Four years after the singer’s near-fatal overdose, Lovato’s milestone birthday was a delightfully normal occasion. In photos shared by Lovato and her friends, there are hundreds of white balloons, a dance floor, and a few dozen guests, including Kirsten Stewart, Paris Jackson, Kate Beckinsale, and Lovato’s boyfriend, Jordan Lutes (who goes by the stage name Jute$). By Hollywood standards, the party was understated. The most extravagant part of the evening was probably the towering four-tier black and red birthday cake.
Some people look at their 30th birthday with a sense of dread about getting older, but Lovato was so convinced she’d never reach the milestone that she’s nothing but grateful. “That's something I thought was impossible to do,” she says. “Even in bouts of sobriety, my depression was so strong that I didn't think I'd get here today. But here I am. I’m in a new chapter in my life, and I don't know what my 30s have in store for me, but hopefully a family one day.”
It’s been over a year since the release of her documentary Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil and its accompanying album, Dancing with the Devil... the Art of Starting Over, both of which provided an unvarnished glimpse into the 2018 overdose—both the circumstances that preceded it and her ensuing road to recovery. At turns vulnerable and powerful, the album was a massive emotional undertaking for Lovato, who, upon its release, called it “the most cohesive project that I ever made.”
Beneath Dancing with the Devil’s slick R&B and pop-driven production, there was no pretense. Lovato was baring her soul. From the first lyrics of the opening track, “Anyone”—a cry for help recorded just days before she was hospitalized—the album dove into Lovato’s emotions about addiction, mental health, her sexuality, her relationship with her family, her body image, and the end of her highly publicized engagement to ex-boyfriend Max Ehrich.
At the time, the album felt definitive. Critics praised Lovato’s authenticity, with some hailing it as her redemption. But over the past year, as Lovato reflected on the album, her feelings changed. “I felt like I was trying to explain myself so much,’” she says. “It became more about telling the story of myself rather than just creating art that I’m proud of.”
Over three different documentaries released from 2012-2021, and countless interviews during her career, Lovato has done a lot of explaining. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she was raised in Dallas by her mother, Dianna de la Garza, and her stepfather, Eddie de la Garza. The singer had a strained relationship with her birth father, Patrick Lovato, due to his mental health and addiction issues up until he died in 2013.
When Lovato was 10, she started acting on Barney & Friends and singing locally around Dallas. During an open casting call, Lovato secured her breakout role as Mitchie Torres in Disney Channel’s 2008 movie musical Camp Rock, leading to her first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 with the film's song "This is Me" and her signing with Hollywood Records.
Within a few months, Lovato released her debut album, the pop-rock-heavy Don't Forget, co-written with the Jonas Brothers. In a year, the then-17-year-old had become a full-fledged Disney superstar, leading the network's sitcom, Sonny with a Chance; acting as a co-lead with Selena Gomez in Disney's Princess Protection Program; releasing her sophomore album, Here We Go Again. “I wanted to establish myself as a musician, not just the girl from Camp Rock,” she said at the time.
Lovato's star was on the rise, but privately she was in turmoil. By the time she turned 18, she had spent years dealing with depression and an eating disorder. She self-medicated by using drugs and alcohol to cope with the pressure of an increasingly demanding career. In Dancing with the Devil, she also revealed that she had been raped at 15 by a fellow Disney actor who was never punished, further exacerbating her mental health issues. She entered treatment for the first time in 2010, spending the next eight years juggling her massively successful post-Disney recording career with her tenuous sobriety.
"I would sneak out, get drugs. I would fake my drug tests with other people's pee,” she revealed in her 2017 YouTube documentary, Simply Complicated. “I wasn't working my program. I wasn't ready to get sober. I was sneaking it on planes, sneaking it in bathrooms, sneaking it through the night. Nobody knew."
When Lovato wrote and recorded much of her last album, she was “California sober”—a controversial approach that some don’t consider sobriety at all because it allows for the moderate consumption of weed. (The parameters of the approach can vary from person to person, and Lovato also consumed alcohol in moderation.) Upon sharing this in her documentary, Lovato was immediately met with skepticism and concern from her family and friends, including Elton John, who has been sober for 32 years.
“Moderation doesn’t work, sorry,” he said matter-of-factly in the Dancing with the Devil documentary. “If you drink, you’re going to drink more. If you take a pill, you’re going to take another one. You either do it or you don’t.”
For most of her life, Lovato had struggled to find a sense of balance. “I’ve always been an all-or-nothing person,” she says, thinking back on her childhood. Her mother, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who also struggled with an eating disorder, began entering Demi in beauty pageants when she was 7. “My self-esteem was completely damaged from those beauty pageants,” she shared in the first episode of her documentary. “I remember making a pact with myself saying, ‘If I don’t win this pageant, I will never eat again.’”
After she was hospitalized, the singer knew she needed moderation in her life to keep her grounded. When it came to food, she allowed herself to enjoy meals, to indulge without feeling the regret that had become so intertwined with eating. It was so freeing that she thought she could try approaching addiction in a similar way. Maybe, she reasoned, the all-in outlook she’d had toward sobriety is where she had gone wrong before.
By November 2021, Lovato decided to change.
She entered treatment, announcing the following month on her Instagram stories, “I no longer support my ‘California sober’ ways.” she wrote. “I’ve had my ups and downs with sobriety,” she says now. “But sober is the only way for me to be.” Having reconsidered sobriety, it was only natural for Lovato to reconsider Dancing with the Devil too. Since its release, she hadn’t listened to the album much. And when she imagined touring, she couldn’t quite picture singing most of the songs onstage — not because she wasn’t proud of them, but because they no longer felt like her.
“I feel like Dancing with the Devil didn’t encompass who I am,” she says. “It was made at a time when I was smoking a bunch of weed. I was just in a position where I wasn’t sure of who I was, personally and artistically.”
The process of growing up and finding herself wasn’t straightforward. Like many other child stars, her adolescence was muddled by the dueling roles Lovato had to play publicly and privately. Behind the scenes, she was a teenager bearing the responsibility of acting as the primary financial provider for her family and the emotional scars of her birth father’s substance abuse issues. But in the spotlight, she was “Mitchie” from Camp Rock, the Disney singer who had an innocent, approachable image to maintain.
“I’ll always look at child stardom, at what I went through, as something traumatic for me,” she says. “No child should ever be in the limelight. It’s too much pressure. There’s an absence of childhood that you never get to experience. It makes things confusing because you develop problems from that experience, whether it’s addiction or trust issues or financial stress. It follows you into adulthood.”
When she turned 18, little changed. She was legally an adult, but Lovato says her management (whom she no longer works with) became increasingly controlling. “[They] wanted to keep me like a kid,” she says. “Not making decisions for myself, having a say in everything that I did, down to everything that I ate, what I wore.”
When Lovato went back to rehab, she started digging through her past, pushing herself to revisit many of the same subjects she drew on for her previous album—now with more compassion and grace for herself. At first, she was angry—at the Baptist church she was raised in, where she was told that being queer was wrong; at the gender norms she felt constrained by for most of her career, at some of her past relationships, at her former team, at the tabloids, at herself. Lovato had buried those emotions for so long that finally acknowledging them was powerful. “I felt a lot of anger,” she says. “When I was reflecting on that, it made me want to take my power back.”
She started to see certain aspects of her life in a different light. Soon, lyrics and melodies started pouring out. “It flowed out of me like vomit,” she laughs. “I threw up all of these lyrics and concepts and ideas, and Laura Veltz, my co-writer, and my producer ‘Oak’ Felder helped take that puke and form it into a beautiful sculpture.” It’s a disgusting metaphor, she admits, but with a happy smirk, she also concedes that it’s a little punk rock.
Returning to the pop-punk and alt-rock that influenced some of her earliest songs was only natural. It’s the sound of the musicians she grew up listening to on repeat, from Paramore to Bring Me the Horizon, and so much about the style—the “fuck you” attitude; the edgier, androgynous fashion; the raw emotion—just felt right.
“I’ve been a kind of musical chameleon over the past few years,” Lovato says, referencing the pop and R&B bent of her previous records. “I’ve tried on different things, made music of different genres, but this is the one that clicks for me. This is the one that I love the most. It’s where my future lies.”
Several years ago, Emily Armstrong, the lead vocalist of the rock band Dead Sara, met Lovato through a mutual friend at one of their shows. At the time, Lovato’s music was still squarely in the world of R&B-inspired pop, but Armstrong recalls that Lovato was interested in pursuing a harder sound, even floating the idea of a future collaboration. Back in 2020, Lovato gave fans a taste of her edgier aspirations when she teamed up with Blink-182’s Travis Barker to release an emo-rock rendition of her song, “I Love Me.”
When Lovato began piecing together Holy Fvck, she followed up with Dead Sara, asking the group to work with her on the album—and together they worked on “Bones” and “Help Me,” the latter featuring vocals from Armstrong and her bandmate, Siouxsie Medley.
“A lot of what they were inspired by was a younger version of herself,” Armstrong says. “It was a way of tapping into something that had been right under the surface that she hadn’t fully shown. There was a part of her that wanted to show that realization of ‘Yeah, this is who I am.’ Getting to help bring that to the light was so cool.”
The album is a giant middle finger to anyone who might question Lovato’s perspective. She’s the ultimate authority on herself, and Holy Fvck is more than a decade of pent-up grievances that she’s finally shedding. Dancing with the Devil might have evoked imagery of metamorphosis, but this album is a rebirth. Here, she’s worshiping at her altar, invoking Bible verses that previously shamed her, and transforming her pain into strength. Holy Fvck is a personal excavation, a spiritual journey that was a form of therapy. “It was so cathartic for me to get all of these songs out,” Lovato says. “It was me experiencing anger and honoring my anger, not ignoring it anymore because that's what I think is healthy to do. I've become a spiritual person over the last few years, and I always thought that being angry made me a non-spiritual person. But that's not true. If you don't experience the dark, you don't see the light.”
That outlook imbued Lovato’s songwriting with a wild, youthful energy that can be heard throughout the album. Lovato sets the tone on opener “Freak,” singing over carnival-like instrumentation, “Get your tickets to the freak show, baby / Step right up to watch the freak go crazy / I am what I am, and what I am is a piece of meat / Take a bite just to watch me bleed.”
The song is a world away from the Lovato of Dancing with the Devil. In “Anyone,” she was crying out, praying to God to send someone to save her, but in “Freak,” Lovato’s not interested in salvation. If people are going to watch her and pick apart her every move, she might as well set up her own stage and invite them to the show. She doubles down on her outrage in “Skin of My Teeth,” which touches on the unsympathetic attitude Lovato's been met with for struggling with sobriety so publicly. She addresses her critics directly as she wails, “Go easier on me / God damn it, I just wanna be free / But I can’t cause it’s a fucking disease.”
Later, on “Eat Me,” when she sings, “Would you like me better if I was still her? Did she make your mouths water?”, it’s a direct callout to the hyperfeminine popstar she felt she had to be. Lovato came out as nonbinary last year, adopting “they/them” as her primary pronouns. More recently, in the process of reframing her past, she’s become accepting of “she/her” pronouns as well.
“I still feel very comfortable with they/them,” she says. “I've made a few headlines by saying I'm accepting of the pronouns she/her. It's not that I'm changing anything about myself. I'm just accepting my femininity back. I felt like I had to reject it for a minute because that's how I was feeling at the time, and because I wanted to escape that feminine popstar role that I was playing. I had to get away from that.”
The album also explores Lovato’s religious journey over the last year. While she no longer believes in organized religion, she still identifies as spiritual. On “Heaven,” Lovato does this by referencing a Bible verse, Matthew 5:30, which condemns masturbation, and on Holy Fvck’s title track, she casts herself as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, an angel, and a demon, as she owns her sexual prowess. “I’m not shy about my sexuality at all [now],” she says. “But back then, I thought it was so shameful. It fucked with me for so long, so I thought, ‘You know what, I want to write rock songs about this.’”
That eagerness to jump into the genre drew Armstrong and the other members of Dead Sara to work with Lovato. In their sessions, Armstrong says Lovato’s determination was inspiring.
“If you think about the scale of Demi’s career as one of the top pop artists in the world just going, ‘Fuck it. I’m gonna do rock n’ roll because that’s who I feel I am,’ that’s huge,” she says. “And they’re doing it. That’s so inspiring seeing that women really can do whatever the fuck they want. We don’t have to be stuck in a box.”
Much of the album is a celebration of Lovato letting go—of who people think she should be, of the public pressure, of the expectations she felt she had to live up to—and empowering herself. One song in particular, though, has been particularly empowering for Lovato’s fans as well. In “29,” Lovato’s vocals are at their best, soaring easily to the highest peak of her range, as she releases all of her thoughts on a previous relationship with a 12-year age gap: “Far from innocent, what the fuck’s consent? / Numbers told you not to, but that didn’t stop you.” Shortly after its release, the song sparked a TikTok trend with users sharing their own experiences with age gaps, manipulation, and grooming.
“It’s complicated because you’re not quite sure of what you’re feeling at the time,” she says of the relationship. At 17, Lovato says she didn’t understand the consequences of being with someone who was so much older, not realizing there was much of a disparity between her and her partner: “You’re in a situation that you might think is fun or sexy. You realize later what it took away from you and the trauma behind it. My parents were telling me it wasn’t okay, and I wish I had listened to them, but I was a rebellious teenager. I just saw something that I wanted, and I went for it. I didn’t see the imbalance until much later.”
Lovato hasn’t confirmed the subject of the song, but she’s proud that it’s helped so many other people come forward with their own stories. “If I could go back in time, even if I wouldn't listen, I would still try to warn my younger self that this isn't right,” she says.
For most of her career, Lovato has been on the defensive — her life has been picked apart since she was 16. But rather than close herself off, she’s always responded by sharing more, in the hopes of helping others struggling with the same issues. It was also an attempt to be understood. With each new album, documentary, and promotional cycle, Lovato has opened herself up, again and again, trying to explain how she got here, trying to get people to grapple with how complicated recovery can be. Lovato’s honest, even at times unflattering, documentaries are a world away from the typical, glimmering aspirational films her peers typically churn out.
“I'm just a very open book,” she says. “When I learned that it's okay to be vulnerable, I started sharing my story with people, and it started helping people, and then I just kind of was like, ‘Oh, I'll just keep sharing and sharing because it'll help someone.’ Sometimes it doesn't help people. Sometimes it just gives too much insight into my life.”
She knew that degree of openness would also leave room for critics eager to analyze and break apart everything she said. For a while, she thought the good would outweigh the bad. But at this point in her life, Lovato says she’s more interested in keeping her personal life sacred. “Sometimes I have a big mouth,” she says. “As I get older, I'm trying to learn to be more private. I think I do give too much insight to people into my life, and I have to think, do people deserve that? I'm sure by the time I'm 35, my mouth will be glued shut because I'm tired of talking about myself. And I'm sure people are tired of hearing me talk about myself.”
Now Lovato is ready to let her music speak for her. In rewatching her last documentaries, there’s this inescapable feeling that the singer is always trying to tie things up, to declare herself healed, but she’s gotten comfortable leaving that sense of finality behind. She’s abandoned that instinct in favor of finally accepting uncertainty. She initially planned to cap off Holy Fvck with a different song but later decided that “4 Ever 4 Me,” like everything else about the work, just felt right. It’s an earnest acoustic love song, one of the first Lovato has ever written.
“I think that speaks to the relationships that I've been in [before],” she says. “Being with someone for a long period—years, in fact—and not writing a love song kind of speaks volumes. But this one was really sweet and special to me. I don't think I've ever written a love song like that. I always thought that ‘Happy Ending’ would be the end of the album, but that's not the end of my story. This is the beginning of my story. And it just so happens to be the last track because I'm excited for what the future holds.”
Lovato has ditched the idea of chasing perfection. She’s a work in progress, and she’s okay with that.
“It hasn't been a perfect journey,” she says. “It's been so difficult to get where I'm at today. The changes that I've made—I’m honoring all of my emotions, not just the positive ones.”