One recent Saturday actress Demi Lovato, 16, indulged in a little lunch and shopping with a friend, just like plenty of normal American teenagers. The only exception—this is Hollywood after all—is that the friend she went out with that day was Joe Jonas.
“We went to Urban Outfitters and I was like, ‘Joe, you have to get this,’ and he was like, ‘Demi, you have to get this!'” Lovato, a self-confessed clothes addict, recalls. “We didn’t mean to spend that much money!” Remarkably, her retail bender was uninterrupted by the paparazzi. “A lot of people still don’t know me, so fortunately I can go out and be really normal.”
That anonymity is unlikely to last long. Since appearing last year with Joe and his brothers Nick and Kevin in the Disney Channel’s musical Camp Rock, Lovato’s ascent has gone from zero to sixty. She currently stars as Sonny Munroe on Sonny with a Chance, a Disney Channel sitcom about a Wisconsin girl who lands the lead role on a teen-comedy sketch show.
“It’s like 30 Rock for kids, and I’m kind of like the Tina Fey character,” Lovato enthuses. “It’s so much fun. There’s pressure to carry your own show, definitely. But I’ve had a while to mentally prepare for this.”
The preparations began more than a decade ago when she was discovered at age 6, along with fellow Disney starlet Selena Gomez, at an open call audition for the kids’ show Barney and Friends (both girls got the gig and are now best friends). Soon Lovato was immersing herself in guitar and piano lessons, as well as local theater and beauty pageants. Guiding her path were her mom, Dianna De La Garza, a former country singer, and her stepfather Eddie De La Garza, a manager (Lovato’s parents divorced when she was a baby; Dianna and Eddie married when she was three).
But as a seventh grader in Colleyville, Texas, Lovato found that as her career began to grow, so did bullying from a group of jealous classmates.
“There was a petition called ‘We Hate Demi,'” Lovato explains. “They would text me and say, ‘We’re going to make your life a living hell.’ I remember asking them, ‘What did I do?’ and no one could answer.” Explains mom Dianna now: “There were things Demi was accomplishing that all the money in the world couldn’t buy, things they wanted.” Lovato just shrugs. “I didn’t understand,” she says. “I didn’t think I was worthy of someone being jealous of me.”
Despite reporting the threats to the school, “there was nothing they could do about it because it was all verbal harassment,” says Dianna. “I taught my kids to turn the other cheek, stay under the radar, walk away. But it got to a certain level, and that didn’t work anymore.”
One day, Lovato says, “some of the girls were threatening to beat me up. They chased me into a bathroom upstairs. I hid. I was crying, and I called my mom, and I said, ‘You need to take me out of school. I hate my life here.’ She picked me up, and I’ve been homeschooled ever since.”
Happily living in L.A., where she moved last year for Camp Rock, Lovato says she stays strong thanks to the “great support system around me.” That group includes her parents and sisters Dallas, 21, an actress, and Madison, 7, who plays Eva Longoria‘s daughter on Desperate Housewives, as well as buddies like Gomez and Joe Jonas. “Demi’s a big dork! She’s hilarious,” Joe says. Then he adds, “She’s so well-poised and has so much confidence in herself.”
Such self-esteem is hard-won after those junior high years. “I’ll always be scarred from it,” Lovato says of the bullying. “But you can’t focus on those people or you won’t get anywhere.”
And Lovato’s got plenty of places to go, starting with her own tour this summer, followed by a reunion with the Jonas trio to film Camp Rock 2. But don’t expect any wild antics. After all, Lovato points out, she still has a curfew and can’t even drive. “My life really hasn’t changed,” she insists. “I’ve just become busier.”