An Interview with Chris Light: Demi Lovato’s BJJ Coach on the Grit and Vulnerability of Celebrities Who Love Jiu-Jitsu

When pop sensation and longtime fan of the gentle art Demi Lovato earned her Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt back in February, the Internet, to put things lightly, lost its mind. At the time, most combat sports outlets – admittedly including those of us reporting here at the Jiu-Jitsu Times – didn’t even know who Lovato’s coach was. 

While a fair number of fans stuck to expressing benign curiosity, and a hearty “Good for her! More eyes on the sport!” – mounting numbers of disgruntled jiu-jitsu practitioners took it upon themselves to scour the Internet in an attempt to count up her total “mat hours.” Controversy escalated, then turned ugly, as debate raged over whether Lovato’s private lessons – standard practice among celebrities engaging in a high-contact, high-risk sport – constituted sufficient training for her newly-awarded rank. 

Jiu-jitsu black belt and Gracie Academy Beverly Hills instructor Chris Light finally quelled the mob by stepping forward as Lovato’s current coach. In an Instagram post, he spoke up on behalf of his student’s remarkable work ethic, and expressed his disappointment in the jiu-jitsu community for their disrespect toward her efforts. 

In the aftermath of the debacle, Chris was kind enough to reach out to me – and agree to an interview regarding his insights on the delicate world of celebrity jiu-jitsu training. 

“Being from LA and growing up around  the Hollywood social scene, I’ve been around well- known people my whole life, either going to school with them, or through broader social circles,” he explains to me via an email exchange. “I’ve never had any real different outlook for people who are in the public eye; they’ve  always just been regular friends that I know, and happen to be in a certain industry.”

As a result, he’s never seen his celebrity students as particularly different from any other hobbyist athlete whose career might necessitate certain constraints on the mat. “Public figures usually have an individualized  protocol for their training,” says Chris. “I never thought that would come as much of a  surprise, since there’s obviously a spectrum of training that exists for a wide variety of  people, but people definitely seem to make a  lot of noise when it’s a familiar face. A celebrity usually has to train a certain way based on their responsibilities and career.”

As Chris points out, that’s not so different from, say, an artist or surgeon who has to protect his hands, and can’t risk breaking a finger in a grappling round with an out-of-control white belt. “Someone like a Travis Barker, or another client of mine who was a brain surgeon, literally can’t afford to hurt their hands, or it’s a disaster,” he confirms. 

“But they still really love training and want to do everything they can to get mat time, so the answer is to do private sessions  with an instructor who will give them the  adequate resistance to progress, whilst not getting hurt.

“Throwing them into a group scenario with  other students who are still learning how to move and train collaboratively is simply too risky. So depending on what will best allow any particular student to get on the mats and keep training, that’s what I’m going to try to do.” 

People in specialized professions aren’t the only jiu-jitsu practitioners with bespoke training needs either. “A child with autism will train another way, an elderly person, another, and a high-level  athlete, another,” Chris points out. 

In fact, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community has long prided itself on a rich tradition of forging a path forward for practitioners with unique gifts or limitations, be they physical, mental, or social. Old or young, able-bodied or not, the gentle art finds a way. 

Celebrities, in particular, often find themselves in an unusually vulnerable position when learning jiu-jitsu – a sport that’s both highly intimate and notoriously nerve-wracking for beginners. For people whose professions already place them under constant public scrutiny, the risks of training jiu-jitsu aren’t just physical – they’re also mental and emotional. 

“Everyone is different in their comfort levels, but I do think that speaks to another reason why private training can be beneficial, especially in the camera phone era where  everyone is trying to capture a pic or video for TMZ,” elaborates Chris. 

“Having the privacy to work on a new hobby or passion, whether it be jiu-jitsu or piano lessons, without having to worry about being stared at, or having a meme made of you,  diminishes a lot of that vulnerability for celebrities. I don’t think anyone would want ten million views of them doing a poor armlock as a white belt.”

And then there are the hurdles encountered by famous women – who arguably undergo even greater scrutiny than their male counterparts. In the wake of backlash against Demi Lovato, several elite female jiu-jitsu athletes criticized members of the grappling community for a double standard that’s punitive toward female celebrities. 

Notably, multiple-time world champ Claudia do Val – well-known as a trailblazer for women in jiu-jitsu – remarked in an Instagram comment, “Nobody seems to question when  male celebrities are promoted, it’s only a  problem when female [celebrities] achieve  anything […] I wonder why!” 

“As far as the treatment women receive, it’s hard for me to say, since I’m not a woman,” admits Chris with characteristic frankness. “[…] I honestly don’t follow these things very closely, but I’ll definitely take [Claudia’s] word for it. Social media amplifies the voices of trolls who love to hate, but nobody I know or respect is putting women down. We are all trying to lift each other up, which should be what our community represents.

“But there’s no doubt that sports in general continue to be primarily male dominated, so women do have an uphill battle, I’d say. As long as there are strong women like Claudia who keep taking sports to a new level and speaking up, things will continue to evolve in the right direction, and I will always support that.” 

At the end of the day, Chris Light wants jiu-jitsu to be accessible to everyone, famous or not. “My core ethos and belief has always been that if everybody in the world knew jiu-jitsu, it would be a better world. I believe that,” he emphasizes. 

“But we have to acknowledge that humans are vastly diverse, and operate at all different levels of capabilities, from physical to mental and social. And if we want to make the benefits of jiu-jitsu available to everyone, we have to be able to look at it with a degree of nuance. Not everyone can be a Gordon Ryan, and that’s not even what jiu-jitsu was created for.” 

Chris also cautions against reducing the whole of jiu-jitsu down to competition alone. After all, plenty of hobbyist black belts have never stepped on to a tournament mat – and that doesn’t make them any less a black belt. 

“I love the sport and competitive side of BJJ, but it doesn’t encapsulate the entirety of what the art is,” he says. “Far from it. It was created as a [form of] self-defense, for the  weaker person to be able to survive. Those looking through the lens of, ‘you should be able to roll against this person, or beat so-and-so to get promoted’ should appreciate that there’s a whole different side of the art that exists. And it’s all jiu-jitsu!”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the mats are a sacred place,” he adds. “You can travel the world, walk into a jiu-jitsu school, and find some extended family. In a world that continues to find ways to divide itself, there are very few places that  exist where connection and bonding stand front and center as the purpose.

“Without preservation and maintenance, that will go away. I hope we can all do our part to keep it alive  by supporting each other and being the positive force that we’d like to see in the  world.”

Follow more wisdom from Chris Light at his Instagram account.


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