She starred in ''Camp Rock.'' She toured with the Jonas Brothers. Now, with the release of her debut album, ''Don't Forget,'' this 16-year-old may just be the next Miley Cyrus

Demi Lovato

A pretty girl, an old-fashioned candy shop, a sunny September afternoon — what could be sweeter? Sixteen-year-old Demi Lovato, loose coffee-colored waves tumbling over her shoulders, chin distinctly dimpled, grabs giddily at handfuls of Gobstoppers and jelly beans inside Economy Candy, a decades-old fixture on New York City’s Lower East Side. The Norman Rockwell tableau is marred, however, by a phenomenon entirely new to Lovato: the relentless platinum pop of a dozen paparazzi flashbulbs, only feet from the store’s entrance. Apparently, a celebrity photo agency has been tipped off to the young star’s presence here today for an EW photo shoot, and in this iPhone-riddled, post-Perez world, word spreads fast.

Old folks may not know her name yet, but to the Disney demographic, Lovato is already major. She is best known as the costar, alongside teen dreamboats the Jonas Brothers, of the Disney TV movie Camp Rock, which has already been seen by 35 million U.S. viewers since its premiere in June. Now she has released her debut album, Don’t Forget, featuring extensive contributions from the Jonases. (She also spent the summer opening their frenzy-inducing tour.) And with even more projects in the works, there’s a chance the Dallas native could unseat the Mouse’s reigning queen, Miley Cyrus. Still, when told that several photographers have abandoned a sighting of tabloid catnip Katie Holmes in order to rush downtown and capture this moment, Lovato’s doll-like brown eyes widen in seemingly genuine disbelief. ”Whoa. For me, seriously?”

Even in the context of the entertainment industry’s dog-years fame cycle — and the Disney star factory that incubated the likes of Britney, Justin, and the current High School Musical crew — Lovato’s rise has been precipitous. Born in 1992 to a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader-turned-country singer (”[My mother] opened at Six Flags for, like, Reba McEntire and George Strait,” says the proud daughter), Lovato attended a local casting call at age 5 for Barney & Friends, but was turned down, she recalls, ”because I didn’t know how to read yet.” The next year, newly literate, she made the cut, and spent two seasons there alongside best friend and future fellow Disney star Selena Gomez.

Post-purple dinosaur, Lovato found occasional guest roles (including a 2006 episode of Prison Break), but her real launch came at a Dallas Disney talent search, where a screen test led to a role on As the Bell Rings, a recurring series of shorts that runs between programs on the network. ”Even though the show was only, like, five minutes, it was the Disney Channel!” she says. ”I thought it was the coolest thing.” And also the scariest: ”When I got the part, I actually cried. I thought, I’m not going to be able to do this — I’m not funny! I’m never going to be able to work for the Disney Channel, because they’re based on comedy.” And off the set, her peers had already proved less than kind, especially when it came to her career. ”I asked to leave public school,” she says. ”I was kind of bullied. I had a hate wall in the bathroom, and everyone signed a petition that said ‘We all hate Demi Lovato.”’

Anyone who disapproved of Lovato’s previous showbiz forays probably had conniptions over Camp Rock. An enjoyable, fairly self-explanatory trifle (It’s a summer camp! For rock!), the movie serves largely as a vehicle for its stars’ song-and-dance routines, a sweet G-rated romance, and parent-pleasing lessons on self-esteem and friendship.

But oh, that romance! Today, Lovato is sanguine about the OMG-ocracy’s heated reaction to her onscreen relationship with the alluringly eyebrowed Joe Jonas, now 19 and widely considered the hunkiest of the three brothers. ”Imagine being new to Disney,” she says wryly, ”and your first big job is being the romantic interest of one of the biggest heartthrobs on the channel. Any girl that is a friend of the Jonas Brothers gets hate mail and is automatically suspected as a girlfriend.”

For all the fans who resent Lovato’s proximity to the holy trinity of Disney boyflesh, however, she wants to be clear: ”Joe and I never dated. We’re really good friends. I just think it’s funny that people try to pin me to them. It’s like, Oh, come on! I think [if I were going to] I would have dated one of them by now!”

Still, her close association with the Jonases puts her squarely in the gossip-blog crosshairs. Add the fact that her best friend Gomez is reportedly dating youngest Jonas Nick, who is also Miley Cyrus' ex, and you've got the makings of a serious Mouseketeer rumble—the typical high school cruelties, writ large and in glossy teen-mag Technicolor. Lovato says there's no bad blood between her and Cyrus, even after a much-viewed video on the Web in which Cyrus and a friend poked fun at Lovato and Gomez, going so far as to mock the (now-closed) gap between Lovato's front teeth. Despite the clip's Mean Girls tone, Lovato is guardedly diplomatic when talking about the teen megastar: "Um, I really don't know Miley that well. We didn't take offense or think it was a negative or a positive. It was just like, Okay, cool, Hannah Montana knows who I am!" Lovato says the pair even spoke backstage at a recent Disney concert. "She gave me advice on publicity and making it big, and she was like, 'I hope you're very successful.'"

Lovato may not need Cyrus' best wishes. Some teen-industry experts think she and Gomez could soon make a serious play for the Hannah/Miley crown. "It almost seems like the big Disney media machine is backing off [from Cyrus], shifting its focus," says Mark Fightmaster, an equities analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research who follows the teen-entertainment market. "I don't know if it's because of the whole picture scandal in Vanity Fair, or maybe it's a move on Miley's part. Disney seems to be grooming Demi and Selena as the next Miley, and basically, these girls haven't screwed up, whereas Miley's had some issues." (Disney Channel entertainment president Gary Marsh responds: "These are not competitive properties. Demi and Selena are fantastic up-and-coming stars, and we hope they have as much success as Miley. We love them all!")

Sure enough, Lovato's many upcoming projects seem calculated to launch her on the Cyrus supernova trajectory. In addition to a Camp Rock sequel—"I'm not even sure what it's going to be about, I swear! I know as much as you do," she says—Lovato recently shot Princess Protection Program, a Disney movie costarring Gomez that's due out next summer. She's also working on a new Disney Channel series, Sonny With a Chance, in which she'll star as an innocent teen from middle America who's thrust into the L.A. spotlight when she relocates after landing a role on her favorite show (imagine that!). "We've tried hard to help her manage her success," says Marsh. "But what we are good at, and probably better than anybody else, is finding and nurturing talent. And Demi is an extraordinary talent."

BACK AT THE PHOTO SHOOT, Lovato does indeed seem like the prototypical (if decidedly better-groomed) girl next door, unfailingly sunny and good-natured. It may help that her stepdad, also her comanager, keeps a benign but constant watch over the proceedings. Still, her wardrobe for the day's shoot looks, incongruously, like it escaped from Iggy Pop's closet: racks of slinky leather pants, spangled vests, studded high-altitude boots. And her album, while full of catchy choruses, abandons the usual tinkly teen-pop tropes for meaty guitars and percussion; raucous lead single "Get Back" is far more Benatar than Backstreet. "Kelly Clarkson, when she first went rock, was totally my inspiration," Lovato says. "I decided to try it and it was like, 'Wow, this fits more.'" She hastens to add, "I realize, though, that I am a pop singer. And I'm not gonna try to be too 'Oh, I'm hardcore, I'm a rock girl.' No, I'm with the Disney Channel! But bubblegum isn't really my thing."

So far, wearing grommeted accessories seems to be the extent of her teen rebellion. Lovato has clearly thought hard about her image, and she's not interested in abandoning her scruples in public. Though she politely demurs when asked about the purity rings she, Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers all wear to indicate they will wait to have sex until marriage, she does express admiration for onetime Disney idols who've managed to keep their noses clean, as it were. "Hilary Duff has stayed a really good role model," says Lovato of the 21-year-old former Disney star. "I mean, I'm sure she made mistakes, but you never saw them. I think it's really cool that someone can grow up and continue to be looked up to by young girls."

In 2013, Lovato will herself turn 21. So what's in the five-year plan? "I can talk about my 20-year plan!" she laughs. "I'm not even thinking about five years. But hopefully I'll still be touring and doing my TV show; obviously I'll continue that. I want to start doing movies, like feature films. And I would love to maybe direct one day." From teen sensation to lady Scorsese in 20 years? Considering what's she managed to do in the first 16, Lovato just might make it happen.

"I'm a pop singer. I'm not gonna try to be 'Oh, I'm hardcore....' I'm with Disney! But bubblegum isn't really my thing."