She can’t stop. Miley Cyrus has been courting controversy since she was barely a teen – morphing from the biggest Disney star of her era to pop’s most scandalous It Girl. Over the last decade, she has shrewdly threaded her biggest headlines into her persona – although that approach has backfired along the way. As she prepares her next musical era, here is a look back at the singer-actress’ most jaw-dropping moments.
At 15-years-old, Miley Cyrus’ wholesome image began to shift – and without her consent. A hacker found the Hannah Montana star’s Gmail and MySpace passwords, and released photos of the teen suggestively posing for photos with and for then-boyfriend Thomas Sturges. Aside from a flash of her bra, the pictures are mostly tame images of a young couple snuggling on a couch. For the squeaky-clean brand of a rising Disney star, however, the snaps were the beginning of a total transformation.
Getting snapped by Annie Leibovitz – for a feature in Vanity Fair, no less – is a major milestone for most celebrities, but Cyrus’ shoot with the famed photographer further tarnished her family-friendly public image. In the cover image, Cyrus appears to be shirtless, looking over her shoulder while holding up a satin sheet as her bare back is displayed. Both Leibovitz and Cyrus were quick to defend the shoot as “artistic,” though they both later apologized for the provocative photo. Disney accused VF of manipulating the teenager to sell magazines. The Conde Nast title later took down the cover image from its website.
Just as her first leaked photo scandal began to cool down, even more intimate, stolen images of the “Party in the U.S.A.” singer were blasted across the Internet. This round of photos – bikini and midriff-baring selfies, plus a wet t-shirt shot – was intended for her then-boyfriend, up-and-coming Disney heartthrob Nick Jonas. At the time, the couple famously sported purity rings and spoke openly about their choice to abstain from sex until marriage.
Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato were the new girls on the Disney block in 2008. Gomez made her Disney debut on Hannah Montana as a competing pop star before getting her own series, and her lifelong best friend Lovato was set for a leading role in the TV movie Camp Rock with the Jonas Brothers. Instead of becoming a unified trio, however, Cyrus fueled rumors of bad blood by posting a video on her YouTube vlog – in which she and dancer Mandy Jiroux mocked and parodied the newcomers. Cyrus and Jiroux later took the video down and apologized.
At age 16, the Last Song actress dealt with her first accusation of racism, a charge which would return during her Bangerz era and beyond. In a group photo, Cyrus, boyfriend Justin Gaston and several other friends were seen slanting their eyes in a gesture typically made in mockery of Asian people. Many groups like the OCA demanded an apology; at first, Cyrus was quick to dismiss them, arguing that she was just making “goofy faces” with pals. After a rejected first apology, she issued a second mea culpa, noting the “valuable lesson” gleaned from the experience.
Shortly before releasing her third studio album Can’t Be Tamed (the title says it all), the firebrand made her boldest statement yet about her burgeoning sexuality. At the 2009 Teen Choice Awards, she sang “Party in the U.S.A.,” the mega-hit which launched her into full-fledged pop stardom, gyrating on a pole atop an ice cream cart. Those provocative moves and pelvic thrusts weren’t exactly a striptease, but still sparked a widespread debate about how appropriate the performance was for an underage star. Disney refused to comment on the controversy at the time.
Before her 18th birthday, Cyrus was in the midst of a career makeover. Her Can’t Be Tamed album was a raucous, rock-leaning LP which showcased her edgy new style and unapologetic attitude. Just five days after becoming a legal adult, she was filmed taking a bong hit of salvia, an herb noted for its psychedelic qualities, as Bush’s “Comedown” plays in the background. The video appeared to be leaked by someone who stole or copied the clip from her friend’s camera.
After Can’t Be Tamed didn’t quite catapult her to Britney Spears-level superstardom, Cyrus went for broke: Her long hair was dyed blonde and chopped into a punk pixie, she adapted an outlandish, barely-there wardrobe and, on the musical front, infused hip-hop into her musical sound on Bangerz. The coming out party for this New Miley was her now-iconic, career-making performance of “We Can’t Stop” at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. With her tongue out and wearing a skin-baring onesie, Cyrus – whose appropriation of rap and stoner culture was complicated at best – twerked across the stage before being joined by Robin Thicke, and later, Kendrick Lamar. With Thicke, she stripped down further to a nude latex bra and panty set before grinding on the much older singer.
Cyrus returned to the VMAs a year later for a much more subdued appearance as a major nominee, including Video of the Year for “Wrecking Ball.” This time, she decided to use the massive platform for good, and had Jesse Helt, a formerly homeless young man, accept the night’s top award on her behalf. At the podium, Helt spoke about issues pertaining to youth homelessness during a touching speech as Cyrus cried in the audience. But the charitable act backfired when Helt’s criminal record came to light soon after the show: He had been arrested in 2010 for breaking and entering an apartment in Oregon, and violated his probation by leaving the state to pursue his artistic dreams in California. He was eventually sentenced to six months in jail.
In the years following Bangerz, Cyrus continued to settle into life as a public figure, toying with her image, dropping a free, experimental album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz in 2015, and spending time with her on-and-off fiance Liam Hemsworth. In May, she announced her planned musical return, once again shedding her recent past. While hinting at a more rootsy, country-infused sound during an interview with Billboard, Cyrus controversially took aim at modern hip-hop, accusing the genre (which she once loved) of being too misogynistic and flashy. “I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.” Cyrus later responded via Instagram by defending her comments.