While her success could be brushed off with the industry motto “all publicity is good publicity,” those who’ve closely watched the 20-year-old’s development say that’s not the whole story.
In CNN’s “The Life of Miley Cyrus,” which examines Cyrus’ music, message and personal journey, insiders who’ve intimately come to know the singer/actress say that her transition from a childhood of ATVs and cheerleading to adult superstardom was no accident. Instead, Cyrus has executed her transformation with total control.
Shirley Halperin, music editor for The Hollywood Reporter, tells CNN she gives Cyrus “a lot of credit for her own street smarts and her own understanding of what consumers want.”
After all, Halperin says, “there was a time when people thought Miley Cyrus would never be on Top 40 radio, because Disney was too squeaky clean. Well … she’s certainly turned that around.”
And how did she do that? By systematically shedding her reputation as a tween celebrity. Cyrus herself has never been “squeaky clean” — even before she turned 18, her actual image was occasionally at odds with the image those parents paying for tickets to “Hannah Montana” concerts expected.
According to Josh Eells, the Rolling Stone writer who went skydiving and to a tattoo shop with Cyrus for Rolling Stone’s recent cover story, believes the beginning of this transition happened at 17, when Cyrus was filming the comedy “LOL” in Detroit with Demi Moore.
“She said that was the first time that she was really … basically by herself. There were other(s) — obviously the rest of the cast and crew was around — but she was kind of living on her own,” Eels said. “She would go out to clubs, which she’d never really done before. I think it was probably easier for her to be anonymous or kind of fly under the radar in Detroit a little bit. She said she learned a lot from (Moore), and I think she got into hip-hop more up there.”
While “LOL” failed to make a dent in Cyrus’ rep, a certain haircut that same year definitely did. In August 2012, the singer made one of the biggest statements a young celebrity can make: she drastically changed her look with a super-short, platinum blonde haircut, a clear departure from anything she’d done before.
According to Steven Peterman, an executive producer on Cyrus’ old show, “Hannah Montana,” that sort of risk-taking is nothing new.
“The thing that makes you wonder, ‘What’s she gonna do next,?’ I’ve been asking that about her since the day I met her,” Peterman said.
When Cyrus was first auditioning for the part, “she was the least likely person to get this job,” Peterman continued. But with her combination of vocal talent and that unpredictability, she wound up winning the creative team over to her side.
“There was something about her that was so alive and so fearless, and that’s what we all talked about in the room,” Peterman said. “That’s part of who she is. And it’s part of, as an artist, what she probably needs to be. It means that she’s going to, at times, make mistakes. But I think she’s strong enough to get through it all and come out the other side.”
Of course, as Cyrus has peeled off the layers of adolescence — along with several layers of her actual clothes — many have “tsked” at her seemingly new image: There are the references to marijuana (super lemon haze is said to be her strain of choice); the sexually suggestive music videos; the risqué, semi-nude photos – not to mention her “Wrecking Ball” video – both courtesy of Terry Richardson.
And then there’s that tongue.
But, Eells suggests, “the things that we see that seem crazy are very calculatedly crazy. Pharrell (Williams) phrased it in a very long text message that he wrote to her: ‘You’re not a train wreck, you’re the train pulling everyone else along.’ (Cyrus) seems to be totally together and with it and knows exactly what’s going on.”
Halperin agrees, noting that it isn’t easy to simply wake up and decide to aim for the top of the hot singles chart.
“That requires a great deal of planning to say, ‘Here we are in 2007, by 2010-2011, we want to be on top 40 radio. It takes four years to develop an artist like that,” she said. “And that’s what we’ve seen. We’ve seen her development. And it’s not an accident; it is very strategic.”
In order to build any longevity, Halperin explains, “we need to see her go through these musical phases and these stylistic changes, too. We can look back at any (act) — Justin Timberlake or ‘N Sync — and laugh at what they wore, what they sang. But at the moment, it was perfect for what the audience was looking for. (Cyrus) knows what her audience wants.
Right now, Cyrus knows that her audience wants honesty — sometimes of the naked variety. And with “Hannah Montana” getting farther in her rear view, frank vulnerability is what the pop star can offer.
With “Bangerz” and all the changes it has brought, Cyrus told CNN that she’s now “able to be just more honest as an artist. And that’s really what my record is about.”