Demi Lovato was 8 when she knew. Or in kindergarten. Hard to recall precisely. That was a long time ago. Years ago. Demi's old now, all of 15 though sometimes she looks years older. The memory isn't what it used to be. But the when is beside the point anyway. It's the what that counts: what happened that day, what it meant to her, what she knew, what came next.
"I sang at the kindergarten talent show," Demi says. "I was on stage, and I actually messed up, but then it started going again, so it was good." The song was that Celine Dion ballad from Titanic, "My Heart Will Go On," which goes on and on. "That's a hard song to sing for anyone," says her stepfather, "much less a 5-year-old." Which settles it. She was 5.
"I just kept it up," Demi says. "And at that moment, when I stuck through it and stopped crying onstage, I guess that's when I realized, 'Wow, I don't hate this enough to run offstage.'"
It was so weird, she says. That's the only word for it. "I dunno. It's a weird thing." Because, like, she was only a little kid, right? But even then she knew what she was gonna be when she grew up.
"It actually clicked in my head," she says. "I decided I wanted to be a singer."
So she became one. Simple as that. Well, not really—there were lessons, of course, with North Texas' best-known singing and acting teachers. And some modeling too, with Kim Dawson's famed agency as her rep. And casting calls, lots of casting calls. "Cattle calls," Demi calls them, with not a hint of malice. All this is why she's in Los Angeles right now and not Colleyville. That's where she would be—along with her two sisters and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader mom and car salesman stepfather who's raised her since she was 1—if she weren't about to become superfamous. "I always knew that one day, somehow, I'd be here where I am today," Demi says. "Or, at least, I was dreaming it."
Where she is today: with her stepfather, Eddie DeLaGarza, at a photo shoot off La Brea Avenue in a megacomplex often used for celebrities' close-ups. It's for Teen magazine, whose stylists spend hours swaddling their star in bright neons and perky plaids and adorable hats and loose-fitting vests—what every girl needs for a night out...at the mall. There is also a long metal pole from which hang cardboard letters, tinged with pink paper, spelling out "DEMI." Teen's editor, the veddy British and no-nonsense Jane Fort, says she got the idea from a catalog.
Pardon, say what? You haven't heard of Demi Lovato? Then you're clearly not in your tweens, not part of that valuable demographic ages 8 to 14—give or take a few years on each side—willing to part with an estimated $30 million in babysitting money and $140 million of your folks' hard-earned. And you're not watching the Disney Channel, clearly.
You're not listening to the Jonas Brothers, Joe, Nick and Kevin, the holy trinity of Tweener Rock. You're not casting a spell with The Wizards of Waverly Place, starring one of the DeLuise boys as the proud papa of a magical clan. You're not hero-worshipping brothers Zack & Cody, the Eloise and Eloise of prime-time kid's TV running amok in the fancy hotel in which they happen to live. You're not waiting for As the Bell Rings, the frothy penalty kill Disney Channel runs between shows. But, surely you know Hannah Montana? Demi Lovato's like that. Only not as famous. Yet.
Maybe, come June 21, Demi Lovato will be fitted with her own crown as she becomes newest princess in Disney's Magic Kingdom. Maybe not. Probably so.
Because the day before, Demi will be the star of Disney Channel's Camp Rock, as anxiously awaited by the J-14 and Teen and Popstar! and Tiger Beat set as the latest adventures of an old man and his musty fedora are anticipated by their parents. Disney's counting on it to be the next franchise, another High School Musical, whose 2007 sequel was only the highest-rated offering in the history of cable television.
Disney's been promoting Camp Rock for months, flooding the mouseketeers of America with an endless parade of promos for the story of a middle-class girl who has a JoBro-mance with hunky Joe Jonas at sleep-away camp. There, they snap bubblegum pop and dance the late afternoons away and fall madly, desperately in like—because, after all, Demi's 15 and Joe's 18 and that's still illegal in Disneyland.
"Here's the trick for us and for me, particularly," says Michael Healey, senior vice president of original movies for the Disney Channel. "With this cast and with the great buzz on the Internet and every place else about Camp Rock, it'll certainly open. I don't know how big it'll open, but it'll do extremely well. The real test for us is, will it repeat? Will the kids really fall in love with it and come back and see it again? Because that's sort of the great magic of our best movies: Kids don't just like them, they love them, and they want to see them again and again. And that's the true test: Will they last? Let's hope that Camp Rock is like that. We'll know in a few months."
But, right, who is Demi anyway? Till a couple of years ago she was known, if at all, for having ridden the purple dinosaur when she was 8. After Barney & Friends there were occasional acting gigs, like a one-off appearance on the locally filmed Fox show Prison Break, but nothing so memorable as to leap off a novice's résumé. But now, Demi is about to be everywhere, if all goes according to plan.
On May 16, she appeared in the first episode of Living the Dream, the Disney Channel's reality series featuring, who else, the Jonas Brothers. Only last week, she made her recording debut on Disney Mania, Volume 6, on which she sings "That's How You Know" from, of course, the Disney film Enchanted. At the beginning of June, Demi will then go on a small concert tour previewing the product. There will be stories in People and USA Weekend and, of course, a newsstand's worth of teen magazines.
Then, June 20, Camp debuts.
"On June 20," says Eddie DeLaGarza, whom Demi calls Dad, "everything changes."
At the beginning of July, Demi hits the road with the Jonas Brothers; she and Joe will be America's newest sweethearts, dueting on stage after stage. Then, in the fall, comes the album containing some dozen songs the Jonas boys and others have written for the girl who always wanted to sing.
Then either late this year or next, there will be another movie, Princess Protection Program, in which Demi only too appropriately plays Disney's newest princess. All that's missing is the glass slipper—and you can get those at Candie's.
Teen Entertainment Editor Kelly Bryant thinks so much of Demi's chances she's shooting Demi and BFF Selena Gomez, star of Wizards of Waverly Place, in late May for a cover that won't even hit newsstands until September. Bryant has good instincts, reminds her boss: She put Zac Efron, the Jonas Brothers and others on the cover of her magazine when they were stars in ascension.
"There's just a lot of buzz," says Bryant, who, as recently as two weeks ago, hadn't even seen Camp Rock. "Normally we wouldn't shoot a cover with an actress whose movie hasn't even aired yet on the Disney Channel, but there's a lot of buzz surrounding her, and from the first time I interviewed her on the Camp Rock set, she was a very sweet girl, but you could also tell there was a lot of talent there.
"From the scenes I saw, she's got this great voice. But you could have the talent, but if you don't have that sparkle, that personality that makes the kids want to know more about you, I think you're not going to be as successful. But she has that. She has the whole package. She has the talent, and she also has this great personality that I think really draws kids in."
At this very moment, Demi is at the end of the beginning of her introduction to stardom. She's a Disney girl now, under contract to Mickey and Goofy. In addition to all the definites, there's still a maybe in the winds: She's awaiting word on a pilot she's shot for the Disney Channel called Sketchpads, a sort of tweener version of 30 Rock set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show. Word is it needs some retooling, but the suits love Demi. It'll likely be introduced if—which is to say, when—Camp Rock's declared a hit.
Till then, she's graduated to teen gossip-mag cover shoots and stories circulating about her alleged YouTube feud with Hannah Montana herself, Miley Cyrus. She's trying desperately to finish an album due out in September that may have to be pushed back till October. And Demi—who writes some of her own material and plays guitar—is about to tour with the teenybopping JoBros, who are suddenly hip enough for the likes of Details and Rolling Stone.
In short, she's a few weeks away from becoming a franchise, if she's not one already.
"I knew that this was what I wanted to do," she says. "When you work really hard at something, eventually it pays off. No matter what it is."
Why will Demi Lovato become a star? Easy. Because Disney wants her to be a star. That, as they say, is that. Actually, they say much more than that: In April, Disney Channel Entertainment President Gary Marsh told Forbes that "when we find someone, we—as they say in poker—are willing to go all in." The headline of the story said it all: "How to Make a Miley." The rest of the story filled in the blanks: How to make a mint.
First, though, a brief primer for those busy leading childless lives who missed witnessing firsthand the burgeoning stranglehold of Mickey Mouse and his eight fingers. Because it wasn't long ago that Disney Channel didn't even exist—it used to be, before the turn of the millennium, a pay channel available only in a few million homes. But in 2001, it went straight to basic, offering bright young faces-next-door who ascended the pop-culture ladder: Shia LaBoeuf, star of Even Stevens; Raven Symone, star of That's So Raven; and, of course, Hilary Duff, whose Lizzie McGuire more or less paved the way, in gold, for Miley Cyrus' Hannah Montana. Duff was among the first Disney Channel personalities to cross over from television to music—five long years ago.
The turnaround at Disney—now the "major profit driver" in the Magic Kingdom, according to the May issue of Portfolio—was thanks in large part to the 2004 hiring of former FX Networks CEO Anne Sweeney. "We found there was this huge demo that was too old for Nickelodeon and too young for MTV," she told Portfolio. "We realized this was an opportunity for Disney to establish itself in the lives of these kids."
To the point where it's become their lives.
The Disney Channel—which, according to Forbes, expects to pocket nearly $80 million in 2008, or more than twice its 2007 income—is an advertisement for itself, an endless loop of promos peddling product. In the morning it attracts preschool viewers giggling to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Higglytown Heroes and Little Einsteins. In the afternoon, the network grows up just a little bit, offering family-friendly variations on '70s and '80s sitcoms such as Silver Spoons, Growing Pains and Facts of Life. Disney has found a way to merge those audiences, to the point where 4-year-old boys want to dress like the Jonas Brothers and 4-year-old girls want a Hannah Montana wig.
That's why every kid in America—except, maybe, those snatched from the polygamist compound—knows about Camp Rock. They are waiting for it, breathlessly anticipating it. They've been told to, for months and months.
But they are doing more than just following orders: Consciously or not, they're buying into an ideal—the squeaky-clean, sanitized-for-your-protection hallways and mallways of America. It's what Disney's sold for decades: "the American childhood," as Syracuse University pop-culture prof Robert Thompson said in a 2006 Boston Globe story, updated "with the iconography of modern youth." Which means, in this instance, pop songs as catchy as a cold, COSMOGirl! accessories soccer moms steal from their daughters and dance moves meant to be re-enacted in front of a bedroom mirror during sleepovers. And stars who could be, like, your BFF, OMG.
"I feel like it goes back to being approachable," says Teen's Bryant. "Our readers are mostly girls, girls getting the sense that, 'This is someone who could be my friend. This is the girl who could be next to me in math class, and we could do our homework together.' I feel like that's what it boils down to, really. The ones that rise to the top are the ones that...these girls can relate to. They have this extraordinary life in our readers' eyes because they're on TV, and they're in movies, and they're recording albums, but at the same time, it seems like someone that they could hang out with."
Truth is, about as close as girls can get to hanging out with Demi is on YouTube, to which she's posted 13 videos starring herself and Grand Prairie native Selena Gomez, Demi's best friend ever since they co-starred with Barney seven years ago. They're nothing more than pajama-party gabfests, two teenagers diddybopping into the camera as they model their Power Rangers T-shirts, introduce the world to hotel housekeeping and discuss their makeup.
But those videos are powerful marketing tools: A video titled "demi lovato and selena gomez UPDATE!!!" has garnered some 1,516,950 views since it was posted three months ago. Still, that's nothing compared with the 2,456,557 views Miley Cyrus and backup dancer Mandy Jiroux received for their surprisingly nasty parody of Demi and Selena's update, posted shortly afterward. (Cyrus in particular barks out a mean "Yo, yo!" that appears aimed directly at Demi.) It's like a Disney show, only far more grown up: "this shits fuckin beat get some fukin lives u guys r like fuckin 17," reads one hard-R-rated comment among 44,734 posted to the Cyrus-Jiroux video. Kids.
Speaking of, Demi's still a kid. It's just a little hard to remember that, as she preens and poses for the camera of Richard Reinsdorf, who's on his first Teen shoot after years of working for everyone from Vanity Fair to Vaseline. She looks much older—sounds it too, especially when she talks about wanting to manage and produce. And direct. Yeah. Direct.
To hear her folks tell it, Demi is entirely in control of her career—has been, yes, since she was 5. It was Demi who, when she was 8, told her mother, Dianna, she wanted to skip a beauty pageant in Las Vegas so she could audition for Barney & Friends instead. Dianna remembers that day well: 1,400 kids at "this cattle call," where she met Selena Gomez. Mother didn't think daughter stood much of a chance. All those girls! So Dianna got Demi and her older sister Dallas ready for Vegas, for "this big deal we did every year." Only, there was a call: The Barney producers wanted to see Demi again. Mom wasn't thrilled.
"I said, 'You know, I don't know about this,'" she recalls. "I was like, 'We audition for stuff all the time, and we haven't really gotten anything. I'm just not sure that I want her to miss that week of fun that she looks forward to every year, all year.' And they said, 'We really, really want to see her here.'" So Dianna told the producers she'd talk to Demi and see what she wanted to do.
"And I totally left it up to an 8-year-old little girl," Dianna says. "I told her, 'You know what the chances are. You know this business that we've been in so far. If you really would like to do the acting career and the singing and the dancing that goes along with it, you're going to need to stay behind with your aunt while we go. If you don't want to do that, and you want to go have your fun for the week, I totally understand that. I'm going to leave it up to you.' She thought about it for three seconds and said, 'I need to stay here.'"
Demi's no less in control on this late May afternoon, as a morning photo shoot extends into the late evening. Not once during the six-hour shoot does Demi ever talk to her stepfather, Eddie, a former football and baseball star at Irving MacArthur High School and Texas Tech University. Eddie keeps to himself while Demi goofs around with Selena, with whom she will share the cover. She also giggles with the gaggle of stylists tending to her hair, clothes and makeup.
"I need him in the mornings and at night and for support," Demi says. "Some days it gets so stressful that I can be in tears. Camp Rock was my first movie, and in the first two weeks, I got really sick of exhaustion. I was in my trailer sweating. Drips of sweat were just coming off me because I was so stressed. It really does affect your health—how much you work, especially being this young...But you get used to it. You can't always rely on your parents, too, when you're the one who has to do the lines and you're the one who has to focus. They can't be doing the scene with me. But I need them 24/7."
Eddie keeps to himself, tending to e-mails—sponsorship offers, contracts, fan mail—while observing from a safe distance. After all, that is his job now: He's Demi's manager, a job he shares with Kevin Jonas Sr. and 25-year-old Phil McIntyre, who also handles the Jonas Brothers. McIntyre worked his way up through the management ranks by tending to Britney Spears' every need during concert tours, till he wound up forming Philymack management based in Los Angeles.
Philymack's a young vet; Eddie's a rookie in his early 40s. For 20 years, Eddie sold Fords at two of North Texas' biggest dealerships: Westway in Irving and Five Star in Richland Hills. Then, in January, he quit.
"I think it was actually January 27," he says. "I came out here for a three-day meeting on January 28, and I haven't been home since. It's been crazy. I went out here and met with some music producers and some music managers and had a lot of meetings, and all of a sudden, I'm on a plane to catch up with the Jonas Brothers tour, and we were on the tour for the next three weeks. One thing leads to another, they've been writing songs together...I haven't been home in almost three months now!"
Eddie is asked: How does a man who's sold cars most of his adult life prepare himself for the life of show-biz dad and manager of a rising star?
"I don't think you can," he says, his grin spreading. "As much as we've been working on it for seven years, when it reaches up and grabs you like it just did, I don't think anybody can prepare for it. It's taken a life of its own, but in a good way. It's been very good."
Dianna describes it thusly: "It's been a tornado. A Texas twister."
But this whirlwind is of their own design. Demi's too. OK, mostly Demi's. That is what everyone says. What everyone insists. It was Demi who asked for singing lessons. It was Demi who begged for acting lessons. And it was Eddie who paid for them. And it was Dianna who drove her to them. And it was not easy.
"We just searched for routes and ways to make it, and that's what it really takes," Demi says. "You're not always presented with the opportunities, but we went out and we searched for it, and that's why this business is so hard to make it in.
"Looking for that opportunity is such a journey and such a challenge. My dad has really good instincts. We pray about them. There's not a lot you can do when making decisions on your career that could result in being tied down to the wrong agent or manager or something, which fortunately never happened to us...Finding those outlets were definitely difficult, and it's not cheap either."
The acting lessons were in Coppell, with Cathryn Sullivan, who's also the mother of Cody Linley, an occasional guest on Hannah Montana. Guitar lessons were in Keller. And the singing lessons were in Addison at Linda Septien's vocal studio, which unleashed the likes of Jessica and Ashlee Simpson and Ryan Cabrera. Demi spent years in class—the proverbial apprentice who quickly became the star of master's classes.
Septien says Demi, quite honestly, was singing songs that were probably too old for her—meaning, she says, too hard. The girl could sing the notes between the notes—the "inner notes," they're called—and hold them forever. She could scat, sing R&B as well as pop and make someone else's song her own with only a few tries. She was in a master's class and working with the teacher's stable of songwriters, Septien says, by the time she was 10.
"Demi probably entertained me more than I helped her," Septien says. "I got a kick out of her, because she was so funny. She's been in the industry a long time. She's seasoned. She's grown up in it. There are just some kids who are born entertaining. They seek people to watch them, and they want to know so much. We get a lot of questions about stage moms, and I laugh. We don't have any stage mothers. We have stage kids. The parents are the ones who say, 'I don't want to be here, it's too expensive.' But the kids seek out more and more education."
Her mother and father both insist she could quit tomorrow and they'd be fine with it—though, likely, Disney would have something to say about it at this point. But that's the furthest thing from her mind, as she pushes onward and upward toward unfathomable fame awaiting only Disney's chosen few.
Fact is, says Disney's Michael Healey, Camp Rock wasn't even intended as a Jonas Brothers vehicle; they had to be shoe-horned in there. No, in fact, it was always Demi's movie first and foremost, something she landed the moment Healey and the Disney higher-ups first saw her on tape, after she'd been tapped at a Disney casting call at KD Studios on Stemmons Freeway at the beginning of 2007.
"I wish it were mathematical or something, but I think it has to do with gut instinct," Healey says. "It was always written as the girl's story: a Cinderella story of a girl who wants to go to camp, can't afford it, and once there, sort of hides her identity because she's shy and afraid that she won't fit in. And we needed somebody who was a talented singer, and when Demi came in, she just was so radiant and such a great singing talent that we thought, 'How could we turn her down?'"
So they didn't. Because the glass slipper fit.
And, sure, there is always the chance the carriage will turn into a pumpkin. Disney Channel's made some 75 movies, and few are those in the viewing audience who can name any that don't begin with High School Musical. But, like Marsh says, he's gone all in—and, as keeper of the Kingdom, he does possess the royal flush. For the time being, anyway.
But, if he goes broke with that hand, then, ya know, whatever. Demi writes her own songs. She can act. She can sing. She'll be fine. She's a cagey vet, a girl who once told a prospective manager to keep his contract after he refused to acknowledge that by meeting with her, he was all but betraying his other clients—since, she says, "we would be in competition." She laughs. "I actually made him sweat." She takes great pride in this. So do her parents.
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"My decisions of where I'll be in 20 years or 10 years have changed in just a few months," Demi says. She's been at this photo shoot for six hours. Her dad thinks she looks tired. "You can see it in her eyes."
But sitting in a small room in which she's had her last coat of makeup applied for the day, she seems anything but. She's ready to keep going—more photos, more interviews, more everything. That's how the dream goes, right?
And how does it end?
"I really wanna be a director."