STYLED BY LEILA BABOI; PHOTOGRAPHED AT LORI ERENBERG’S HOME, BRENTWOOD; HAIR AND MAKEUP BY SAMMY MOURABIT AT CELESTINEAGENCY.COM; FASHION ASSISTANTS: TANYA BROWN, ZOE CHATFIELD-TAYLOR AND MARK WEYLAND
Demi Lovato emerges from the makeshift dressing room in a strapless black cocktail dress, her shiny black hair festooned with a pair of Louis Vuitton bunny ears from the fall runway, a look more Playboy Bunny than Mouseketeer. And no sooner does the Disney Channel star flash a smile — she likes it — than the getup is vetoed by the handler from her record label, on set for this WWD shoot. After a bit of protesting, Lovato makes do with a top hat and — ta-da! — Miley crisis averted.
Clearly, tween stardom is a treacherous sport, even for someone like Lovato, a child beauty pageant vet with a professional résumé reaching back to the age of six (when she first appeared alongside the big purple dinosaur on “Barney & Friends” with fellow Disney “It” girl Selena Gomez). On one hand, Lovato is polished-to-shiny, but on the other, she is still a 16-year-old whose concerns about “heartbreak, romance, friendships — the whole shebang,” as the Dallas native puts it, threaten to overshadow those about her image.
Lovato has a pretty full plate these days. First, there is her Disney Channel sitcom, “Sonny With a Chance,” on which she plays the titular Sonny Monroe, a small-town girl who moves to Hollywood upon being cast in a TV show. Then, there’s the nationwide concert tour she’s headlining, and the July 21 release of her second album, “Here We Go Again,” on Disney’s Hollywood Records.
And finally, there are her hit made-for-TV-movies, including last year’s “Camp Rock,” the sequel to which is scheduled to begin filming this fall, and “Princess Protection Program,” costarring Lovato’s real-life BFF Gomez. Last week’s Disney Channel premiere drew 8.5 million viewers.
Not surprisingly, like many teen stars, Lovato has a precocity that belies her years. After “Barney,” she moved on to commercials, did an episode of “Prison Break,” guest-starred on Nickelodeon’s “Just Jordan” (a tango with the enemy she jokingly refers to as “a Nickelodeon thing that we shall never speak of”), and, in 2007, appeared on the Disney Channel series “As The Bell Rings.” It was her first job for the company that now backs all of her acting and musical endeavors.
But unlike such past Disney-ites as Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan, Lovato considers herself a musician foremost and actress second. “It’s my first love,” she says of music. “Acting is just kind of a way to pay for the singing.” She pauses, clearly considering this notion, and then adds, “I mean, not anymore. Acting now is like a new challenge, new hobby, a new passion even.”
Professional politics aside, Lovato is most excited when chatting about her new album, which she says is “more relaxed and more mature,” with a more “soulful edge” than her gold-selling pop-rock debut, “Don’t Forget.” This time around, the songs are more personal, inspired by “pretty much just heartbreak.” Take the midtempo “World of Chances,” which she cowrote with John Mayer, in which Lovato sings, “You’ve got a face for a smile, you know/A shame you waste it when you’re breaking me slowly/But I’ve got a world of chances for you…/Chances that you’re burning through.” This isn’t schoolyard stuff. “I had fallen in love and then my heart got broken. I had never fallen in love before, so that was interesting,” she says.
Intriguingly, Lovato, who plays guitar and piano, even penned a track about her estranged father (she was raised from an early age by her mom and stepdad, Eddie De La Garza). It was originally planned for this album; however, Lovato and her advisers chose to hold it and several other more “emotional” songs for the time being. “When I took a step back,” she says, “I realized I wouldn’t like those subjects being talked about in somebody else’s home, with a seven-year-old and their mom.”
Her fashion choices also go through a kind of wringer — she has an acute awareness of her audience and, increasingly, herself. If the bunny ears are any indication, yes, Lovato is growing up and, sometimes at least, “getting to wear and do what I want.” This has meant more flirty dresses and glam skirts, plus strappy heels, hipster sunglasses and hardware-heavy Prada bags. But in gaining her sartorial bearings, she does try to keep her toddler-to-teenage fan base in mind. “Sometimes,” she muses, “when I want to wear a really hot skirt or something, I think, ‘Would you want your little sister to wear that skirt in two years? No.’”
Yet she doesn’t seem overly worried about maintaining a squeaky-clean image. Nor, for that matter, is she concerned with building a Demi Lovato brand, she avers. “The marketing side makes me nauseous,” says the singer, who moved, along with her mom, De La Garza (who is also her co-manager), two sisters and aunt, to Los Angeles last summer. “This is about music; it’s not about marketing.” (Although she concedes that “[marketing] does have a lot to do with it.”)
Indeed, Lovato is a teenager coming into her own on a network that targets from out of the crib; she’s expected to embody youthful exuberance and, at the same time, make well-thought-out decisions on an international stage and adhere to an exhausting schedule, always acting the consummate professional. Which could be why she wouldn’t mind skipping over the whole adolescence thing. “I wish I was older a lot of the time,” says Lovato, who hopes to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music one day. “Because I feel like an adult and I’m working like an adult, but then I wake up and I’m 16 and it’s weird.”