A word to the wise: Don’t pick a fight with Demi Lovato.
If you manage to get through the singer-songwriter’s army of Lovatics, the superfans who make up a sizable and vocal part of her whopping 65 million Instagram followers, you’d still have to get past her dogs and her full-time security guard, who all live with her in the Hollywood Hills.
Then, if you made it to Lovato herself, you’d be up against a blue belt in jujitsu who’s also schooled in boxing and Muay Thai. Lovato has an excellent right hook, a fierce left uppercut, and a damn good roundhouse.
“If I were in some sort of danger, I know I could easily break somebody’s arm or choke them out,” she says, barefoot in the ring at Unbreakable Performance Center in West Hollywood. “I just feel like I can take care of myself.”
It’s a Monday morning in January, and she’s wearing heavy boxing gloves, having just finished a long combination of moves. Her trainer—a handsome Brazilian mixed-martial-arts fighter whose left ear hasn’t completely survived his past altercations—holds Lovato’s water bottle to her mouth for a brief moment of hydration. Then they start the routine all over again.
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“Sometimes I imagine it’s our president,” she jokes as she throws a powerful jab at a red punching bag, followed by a left knee kick. It’s the only reference—serious or comic—this avid Hillary Clinton supporter will make to Donald Trump today because, she explains, “I feel like 1) it falls on deaf ears, and 2) my feelings towards anyone or anything are not going to change the situation.”
Besides, working out is Lovato’s meditative happy place, where anger, futility, and frustration go out the window. And Unbreakable, an exclusive gym a stone’s throw from the Chateau Marmont, is kind of her sanctuary slash clubhouse—and since she’s been sober six years, her version of Cheers.
Lovato works out here nearly every day. She purposely moved homes to have a shorter commute. (Her mother, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who recently published a memoir about raising Lovato and her two sisters, still lives a half hour away in Sherman Oaks.)
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Many of her friends are here. One of Unbreakable’s employees even recently tried out to be a backup dancer on her upcoming spring tour with DJ Khaled, which Lovato is particularly excited to get started. “We all hang out,” says Lovato of the other gym regulars. “If I throw a party, I just put a bulletin out for everybody here.”
Her workout finished, Lovato is now outside the ring at Unbreakable’s private smoothie bar. Trainers and clients poke in, praising her progress and greeting her with waves and hugs. She unpacks her late-morning snack, a mix of macadamia nuts, dried fruit, and kefir that her chef prepared for her in a Whole Foods freezer bag, and digs in.
She’d come to the gym even more often, she says, but Unbreakable—which, yes, sounds as if it could be the name of one of Lovato’s anthems—is open only six days a week. “I recently started doing yoga on Sundays, but I don’t like it. I’m not a yoga type of person,” Lovato says. “I’m trying it, though—I’m trying to calm my mind.”
Born in Albuquerque, N.M., Lovato got her start with Selena Gomez on Barney & Friends before joining the Disney stable of young stars in 2007, headlining the Camp Rock films (co-starring the Jonas Brothers) and her own series, Sonny with a Chance, which ran for two seasons from 2009 to 2011. She entered rehab for the first time in 2010, after an altercation with a dancer on the Jonas Brothers world tour.
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“I don’t think I was ever the bad girl,” Lovato says of how she was pigeonholed by the press. “I think I was just open about my issues and was being authentic to who I was. The way people perceived me was the way they wanted to perceive me.” And now Hollywood’s newfound culture of confession has caught up with her. Just in the past several months the floodgates have opened, ushering in the age of #MeToo. Lovato says she’s never experienced or seen any sexual mistreatment in the music business, “but I’ve gone through other things that had nothing to do with the industry.
“You have to speak out about stuff,” she says. “You have to use your voice for good. That’s what I think a lot of people are starting to do. I didn’t have anybody who was doing that when I was younger. I grew up in the era of really, really skinny celebrities. That was the look. And it was cool to be seen partying. Drugs were glamorized, and when I was 12 or 13, nobody [I looked up to] was talking about mental illness. Nobody was talking about eating disorders. Nobody was talking about cutting. I wanted somebody for my little sister to look up to. I took on that role because I knew it was important.”
It’s not always easy to embody that role, however. Especially when triggers are everywhere. Narcos and Breaking Bad are examples of television shows Lovato says she can’t even turn on. “Weed doesn’t bother me, but if I see coke or pills or even needles, it just puts them in my brain, and I don’t need to see that.”
And though she loves her fans and loves to tour—saying she gets butterflies only if “there’s someone I like in the audience”—meet and greets before and after concerts can be tough. “They’re very emotional. A lot of times people use that opportunity to dump their problems on me because they don’t know who else to talk to,” Lovato says. “They show me their cuts. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I was going to kill myself until I got this meet and greet.’ And you’re just like, ‘What?’ Sometimes I’ll meditate afterwards. Sometimes I’ll just kind of breathe. I used to sage myself. It’s very heavy.”
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This is also, in part, where the boxing comes in—the taking care of herself. It’s her MO in all parts of her life. And as a result, she says, she tries to not deny herself what she wants, like the dark-chocolate-covered vegan cookie-dough balls she bought at the supermarket the previous evening. “It’s OK,” she says. “Sometimes you’re going to have two desserts. You’re not a bad person. It’s just food, and it has no power over you.” She sees a therapist twice a week and a nutritionist once a week, “so it’s kind of like [I go to therapy] three times a week.”
Lovato writes a gratitude list every day. “I’ll text with a friend, and we’ll send each other four or five things we’re grateful for and why.” Today those things might include, she explains, “my dogs, my friends, this gym. The ability to fly to New York within a couple of hours rather than having to drive there. The opportunity to be able to share my opinions and my story with you.”
And in addition to searching for new artists for the record label she created with Nick Jonas and music executive Phil McIntyre, Safehouse Records, and beginning to dip her toe into acting again (this time, she hopes, in movies), she’s embracing her independence, even online dating. “I’m not suffering because I’m alone,” Lovato says. “There were many years I was in a relationship and I wasn’t learning about myself. Now I’m learning about what I like, what I need, and what I want.”
That includes someone who is going to make her laugh and “treat me like a queen,” she says. Besides, just like in the boxing ring, “I’m normally the first one to make the move. I’m always the one who says, ‘Let me get your number.’ Or I slide into their DMs on Instagram.”
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Last year she was linked to Guilherme “Bomba” Vasconcelos, and she’d consider dating another MMA fighter. It’s very stressful watching a significant other fight, “but there’s something attractive about being so driven and risking it all for something you love.”
Still, Lovato insists the one place her gloves come off is in relationships. “I’m more of a discusser. I’ll argue,” she says, winking. “But life’s too short for drama.”
Photographer Carter Smith. Fashion editor: Law Roach. Hair: Teddy Charles. Makeup: Daniel Martin. Manicurist: Michelle Saunders. Set design: Ward Robinson. Production: Tyler Duuring.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download March 16.