Six ways Miley Cyrus went from VMAs punchline to a social activist pop star
Two years after the shock of former tween star twerking on stage at Video Music Awards show, Cyrus will host the 2015 edition on Sunday. Ahead of that, a reminder of how she's changed her image, and used her notoriety
The beginning of the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. A giant teddy bear’s stomach opens on stage to reveal Miley Cyrus, sticking out her tongue. Miley starts twerking. There’s Robin Thicke. There’s Miley twerking on Robin Thicke. A foam finger is involved. No one will remember the rest of the show, but they won’t forget the opener.
It’s been two years since that VMAs incident, which spawned a thousand memes and culminated in a frenzy over the former Disney actress. Rolling Stone called her "a tongue-wagging, hard-twerking, all-grown-up pop star," adding that 161 people complained to the US Federal Communications Commission after her "pornographic" performance. Cyrus, of public fascination since she was a tween on hit series Hannah Montana, was suddenly elevated to a ubiquitous celebrity who simultaneously entertained and horrified people.
However, since that show in 2013, Cyrus has managed to do the unthinkable: keep people talking about her, but not only about that one performance. If anything, she’s made a true effort to advance beyond the label of "quirky pop star" by advocating for serious social issues. "All these things that I do get all this attention," she told Out magazine. "But then what do I do once I have everyone’s attention?"
As it turns out, Cyrus had a lot more in store than just her infamous twerking — and things have come full circle, as on Sunday, she’s actually hosting the 2015 VMAs. Here’s how she got there: Six things that took Cyrus from pop culture punchline to inescapable pop star and social rights advocate.
1. She was unapologetic about the VMAs performance.
"I know what I’m doing. I know I’m shocking you," she told Rolling Stone. She explained the same thing to MTV News, which said her performance was called everything from "hyper-sexualised" to "the nadir of American Civilization". She and Thicke wanted to make history, she explained, and viewers were really over-thinking it.
Cyrus also responded to the criticisms that her performance was appropriating from black culture, from the twerking to her back-up dancers. "It’s a double standard. I didn’t really realize it, but people are still racist. It’s kind of insane," she said. "Like if I had come out (at the VMAs) with all white-girl dancers, and done the (expletive) Cha Cha Slide — same outfit, same everything — it wouldn’t have been bad. But because of who I came out with, people got upset."
2. She doubled down on being weird.
Confident she had everyone’s attention, Cyrus used this time period to officially shed her "Hannah Montana" and Nicholas Sparks-actress persona. And her fans and devotees (or at least her 21 million Twitter followers and 27 million Instagram followers) loved it. She changed her clothing style and hair, sticking out her tongue in nearly every photo. She smoked a joint on stage at the MTV European Music Awards. During her 2014 concert tour, Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards described the scene: "Cyrus rode a giant fibreglass hot dog through the air and pantomimed a sex act with a dude dressed up like Abraham Lincoln. It was a sexed-up episode of Teletubbies."
3. She changed her music.
No more squeaky-clean pop songs like G.N.O. (Girls Night Out). Cyrus dropped her agent and manager and collaborated with Pharrell Williams on her hip-hop-tinged Bangerz album, which featured hits like We Can’t Stop and Wrecking Ball. Then came her famous video, where she sat naked — on a wrecking ball, naturally.
She was still criticised for cultural appropriation and Pharrell defended her. "You have to remember this is a 20-year-old evolving. Her dad is Billy Ray Cyrus, her godmother is Dolly Parton and she’s raised in an era where hip-hop was king," he said in an MTV documentary. "So when people look and (go) ’Why is she twerking? Why is she doing this?’ Because she’s a byproduct of America."
4. She became an LGBT rights activist.
Pre-VMAs, Cyrus penned an essay for Glamour about why she got a tattoo in support of gay marriage. "When I shared a picture of my tattoo on my Twitter page and said, ’All LOVE is equal,’ a lot of people mocked me — they said, ’What happened to you? You used to be a Christian girl!’" she wrote. "And I said, ’Well, if you were a true Christian, you would have your facts straight. Christianity is about love.’" Post-VMAs, Cyrus continued to speak out in support for same-sex marriage.
In a profile of Cyrus this year, Paper magazine wrote that "she says she has come to consider her own sexuality — even her own gender identification — fluid." Cyrus talked for the first time about how she’s also had serious relationships with women, but the media only focuses on things like her engagement to Liam Hemsworth.
5. She brought a homeless teenager on stage to accept her VMA Award.
Cyrus won the coveted Video of the Year at the 2014 VMAs for Wrecking Ball. But instead of taking the stage, she sent a boy named Jesse in her place, who said he represented the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the country.
"The music industry will make over $7 billion this year, and outside these doors are 54,000 human beings who have no physical home," he said, as the cameras showed Cyrus in the audience with tears streaming down her face. "If you want to make a powerful change in the world right now, please join us and go to Miley’s Facebook page."
6. She started the Happy Hippie Foundation.
Shaken by the suicide of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn in December 2014, Cyrus said that was one of the reasons she started the Happy Hippie Foundation, a non-profit that fights "injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations." To promote the initiative this spring, Cyrus posted YouTube videos of her singing songs with celebrities from Ariana Grande to Joan Jett.
Cyrus said the money raised would create support groups to help the teens, and also go to My Friend’s Place, which helps homeless kids in Los Angeles.