So, my life has kind of flipped upside down,” Demi Lovato says wearily into a camera that she’s propped up on a table. She reflects on her recent breakup with actor Max Ehrich, concluding resignedly, “Good news is, I haven’t picked up any hard drugs or anything like that. I’m hanging in there. Ugh. It’s just shitty.”
Then text appears on the screen, telling us the next clip was recorded hours later on the same day. Now Lovato weeps alone in a room in front of the camera, glasses on and makeup off. “The video I made earlier wasn’t an accurate representation of what I’m going through,” she confesses.
Given the other heavy topics—addiction, sexual assault, a near-fatal drug overdose, eating disorders, her estranged relationship with her father and his tragic death—covered in Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil, a four-part documentary that premiered Tuesday at SXSW and will begin streaming on YouTube on March 23, the end of her engagement after a whirlwind relationship may seem like a blip by comparison. And yet, these self-recorded scenes buried themselves in my brain. As a longtime fan, I’ve seen Lovato here before.
I’ve watched Demi Lovato embrace radical honesty in the public eye for a decade now. At age eighteen, she entered a treatment facility for what an anonymous source termed “physical and emotional issues” after Lovato punched a backup dancer in the face. A few months after completing treatment, she shared publicly that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and spoke to the media about her eating disorders, the bullying she endured as a child, and how she turned to self-harm as a coping mechanism. She starred in several documentaries—Demi Lovato: Stay Strong in 2012 and Simply Complicated in 2017—in which she spoke about her various mental health struggles. More recently, in a February appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Degeneres gushed, “You’re so honest, and I say this to you all the time. You know, it’s one thing to have the talent that you have, but you’re so down to earth, you’re so real, you’re so honest, you’re so authentic,” while Lovato sits with a tight-lipped, fixed smile on her face. Lovato often sings about her life experiences and, for better or for worse, she’s been unfiltered in social media and in interviews, unafraid to share her opinion and perspective.
I first became a Demi Lovato fan after watching her star in Camp Rock, the 2008 Disney Channel movie that catapulted her to fame, but what truly cemented my crush is her willingness to speak openly. We’re only about five months apart in age, and I feel like we’ve grown up together. When she first went to a treatment facility and subsequently discussed how being bullied about her weight contributed to her eating disorder, I was a college sophomore struggling with toxic pressure in my own relationship to lose weight. I can’t even estimate how many times I cried to her single “Skyscraper” after that relationship ended. My teenage infatuation with her (I had a photo of her taped to the ceiling above my workspace at my college newspaper’s office) was one small factor in helping me realize that maybe my feelings for women were not solely platonic—a realization that felt vindicated when Lovato publicly embraced her own queerness. And as she spoke over the years about her ups and downs, I was one of the many fans who could relate to Lovato’s honest message about the nonlinear path to improving mental health.
But as a celebrity, your personality also functions as your brand—the constellation of traits that draw fans in and, most importantly, entice them to spend money on albums and concert tickets. In her 2017 YouTube documentary, Simply Complicated, Lovato is forthright about her drug and alcohol addictions and eating disorder. But the confessions were intertwined with promotional sheen. Overly produced, music video–style interludes featuring songs from her album Tell Me You Love Me, which had been released a few weeks earlier, popped up between thematic segments about Lovato’s life. After she and her friends talk about how she’s enjoying single life and casual dating, the documentary cuts between clips of her singing “Sexy Dirty Love” and her lying on a bed and looking seductively at the camera. As Dancing With the Devil’s director, Michael Ratner, recently told Billboard, “When she made Simply Complicated, she was the poster child for sobriety.” The narrative was clear: Demi Lovato is a sober role model who’s speaking out for mental health, but don’t worry, she’s still an appealing, sexy pop star. Don’t forget to check out her album!
The brand of honesty is further complicated by the fact that Lovato has, by her own admission, often been less than truthful. She discussed her mental health struggles in her 2012 film Stay Strong, at one point saying, “Why not air all my secrets?” But it turned out not all her secrets had been aired: at the start of Simply Complicated, Lovato reveals that she was “on cocaine” during filming for the 2012 documentary. She and members of her team went on to detail how she could be manipulative and angry, and would lie about her alcohol and drug consumption. But Simply Complicated made sure to end on a note that emphasized her authenticity: her then-manager, Phil McIntyre, said, “She has lived through a lot of stuff, and she tries to put that stuff into her art, because she’s so authentic, and that’s why people love her.”
In the trailer for Dancing With the Devil, Lovato says, “I’ve had so much to say over the past two years wanting to set the record straight about what it was that happened.” My first instinct was that this documentary would do more of the same: walk the tightrope of preserving Lovato’s brand of jaw-dropping honesty, while shaping that honesty in such a way as to preserve her palatability and role-model image.
But to my surprise, Dancing With the Devil’s honesty is a sharp departure. Gone are the segments emphasizing her sexiness, or her popularity, or the inspiration she brings to her fans. Instead, the documentary is almost exclusively made up of sit-down interviews with Lovato, two of her closest friends, her family, and some members of her current and former team. It details Lovato’s dishonesty about her drug usage leading up to her July 2018 overdose, with selfies she took while smoking heroin and high on crack cocaine. It painfully and painstakingly details the medical procedures necessary to save her life after her then-assistant discovered her naked and unresponsive in her bedroom. Lovato says she believes that her drug dealer sexually assaulted her when she was too incapacitated to consent. She goes into detail about the death of her biological father, and how her relationship with him and his history of addiction has played a role in so much of her behavior. Perhaps most controversially, she explains—with careful caveats from both her and her case manager that this approach is not for everyone—that she’s decided to try to drink and smoke weed in moderation now, rather than attempt to maintain total sobriety.
It’s not a flattering depiction of Lovato or her behavior, and there is very little attempt to put PR polish on her honesty. After Lovato recovered from the overdose, she asked for new management, and Dancing With the Devil suggests that her old team was responsible for the tightly controlled branding to begin with. Without naming names, Lovato and her friends detail how her food was micromanaged and heavily monitored. “It was hammered into her head: you have to be sober, you have to be this icon, this role model that my sister never claimed to want to be in the first place,” Dallas Lovato, Demi’s older sister, says. Jordan Jackson, Lovato’s former personal assistant, recalls “sneaking downstairs to make the phone call” for an ambulance after she found Lovato unresponsive because “I didn’t want to get in trouble for calling 911. While I was on the call, someone told me to tell the operator no sirens.” And when Scooter Braun, who became Lovato’s music manager in 2019, explains why he decided to take her on as a client, he says it’s because “she needed someone who knew what to do but also didn’t need her to work”—implying that was something her previous music team did need. (It seems worth noting, too, that one of the interviewees in Simply Complicated was Mike Bayer, credited as “Demi’s development coach.” Left unmentioned in the documentary is that Lovato was at the time of filming a co-owner of CAST rehab facilities, of which Bayer is CEO. In an accompanying YouTube video in which Lovato touts the treatment she received at CAST Centers, Bayer describes her as a “business partner.” Lovato and CAST Centers’ business relationship seems to have since soured.)
Of course, business and branding decisions were still made around Dancing With the Devil. Braun’s production company, SB Projects, helped produce the film. The documentary teases Lovato’s forthcoming music, with her friends praising her as-yet-unreleased song “Dancing With the Devil” toward the end of it; and she started promoting her upcoming album Dancing With the Devil … the Art of Starting Over right around the time of the documentary’s SXSW premiere.
But still, as Ratner told Billboard, “I think that she even surprised herself with how comfortable she felt with the process and the way the project was turning out that she wanted to use it as the ultimate catharsis.” Nowhere is that more clear than in Lovato’s conversations about sexual assault. She says she went back to her drug dealer once more after her overdose, explaining, “I wanted to rewrite his choice of violating me. I wanted it now to be my choice. And he also had something that I wanted, which were drugs. And yeah, I ended up getting high. I thought, how did I pick up the same drugs that put me in the hospital? I was mortified at my decisions.” And Lovato talks about something that she’s hinted about before but has not openly discussed: She says she was sexually assaulted as a teen. She recalls that then, too, “I called that person back a month later and tried to make it right by being in control and all it did was make me feel worse.” And once again, I found myself relating to Lovato, nodding at the screen as she described her “textbook trauma reenactments.”
I keep thinking back to her self-recorded clips about the breakup, to her need to set the record straight even in that moment, even as she sobbed. She could have stuck to that first more composed video, or have not included either one. But instead she wanted to show the truth—her truth. For years, she’s explained that the goal of her openness has been to raise awareness of mental health issues and addiction, and to help those struggling with similar issues to feel less alone. And while her honesty might not have been absolute over the years, it has still helped plenty of her fans, myself included. But in Dancing With the Devil, as I watched her expound upon her past and connect the dots between the traumatic incidents, addictions, and mental illnesses that have shaped her life, I finally felt like—even though this documentary might still help some viewers understand and process similar issues in their lives—this time, the honesty is for her.