Miley Cyrus is fooling around in a grey onesie, pulling the animal head – a unicorn – over her face, blowing a kiss into her mobile phone camera, bouncing barefoot across the studio like a goofy kid. Next moment, she’s another creature altogether, slinky in a pink bejewelled Fausto Puglisi dress, cut out at the midriff and right up to here, a dirty rap track turned up loud as she shows off her mastery of the twerk – an extreme booty shake.
How many contradictions can be packed into one slight-framed 20-year-old? Just a few years ago, she played that clean-cut, all-American teenager, Hannah Montana, and wore a purity ring to publically proclaim her virginity. Now she’s the punk in the spiky leather jacket, tough blonde crop and ever-growing collection of tattoos.
As she tentatively plays us tracks from her new album, she’s as anxious as any new artist, sneaking looks at our faces: do we like it? But by all modern fame indices, she is already a confirmed global superstar: she has 11 million Twitter followers, 25 million Facebook likes and nearly 325 million views on her YouTube channel.
Miley is that most modern of phenomena; a living, breathing super brand. She commands more marketing power by idly tapping 140 characters into her iPhone than a global corporation can generate in a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign. A whole generation of girl-women who loved her sweet but spirited Disney alter-ego Hannah, the regular high-school kid with strong family values and a secret life as a pop star, hang on her every tweet. Such power, but is she using it wisely and well?
The wide-eyed tween fans that grew up with Hannah are finding their feet in a highly sexualised culture, in which the aesthetics and values of internet porn have leeched into mainstream fashion and music. On MTV, almost female artists not yet out of their teens perform in lingerie and leathers, their moves aping a pole dancer’s X-rated bump and grind. The message to girls is ‘forget talent – all that counts is being hot and available’.
No wonder girls are sexting topless pictures, pouting on Facebook, feeling pressure too young to service boys’ sexual needs. And after she left Disney’s wholesome embrace, Miley Cyrus was no exception. Not yet 18 in the video for Who Owns My Heart, she writhes on a rumpled double bed in just her underwear and in Can't Be Tamed she’s dressed as bondage-clad blackbird.
Little surprise perhaps that she was voted in a 2010 and 2011 AOL poll as the worst role model for teenage girls. But then Miley was herself still growing up. Like any teenager, she was testing boundaries, trying on new identities for size. And her youthful misdemeanours – smoking a bong of the legal high salvia, a jokey lap-dance, aged 16, for a film producer, snogging her boyfriend in public, pole-dancing at the Teen Choice awards – are captured forever online.
Her entire life has been obsessively documented – just to get into the building today, she ran a phalanx of paparazzi obsessed with her allegedly on-off engagement with actor Liam Hemsworth, every bulging lens focussed on the third finger, left hand. Is she wearing The Ring?
So when I meet Miley Cyrus, I want to congratulate her. Bravo, kid, for surviving so far! All around is the smoking rubble of fellow child stars: Britney the ex-Mouseketeer in and out of rehab and drunk-driving Lindsay Lohan. Even Justin Bieber, just a year younger than Cyrus, is struggling with coming of age in the pitiless glare of hyper-fame. Then there are Disney contemporaries Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, casting off princess pink to jiggle their boobs in neon bikinis in the movie Spring Breakers. Meanwhile, what’s Miley up to? She’s doing exactly what she has done since age 13: working damn hard – rushing into the studio at night, not realising the time until she emerges into the Los Angeles dawn. She’s recording songs with producer Pharrell Williams who calls her ‘an old soul’. These tracks, she says, a mix of hip-hop tunes with sweet pop lyrics, have ‘dug deep’ into her emotions, ‘going through things that have hurt so bad in the past year or two. It’s like therapy.’
When she was 15, Donny Osmond – who knows all about the penalties of precocious fame – wrote that Miley ‘will want to change her image, and that change will be met with adversity’. But this fledgling has acquired her adult feathers and, while the drop is still precipitous, there are signs this bird will fly. Besides, sitting over there on the leather sofa, is someone who would never let her fall.
When she arrives in rock-chick boots and ripped jeans, a tiny fluff-ball of Pomeranian-Maltese puppy called Bogey in the crook of her arm, everyone assumes Tish (Leticia) is Miley’s friend. She is, in fact, her mother. This blonde Southern belle has always been her daughter’s co-manager and her constant chaperone. Even today, when Miley is unsure whether an outfit that shows her naked back is too revealing, she calls Tish over to adjudicate: ‘Honey,’ she shakes her head, ‘that’s a little too much.’
Fondling Bogey, Tish tells me a story that explains a lot. Miley was 14, at the height of her TV fame, and wanted to go to a ‘meet and greet’ with fans wearing a skimpy crop-top. Tish told her to go get changed. Miley refused. A row ensued. Eventually, a surly Miley complied but when she returned, Tish grounded her. It was the night of Kevin Jonas’s birthday. Even though she was dating his brother Nick – and the party was in the very next tour bus at an outdoor concert – Tish wouldn’t let Miley go. ‘I practically had to sit on her all night,’ she says. ‘People ask me how I could do that. But it’s about values.’
For all its showbiz roots – Miley’s father Billy Ray had a runaway 1992 hit with Achy Breaky Heart – the Cyrus family is now strong and close, despite a brush with divorce in 2011. The house where I meet Miley next day in Toluca Lake, an affluent but not showy suburb of Los Angeles, is her childhood home. She now shares it with her fiancé, Liam Hemsworth, The Hunger Games hunk whose prolonged absence has brought about a media frenzy. Tish and Billy, plus Miley’s siblings, have moved out, although not very far. If you clambered over Miley’s back wall you would land in their jungle-like garden. Maybe she should install a gate? Miley gives her deep chuckle. ‘That would be too easy, they could come over too much,’ she says.
It is a sprawling villa in Hollywood-Tuscan style, with half a dozen cars, including Miley’s old green Mustang, parked in the long driveway. Inside, the rooms are cavernous with lovely hardwood floors. We pass a music room with a grand piano, a filigree iron staircase and a vast table filled with what must be $1,000 of white church candles. Noting they are lit, Miley says, ‘Oh, I see Mom’s been here.’ We move to a smaller room, a den, with two throne-like chairs. On a bookcase are many photographs including a sweet portrait of Miley and Liam cuddled close.
Today, Miley is dressed down in a hoodie, tight black Balenciaga trousers and patent Dr Martens boots. A little blonde homegirl. She is also wearing The Ring. And what a ring – a 3.5-carat Art Deco bauble that she says is too big but can’t be adjusted, so she wears it flanked by two heavy circles of diamonds. I wonder her slender finger doesn’t ache. In answer to the ring-watchers, she sometimes doesn’t wear it in dodgier parts of LA or on stage – her fans might snatch it off her hand, as they have with other jewellery.
So all is well with the Lord of her Ring? An uncertain look momentarily passes over Miley’s face then she drawls, ‘Everything’s awwwwwl good.’ Liam is promoting a movie in the Philippines and visiting his native Australia. ‘He’s allowed to go back. He doesn’t get to see his parents ever. I visit my family in Nashville – I would love to go more but it’s so far…’ Do they text? ‘I’ll call him at 6am and he’ll call me at 2am. We never know the timing.’ Does ever she regret agreeing to put a ring on it? Wouldn’t it be less pressure just to live together, especially as they are in no hurry to set a date? But clearly Miley aspires to the stability of her long-married parents (albeit parents who gone through the odd public relationship hiccup). She met Liam three years ago, making the movie The Last Song and, far away from his own close family, he was swiftly adopted by the Cyrus clan.
Their engagement last spring seemed a natural progression: ‘We have a house together and dogs. It just seems right to be wearing this ring and to be committed. But we keep our relationship low-key and don’t talk about it any more.’
Because it only fuels speculation? ‘Exactly. We were too nice to the world and gave them too much insight – into my life and my puppies and my house – and I just don’t feel they get that privilege any more. Like on my Twitter, I’m much more… not conservative, but you don’t see a picture of my family every day now, or of my dogs. You don’t get that personal stuff any more.’
Miley is from a generation of young stars who have grown up with Twitter and Facebook, for whom the barrier between private and public is fluid. She tweets often but, unlike many, has never posted raunchy bedroom shots. She has learned the hard way that revealing even the most innocent detail can explode into a tabloid frenzy. A few times, she has deleted her account – or threatened to – saying that Liam hated it ‘with good reason’. But when fans – and at one point even her father – beg her to rejoin the social network, she has always eventually relented.
Over time, she's developed strict rules about how much to reveal. ‘My friend took a picture of her little boy standing naked pushing his little twin sister in the stroller. Cutest thing ever. But I called and told her to take it off Twitter. You don’t want your naked baby on the internet.’
She warns her 13-year-old sister Noah not to give too much away too. ‘She’s says, “I’m talking to my friend” and I’m like, “Are you sure that’s even your friend?” There are so many fake Twitter accounts. I was following a fake of my mom for two months!’ Now, Miley says, she uses Twitter simply to promote her music to fans.
I ask Miley what advice she’d give to the next 13-year-old TV sweetheart. She seems to draw a blank. ‘I don’t know how I got to be strong,’ she says. ‘I just am. So I don’t know what to tell anyone about steering clear of being a mess-up, or why I can take all the hate that I do and not back down. It’s just something in my body.’ But sitting next to Justin Bieber at his 3D movie premiere, she did give him some advice. ‘I noticed he was taking all these photos of people and doing a lot of s***, and I just grabbed him and said, “Just take a snapshot in your brain of this moment, so you don’t forget.” I don’t remember my Hannah Montana movie premiere – and my 3D movie trumped everyone’s at the box office – I don’t remember being there. All I remember from that night is that I stopped and got a strawberry milkshake beforehand. That’s all. It’s crazy. You think you’re in the present but you’re not.’
A good showbiz fairy blessed this child. Born Destiny Hope, nicknamed Smiley because of her sunny nature and shortened over time, her first memory is on the road with Billy Ray, being passed from hand to hand on-stage at an Elvis tribute concert. An entertainer is all she has ever wanted to be. At seven, the family moved from Nashville, where they had a family farm full of horses and dogs, to Toronto where her father had the lead in the TV series Doc. Miley soon had a regular part. At eight, she had a role in the Tim Burton film, Big Fish. At 11, she pestered her parents to audition for Hannah Montana. When she won the main role, Billy Ray sat her down and asked if she really wanted to move to LA. ‘He wasn’t worried about me going crazy – my dad isn’t like that, and my parents trust us and know us. It was more about the heartbreak of work. There’s a lot of stress, and the company is putting all those millions, depending on a child.’
Sometimes looking at old photos, she is alarmed for her younger self. ‘I was just a baby! I had no teeth, no boobs. I was a little girl. It’s crazy that a decision you can make when you’re a kid can affect your whole life – that someone would trust a child with her own future. It was just lucky that I was able to love it and turn it around.’ Much of those years are a blur of hard work: up at 6am to shoot Hannah Montana, lessons on set, the world tour, promoting the Hannah album, writing her own material, promoting that too, squeezing in a bunch of movies, meeting her fans. Between the age of 13 to 18 she barely had an unscheduled second. She played to 80,000 people at the Houston Rodeo three nights in a row. And yet through it all, she didn’t become a diva or a drop-out.
Her parents it seems, acted like shock-absorbers: never let her dwell on the massive corporate expectations resting upon her. And critically for a child star, they saw her neither as cash cow nor source of reflected glory. ‘We have always had money and we have always had fame,’ says Miley. ‘It’s not new. People who grew up without either can get more of a culture shock and go the wrong way. “Oh my God, I have all this money! How can I spend it? All these people will like me because I’m famous!” I’ve always had people trying to be my friend for the wrong reasons.’ And how do you deal with it? ‘I’m used to it. I can smell bulls*** a mile away.’
Even as a teen princess, she was always her outspoken self. ‘Disney were holding their breath, hoping every day that I hadn’t done something that would come out.’ She either never did – or was sensible enough to surround herself with people who didn't tell. She gestures around the room, ‘I am sitting in a mansion paid for by Disney, so I would never say anything bad about them.’
As child stars get older, parents often cling tight, terrified of losing their most precious asset. Hers did not. ‘Your kids have to go out, mess up, live their lives,’ says Miley. Which she certainly did, getting a reputation for partying hard, hinting at a stoner habit with her Bob Marley birthday cake. Then there was also the infamous Annie Leibovitz shoot in which, aged 15, she posed, hair ruffled, make-up smudged and naked but for a sheet. There was a media furore that a famous photographer had pressured an underage girl into playing Lolita. Vanity Fair readers were astonished to learn her father was present at the shoot: what was he thinking? But Miley fiercely defends the picture’s innocence, ‘You can’t even look at something that’s just beautiful without immediately going to sex. That’s sad.’
For any young female star, sex is both a marketing tool and a trap. After briefly flirting with raunchy music videos, she has learned the limits. On stage, she wears skimpy gear showing her lithe body, but she turns down men’s magazine shoots.
‘A star is someone who doesn’t have to take her clothes off to be sexy because you naturally have this star power,’ she says. ‘Sex does sell, but you find a way that’s not just not just showing your tits. I don’t want to be a glorified model. They just walk on stage and it’s all about their clothes – or lack of clothes.’
She adores the Khia track, My Neck, My Back, an explicit proclamation that men should sexually satisfy women for a change. ‘It’s the best song. It’s like, “I’m not going to do all this to you. You please me!” Most music is sexist. I want my music to be like, “Me and my girls are going to get drunk and have a good time.” Not the guys going, “We’re going out to bang a bunch of chicks.”’
Miley’s PA is a man, and she’s appalled people always assume he’s gay because he works for a woman. She’s sick of the lap-dancer look of hair extensions, a ton of make-up, impossible heels. Her off-stage androgynous style is a kick against a too-obvious sexual appeal. ‘I like Jennifer Aniston. Every time I see her, it’s like white T-shirt, no bra, ripped-up Levi’s – that’s so sexy to me and so natural. I try to mix that plain, almost 1990s, style with punk.’
I ask if she is a feminist. ‘For sure!’ she declares. ‘Someone said to me the other day we wouldn’t see a woman president in the next 50 years. I said, “I don’t think that’s true.” Then they said, “Well, we don’t have time for the president to go crazy once a month with their period.” I said, “Well, we don’t have time for the guy’s testosterone to get all beefed up!” I just got so angry.’
‘This is like a game to a guy. Whereas we have a sense as mothers – Mother Nature! – that the world needs to be mothered. When you are sick you want your mom – and that’s what the world needs. The world is sick.’
Her late grandfather, Democratic state congressman Ron Cyrus, would be proud: he told Miley she could be anything. And female role models in music don’t get stronger than her godmother Dolly Parton, who she got to know well when she guested on Hannah Montana. ‘One time, I walked up to her and asked, “Dolly, what colour is your natural hair?” She went, “What colour, honey? Oh, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it in 30 years!” I was like, “I love you!” She just doesn’t care. She always wants to be entertaining, even if it’s like taking a little jab at herself.’ Dolly taught her that, on any TV show or movie, you need to befriend the director of photography so he makes sure the lighting is flattering.
She also told her to remember she was the luckiest person on set. ‘You’re not dragging lights around: you’re doing all the creative stuff. Dolly said hello to every single person, from the props people to the catering guy, and she gave them all a Dolly hat at the end. I watched her and that’s how I treat people. No one ever said they had a hard time working with me.’
Back home in Nashville, her classmates always popped her showbiz bubble. ‘I’m happy that I got my head put in the toilet when I was 11. I was crying when they did it, but I don’t cry too much about people bullying me now.’ Those mean girls were an excellent preparation, she says, for the online nastiness, the blogs about her adolescent skin with every pimple ringed, the random ‘you fat slut’ cruelty of strangers that she blanks out.
Growing up in a normal town makes her scathing about LA, its temptations and phoniness. ‘This is not reality,’ she says. ‘This isn’t like any other place. Everything is meant to be attractive, from the people on the sidewalks to the fucking gold fire hydrants in Beverly Hills.’ The paparazzi make ordinary life difficult. ‘I feel like Rapunzel,’ she says. ‘Rapunzel with a mohawk!’ So she fills her golden prison with her four rescue dogs, her boyfriend, a home-movie theatre, her siblings who she adores; Braison, a model and film-school student, her little sister, Noah who is crazy about horses. She picks her friends with extreme care. Katy Perry is ‘such a fun person’. And Kelly Osbourne is ‘probably the best one to have on your side because if anything goes down in LA, she knows the spots where I’m not going to get bothered. You never go to Kelly’s and she has whack friends that you’re like, “Who are these people?”’
On tour, Miley is surrounded by musicians who’ve worked with her since she was 12 years old, plus, of course, Team Cyrus. She recalls on her last world tour the whole, massive family staying in a fancy London hotel and Tish going nuts if they ordered room service. ‘A bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese is like $40. All five kids were staying. Plus, Liam and my sister’s boyfriend. So it was like… a lot of food,’ she says. ‘But we’re on tour, we’re making good money, like… why would you not order room service? It’s hilarious. That’s my mom to a tee.’
Miley Cyrus, worth $120 million, lets out her sassy broad’s laugh and you suspect, whatever happens in her fickle business, she’s going to be just fine.
Words Janice: Turner