LOS ANGELES On a recent sunny afternoon, Demi Lovato emerged from a black SUV and made her way onto a stage at The Grove, an upscale outdoor mall, to perform at the opening of a Topshop. As screaming Lovatics (as fans call themselves) flashed iPhones and waved signs, 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 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 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.
Rather than adhere to the Hollywood playbook of dismissing or softening the facts, Lovato has 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 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 the breakout star of the show last winter. 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.
Lovato’s second act stands in vivid contrast to that of Miley Cyrus, Lovato’s direct predecessor in the Disney ranks. Cyrus’ transition from teen queen to adult star was marred by scandalous revelations and a near-nude photo spread in Vanity Fair, which left many fans feeling alienated and confused; her record sales plummeted.
Lovato’s approach has proved far savvier, as has her decision to use “X Factor,” which last season averaged 8 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.
Playing with fashion
While Spears offered generic-sounding critiques to contestants and appeared to be in quiet distress throughout the season (she is not returning), Lovato was a nurturing den mother, at one point walking onstage to console a crying singer, Jillian Jensen, who said she had been bullied at school. (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, creator of “X Factor.” “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 Lovato to cultivate her image as a fashion idol with Gwen Stefani and Joan Jett leanings: pink bangs, winged eyeliner and lots of leather jackets to go with her tattoos. Almost all of her looks were supplied by Topshop, for whom Lovato has become unofficial spokeswoman since she bonded with owner Sir Philip Green while shopping in the store’s London flagship last year.
The relationship appears to have paid off.
“She looks amazing,” said Dana Mathews, senior entertainment editor of Teen Vogue, which featured Lovato on its November cover. “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. … Demi kind of takes risks and people like that.”
Mathews said Lovato is popular with readers also because she is going through what they are. “As do a lot of other superstars,” she said, “but Demi is one of the few people who’s actually honest about it.”
Rebellious growing up
Lovato is still deep in the self-reflective world of recovery. Admitting there “have been slip-ups” and “you don’t go into rehab and come out totally fixed,” she has spent the past year 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 has recovery professionals on her management team.
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 Disney machine. After appearing in the 2008 Jonas Brothers movie “Camp Rock,” Lovato, who was 15, landed her own show, “Sonny With a Chance,” and was on track to replace Cyrus.
Brian Robbins, executive producer of “Sonny With a Chance,” said Lovato, who even then had two tattoos (she now has 24, if you count the birds on one of her forearms), never fit into the teenage princess role.
“She’s deep,” Robbins said. “She’s not just a smiley cheerleader from Texas.” “Which could also explain the trials and tribulations she’s been through.”
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,” 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.”
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