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

By Leah Greenblatt
September 29, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

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!”

NEXT PAGE: ”Um, I really don’t know Miley that well. We didn’t take offense or think [a much-viewed video on the Web in which Cyrus and a friend poked fun at Lovato] was a negative or a positive. It was just like, Okay, cool, Hannah Montana knows who I am!”