Tori Tatum is a Demi Lovato superfan. The twentysomething has been to a dozen or so of Lovato’s shows, including two on the pop star's current tour, “Future Now,” with Nick Jonas.
“Her voice is just amazing,” says Tatum. It's a couple hours before Lovato and Jonas take the stage at the SAP Center in San Jose on August 18. “I love her shows. You never know what she is going to sing. She does a lot of surprises on her tours.”
Tatum's hardly alone. More than 200 others like her have lined up in front of the venue today for a chance of glimpsing the former Disney Channel stars.
But Tatum and her line of friends haven't shown up just for the spectacle. They've been handpicked to attend a “wellness workshop” before the show, a session led by the personal development coach -- Mike Bayer, CEO of the Southern California-based CAST Centers -- who helped Lovato through her battle with eating disorders, drug addiction, and the day-to-day trials that come with bipolar disorder. CAST Centers is a counseling and rehabilitation organization that works with people on personal development, addiction and psychiatric disorders.
“I first met [Mike Bayer] under circumstances where I had asked for help, but I didn’t really want it,” Lovato tells me after the workshop, surrounded by her hair and makeup team. “We’ve gotten in so many heated arguments and debates over the years, but he ultimately knew what was right for me. Because of that I was able to get sober.”
Lovato wants to remove the stigma around discussing mental health. And it must be said: For a pop star who's come out of perhaps the shiniest pop star-generating machine in the business, the pairing doesn't feel quite like the usual "celebrity with a cause." The campaign’s marketing materials feature neither starving children nor malnourished animals with compelling music in the background -- just a group of young people admitting they have issues.
In short, it feels personal, with good reason: Lovato, at 24, has lived through the same self-deprecation, pain and anxiety that many young people deal with.
“This was something that helped me get sober... it's one of the reasons why I’m alive today," Lovato tells me. "So [CAST counselors] being on tour, I knew it would provide an opportunity for other people to get resources so they can get the help that they need.” CAST is paying for all the workshops. Even still, the benefit is clear; with Lovato endorsing the events, the company is getting boatloads of advertising.
Two hours before the concert, this gaggle of fans files into a side room at the stadium. The workshop starts out high-energy: The MC pumps the crowd up with audio from Lovato’s album, Confident, and questions like “How many of you spend an hour a day working out your body?” A majority of the hands in the room shoot up.
But then he asks “How many of you spend an hour a day working on your mental health?” Only a few hands go up, including mine.
After the MC leads a breathing exercise, Lovato walks into the room and the attendees cheer. Lovato waves, smiles and then sits down on a leather couch with her band. She's there to take part in the workshop, just like the fans behind her.
That’s when Kevin Hines takes the stage. He is, to be blunt, the guy who didn't die after attempting suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. Hines recounts what went through his mind before he jumped, and how a number of what seemed like divine moments kept him alive, including a sea lion circling him and bobbing him up every time he sank.
“I was 19 and my life changed dramatically in four seconds,” says Hines, remembering that day. “It was the four seconds it took me to fall from the Golden Gate Bridge.”
There's something in these testimonials that calls to mind my high school days at Christian bible camp. But when I look around at the fans, they're getting the message. This isn't a place for irony, nor cynicism.
“I feel like him sharing that with everybody opened our eyes," participant and San Ramon native Kylie Prentice tells me afterward. “I didn’t expect it to be so deep.”
This avenue of encouraging young people to address their personal needs is, to be sure, not entirely perfect. It’s debatable whether the youth who really need mental health care the most can be adequately reached by a short two hour large-group session tied to a pop show. And, at least in the workshop I attended, there was very little one-on-one or peer-to-peer interaction.
Bayer concedes that it’s a starting point; he says that getting young people talking about their issues at all is an important first step.
“Everyone on this planet, from my experience, wants to be the best version of themselves,” he says. “So what we try to do on tour is give people that opportunity to get some tools to be a better version of themselves.”
After the session, Bayer and his crew offer advice to anyone interested about where to find help in their communities, and I find myself wondering if the point of this event will stick. For super fans like Tori Tatum, it has. She’s taking what she learned home.
“I’ve never had [mental health] conversations at home. It’s like taboo,” Tatum tells me, as attendees file out. “You can talk about physical pain or whatever, but, every time something mental comes up, the conversation is just shut off.”
Later, in Lovato’s dressing room, the singer says it's just that attitude she's hoping to turn around.
“The key is to make mental health mainstream," says Lovato. "We have to make it as mainstream as physical health. When you take care of your mind, everything else falls into place.”
If it seems like something of a messy, complex subject for a pop star who rose to fame on a squeaky-clean image -- it is. But at this point, Lovato says, what does she have to lose?
“I feel like anything is possible, and it’s my responsibility to use my voice as a platform for something more than just singing. If I can do that through mental health care, I want to."