In the backroom of a tattoo parlor on North La Brea Avenue in L.A., Miley Cyrus is about to get some new ink. "All right, face down," says the tattoo artist, a bald guy named Mojo. Miley flips onto her stomach and sticks her ass in the air. On the bottom of her dirty feet, in ballpoint pen, are written the words ROLLING (right foot) and $TONE (left).
"People get tattoos of the most fucked-up shit," Miley says. "Did you know Alec Baldwin has Hannah Montana's initials tattooed on him? No, wait – Stephen Baldwin. He said he was my biggest fan, and I told him my biggest fans have tattoos. So he got hm tattooed on his shoulder." She shakes her head. "People do fucked-up shit."
For her first Rolling Stone cover story, Miley wanted to do something fun. "I thought about going to play laser tag," she says. "But laser tag sucks. And we could have gone bowling, but what are we, 90?" Naturally, the next idea was getting a tattoo.
"All right, darlin'," says Mojo. "You ready?"
"Ready," she says. Mojo fires up the needle, which begins buzzing extremely loudly. "I hate seeing the needle," says Miley. She cranes her neck backward. "Does it hurt? It hurts, right?"
Mojo: "Yeah, it hurts."
These are the 20-year-old pop star's first tattoos on her feet, but she has lots of others: a peace sign, an equal sign, a heart and a cross (all on her fingers); the words love inside her right ear and just breathe over her rib cage; a Leonardo da Vinci sketch on her right forearm, and above it, the Roman numerals VIIXCI, for 7/91, the month and year her parents first met. And on the inside of her left forearm, the words so THAT HIS PLACE SHALL NEVER BE WITH THOSE COLD AND TIMID SOULS WHO NEITHER KNOW VICTORY NOR DEFEAT. "It's from a Teddy Roosevelt speech," she says. "It's about how people judge who wins and who loses, but they're not the ones in there fighting." In other words, "It's about critics."
Four days earlier, Miley performed at the VMAs. Maybe you heard about it. A lot of people got mad. Miley did things with a foam finger that made the inventor of the foam finger accuse her of having "degraded" an "icon." Most people thought it was Miley's fault, but Miley didn't care. That's what the Teddy Roosevelt quote is about. Haters gonna hate.
Mojo leans in with the needle. On the stereo, "Apache," by the Incredible Bongo Band, is playing. He writes the r, then the o. "How you doing?" he asks.
"Good," Miley says, gritting her teeth.
Then he does the l. "Motherfucker!"
Over on the couch, a guy named Cheyne is cracking up. Cheyne, 22, is Miley's assistant, and also her best friend. They've known each other for a long time, but Miley hired him only last year, before she went to Philadelphia and Miami to record her new album. Cheyne was working at Starbucks at the time. "And I was like, 'Fuck that,'" Miley says. "My best friend can't work at Starbucks! We've been working ever since."
Mojo, on the g, hits a nerve. "Owwww!" Miley screams.
"You hanging in there?" Mojo asks.
"I'm alive," she says.
"OK. We're almost done."
Mojo takes a quick break while Miley collects herself, and then finishes the job. "Easy!" Miley says. After, Mojo asks if she'll do him a favor. He takes out his phone and calls his 10-year-old daughter, Josie, who just started fifth grade.
"What a cool dad!" says Miley. "FaceTiming from the tattoo shop."
Josie's face pops up onscreen. "Hi, Daddy!" she says.
"Hi, sweet angel!" says Mojo.
Miley leans in. "Hey! I hear you make a face like me!" Josie smiles and sticks her tongue out, and Miley does the same. "Yay!" Miley says.
"OK, say good night," says Mojo.
"Good night!" says Josie.
"Adios!" Miley says. Mojo hangs up, and Miley hops down off the table and lands on her feet.
"Motherfucker!" she says.
In this era of deep national polarization, there's one thing on which we can pretty much all agree: It's an interesting time to be Miley Cyrus. She's been dealing with fame in varying degrees for her entire life, first as the daughter of country star Billy Ray Cyrus, whose "Achy Breaky Heart" was to 1992 what "Blurred Lines" is to 2013, then as the insanely popular Disney tween icon Hannah Montana. But all that was just a prelude to Miley 3.0, a tongue-wagging, hard-twerking, all-grown-up pop star, like it or not.
Miley has been planting the seeds for her big transition to adulthood for the past five years. She was 15 when she weathered her first scandal, when she posed for Vanity Fair wearing a sheet that made her look topless. ("I feel so embarrassed," she said in a statement. "And I apologize to my fans, who I care so deeply about.") A year later came a pole-dancing stunt at the Teen Choice Awards (the "pole" was on an ice cream cart; the dancing was PG at most). The following year she was photographed in Spain drinking a beer at age 17, and a month after that, TMZ posted a video of her taking a rip from a bong. (Miley claimed it was legal salvia.) And yet, in millions of people's eyes, she's still Hannah Montana – which may be part of the problem.
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