Demi Lovato is the new Miley Cyrus. The Disney company hasn’t actually called her that, but it doesn’t need to; its promotional technique says it all. Not long before Cyrus’s naughty Vanity Fair photos appeared, Disney made a big investment in Lovato, who had been appearing in some of the company’s smaller shows; it put her in the TV musical Camp Rock (with those other cash cows, the Jonas Brothers), concert tours, and a new sitcom, Sonny With a Chance. The show premieres in Canada on the Family Channel on March 16, but the 15-year-old Lovato had already been promoted as a star before an episode had aired anywhere; creator Steve Marmel told Maclean’s that this is the first kids’ sitcom where “instead of going from TV show to star, someone has gone from star to TV show.” It’s a youthful version of the old Hollywood studio system: a company picks a performer and turns her into a star before anyone quite realizes it.
Lovato told Maclean’s that while Disney has been “awesome helping my career” in both music and acting, the company never actually spelled out its plans. “I don’t think they ever tell somebody ‘we want you to be a star,’ ” she said. “It’s just that they like to push the shows or movies or things like that.” But the projects Disney has chosen for her have all somehow managed to reinforce the image she needs to be the new Miley Cyrus: someone who can sing, is constantly perky, and seems like a regular girl who got the break of a lifetime.
Her part in Camp Rock created that image, and Sonny With a Chance cemented it; her character is a bubbly girl from the Midwest who gets a part on a popular TV show. “It’s sort of her story,” Marmel says. “So when she walks into these stories where she plays the girl that was from somewhere else that got this opportunity, I think there’s an honesty in it that you can see in the actor that’s playing it.” Lovato has been acting on television since she was six years old (including a guest shot on Prison Break), but Sonny portrays her as an average girl surrounded by jaded Hollywood types. Real kids will be more likely to see her concerts and buy her promotional tie-ins if they feel like she’s one of them.
It’s also important for her career, Lovato says, that she shouldn’t be identified with just one thing: “Disney made sure that I started touring before Camp Rock came out, so I wouldn’t brand myself as ‘the girl from Camp Rock.’ ” Disney has always looked for multi-tasking young stars, from Annette Funicello onward, who can work for its whole media empire of TV, recordings, and occasional theme-park rides. But today, kid stars have to do even more than their predecessors, because this is a multimedia age: when young people get their entertainment from anywhere, the young performers who have the best chance are those who can be plugged in every medium at once. Disney’s other potential Cyrus successor, 16-year-old Selena Gomez, is working simultaneously for its record label and the sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place (and will co-star with Lovato in a movie for the Disney Channel). “The more that someone can do,” Lovato says, “the more opportunities it opens up for them.”
But in addition to opening up opportunities, the buildup also opens up dangers: once someone is a valuable studio property, everything she says or does becomes a potential threat to her image. Miley Cyrus recently got in trouble again for a leaked photo of her making a mock-Asian face (which led to accusations that she was being offensive), and responded by writing that the press was “trying to make me out as the new ‘Bad Girl!’ ” Lovato hasn’t gotten in trouble with the press yet, but she isn’t too worried about the possibility: “Nobody wants a role model that’s perfect anyway. It just makes girls who make mistakes feel bad about themselves.”
For his part, Marmel says that he’s mostly concentrating on trying to make a funny show, but adds that “we’re aware that we’re part of a much bigger vision for a specific star.” Every TV show, video and movie that kids watch is just a smaller part of a huge multimedia marketing strategy. If it works, the studio ends up with a huge revenue generator like Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Zac Efron, and—if things go as planned—Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. But once a studio has built you into a 15-year-old star of all media, where do you go from there? Lovato already has some plans of her own: “Once I’m past Disney and things like that,” she explains, “I can move on to serious roles.”