Demi Lovato's new documentary, Dancing With the Devil, opens with a warning: "This documentary contains raw and honest discussions about addiction, eating disorders, sexual abuse and mental health. It may be triggering for some." That warning is earned.
Directed by Michael D. Ratner, the four-part series, which premiered at this year's SXSW Film Festival and arrives on YouTube on March 23, features the singer opening up about her 2018 overdose, her past — and current — drug use and a bombshell #MeToo story she's kept hidden for decades. "When I was a teenager ... I lost my virginity in a rape," Lovato tells Ratner, adding that her assaulter was never punished for his actions even after she reported the incident. "My #MeToo story is me telling somebody that someone did this to me, and they never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. There's the tea."
While Lovato declines to name the person who raped her in the documentary, it's heavily implied that it was someone who worked alongside her during her days as a Disney Channel superstar. "We were hooking up, but I said, 'This isn't going any farther,'" she says of the assault, which occurred when she was 15. "That didn't matter to them; they did it anyways. I internalized it — I told myself it was my fault because I still went in the room with him." As a Disney star who had young fans, Lovato says that she felt the pressure to keep the story out of the press. "I was part of the Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage. I didn't have that romantic first time with anybody — that was not it for me."
Lovato says that her teenage experience with bulimia was due, in large part, to having to work alongside her rapist at the Disney Channel. "I had to see this person all the time, so I stopped eating and coped in other ways — cutting, throwing up, whatever. My bulimia got so bad that I started throwing up blood for the first time." At 28, she's finally ready to confront that part of her life, hoping that it encourages other sexual assault survivors to "speak their voice" in a culture that's still struggling with how to listen to women. "Women are typically more oppressed than men, especially at 15 years old and especially as a little child star role model ... who had a promise ring."
The documentary connects that story to another bombshell revelation: On the night of her overdose, Lovato was sexually assaulted by her drug dealer, who supplied her with the fentanyl that almost killed her. "When they found me, I was naked and I was blue. I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me," she says. "When I woke up in the hospital, they asked me if I'd had consensual sex. There was one flash I had of him on top of me. I saw that flash and said, 'Yes.' It wasn't until a month after my overdose until I realized, 'You weren't in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.'"
Shockingly, that night wasn't the last time she saw that dealer; months later, she called him and invited him over to her house, this time with the intention of having sex with him. "I wanted to rewrite his choice of violating me," she explains. "I wanted it to be my choice. I said, 'No, I'm going to f*** you.' It didn't fix anything or take anything away — it just made me feel worse. It brought me back to my knees and begging God for help."
Those twin revelations deeply moved the virtual audience watching Dancing With the Devil's SXSW premiere.
Lovato's revelations into her personal pain didn't end there: Here are some of the closely-held stories she finally shared during the film.
Lovato's sister, Madison, was by her side when Lovato woke up in the hospital following her overdose. But the singer's vision centers were so damaged, she couldn't see her. "I was legally blind when I woke up," she says. "My little sister was at my bedside, and I couldn't see who she was. I asked, 'Who are you?' and she started sobbing because she thought I was never going to be able to see." While Lovato eventually regained her vision, she has permanent blind spots that will keep her from ever driving again. "I don't think people realize how bad I actually was: I had three strokes, I had a heart attack and I suffered brain damage from the strokes," she says. "I also had pneumonia because I asphyxiated and multiple organ failure." Had her assistant, Jordan Jackson — who is interviewed in the film — not found her when she did, it's likely that Lovato would have died. "My doctors said I had five-to-ten more minutes left [to live]."
Despite her close call with death, Lovato reveals that she's not completely sober and doesn't believe she'll ever be. "I'm done with the stuff that's going to kill me," she stresses, adding that her drugs of choice these days are alcohol and weed, in moderation. "Telling myself that I can never have a drink or smoke marijuana, I feel like that's setting myself up for failure. But I also don't want people to hear that and think they can just go out and try it. It isn't for everybody. Recovery isn't a one size fits all solution. You shouldn't be forced to get sober if you're not ready and you shouldn't get sober for other people. You have to do it for yourself."
In the wake of her overdose, Lovato took the opportunity to ask her doctors about the bipolar disorder diagnosis she received in 2011, which set her on the path to becoming a prominent advocate for mental health. Now, though, she believes she was misdiagnosed a decade ago when she was seeking an explanation for why she felt compelled to lash out as a teenager. "I thought it put a reasoning behind my actions," she explains. "What I didn't do was get a second opinion. You take something public, and you become an advocate for it. I was acting out when I was 18 for many reasons, but it's not because I was bipolar. I had to grow the f*** up."
Last year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Lovato found new love with actor Max Ehrich. The duo moved in together and got engaged in the summer of 2020. By October, though, they had broken up and the documentary includes two home videos that Lovato filmed after calling the engagement off. In the first, she's calm and collected, but in the second, she breaks down. "I don't know how to give my heart to someone after this," she says through tears. But when Ratner films her speaking with close friends months after the breakup, Lovato is clearly in a more reflective place. "Honestly, what happened is that I think I rushed into something that I thought I was supposed to do," she says. "I realized as time went on that I didn't actually know the person I was engaged to. It was false advertising."
Dancing With the Devil may begin in a very dark place, but it ends with Lovato coming to terms with her past — and coming out of the closet. "I feel like I'm too queer to have a man in my life right now," she declares of her evolving sexuality. "I'm not willing to put a label on it right this second, but I think I will get there. There's a lot of things I have to do for myself first. I want to allow myself the ability to live my life in the most authentic form possible, which I haven't done because of my past." That's why the documentary ends with Lovato shedding a piece of herself — her long hair. "I've never had the balls to do it," she says. "I want to be free of the gender norms that were placed on me as a kid and the sexuality norms that were placed on me by my church. I feel like it represents the femininity that I've always been too afraid to let go of. It's very symbolic of letting go of my past ... the part of me that was too afraid to really live my truth."
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil premieres March 23 on YouTube.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is here for survivors 24/7 with free, anonymous help. 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org.
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