I never thought I’d find myself writing an article defending Demi Lovato, but hey, life is full of surprises. For many people, one of those surprises came when the aforementioned pop superstar got her blue belt in jiu-jitsu just a couple of days after singing the National Anthem at the highly anticipated Mayweather vs. McGregor fight.
It’s not really a secret that Lovato has been active in the martial arts scene. She posts about it on social media and openly speaks about how much she loves it. But even though Lovato’s been training consistently for over a year now, there are a lot of people that still seem to feel like she somehow didn’t earn the strip of fabric around her waist.
I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of Lovato. Don’t get me wrong, I sing and dance in my car when “Cool for the Summer” comes on the radio like any self-respecting basic white girl, but I don’t actively care about what she’s doing in her career or personal life. So I was surprised to find myself feeling pretty peeved after seeing all these comments over the past couple days saying that she “didn’t deserve” her belt, or that she “paid” for her belt, or worst of all, that she slept around to get her belt. As though any of these people had ever met her or trained with her or had any idea about the work that she did or didn’t put in to get where she is now in her jiu-jitsu journey.
In lieu of making an emotional “LEAVE DEMI ALONE!” video for YouTube, I reached out to someone who did know her and had been there for a large part of Lovato’s venture into martial arts: Orlando Sanchez. He was the one who got her started training in the gi over a year ago when they were both training at Unbreakable Performance Center in West Hollywood. Lovato was training to go on tour, then expressed interest in jiu-jitsu to Sanchez. After taking her first BJJ class from him, Lovato decided to hire him for private lessons. According to Sanchez, the singer was training almost five days a week last summer, continuing to do so even while on tour. “We would train in every city; we had a blast,” says Sanchez.
Lovato received her first stripe from Sanchez while visiting Renzo Gracie Academy in NYC, but once her tour ended, she had to keep traveling and Sanchez had to focus instead on his own academies. However, Sanchez says that she kept training even during her travels, and when she returned, she began training with Gracie Barra black belt Danielle Martin and occasionally Tarsis Humphries.
As far as Lovato getting her blue belt because of her celebrity status, Sanchez says that the fact that she’s so famous is irrelevant, especially given where she trains. “The cool thing about training at Unbreakable is that everyone there is a celebrity, so nobody cares… True story, when I met her, I had no f***ing idea who Demi Lovato was. We helped each other a lot over the year because of our similar hearts. She is the most loving, humble, caring person you could ever meet. She’s just another person who puts on her gi and ties her belt like all of us.”
Sanchez hasn’t trained as much with Lovato in recent months due to his own commitments with training, teaching, and his family (his wife just gave birth to their third child a few days ago), but he’s still kept up to date on her training and calls her “a legit blue belt.” “Understand she can afford private lessons every day with badass black belts year-round. She’s trained with me, Danielle Martin, Tarsis Humphries, Randy Couture, and Chuck Liddell. She trains three to four days a week sometimes. So trust me, Demi is a legit badass who works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Lovato’s lack of competition experience was also a factor for many people who were bothered by her promotion. This is one bit of reasoning that particularly surprised me. While yes, I know that there are lots of academies out there that require their students to compete before getting promoted, I’ve seen many others that don’t require competition to rank up, and I’ve even seen a couple that didn’t allow their students to compete until they hit blue belt. In Sanchez’s opinion, Lovato’s decision to refrain from competing — at least for the time being — doesn’t make her any less worthy of her belt. “Nobody should ever be forced to compete or be judged by competing. That’s just stupid,” he says. “Understand this girl busts her *** 24/7. She literally has her schedule to the minute every day. She makes BJJ a priority. She’s build an empire and is still kicking *** and finds time to train.”
Is Lovato a lot more famous and wealthy than the majority of jiu-jitsu practitioners? Duh. But as far as her blue belt is concerned, she earned it just like anyone else who’s insanely busy and doesn’t feel like competing, but loves jiu-jitsu. She, like many other athletes, received her belt after over a year of consistent and dedicated training. Yes, she has the advantage of being able to afford private lessons with top black belts, but if you tell me you wouldn’t do the same with millions of dollars at your disposal, you’re lying.
The trash-talking surrounding Lovato’s promotion bothered me not because of any connection I have with her or her music, but because… I mean, it’s a belt. On a person none of these people know. As Sanchez said,”Jiu-jitsu has been an extraordinary thing in [Lovato’s] life. It’s helped her get in shape and fight depression. It’s helped her grow as a person, and she’s fallen in love with it like the rest of us. We as a jiu-jitsu community are always trying to tell people to train and join us, then a girl who happens to be rich and famous does start training and people bash her.”
Lovato herself is probably way too busy making bank and being successful at what she does to care about what random people on the internet have to say about her, but the last thing I would want is for anyone who doesn’t have that celebrity status to be worried that they don’t “deserve” recognition for what they’ve accomplished. So since all the trolls are busy being butthurt about a person they won’t ever meet hitting a significant milestone in a sport she loves, it’s worth remembering that your jiu-jitsu journey is your own. You might compete, you might not; you might get promoted earlier than your peers at other academies, you might get promoted later than them; you might train in a garage, you might train at a world-class gym. As long as it’s not affecting other people in a negative way, then who cares? Everyone has a different experience when it comes to this sport, and if anyone wants to judge you for yours, that’s a “them” problem and not a “you” problem.
Sanchez, for his part, can easily see the benefits of Lovato speaking so openly about jiu-jitsu. “She’s been nothing but positive for us, shining a light and inspiring young women to train. Demi is capable of reaching millions of young girls and women alike, and she’s been nothing but positive for our community. You people talking s*** are the ones who don’t belong in a gi.”