In the YouTube documentary Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil, the 28-year-old singer and actor speaks openly about her battles with eating disorders and drug addiction, focusing most acutely on the 2018 overdose that nearly killed her. But the most revelatory words in the film belong to a selection of her fans, young women with makeup so precise and polished they look as if they’re suspended in a world smoothed out by an Instagram filter. One nearly runs out of breath as the words tumble out: “I love what she does for young girls, and her music—it just saved my life.” Another beams, “I don’t think she really understands how much of an impact she has on her fans.”
That kind of idolatry would weigh heavily on anyone’s shoulders, and Lovato—a veteran of child beauty pageants who was working in television by age 7—carries it responsibly. In Dancing With the Devil, directed by Michael D. Ratner, Lovato is straightforward in discussing addiction and recovery. “I’m not going to pretend like I’m invincible,” she says, though her immaculately undone hair and daytime-smoky eyes, not to mention her talon-like glamour nails, suggest that just living up to being Demi Lovato is all-consuming.
There’s a veneer of professionalism to everything Lovato does and says in Dancing With the Devil, not out of dishonesty or evasion, but perhaps because she knows how many young people hang on her every word. Many of her fans have been with her since she starred in the Disney Channel’s 2008 film Camp Rock, or perhaps even since her stint on the children’s TV series Barney & Friends. When you grow up in the public eye, what does it even mean to have a private self?
As with another performer who grew up in the Disney spotlight, Britney Spears—the subject of “Framing Britney Spears,” a recent episode of an FX docuseries that detailed the pop star’s fight to wrest control over her money and her life—Lovato’s transition into adulthood has been rocky. A clip from the 2008 American Music Awards shows a television host asking her, with aggressive jocularity, how she’s able to write songs about romantic suffering: “How much heartbreak can you have at 16?” This clip appears in the documentary just after Lovato has revealed to us that her first sexual experience, as a teenager, was rape, a nonconsensual act with no repercussions for the perpetrator. Lovato also states that she was sexually assaulted by the man who supplied her with drugs on the night of her overdose.
Sexual abuse; exhausting touring schedules; pressure from childhood to look or behave a certain way; the knowledge that employees are relying on you, possibly to support a family: any of those things could cause even a strong person to buckle. “Life is fluid and I’m fluid,” Lovato says toward the documentary’s end, referring not just to her ongoing recovery but probably to her sexuality as well. (Last year, Lovato was briefly engaged to actor Max Ehrich, though in Dancing With the Devil, she says she’s “too queer” to marry a man right now.) In the documentary’s final moments, she also has her dark, glossy tresses cut into a short bob. As the clippers buzz in close, her hair falls away in heavy, symbolic chunks.
As the result of her overdose, Lovato suffered a heart attack and three strokes. She is now, she says, on her “ninth life,” and Dancing With the Devil shows her on the edge of a springboard rather than a cliff. Freed from those mermaid waves, the hairstyle of choice of countless 50-ish moms, Lovato looks freer and younger, less like a matron in training. By the film’s end, she seems more like a teenager than most teenagers—ready to build a new self from the old one she barely got the chance to know.