Photographer: Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott
“She’s cool, she’s scandalous,” Kristal, an apple-cheeked 13-year-old, shouts over the din. “I like her hair,” adds Morgan, a 12-year-old standing next to her. “She’s a slut,” declares Kaylee, a sullen 14-year-old with a fading magenta dye job and a mouthful of bubble gum. “I’m here for Ariana Grande.” For all I know, she’s referring to a Microsoft Word font or a new kind of latte. This is not my scene. I am in the oppressive mayhem at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, packed on this December night for the Jingle Ball, a concert series featuring of-the-moment pop artists. Kristal and Morgan are Smilers, as Miley Cyrus diehards call themselves. Some carry a torch for Hannah Montana, the Disney Channel role that made her a star. Others favor the edgier persona introduced with her 2013 album, Bangerz. But all are fiercely devoted, waiting hours for a glimpse of Cyrus.
Onstage, the lights dim. Red sequins flash through a smoke-machine haze. Cyrus, in a spangled two-piece ensemble hiked high enough to require intensive bikini waxing, steps out. Behind her, a tall black woman sways in a Christmas tree costume that Cyrus will later overturn, pointing at the women’s rear end and impishly wagging her tongue at the audience. Next to her, a little person prances in a silver leotard with conical foam breasts. Cyrus kneels and squeezes them playfully. Eighteen thousand audience members explode into unhinged jubilation. “Oh, my God,” Kristal shrieks, near tears. “I love her!”
“I don’t love kids,” a tired Cyrus tells me the night before the concert, ashing a cigarette. We’re in her living room, sitting in front of a white stone mid-century-modern fireplace. There are three fireplaces in her mansion in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, which is sequestered behind high gates and monitored by countless security cameras. The fire throws shadows across Cyrus’s languorous form, now draped over an uncomfortable-looking Tulip chair. A black and white striped Chanel T-shirt hangs slack on her thin frame. With pageboy bangs falling over her makeup-free face, the performer looks vulnerable, childlike. Only the word bad in bold red on her right middle finger—one of her 21 tattoos at last count—betrays the puckish impresario she will be onstage the next night. She has just turned 21.
I begin to respond, but Cyrus is not listening. “I don’t love them because, I mean, I think I was around too many kids at one point—because I was around a lot of kids.”
A conversation with Cyrus plays more like a breakneck stream-of-consciousness soliloquy. She’s Molly Bloom—the character who closes James Joyce’s Ulysses with a chapter of unpunctuated run-on sentences—for the Instagram set. She rarely draws a breath. Cyrus speaks in the language of her generation: She is a human text message.
“They’re so fucking mean,” she continues. “Sometimes I hear kids with their parents, and I want to go over and, like, smack them myself…Like if they meet me, they’ll be like, ‘Mom, don’t you know how to use an iPhone? Like, can you take the picture?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, if I ever talked to my mom like that when I was a kid, I would have had no phone, no computer, no TV, no anything.’ And so, yeah, kids are just mean.”
Cyrus gets a lot of mean these days. She has 16.7 million followers on Twitter, and every day her feed is deluged with slurs. (Cyrus: “I. Hate. Packing.” Twitter response: “GET CANCER.”) She is the personification of a new generation of fame. She both courts and bears the costs of an ever more intrusive media; of a public ravenous for that intrusiveness; and of a networked world that has placed all of us, celebrity or not, under the microscope. Cyrus lowers her voice conspiratorially and tells me, “I think with, like, Instagram, Twitter, whatever, everyone is a paparazzi now. How scary is that? Like, you’re never safe.” Even ordinary people, Cyrus says, “just think they can, like, talk about you like they know you. Especially because I grew up in it, and like you grew up in it, too, there’s a sense of entitlement.” She’s not wrong about the parallels: both of us raised by performers, both driven to work in the spotlight on our own terms.
Cyrus thrived in that spotlight early, first as the daughter of the famed country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. Destiny Hope, as Miley was christened, was born in 1992, the year Billy Ray’s “Achy Breaky Heart” topped the charts. On a 500-acre farm in Franklin, Tennessee, she and her five siblings spent long summer days outdoors. “We never were inside, and we never wore shoes,” she recalls. “I think it’s why I like wearing no clothes so much and I’m always naked.” Cyrus is close to her mother, Tish, who manages her career. “I never had, like, a nanny that took care of me,” Cyrus recounts. “My mom always fed me breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” But her parents also served as an example of what not to do, starting with trusting too easily. “My dad, like, he’s the most trusting human in the world,” she says. “He trusts everybody, basically, until they fuck him over. And my mom, too, holds no grudges. She’s really like it’s the—you know, shame on—” Cyrus pauses, a rare occurrence. She furrows her brow. “What is it? ‘Shame on me’?…or whatever.”
“Fool me once—?” I offer, but Cyrus is talking again.
“She’ll let someone, like, fuck her over twice, and then she’ll let it go, and then she kind of forgets about it. And I used to be like that. And now I just keep it in the back of my mind.”
Other influences from Cyrus’s pre-fame years include her grandfather Ron Cyrus, a Kentucky state legislator who inspired a counterculture streak (“To be a Democrat in a superconservative state, it can be crazy because people look at you like you’re some type of sinner,” she says) and Dolly Parton, Cyrus’s godmother. (“What I love about Dolly is she says hi to the person that’s doing the catering on set before she goes and says hi to the cast.”)
By age 9, Cyrus had already won a spotlight of her own, appearing in a bit part in her father’s television program, Doc. Three years later, at 12, she landed the TV role that would make her a star: every girl in America’s best friend, Hannah Montana. Lee Shallat Chemel, who cast Cyrus in that role, recalls that the child actor was green but game. “I didn’t see driven at that point,” she muses. “I did see very open and very willing to go.” And go she did. Cyrus became one of Disney’s most profitable, most merchandized stars. The Hannah Montana franchise earned the company $1 billion over the course of its run from 2006 to 2011.
But fame brought increasingly harsh judgment. In 2008, a 15-year-old Cyrus scandalized her audience by wearing what appeared to be nothing but a sheet in photographs shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. (“I feel so embarrassed,” Cyrus said at the time. “I apologize to my fans, who I care so deeply about.”) The following year, a video of her pole dancing at an awards show prompted a collective clutching of pearls. Not long after, she found herself in the headlines again when a videotape of her taking a hit from a bong made the rounds online.
Public interest in Cyrus’s personal image has never faltered; but for a spell, her ability to capitalize on it did. Her 2010 album with Disney, Can’t Be Tamed, proved her least successful. Fitful attempts to kick-start her acting career sputtered. Then 2013 arrived, and with it, a radically reinvented image—no apologies necessary. Gyrating in a flesh-tone latex bikini for her infamous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, swinging naked on a wrecking ball in her most popular music video, and providing a drip-feed of intimate selfies via social media, Cyrus laid siege to public consciousness. At the close of the year, she was the most Googled person in America.
Cyrus also reinvented her music. She hired a new music manager, Larry Rudolph, famous for orchestrating Britney Spears’s controversy-laden career. She assembled a powerhouse team of producers, including reliable hitmakers Pharrell Williams and Doctor Luke and up-and-comer Mike WiLL Made It. This, too, paid off. Bangerz topped the Billboard 200, and Cyrus has been earning mounting critical respect. “They did a write-up in Rolling Stone—like, the best albums of 2013,” Cyrus says, taking a drag of her cigarette. “And my album was one of them! I printed it out. I give myself things to look at like that.”
Cyrus insists that her provocative image is calculated. In part, she tells me, it’s a response to what she sees as a lack of authenticity in her peer group. “I just don’t get what half the girls are wearing. Everyone to me seems like Vanna White. I’m trying to tell girls, like, ‘Fuck that. You don’t have to wear makeup. You don’t have to have long blonde hair and big titties. That’s not what it’s about. It’s, like, personal style.’ I like that I’m associated with sexuality and the kind of punk-rock shit where we just don’t care. Like Madonna or Blondie or Joan Jett—Jett’s the one that I still get a little shaky around. She did what I did in such a crazier way. I mean, girls then weren’t supposed to wear leather pants and, like, fucking rock out. And she did.”
But Jett didn’t grow up in the age of social media. Cyrus is often under fire, and not all of it is senseless Twitter bullying. Recently, she has weathered more-serious claims that she exploits her minority backup dancers, like the black woman in her Jingle Ball show.
The Guardian called her use of black dancers and the focus on their rear ends “a minstrel show.” A column on the culture website Jezebel.com, viewed more than 746,000 times, accused Cyrus of “accessorizing with black people.” Amazon Ashley, the burlesque performer who is featured in Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video and wore the Christmas tree costume, defends the performances. “I say, ‘Bah, humbug’ to that,” she says of critics. “Miley treats me with the utmost respect. Twerking is my act. It’s what I enjoy; it’s who I am.”
Cyrus’s use of little people has stirred even deeper rancor. Hollis Jane, who appeared dressed as a teddy bear in Cyrus’s VMA performance, wrote afterward that “standing on that stage, in that costume was one of the most degrading things—I was being looked at as a prop, as something less than human.” Brittney Guzman, the little person who was hired after Jane’s departure and appeared in Cyrus’s Jingle Ball performance, dismisses Jane’s complaints as a ploy for attention. She says Cyrus’s handling of her body comes from a place of sisterly affection. “When she grabs my boobs, we’re just having fun,” she says. “It’s not degrading.” She tells me the routine mimics their offstage rapport. After shows, “sometimes she’ll touch my boob, and she’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I just wanted to grab it’…Or she’ll be like, ‘Next time I’m going to grab your ass…’cause Brittney has the biggest booty.’ ”
When asked about the criticism, Cyrus simply says, “I don’t give a shit. I’m not Disney, where they have, like, an Asian girl, a black girl, and a white girl, to be politically correct, and, like, everyone has bright-colored T-shirts. You know, it’s like, I’m not making any kind of statement. Anyone that hates on you is always below you, because they’re just jealous of what you have.” Cyrus seems to have developed a preternatural ability to tune things out. (“I have a hard time listening,” she concedes.) That goes for both criticism and other people. “I have a lot of people that I could call and hang out with, but I have very few friends, if that makes any sense,” she tells me. “Like, I just don’t tell a lot of people anything. Everyone’s always like, ‘You’re so sketch.’ ”
She admits that her reluctance to trust has made dating fraught since she and the 24-year-old Australian actor Liam Hemsworth ended their one-year engagement last September. “Guys watch too much porn,” she confides, absently prodding a bedazzled iPhone. “Those girls don’t exist. They’re not real girls. And that’s like us watching romance movies. That’s girl porn, because, like, those guys do not exist.” The kind that do exist, she continues, “just try too hard with me, and it’s just like, ‘I don’t need you to impress me. I don’t want you to, like, take me to fancy restaurants.’ I hate sitting down for dinner!” Cyrus’s tone begins to sound accusing, though I’ve taken her to no meals, seated or otherwise. “You don’t have to do that to me! You don’t have to take me on trips! I literally just want to chill here!”
She collects herself: “That’s why I’m, like, not trying to jump into a relationship…I love my music so much, and I love what I’m doing so much that that has become my other half—rather than another person. And so, yeah, I feel like I had to be able to be 100 percent—oh, Hi, Maya.”
A petite Asian woman has shuffled to Cyrus’s side.
“I’m doing a little interview,” Cyrus tells her. “But you can set up right here if you want.”
She turns back to me. “This is Maya. She does my nails.”
“I never leave the house,” Cyrus explains. “Why go to a movie? I’ve got a huge-ass TV. We’ve got a chef here that can make you great food. We don’t need to leave. I would just rather be here where I’m completely locked in.”
I glance around the room. The sun is setting over Los Angeles, the last shafts of light creeping across the dark-stained oak floor. The modern decor is punctuated by the occasional New Age detail, like the giant Buddha head in the driveway fountain. In the garage are Cyrus’s motorcycle, a white Mercedes S class, a Porsche, and a Maserati—but with the paparazzi outside, Cyrus says, exits require planning.
She betrays a note of yearning when I mention I’m about to depart for an assignment in Kenya.
“I want to go to Kenya,” she says.
I tell her to come: “No joke. You could do it.”
“Kenya’s my dream,” she says. “Kenya is my total dream. I wish I wasn’t going to be in Minneapolis next week, I wish I could be in Kenya.”
Her imagination is running riot now. “I want to go to Iceland,” she says.
“Yes!” I agree. “I’ve never been.”
“Let’s do an Iceland trip…and I want to go to Norway…Someone said the light there is just so beautiful…”
If Cyrus makes it to Kenya or Iceland or Norway, it probably won’t be for adventure. And it definitely won’t be soon. This year will be spent crisscrossing America and Europe for her Bangerz tour, which commenced mid-February. “I love being on, like, the road,” she says, brightening. “I just want to make music.”
Music is the one context in which I witness Cyrus listening exquisitely, deeply, wholly. When I tell her that I’ve worked as a singer-songwriter, she asks to hear my collaboration with a musician whose material she has covered. She clutches my phone’s tinny speaker to her ear for three and a half minutes. “This chorus is dope,” she says, her head nodding to the beat. “’Cause the verses are more poppy but cool, and the chorus sounds so old-school…” In a few minutes of music, she asks me more questions than she has in hours of conversation: about lyrics, melody, inspirations.
Cyrus’s own influences stand in stark contrast to the hyperproduced pop of Bangerz. Later, we pore over her vinyl collection, dusting off psychedelic rock courtesy of her favorite band, Pink Floyd, and standards by Dolly Parton, Bobby Vinton, and Irma Thomas. In 2012 Cyrus recorded a series of what she refers to as “backyard sessions” with her band, showcasing powerhouse vocals on standards like Parton’s “Jolene.” At the mention of a recent hit by one prominent pop princess, Cyrus wrinkles up her nose. “Oh, God! That’s the worst. I couldn’t imagine you doing an album that sounds like that.” Even as a child, she had a singular creative confidence. She recalls fighting with a producer from her Disney days because she thought he was “selling out.” I was like, ‘Why the fuck are you doing this?’ ” She reduced both of them to tears, fighting “to a point where I’d be shaking. But I’m just intense like that.”
Part of her power, Cyrus feels, lies in having nothing left to prove. At 21, she’s managed to turn herself into a juggernaut twice over. “You know, I’ve made my money. If no one buys my album, cool. It’s fine. I’ve got a house, and I’ve got dogs that I love. I don’t need anything else,” she says. In her view, that’s a luxury that has carried the legends she most admires. “Maybe they succeed because they don’t have anything to prove. They’re just doing it because they love it. I hope I’m like Dolly—where I’m just still going at 75.”
Beyond music, Cyrus is expanding her interests. After her breakup, she tells me, she asked Diane Martel, the director responsible for Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” videos, to “just completely, like, drown me in new movies and books and art. I lived in Nashville, where that shit isn’t accessible.” We flip through a book of photographs by Cindy Sherman. “Check it,” she says as we arrive at Sherman’s Untitled #276, in which the artist poses as a kind of grungy Cinderella. “Lady Gaga completely ripped that off.” Cyrus is finding her taste in movies, too. She tells me she just watched the Tom Cruise 1990 drama Days of Thunder three nights in a row. She’s also newly enamored with the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. “I’m Blanche to a T, complete psycho,” she burbles cheerfully. I stare at her. I literally cannot imagine anyone less like Tennessee Williams’s fragile, lost Blanche DuBois. “Every time I watched her,” she goes on, “I was always like, ‘That’s me!’ ” If Cyrus is a Vivien Leigh performance, it’s Scarlett O’Hara in the early scenes of Gone With the Wind. She’s impetuous, beautiful, smarter than many give her credit for, slow to listen, quick to talk, adept at using her sexuality to her own ends.
As for the world beyond the arts, Cyrus is leery. “The news kind of gives me a little bit of anxiety,” she tells me. “So I’m less political.”
She’s loath even to join in the national conversation about the legalization of marijuana, though pot has become a centerpiece of her image. “I love weed,” she tells me. “I just love getting stoned.” But she’s less interested in policy than in quality control. “I just want it to be back to where it’s, like, organic, good weed.”
Trying to engage her in other current events, I come up empty-handed. When she tells me that at Thanksgiving with the Cyrus clan her brothers “literally got in a fight over, like, aliens,” I ask, “Immigration?”
“Yes. So he’s just—”
“Where did the family land on that?” I ask.
“Well, my older brother is obsessed with all those documentaries that have been banned. My brother’s convinced it’s the government not wanting us to know about aliens because the world would just, like, freak out—”
“Oh,” I say, realizing there’s been a misunderstanding. “Literal aliens.”
“—and so my younger brother is like, ‘That’s completely bogus.’ ”
“Tell your brother I worked for the government and saw no aliens.”
“I’m not so sure,” she says, telling me she once saw suspicious lights in the sky in the Bahamas. “My dad told me it was a satellite. But the way it zipped off was really weird.”
“I think it was a satellite,” I offer.
Despite her professed lack of interest in politics, Cyrus tells me she wants to have an impact on something. She runs through ideas in earnest. Animal welfare (“Like, all my dogs have been rescued and are amazing”), bullying (“I really want people not to be scared”), water purification (“I think water’s, like, a really important thing”), the environment (“I’m so scared the sky’s not going to be blue anymore. It’s going to be black from all the shit”). If there’s one thing Cyrus has, it’s time to figure out what she stands for.
I shut off my recorder and head for the heavy green front door. Its solid wood is sectioned off by four narrow panes of glass, now fogged, obscuring the outside world. I peer out and then open it. As I step into the chilly Los Angeles night, Cyrus calls after me. We had talked about favorite books, and now she asks me for a reading list. “Nothing too heavy,” she adds quickly. “Nothing boring.”
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