CW: Mentions of eating disorders, sexual assault, rape, addiction and an overdose.
Demi Lovato has had quite the life, to say the least. She grew up under the spotlight; starring in Barney and Friends as a young child, then emerging at the forefront of the Golden Age of Disney Channel as a teenager, and finally establishing herself as a singer into young adulthood. To many people looking in, her trajectory may seem like one filled with glamor and excitement. But Lovato has been forthcoming about her various serious struggles, many of which were exacerbated by or born out of being in the spotlight from such a young age. Her battles with addiction and an eating disorder are well recorded, and the artist has appeared to be very open about them – she even released a documentary, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated in 2017, that touched on her battles and road to recovery. By the time the documentary was released, Lovato had been sober for around five years. While she had relapsed into her eating disorder, she seemed to have a great support system. To any old viewer, things were looking up for her.
However, less than a year after Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated had been released, TMZ reported that Lovato had checked into the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles due to an overdose on fentanyl-laced Oxycodone. The news left the world, and her fans, in shock. Lovato had been anointed the poster child of sobriety – how could she have overdosed, let alone almost died? The fact that she could have died had she been taken to the hospital even a few minutes later left many shaken. But no one was more shaken than Lovato herself. After the overdose, she checked herself into rehab and took almost two years out of the spotlight to reflect and recover. Recently, she released a documentary that covered the timeline of what happened that fateful summer night. The 4-part, YouTube documentary is called Dancing With the Devil, which is also a part of the name of her new album: Dancing With the Devil… the Art of Starting Over. It documents the months and days leading up to the overdose, what happened after it, and shows Lovato speak candidly about her relapse and other struggles she has had over the years.
The first installment of the docuseries is entitled losing control and premiered on March 23rd, 2021. It walks viewers through the months and weeks leading up to the overdose. Here we see that there were plans for a documentary surrounding Lovato’s tour for her album Tell Me You Love Me to be released. In many of the clips of the now-scrapped project we see that Lovato seems happy and energized. In one clip, someone says, “The best way to describe it is that she’s just, like, tuned in. She’s here, she’s present, she’s happy.” But there were more to Lovato’s emotions than what got captured on camera. Lovato herself said that she “was allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg”. While she was grateful to be on tour, and enjoyed performing, it was also draining for her, both physically and emotionally. In addition, she had unresolved trauma that was not helping matters. losing control sees Lovato talk about her experiences with her father, who suffered from alcoholism and had schizophrenia, and how seeing him abuse her mother took a toll on her. She speaks about how she battled with feelings of resentment towards her father, as well as with the fear of becoming like him. The episode also covers Lovato’s childhood history with beauty pageants and how that toxic environment contributed to her eating disorder. She recounts a memory of that coming to a head, saying, “I remember, actually, making a pact with myself, saying ‘If I don’t win this pageant, I will never eat again.’’ As the name suggests, the big theme of this episode was control; the control Lovato lost as a child when she became a household name. The control she tried to take back through her eating disorder and use of drugs. The control her team wielded over her when they essentially forced her to get sober. Under her former management, Lovato was under strict watch every hour of the day; people monitored what she ate, who she was around, and what she was doing. It affected her adversely; understandably, she just wanted her life back. Unfortunately, she turned back to alcohol and drugs to get it back, which ironically leads us to that fateful July night where she almost lost her life.
The second episode, entitled 5 minutes from death, shows Lovato’s close circle recount the night of the overdose and the days that followed. The singer’s former assistant, Jordan Jackson, was the person that found her unconscious in her room. After seeing that Lovato was naked, had vomit in her mouth, and was not responsive, Jackson called Lovato’s security, Max, and slipped away to call an ambulance. She remembers frantically telling the ambulance not to use sirens for fear of attracting the paparazzi. When the ambulance arrived, they gave Lovato Narcan and took her to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centerwhere she began treatment. This episode makes viewers realize just how severe the overdose was. To Lovato’s fans, it just seemed like a simple process: she overdosed, went to rehab, took some time off and now she’s back. But as the documentary shows, the road to recovery was much, much bumpier than that. To this day, Lovato has some underlying issues that emerged because of the overdose; in the episode, she talks about sometimes spilling water instead of pouring it into a cup because she has blind spots. The overdose permanently changed her life; she will always have to work through the repercussions of what happened that night. The second episode also delves into some unknown details of what happened the night of Lovato’s overdose. The dealer who gave Lovato the laced pills was the one she had been using since April of 2018 when she relapsed. That night, she called him over, and he sold her what he called “after-market pills”. After selling her the pills, he proceeded to get Lovato high, rape her, and leave her for dead.. Lovato actually did not remember the event happening; she revealed that she only remembered when a doctor asked her if she had had consensual sex to which she responded yes. Lovato says that “It wasn’t until maybe a month after my overdose that I realized, ‘Hey, you weren’t in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.’”
The third episode, entitled reclaiming power, premiered on March 30th. It details the experience of those who were associated with Lovato at the time of the overdose. Lovato’s former choreographer, Dani Vitale, had a particularly horrible experience. After Demi’s overdose, her professional life was destroyed: parents wouldn’t let her teach their kids, celebrities she worked with fired her, and she had to deal with paparazzi following her relentlessly. On top of that, she had to face online mobs of Lovato’s fans who blamed Vitale for Lovato’s overdose, for no apparent reason. In a spotlight interview, Vitale says that at some point, she would get 4,000 to 5,000 hate messages a day. She says it was especially hard to face the repercussions of someone else’s actions. Lovato admits that she probably should have paid more attention to what those around her were going through. She said, “I get why after the O.D. I was so focused on myself, but unfortunately, it took me too long to realize how my choices affected the people I really care about who had stuck by me”. Lovato also admits that the last time she took heroin was not the night of the overdose, but after she had gotten home from a “weeklong trauma intensive retreat.” As soon as Lovato got home she called her dealer. She explains that besides wanting drugs, she wanted to right a wrong in the way that made sense to her at the time. Lovato said she “[…]wanted to rewrite his choice of violating me. I wanted it now to be my choice.” She wanted to take back control. She also talks about her history with sexual trauma, detailing how she lost her virginity by being raped by someone during her Disney Channel days. Tragically, Lovato has had her fair share of sexual abuse, and recalling experience on the night of the overdose just took her back to that.
The fourth and final episode, rebirthing, premiered on April 6th. It shows Lovato getting to greener pastures, both mentally and physically. She is finding peace in balance and moderation, and she seems to be happier for it. A bump in the road did appear when Lovato broke off an engagement with her now-former fiance, but she did not stray away from her newly paved path; instead she was able to be sad and acknowledge her emotions without turning to drugs like she may have done in the past. While the break-up was hard, it also seemed to present an opportunity for the truly fresh start that Lovato needed which she kicked off by buying a new house and cutting her hair. The haircut was particularly important for her to do – for her, it symbolized letting go of the trauma, control, and pressure to conform to gender roles that had followed her around for as long as she could remember. Through the haircut among other things we get to see Lovato get more in touch with her queerness, something she suppressed for a long time due to her religious upbringing. This final installment shows us that Lovato acknowledges that she has been given another chance to live her life right, and that she is determined not to waste it.
The documentary was good. It’s not the best documentary I’ve ever watched but it is a strong body of work. The interviews from Lovato’s staff were especially interesting to see – they gave people various angles to look at the story from. I wish they had shown us where her former staff members (like Jackson and Vitale) are now; the overdose was a monumental moment in their personal and professional lives, and seeing if and how they bounced back would have been insightful. And while overall, I do think that the documentary was a nice way to give insight into what Lovato has gone through in the past 3 years or so, I don’t know if it was the right way to go about things. I was never a big fan – I’m a casual onlooker; I can’t pretend that I know what is best for her. But it does seem like the management teams that she has been with in the past and present are always using her trauma for money, or to promote Lovato’s next musical project. If Lovato has control over these decisions and is on board with making these documentaries, then all the power to her, but it’s hard to tell if this is the case. It is great that she has shared her story with the masses; I am sure that it is uplifting for her fans and a lot of people who may be in somewhat similar situations. People need to know that they aren’t alone and they can get to the other side. But at the same time, I can’t imagine it is easy for Lovato to relive more and more of her trauma for the world to see every four years. She should not feel obligated to be a poster child for mental health and sobriety. In this very documentary, she speaks about how that pressure can get to her. If Lovato shares her struggles with the world, it should be on her terms, and I hope that was the case here. She should be able to have control over her life after years of it being taken away.