Demi Lovato on reinvention and jiu-jitsu

I’m not sharing any secrets when I say that Lovato has been, at times very publicly, let’s say… working through some kinks. This has given her a certain edge, which she’s using to carve out her piece of the pie. Lately, she’s been channelling this energy into something new and positive: mixed martial arts. Lovato has found a love for fighting as an outlet, as a craft, as meditation and as self-help. As anyone who has any experience training in jiu-jitsu, in which Lovato now holds a blue belt, it’s one of the most difficult things you can ever put yourself through – and one of the most rewarding.

We caught up with Lovato to speak about her latest album, her new No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart and coming completely clean through Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated. The new documentary, released exclusively on YouTube, shines a light on the struggles of someone so successful in the midst of their career – which is highly rare, because there’s so much on the line. We’re all messy creatures, and to overcome the vulnerability and have the confidence to step in front of a lens and share the deepest, darkest secrets can be simply terrifying. Too many times, these subjects, often weighed down with heavy cultural stigmas, are hidden or exposed unwillingly to disastrous reactions.

But the level of honesty and transparency shown by Lovato in the documentary speaks to her approach to the world as an artist and as a person. She’s been on stage, both acting and singing, since the age of 10, when she was cast on the American children’s TV show Barney & Friends. Four years later she starred in Disney Channel’s television film Camp Rock. The limelight isn’t generally kind to young talent – and Lovato is honest about her journey, with the spotlight on her the entire time. Sharing her battles is next-level strong when it’s going to be viewed by the entire world to judge.

The only way to tear down the negative stigmas that society at large has regarding addiction, substance abuse and mental health is to share them. And it takes more than courage; it takes someone willing to go first – a leader. In this battle, there are several leaders, and Lovato can now count herself among them. Through this life transition and some of her new-found pursuits, she’s evolved and opened yet another new chapter. Now celebrating a handful of years sober, Lovato is turning more attention to giving back to society and sharing what she has been given – through her art.

Let’s start with your new-found hobby: jiu-jitsu. What on earth got you into this?

It’s such an addiction. I found Unbreakable, the gym where I train in LA, about a year and a half ago. And it was at a time in my life where I really needed some change. I really fell in love with MMA [mixed martial arts] and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I recently received my blue belt from my coach, which is a really big deal to me.

How has doing something so difficult and empowering changed your life and your outlook?

It’s really changed my self-confidence. It’s changed how I view the world when I’m just walking around. I feel more secure, knowing that I don’t need to completely rely on security guards for my personal safety, which really affects how I see everything. To have that confidence is important. It really takes you out of your mind and puts you in almost a meditative place. You’re forced to focus on the next move, the next attack or defence, and how you’re going to respond. It’s similar to chess in that it takes so much strategy, but it has so much more consequence that you’re just in that moment completely.

I love the balance of both the physicality and the mental aspects of it all. I don’t necessarily follow fighting, but I love training. I don’t have a favourite fighter, for example, but I love the art and the pursuit of it.

Let’s chat a bit about your music. Sorry Not Sorry hit No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Songs chart this week. How does it feel to have another No. 1 hit?

It feels incredible! That just happened yesterday and it’s my second time hitting No. 1, which is just crazy. This song comes from a really different place for me. When I released it, a lot of people thought the song was about a relationship or a break-up. It isn’t. When I was younger, I was bullied. This song comes out of the work I’ve done to rise above what was done to me and succeed no matter how I was treated. I’m happy to say I’m doing well and I don’t feel bad about that. This song has a lot of attitude and confidence that maybe wasn’t as present in the music I’ve already released. That really made me feel stronger to release something that’s such a statement, the way this song is.

Regarding the album as a whole, where did it come from compared to past releases? Tell us a little about the inspiration behind it.

On this album, I really looked to artists that impacted me and my style of singing – artists like Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson. I grew up singing to Aretha and I think it comes through a bit. I was listening to a lot of Kehlani while I was writing for this one, too, so I was pulling influences from artists I really respected. The title track, Tell Me You Love Me, is a song that came to me about a year ago; it’s a song that’s about looking for validation by having someone say they love you. It was raw enough that I felt the album could carry the name as well.

Let’s talk a little about the new documentary. First, you released it on YouTube. How did that come about – and why there?

YouTube has been an incredible platform to reach fans directly. They really have done so much for me and my career. It allows me to get a message out in the simplest way. They approached me to release this documentary exclusively and it was an easy decision to make. I want fans to be able to feel like we are as connected as possible. And compared to all the other outlets, this is the best one to do that.

The documentary covers a lot of personal growth topics and a lot of issues that are being talked about in a more public way. You cover addiction, health, mental health, substance abuse… Through the process of making this and sharing everything so publicly, how did that impact you personally?

You know, I did have some nerves when I was making it – and especially when it was being released. I really opened up a lot and shared some deeply personal stuff. I felt in making this that my fans deserved to know the truth. In my last documentary, I wasn’t as honest and I was on drugs for most of it. It really took some bravery and some built-up courage to put this out there. I needed to take an unapologetic stance on what I’ve gone through and am going through.

For people who are struggling in those same areas, what would you hope it could communicate to them and what would you say to them directly?

I hope I could tell them they’re never going to find answers in substances or addiction, by any means. I think one of the major reasons people start either using or get involved with an eating disorder is that they’re looking for an answer to who they are, their identity or their happiness. But the answer doesn’t lie in a substance – it comes from yourself and you have to learn to just love yourself in a real way. You have to learn how to navigate the ups and downs of life without using things that are harmful and ultimately end up lying to you.

To go back to jiu-jitsu training, have you found that doing something so tough helps with addiction and substance abuse?

Completely! Having something so physical as an outlet is a really healthy way to work through those tough spots and get a release for the tension that builds up behind those issues. You can get into a gym and on the mat and leave it all there.

I have a fairly addictive personality, anyway – I go big and then I go home! [laughs] Now I do both. To have something so positive to dive into has been really beneficial for me. I hit bags, I kick box, I live-spar with people, I roll on the mats.

I love it all. Doing something that’s so difficult really squeezes the addiction out of you, because there’s just not room for both. It think that’s one of the best ways to work through addiction – to have something that demands so much of your focus and energy that you have to leave it behind and grow past it.

So are we going to see you in the cage someday as a fighter?

[laughs] No, I don’t think that will be happening – but you never know. Come ask me that with a couple more years of training and we’ll see.

Regarding travelling for fun, where’s your favourite place to hit?

I got to go on an amazing trip to Kenya where I had an opportunity to give back through a charity called the We Movement. We were able to help build schools and a women’s empowerment centre, and get into and give back to some of the communities there. The people, the charity… it was all so amazing. We got to see some of the country by going on a safari as well. I took some friends too, so when I think about amazing places to travel abroad, that one comes to the top of my mind.

Any plans to visit Hong Kong or Asia anytime soon?

This entire next year is all about touring and I’d love to get over there so, yeah, hopefully I’ll make it that way.

Good, we’ll see you then! What are some of the artists you listen to most? If we opened your Spotify and scrolled through the most-played songs or artists, who would we come across?

You know, you’d probably come across the same artists that I’ve been jamming to through the last record. You’d see Aretha Franklin, for sure. Other than that, you’d find some pop artists like Christina [Aguilera] and Kelly [Clarkson].

Is there one artist who’s your guilty pleasure? A musician or group of musicians you love listening to, but don’t necessarily want your friends knowing you love…

[laughs] I guess maybe Justin Bieber? I don’t know… he’s considered cool now though, so he’s not really like that for me as much. But yeah, if I’m singing in the shower or something, it might be to his music.

Who’s someone that’s a legend to you and why?

That’s easy: Aretha Franklin. She’s a complete legend. The soul in her voice is incredible. I think she’s the greatest singer of all time and she’s someone who I look up to so much. Very random story: I got to speak to her on the phone a little bit ago, which was beyond awesome. She was at home and I had the chance to talk with her for a while. Talking with someone who has made such an impact on me and my career was really special. We just chatted – small talk. First we texted, then we spoke on the phone. I just thanked her a bunch for being who she is. [laughs]

What about the upcoming year? Anything we should keep an eye out for?

Yeah, it’s not public yet [as of the time of the interview], but I’m touring with DJ Khaled next year, which is going to be awesome! 

Photography / Dennis Leupold
Creative Director / Paris Libby
Stylist / Law Roach
Hair / Cesar DeLeon Ramirez
Make-up / Jill Powell
Location / New York City 

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 print issue of #legend

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