears of stealing Ms. Lovato’s look, after the pop singer dyed the tips of her blond locks blue and pink. Another topic of discussion: Ms. Lovato’s shape-shifting eyebrows.

“I went through a crazy brow phase,” Ms. Lovato said, laughing. “I became addicted to eyebrow pencils.”

As for dyeing her hair eight different times: “That was just like, ‘What can I do next? I’m bored.’ ”

It also may have been a rebellious response to growing up in the well-oiled Disney machine. Soon after appearing in the 2008 Jonas Brothers movie “Camp Rock,” Ms. Lovato, who was then 15, landed her own show, “Sonny With a Chance,” and was on a warp-speed track to replace Ms. Cyrus.

Then Ms. Lovato punched a backup dancer while on tour. Soon after, she entered rehab, left the Disney Channel and put her music on hold.

According to Brian Robbins, the executive producer of “Sonny With a Chance,” Ms. Lovato, who even back then had two tattoos (she now has 24, if you count all of the birds on one of her forearms), never fit neatly into the teenage princess role.

“She’s deep,” Mr. Robbins said. “She’s not just a smiley cheerleader from Texas.” (Ms. Lovato grew up in Dallas; her mother was a cheerleader for the Cowboys.) “Which could also explain the trials and tribulations she’s been through.”

Now Ms. Lovato is returning to her love of music with an album that Ken Bunt, the executive vice president of Disney Music Group, calls “the most cohesive album she’s put together. It tells a story.”

“She really is a power singer,” Mr. Bunt said, noting that her vocals were “really soaring” on the track “Give Your Heart.” “I think it made people take her more seriously than they did in the past.”

Ms. Lovato said: “With my earlier songs I hadn’t figured out who I was musically yet. It’s a process. You evolve over time, and you never nail it. But now I have a pretty good idea. I have a better sense of who I am as a musician.”

When asked whether a return to TV or movies is in her future, though, Ms. Lovato smiled and reached for her teacup.

“I feel like I have too many tattoos to go back to acting,” she said.

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