Demi Lovato’s Road to Sobriety in the Public Eye Was Inspiring and Exhausting

“You can hear her laugh before you even see her,” is a note I jotted down after leaving Demi Lovato’s home in the Hollywood Hills one afternoon in February. Vogue had spent the day shooting a video of the pop star in the process of meticulously removing the components of her elaborate beauty routine, and from anywhere in the house, Lovato’s laugh—a throaty, rolling vibrato—was audible. Often, everyone else in the room was also laughing, and it was Lovato who was usually the culprit. In fact, she said her only regret about her deeply personal documentary, Simply Complicated, was that it didn’t show her funny side, but I argued that in those two barefaced hours about her battle with addiction and mental health, her humor came through. “Oh good,” she replied before bursting into laughter, her mouth stretching wide. “See? My laugh, it’s so obnoxious.”

Yesterday, when news broke about Lovato being rushed to the hospital after an alleged overdose, I thought of her on that day in Los Angeles, and how my impression was that Demi is sharp, kind, gregarious and uncompromising. Hers, it seemed, was a world of hyper-discipline—daily workouts, healthy meals conceived to replace aggressive dieting, scheduled drivers, rows of eyelashes, selfies. When we started talking about the stretches that had preceded nearly six years sober—specifically, how she continues to cope with her inner demons in the public arena—she revealed that her unabashed transparency stemmed from the fact that she originally had no other option. “When I went to treatment at 18, it was publicized without my choice. TMZ reported it, and my manager came to me and said, ‘There are two ways we can deal with this: You can be open about it and help people, or keep it to yourself and grow in private.’ And I thought, well, if I have the opportunity to help people, I will.”

Now, Lovato’s struggles are back in the headlines—this time accompanied by a tidal wave of support on Twitter, where everyone from Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande to Justin Timberlake and Dwyane Wade to legions of fans are expressing their never-ending support, prayers, love, and strength.

As musicians with her decibel of talent tend to do, Demi Lovato makes people feel. Her voice is powerful and heart-stopping—the kind of pitch that catches you off guard and makes you cry in the car. But plenty of famous musicians can do that. Lovato’s magic, which this writer briefly saw firsthand, lies in a kind of charisma and candor and bullshit-detector that make the people around her—her team, her friends, her famous buddies—genuinely enjoy the ride. I felt it when we talked about her love of mixed martial arts (“There’s an art to it, there’s discipline, there’s respect, there’s humility,” she said), her admiration of DJ Khaled and the “positivity that emanates from his pores,” or what her engagement ring mood board might look like some day. As her security team sat close by, I felt grateful that I was not blessed with this particular form of superstardom. At the time, she had a guard patrolling her property 24-7, due to gregarious fans and a few creeps, and later that week, entire Internet cycles would be devoted to dissecting the fact that she’d had fajitas with her ex, Wilmer Valderrama. So much seemed to hang in the balance with the pop star—who has been famous for longer than the Kardashian franchise. It struck me as a lot to handle, especially for someone who is only 25.

But what some call the pressure of maintaining sobriety in the public eye, Lovato called accountability. She knew what her strength meant to other people. She said she was buoyed by the encouragement her openness had coaxed from her fans, and invigorated by the work she was doing through CAST Treatment centers (reports since say she may have parted ways with her life coach, with whom she co-owned the centers, in June). She’d developed ways to support fans—many of whom talked directly to the star about their darkest struggles—by also guarding her own mental health. She’d recently cut down her meet and greets to a more manageable number, she said, because she wanted to be a beacon for people, but also knew she needed to look out for herself. “With great power comes responsibility,” she said. “But there are times when I just go back to my dressing room and cry, or sleep to clear my head.”

And because Lovato has chosen not to hide many of her challenges, because she has struggled openly with a toughness and a sweetness and a vulnerability, so much of what is on display about her feels recognizable in ourselves, whether it’s grappling with substances or hemming and hawing over a bathing suit photo. It’s why the world roots for her with the fervor of people who feel they’ve gotten much more than they ever would have hoped for from a chart-topping Top 40 darling. “She’s the most real out of that echelon of pop stars,” I remember a straight, male, 35-year-old friend telling me before I went to interview her that afternoon in February. Whatever version of Lovato’s openness we see, it has resonated with all kinds of people in visceral ways that make our hearts sink when we read a troubling headline. And it reminds us that on the large, inflated, celebrity stage, there’s a real woman in there we’re all hoping will succeed.