The singer and actress Demi Lovato, who turns eighteen this month, has high cheekbones and dark-brown eyes and a dimple in her chin that lends softness to what might otherwise be too severe a countenance. Until recently, she wore her hair in bangs, in the manner of a young Demi Moore or Catherine Zeta-Jones. Just like those actresses, she comes across as self-assured and more than a little rapacious, the starlet who will not be denied.
The singer and actress Selena Gomez, who turned eighteen last month (and who for many years was Lovato’s best friend), has a look that’s at once softer and starker. A heart-shaped face. A giant mane of chestnut-colored hair. From certain angles, she reminds you of Valerie Bertinelli in One Day at a Time, the tomboy all gussied up. It’s only when her smile twists, as if she’s laughing at a private joke she has no intention of sharing, that you wonder if there might be a mean girl lurking within.
Perhaps it’s gross to be speaking of two barely legal Texans as nothing more than objects to be sized up. Then again, Lovato and Gomez both made their name on the Disney Channel, an entire network devoted to the commodification of teenagers. Gomez, who was born and raised in Grand Prairie, broke through first, in 2007, scoring the lead in Wizards of Waverly Place, about a family of sorcerers living in New York City. Lovato, who was born in Albuquerque but raised in Dallas, first gained widespread notice in 2008 in the Disney Channel movie Camp Rock, co-starring the Jonas Brothers. Her own series, Sonny With a Chance, followed in 2009, the same year her second album, Here We Go Again, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. (Gomez has also released an album, 2009’s Kiss and Tell, with her band, the Scene.) The natural inclination would be to assume that Lovato and Gomez aren’t much different from Jessica Simpson, Chace Crawford ( Gossip Girl), Kelly Clarkson, or any number of Top Models and American Idols who have emerged from the Metroplex in recent years (see “Count Our Lucky Stars”). But the multiplatform triumph of these two teenagers—Gomez just leaped to the big screen with Ramona and Beezus, while Lovato turns up next month in the Camp Rock sequel, expected to be the most watched Disney Channel effort since High School Musical 2—points to a larger and stranger phenomenon. Following on the heels of their Disney-sisters-in-arms Miley Cyrus and Vanessa Hudgens, Gomez and Lovato are the purest examples yet of young people so savvy about their own celebrity that it is impossible to determine where their real selves end and their fictional ones begin.
Both of them, weirdly enough, first found success as part of the cast of the Allen- and Las Colinas-shot Barney and Friends—surely the first and last time that a purple dinosaur has ever proved to be a tastemaker. Later, they both turned up in other Texas-based projects, including Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (Gomez) and the TV show Prison Break (Lovato). Eventually they attracted the attention of the Disney Channel and moved to the West Coast. It’s a commonplace tale, yet Lovato and Gomez hint at a new iteration of the kid star, less a victim of aggressive stage parents or cynical studio execs than a wily and willing accomplice. From their choice of boyfriends to their facility with social media to the knowing self-consciousness of their performances, these girls understand what it takes to get ahead in a fame-obsessed age: They’ve mastered the art of simultaneously inviting fans into their lives and slyly holding them at bay. Just take a look at the postmodern hall of mirrors that is Sonny With a Chance, in which Lovato plays a teenager plucked from obscurity to appear on a well-known sketch comedy program. The plots unfold within the confines of a fictional TV studio that (one presumes) is a fantasy projection of the Disney Channel; the characters are all child stars on the fictional network’s series. In other words, you’re watching a commercial for the Disney Channel when the commercials aren’t running, and instead of lending some humanity to this cold conceit, Lovato just keeps winking at the audience to let us know that she’s in on the joke.
Gomez, who floats through Wizards of Waverly Place wearing an expression that’s half-adorable, half- I-am-so-over-this, is no less the smooth operator. But as canny as these girls appear onscreen, it’s offscreen where their sophistication really shines through, where their personas start to seem like a calibrated con. Even if, for instance, you believe that the purity rings they both sport are genuine, and even if you believe that their romances with the Jonas Brothers have been legit (Lovato dated Joe; Gomez has had an on-off relationship with Nick), how do you account for the popular YouTube videos the two recorded starting in 2008? Sitting together in front of a webcam, the girls show off their fashion designer friend’s T-shirts, give “shout-outs” to fans, and overassert the legitimacy of their friendship. (“And this is my best friend in the entire world.” “And this is my best friend, ever since we were seven years old.”) Were these videos impromptu or publicist-scripted? Are they taking place in one of their bedrooms, or are they on a set that’s designed to look like an ordinary kid’s bedroom? Do such distinctions even matter when your entire life unfolds inside a hermetically sealed universe populated only by fellow teen phenoms? Indeed, even the girls’ falling-out last year sounded like, well, an episode of Sonny With a Chance. Lovato apparently became angry when Gomez began spending too much time with a new friend. The new friend? Grammy-winning singer Taylor Swift.
The funny thing about all of this is that Lovato and Gomez are hardly without talent. Thus far, the best thing they’ve done is the 2009 Disney Channel movie Princess