These are uniquely high-pressure times for female pop stars. Over the past couple of years, A-list women have answered the expectations of supposedly youth-obsessed fans by reinventing themselves, with mixed commercial and critical results: the bad-girl-gone-good (Miley Cyrus); the party-starter turned woke-tivist (Katy Perry); the stark stylistic 180 (“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now... ’cause she’s dead”). Selena Gomez, meanwhile, cannily dropped boundary-testing singles instead of a full album in 2017. And then there’s Demi Lovato, who, at just 25, has spent a decade steadily maintaining a massive career based on total transparency.
Indeed, it’s that Demi who meets me on a February afternoon in her sprawling home above Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon, curled up on a cream-colored couch, her face still flushed from a morning workout. "I’m not a runner, but I ran this morning. I was exhausted," confesses Lovato as she hands me a bottle of pH-balanced water. "Are you sweating? It’s hot in here. Let me make sure the air is on." Despite the heat, she’s wearing a Run-D.M.C. sweatshirt from Barneys -- though when I ask if she’s a fan, she shakes her head and laughs: "I’m totally the type of person who only wears band tees because they look cute."
In a few hours, Lovato will leave for Sacramento, Calif., where she’s rehearsing for her new headlining arena tour, promoting her album Tell Me You Love Me, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 following its release last September. (Even now it’s at No. 31.) Today, the house -- with its expansive views of downtown Los Angeles, recording studio and the kind of fabulous pool you’d see on The Bachelor -- feels a bit like Noah’s Ark for a pop star, with personal assistants, security guards and house cleaners passing through two by two. Getting upstairs to the atrium where Lovato and I are chatting required navigating a staff in battle mode, packing guitars, suitcases and pre-portioned meals.
But Lovato seems impervious to the tumult. She scoops up the tiny black Yorkie-Poo who has been snoozing at her feet. "This is Batman," she says. "He’s my superhero." This $8 million spread has weathered far worse chaos: In February 2017, it was nearly destroyed in a mudslide that stopped just shy of the front door. "It was all over TMZ," recalls Lovato. "They showed pictures of my house. I was so pissed. If a crazed fan studied those, they could break in." And a few months later, someone tried to do just that. "They knew I was going to be away. They had a ladder and climbed to the second floor. My house manager was staying here, and the dogs started barking. She opened the door and saw a man on my balcony, and he ran. "My dogs" -- tiny Batman included -- "saved the day."
Over the course of six albums that all made the top five on the Billboard 200, Lovato has proved herself a reliable charts force, one who can do everything from empowerment anthems ("Skyscraper," "Confident") to song-of-the-summer contenders ("Cool for the Summer") to EDM team-ups (the hit Cheat Codes collab "No Promises") to Latin crossover -- she sang on Luis Fonsi’s 2017 “Despacito” follow-up, “Échame la Culpa,” which hit No. 1 on Latin Airplay. She has reached the level of fame, attained by the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, at which her mother can put out her own parenting memoir (the recent Falling With Wings: A Mother’s Story, by Dianna De La Garza).
But along with hits, unpretentious candor is what Lovato’s fans have come to most expect from her. Before other pop stars were regularly sharing their struggles with fans on social media, Lovato revealed everything from her bipolar diagnosis and alcoholism to her eating disorder and first stint in rehab following a 2009 incident when, on tour with the Jonas Brothers, she punched a backup dancer who spoke up about her Adderall use. "That was our opportunity to draw a line in the sand," says Phil McIntyre, Lovato’s manager. "We could go the manufactured pop machine [route] and try to present this perfect image all the time. Or we could be real, and just let people in. Deep authenticity works."
That rawness permeates Tell Me You Love Me, which Lovato has likened to Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, another record from a Disney alum eager to leave her bubble-gum past behind. But the comparison only goes so far. Stripped introduced Aguilera’s hypersexual alter ego, Xtina, but Tell Me You Love Me isn't designed to shock: It’s an R&B-tinged, soulful declaration of a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality, fears and desires. (It’s also her first album since splitting with her longtime boyfriend, actor Wilmer Valderrama -- though tabloids speculate they’re back on when, days after this interview, they’re spotted having lunch.) "It feels like her journey is continuing to coalesce into who she now is as an artist," says David Massey, president/CEO of Island Records, Lovato's label. "It’s very exciting. You don’t often see this level of growth after this many albums."
Whether in her music or her activism offstage, authenticity has now become so synonymous with Lovato that it even informs her business partnerships. When the actress Kate Hudson was looking for a first collaborator for her athleisure line, Fabletics, "Demi was at the top of her list," says chief marketing officer Kristen Dykstra. "She embodies so many elements of the brand -- including female empowerment and body positivity.”
Yet even as it has enhanced her staying power, the degree to which Lovato has exposed her true self to her fans has also, she knows, locked her into opening her life to them. "I have boundaries. There are things I’ll probably never share with the world, because I’ve already given so much," Lovato says. But she’s matter-of-fact, not resentful -- this is part and parcel of being Demi, and besides, it helps her, too. Brutal honesty "holds me accountable. When I started talking about my sobriety -- I can never be seen at a club getting wasted. If I relapse, it shows my fans it’s OK to relapse. And I can’t do that."
Just twenty-four hours later, I’m in Sacramento, where Lovato is rehearsing for her tour at the Sleep Train Arena. Entering this venue, where the NBA’s Sacramento Kings played before switching home courts in 2016, requires wandering into the craft services holding pen, where Batman and Lovato’s other dogs sniff around. Out in the arena, Lovato sits alone on the floor near the soundboard, watching her 10 dancers go through their paces onstage. Dressed in flats, a long black coat and a sports bra, she climbs the stairs to the stage after her dancers finish and immediately launches, full voice, into the whole 18-song setlist.
The day before, we had parted ways with an unexpected embrace ("I’m a hugger," she had said), but on a brief break from rehearsal this afternoon, Lovato is firmly in work mode. "The thing that I didn't love about the last tour is that I didn't have anybody onstage with me," she explains in the green room. "I didn't have dancers, my band was hidden. There was a lot of pressure on me and my voice." This time around, she says, the production value is elevated: dancers, video projections and a local choir on tap in each city to join her for two big finale numbers, "Sorry Not Sorry" and "Tell Me You Love Me." (At The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., she’ll welcome the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.)
Lovato has been working for 18 of her 25 years, and she has been headlining arenas for the past five (she’ll be joined on the road by DJ Khaled and Kehlani). Her origin story is by now well-known: Following a seemingly fairy-tale showbiz childhood including a stint on Barney & Friends (with co-star Gomez), her own Disney show (Sonny With a Chance) and a record deal, her tumultuous transition into adult stardom included both checking into rehab and a heavily publicized relapse. Reading her mom’s memoir, Lovato told me back in L.A., "I didn’t realize how much stress I put her through. There was a period of time where I was blacked out and I don’t remember stuff." Her mom and her management "tell me stories where I’m like, 'I did that?'"
In an effort to come clean to her fans, while also controlling her own narrative, she has made two documentaries: MTV’s Demi Lovato: Stay Strong in 2012, purported to chronicle her newfound sobriety but, Lovato now admits, "I was on drugs for half of it"; and, in 2017, Simply Complicated, a YouTube feature that was, in her words, a "re-do." While the doc had the sleek feel of a promotional film, Lovato was sincere about her struggles -- which won over fans including tourmates Khaled and Kehlani.
"I knew about Demi Lovato the superstar," says Khaled. "But when I saw the documentary, I got to really see her journey, and I could say, 'Man, I’m proud of her.'" Says Kehlani: "A lot of people are going through it in this industry, and a lot of people have the same stories, or crazier stories, and they’ll never share it. Anybody brave enough to share things that people could possibly use against them at some point is instantly a superhero in my eyes."
Lovato’s fearlessness has extended into the world of online dating following her breakup with Valderrama. At a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in 2016, "Amy Schumer was like, 'Are you on this thing called RAYA?'" referring to the exclusive dating app favored by celebrities. "I put myself out there, because I was ready to date. And I went on a few RAYA dates, and they went well. Now I’ve become really good friends with some people I met on there."
Lovato has little tolerance for fakeness of any kind. "The people that aren’t willing to chill with you at home are the type of people that just want to be seen with you," she says. "When Ariana Grande and I hang out, it’s super chill. One time I went over to her place. She had never heard of the Charles Manson murders." As both tweeted later, they hiked to his Cielo Drive house and rang the bell. "We were spooking ourselves out!" She’s close with Iggy Azalea, too, and when I mention that the internet seems to have turned on Azalea, Lovato rises to her defense. "She’s super low-key; she doesn’t drink or party. She has struggled a lot," says Lovato. "'No money, no family, 16 in the middle of Miami.' That lyric explains a lot of her story. She’s very outspoken, and sometimes it can turn people off. But that’s one of the reasons I love her. She’s not the type of person who lies to you."
Lovato’s tolerance for artifice reached its breaking point at the 2016 Met Gala in New York, the annual celeb-packed, black-tie fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, presided over by Vogue’s Anna Wintour. "I had a terrible experience," says Lovato, her voice rising in pitch for the only time during our conversation. "This one celebrity was a complete bitch and was miserable to be around. It was very cliquey. I remember being so uncomfortable that I wanted to drink." She texted her manager, then went straight to a 10 p.m. Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
"I changed my clothes, but I still had my diamonds on -- millions of dollars of diamonds on in an AA meeting. And I related more to the homeless people in that meeting who struggled with the same struggles that I deal with than the people at the Met Gala -- fake and sucking the fashion industry’s dick." Glamazon, Lovato knows, isn't her brand anyway. On tour, she says, "I might pop up in the opening [number] one day and be in Fabletics. Because that’s what I want to wear. I’m loving myself -- not for what I look like, but for who I am."
Days before we met in Los Angeles, a shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Much as she has before -- whether speaking out about mental health reform or in support of marriage equality -- Lovato had taken to Twitter, hoping to track down survivor Emma Gonzalez, whose impassioned "We call BS" speech went viral. "My fans are like CIA agents," she told me with a smile at her house. Through other Parkland students, they had managed to connect her with Gonzalez, who called her for a conversation that Lovato describes as "very emotional and heartfelt."
"There’s way too many shootings happening in this country," continues Lovato. "I’m pro-gun control. Obviously for me..." -- she pauses, considering the potential fallout of her words -- "politics are difficult to talk about." But later, when we return to the topic, she takes a deep breath and unloads.
"There are certain pop stars who don’t speak out politically, and they have more fans. But I’d rather speak up for the things I believe in than just be dismissive of the issues going on in our country." A week later, she brings six Parkland students onstage at her first tour stop in San Diego, asking the audience to text to donate to mental health services for students of the school. She’s hoping Gonzalez will come to a later show.
Lovato spent most of 2013 in a sober living center called CAST, which she credits with putting her on the path to wellness, and she now invites the organization on tour with her, setting up a sort of revival tent where speakers (like the Parkland students) share their experiences with fans. The day before in L.A., Lovato had confessed her own current insecurities. Even now, sometimes, "I feel uncomfortable in my own skin," she said, admitting that she struggles with "wanting to be provocative, but not needing to be. We live in a world where women feel pressure to look a certain way, and I fall victim to that sometimes. I feel like I have to dress a certain way to appeal to certain demographics. But actually, I don’t have to do that."
She’s working with a nutritionist, but has started eating cheese and carbs again, and while she says certain spots are triggering, she’s "learning for the first time how to go to restaurants. For so many years, I’ve been on a meal plan." Her outfits on tour, she says, "maybe won’t be as sexy. Because that’s not where I am in my life right now." She tells me about one potential ensemble -- "I think I’m going to wear an oversized hoodie and boots" -- before snapping back. "I really honestly don’t give a fuck. That’s not why people come to my concerts anyways."
She’s right: They come to hear the instrument she raises to the rafters each night, the voice that stunned me when, in rehearsal at the arena, she launched into the ultra-personal ballad "You Don’t Do It for Me Anymore." It opens the show, and Lovato calls it the album’s most revealing track. "It’s so vulnerable, so raw," she says. "I’m not singing it about a guy. I never sang it about a guy. It’s about my relationship with my bad habits. I sing it onstage, and sometimes I have to fake it until I make it.
"Sometimes I don’t want to believe it,” she admits. "But I’m telling myself through those lyrics, 'You’re going to get through this.'" And for the rest of the tour, she’ll be telling herself in the presence of arena-fuls of fans.
3 Takes On The Tell Me You Love Me Tour
Kehlani On Her Debut Arena Adventure
"I’m excited to witness how an arena tour works, to learn from both Khaled and Demi," says the singer, who has played only smaller venues. Her dream surprise duet with Lovato? "Sorry Not Sorry."
Demi On Fanning Out
A "big fan" of Kehlani’s, Lovato reveals that she inspired some of Tell Me You Love Me, including the slinky "Games." Of DJ Khaled, she says, "You kind of think, 'What does he do?' But he plays his hits and does his dance and engages with the audience so much. It’s just so much fun to watch him."
Khaled On Making Touring History
"Demi, Khaled, Kehlani -- that’s a great lineup!" says DJ Khaled with trademark enthusiasm. "That was a decision of love, of really enjoying each other as artists." Of Lovato in particular, he says, "She’s a live singer. You get that raw talent. She gives you a real show, and this will be a real show. This tour will go into history."
This article originally appeared in the March 10 issue of Billboard.