Who's the girl in the picture above? Miley Cyrus, of course, the pop singer who alarmed America by shaking her ass on TV and bragging about her love for molly and pot. But three years ago, the first answer might have been Miley Stewart, the main character in a hit Disney sitcom. And if the girl was blonde, the correct response would be Hannah Montana.
I never saw Hannah Montana. From 2006 to 2011, the years the TV show built a 200 million-strong global audience, I was far too old to watch it sincerely, and too young to absorb it through osmosis as the mother of a tween. But I was forced to pay attention when Hannah Montana sashayed into multiplexes with Hannah Montana: The Movie.
As an outsider to Miley/Miley/Hannah phenomenon, I was struck by its Möbius strip complexity. Miley Cyrus was a 13-year-old girl from Tennessee when she began playing Miley Stewart, a 13-year-old-girl from Tennessee. Both were ordinary teens. But when Miley Stewart put on a platinum wig, she transformed into Hannah Montana, a fictional pop sensation with a huge fan base. For 98 episodes over five years, Miley Stewart struggled to keep her celebrity identity a secret from her friends so she could live a “normal” life.
The surprise twist was that Hannah Montana's fictional music success became a reality. When Disney asked Miley Cyrus to record an album as the fictional Hannah Montana, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and ultimately went triple-platinum. Off-camera, Miley Cyrus agreed to keep the wig on and tour the world as Miley Stewart as Hannah Montana. Then Cyrus asked if she could take the wig off — at least, half the time — and sing as herself, resulting in the split-identity double album Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus. That album did even better. After it sold 5 million copies, Disney launched the schizophrenic Best of Both Worlds tour, in which Miley played both acts of a double bill.
In just two years, Cyrus had grown and subdivided from a regular, non-famous kid to two megastars. She was 15 years old — not even old enough to own a car — but she had three names and three identities. Which one would she even put on a drivers license?
Her personal line between fiction and reality was even blurrier. Her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, was the ultimate stage dad: a one-hit wonder who parlayed his firstborn child into his own second burst of fame by getting himself cast as her fake father, Robby Ray Stewart. Yet Robby Ray was more protective of his Miley than Billy Ray was of his. Instead of pushing her in front of the cameras, Robby Ray — an ex-country star himself — didn't want his daughter getting sidetracked from a normal teenage life of chores and homework and college applications. To keep an eye on his kid, Robby Ray agreed to go on tour posing as Hannah Montana's manager, a ruse that required his own disguise: a stick-on mustache. Which for the real Miley meant that at work, she had two versions of her dad telling her to stay in school, while at home and off-script, her actual dad prodded her to put her face on more magazine covers, lip glosses and sweatshirts to help her — make that, their — careers.
(As for the Miley's mothers, her fake one was dead and her real one was having a secret affair with Bret Michaels. Gee, which is worse?)
In my 2009 review of Hannah Montana: The Movie, I wrote that “Miley Cyrus, aka Miley Stewart, aka Hannah Montana races through a life penned by Charlie Kaufman and packaged by Disney,” and ended with this plea for the then-16-year-old's psychological well-being:
I'm not sure which one of her dads Miley Cyrus most trusts for advice, but whichever Ray most has a foot in reality, I hope they sit their teenage daughter down and tell her two stories about two singers. One is about another blonde from a neighboring Southern state, a girl who kept her own name and all the fame that came with it and was last seen buying Cheetos barefoot in a 7-Eleven. The other is about a country superstar who thought his fortunes would improve if he split himself into two. His alter ego, Chris Gaines, brought down both careers. Fairytale success rarely ends well. Let's hope between all her schizophrenic lives, at least one offers a chance of stability.
I was flooded with hate mail. Over 100 angry commenters, mostly tweens and moms of tweens, called me a cynic and a ghoul. Four years later: The twerk streamed around the world.
It brings me no joy to have been proven right. After the VMAs, the internet blew up calling her crazy and out-of-control. What's grimly interesting is that her former defenders are now the same demographic hissing that Miley Cyrus is a slut. (Yet another example of gross girl-on-girl shaming.)
Hell hath no fury like a Hannah Montana fan scorned. But they better than the rest of us know the confusion of Miley Cyrus' key teenage years. This is more than just the umpteenth case of a child starlet proving her independence by taking off her shirt. This is a girl who was subdivided into three people when she was 13 and had to carry them with her on set, on stage and at home. For work, for her dad, for her fans, for years.
Last week, Miley Cyrus turned 21. She's still very young. For a gift, let's stop the cheap pile-on of judgements and jokes about her behavior. I'd like to think Slate plowed the bottom with their snidely investigative piece in which they asked dentists to speculate the cause of the white-ish cast to Miley's tongue. Among the theories floated by medical professionals who have never met Miss Cyrus were alcohol, drugs, bulimia, oral thrush and cancer. Thanks for the hit whoring, you fine descendants of Hippocrates.
I don't see a national joke here. I see a girl so desperate for stability that she got engaged at 19. I see a child whose dad and some Disney screenwriters signed her up for a future she couldn't understand — and certainly couldn't steer — when the rest of us were still telling our parents we wanted to be astronauts and firemen. And I see a young singer clumsily, but passionately, trying to live on her own terms.
And if there's a silver lining to this story, at least now when I look at the top picture of this piece, I don't see Hannah Montana or Miley Stewart. I see Miley Cyrus. For better and worse, now we know her by her own name.
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