When the Reality of Addiction Meets the Fantasies of Pop Stardom

Demi Lovato’s long struggle with sobriety—and her transparency about it—complicates the expected celebrity narrative of “overcoming.”

Demi Lovato in 2017
Danny Moloshok / Reuters

“What I’ve learned is that this illness is not something that disappears or fades with time,” Demi Lovato recently said in a statement after being hospitalized for a drug overdose. “It is something I must continue to overcome and have not done yet.”

Read that last sentence again: It is something I must continue to overcome and have not done yet. What tense are we in? What is being said? Continue suggests an ongoing effort; overcome implies something more final; have not done yet makes an odd fit with continue. Far from coming off as the work of PR by committee, the tangled phrasing seems to hold complex truth. Here we might discern the brain-bending reality of addiction as articulated by someone whose job has long been, on some level, to bend reality to an image.

Pop stars, after all, typically vacuum seal and sell narratives of overcoming. Sia, the royal architect of the motivational spin anthem, uses the term victim to victory to describe her genre’s secret formula: As a verse moves to a chorus, the lost get found, the blind can see, flesh turns titanium, and, in Lovato’s case, paper becomes skyscraper. Stars typically, too, edit their biographies into tidy tales of vaulting from adversity to invulnerability. Does the kind of adversity matter? It often appears not. Self-doubt, trauma, drug use: It all, the public is to believe, can be stomped into submission under sequined boots like so many arena stages.

The 25-year-old Lovato has long complicated that story. When the former Disney actress first chased mainstream radio, tabloid turmoil accompanied that effort, including suspected self-harm, a physical fight with a backup dancer, and a trip to rehab for an eating disorder. She emerged from that treatment with the aforementioned 2011 victim-to-victory statement “Skyscraper,” a ballad so naked and searching that it still towers today. But as she went on to release upbeat bops about the drama of flirting, she was in a spiral of coke-and-booze-fueled partying, according to interviews she later gave. Her team intervened, and she, to hear her tell it, changed her ways.

“Just officially turned 6 years sober,” Lovato tweeted in March. “So grateful for another year of joy, health, and happiness. It IS possible.” It was the latest in a series of statements that presented her as a beacon shining from the other side of substance abuse. She brought representatives of the recovery clinic that had helped her—and that she’d become a co-owner of—on tour to facilitate preconcert talks. She wrote songs like “You Don’t Do It for Me Anymore,” a seeming kiss-off to an ex (“I see the future without you / The hell was I doing in the past?”) that was actually about her previous drug and alcohol usage. Addiction, of course, isn’t as readily banishable as most exes are, and Lovato made sure to talk about her problems in terms of persistent effort rather than grand epiphany. “Every day is a battle,” she said when accepting the Brent Shapiro Foundation for Drug Prevention’s Spirit of Sobriety Award, before going on to talk about her mental- and physical-health regimens.

Lovato’s October 2017 documentary, Simply Complicated, surprised many fans with its candor. But its faux-vérité style could only somewhat reconcile the treacherous nature of addiction with the cultural need for happy endings. In the opening moments, Lovato talked about how the last time she sat down for a similar interview, it was for the 2012 post-rehab film Stay Strong—and she’d been secretly on cocaine. That admission then had to be in the viewer’s mind when the new movie’s recounting of drugs, bullying, and other issues culminated in a gospel-choir-accompanied celebration of transformation. “I look back and I look at someone who slept 18 hours a day, used drugs every day, and then you see someone today who’s inspired to make better music, to talk about her own story, to help other people, and to make the world a better place,” her addiction coach Mike Bayer testified.

Now, less than a year after that film, Lovato has apparently relapsed. If that’s not an expected epilogue to an inspiring pop doc, it is, certainly, a familiar chapter in tales of recovery from addiction. Remarkably, Lovato did not hide it (for long, at least). In June, her single “Sober” described falling off the wagon in unambiguous terms, directly addressing the question of whether she’d failed as a role model: “To the ones who never left me / We’ve been down this road before / I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore.” It was promoted with a lyric video clearly evoking an overdose, complete with ambulance lights. It may seem invasive to scrutinize such a song for personal meaning, but she clearly wanted to be open about it: Her Instagram caption for “Sober” read, “My truth.”

Soon after, she appeared to have a falling-out with Bayer, and she fired her longtime manager. And then came the overdose: An assistant found Lovato passed out at home, and reportedly feared she had died. Narcan, an opioid treatment, was administered. Initial reports that she’d taken heroin have been disputed, and some sources have told journalists that meth was involved. Lovato has now checked into rehab, reportedly cut “enablers” out of her life, and issued the aforementioned statement thanking loved ones and fans for their support. It refers to addiction as a “illness,” and it opens by saying, “I have always been transparent about my journey with addiction.”

That sort of transparency has been praised across spheres of pop culture as a way to fight damaging stigmas around mental health: If famous people are seen seeking help for their problems, maybe so will unfamous people. But it’s always been hard to disentangle the moral value of such honesty, in Lovato’s case, from other considerations. All along, her resistance to being airbrushed—literally and figuratively—has been part of her appeal. “There was a natural edge to her that made her authentic,” her former manager Phil McIntyre says in the 2017 documentary, explaining why she was cast in so many Disney projects as a teen. “They needed her to make their projects cooler.”

By this point in history, the dangers of glorifying “edge” that corresponds to real human struggles are plenty clear. Simply Complicated tells of Lovato, in her teenage years, idolizing Amy Winehouse for her skinniness—a comparison that helped explain Lovato’s eating disorders. But Winehouse’s tragic addiction obviously looms large in other ways now. What’s perhaps most striking is the contrast: “Rehab” portrayed the rejection of help as something catchy and cool, while Lovato, again and again, has signaled a desire to get better. This remains the case now as she invokes the ideal of “overcoming” not to deny the truth of addiction, but to help face it. “I look forward to the day where I can say I came out on the other side,” Lovato wrote in her statement, adding, “I will keep fighting.”