Has Miley Cyrus been here before? The hardware store, the courthouse, the desolate Main Street of this town in the hills outside Los Angeles—all of it looks so familiar. Then again it might look that way to anyone, given that it’s a Disney-owned set on which countless movies, TV shows, and commercials have been filmed. Considering the relatively long arc of Miley’s career, it’s possible that the déjà vu she’s experiencing is warranted. She squints, rifling through her memory. Suddenly her round blue eyes open wide. “I knew it!” she shouts when her manager confirms that she shot a video here for her 2013 album, Bangerz. “Wow,” she says. “That feels like another lifetime ago.”
It was, in a way. At 24, Miley Cyrus has had more lives than your average cat-bikini-wearing pop star, having been a child actress, an art rocker, a pop-culture icon, and an Internet meme by an age most people are still figuring out their first identity.
Today she’s in the middle of yet another transformation. “A transition,” she calls it, sitting on the stairs inside the general store, which is not actually a store but an empty shell containing the wardrobe she has chosen for her Bazaar shoot—flowy, feminine pieces that reflect the mellow, Laurel Canyon–y aesthetic of what will be her sixth, as-yet-untitled, studio album. A collection of stripped-down, country-inflected, radio-friendly pop songs, it’s a marked departure from her most recent work, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, a collaboration with the Flaming Lips that she released online and promoted with a tour in which she regularly wore a unicorn horn and a prosthetic penis.
“I feel really kind of far away from that person,” Miley says, stretching her coltish legs, clad in vintage blue-and-white bell bottoms, across the dusty floor. “I just want people to see that this is who I am right now. I’m not saying I’ve never been myself,” she clarifies. “Who I was on the last record was really who I am. It’s just myself has been a lot of different people because I change a lot.”
For the past few months, Miley has been under a “media blackout,” as she puts it, but now words bubble out of her like an uncorked bottle of champagne. “I think I’m just figuring out who I am at such a rapid pace that it’s hard for me to keep up with myself,” she explains at one point.
Her evolution, and how it will be perceived, is top of mind. “People get told that it’s a bad thing to change,” she continues. “Like, people will say, ‘You’ve changed.’ And that’s supposed to be derogatory. But you are supposed to change all the time.” Especially in pop music, where reinvention is the coin of the realm.
Miley’s early attempts at reinvention were tentative. There was the chastely sexy Nicholas Sparks movie, The Last Song, on which she met her now fiancé, Liam Hemsworth; the salvia smoking incident; the Vanity Fair cover on which she appeared to be topless; some light pole dancing at the Teen Choice Awards. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she was onstage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in a flesh-colored bra and panties twerking against Robin Thicke, in an utterly un-look-away-able performance that was, in her words, “kind of a ‘fuck you’ ” to the system that created and repressed her. The reaction at the time was pretty unkind.
Parents covered their children’s eyes. Grandmas back in Miley’s native Nashville wondered what had come over her. (Well, except one: “I liked it,” says Mammie, a.k.a. Loretta Jean Palmer Finley, Miley’s maternal grandmother, who is on set for her shoot and attends most of her granddaughter’s performances.) As for Miley, she seemed to take it in stride. “It’s really scary sometimes, someone saying, ‘This is who I am,’” she says. “People have known me since I was so young, they think they know me. I heard so many comments like, ‘We just want Miley back.’ But you can’t tell me who that is. I’m right here.”
Then came the Nicki Minaj burn heard round the world. In hindsight, Miley obviously could have been more sensitive when she criticized Minaj for speaking out after her “Anaconda” video did not receive an MTV Video Music Award nomination for Video of the Year in 2015. But it’s hard to look back at the moment during the show when Minaj called out “this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press” and not feel a tiny pang for Miley, in her plastic visor and white-girl dreadlocks, looking devastated as she registers that a moment of change—real societal change—has occurred, and, despite her best intentions, she has somehow ended up on the wrong side of it.
The thing is, Miley is sensitive. “She’s not confrontational,” says Mammie, who, while we are hanging out on set, tells me a story about Miley’s attempts to win over an unfriendly costar back in her Hannah Montana days, the details of which I won’t repeat at the risk of making Mammie appear indiscreet. “She just wanted the girl to like her.”
After the Minaj incident, Miley retreated. She went on tour to support the record she made with the Flaming Lips, which Spin called “legitimately weird” in a good way. She moved to Malibu, where she has a rainbow-painted recording studio and a menagerie of pigs, whom she’d brushed the morning of the shoot. (“I needed that time with my pigs because that makes me truly happy, in a nonattached, work way,” she says.) And she did some reflecting, which was something she realized she had never had much time for. “There’s so much I don’t remember about being a child entertainer because it was so much to keep in my brain,” Miley says. “It’s like anything when you are in it. I didn’t realize how much pressure I was under and how that shaped me until, like, this year.”
Talking about it, she sounds a little angry. “People were so shocked by some of the things that I did,” she goes on, referring to her twerking period. “It should be more shocking that when I was 11 or 12, I was put in full hair and makeup, a wig, and told what to wear by a group of mostly older men,” she says. “I didn’t want to become any sort of man hater because I love all humans; I am a humanitarian,” she continues. “Beyoncé said, ‘Girls run the world,’ and that was an important thing to say because I think subconsciously we are beaten down to believe that it isn’t true our whole lives. It’s no wonder that a lot of people lose their way and lose who they really are because they always have people telling them who to be.”
During her time off, she immersed herself in her Happy Hippie Foundation, whose mission is to “rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth, and other vulnerable populations,” which she founded in 2014. Although in the past Miley has identified herself as “pansexual,” at the moment she is in one of the straightest relationships on the planet. (She got back together with Hemsworth in 2015, and the two are engaged, as the blinding rock on her finger makes it hard to forget.) “When I started speaking up on trans rights, I spent hours on the phone every day talking to experts, so I was able to speak about it from a knowledgeable place,” she says. “I think my connection with trans people is: You should be able to change and be who you are at any time,” she says. “Like, you should not be glued to gender, to age, to race; those things should not define you. We are born as a blank canvas, and your job on this planet is to take the time to paint it the way you want, and you can fucking scrape it off and start over again as many times as you want.”
Having campaigned for Hillary Clinton during the lead-up to the presidential election last year, Miley says she was “super distraught” at the outcome. “It took me, like, three days to stop crying.”
Once she did, she scraped off her canvas yet again. She even stopped smoking pot. “Just for now,” she says. “To quote the wise Justin Bieber, ‘Never say never.’ But right now I want to be clear.”
These days, Miley does her own makeup for shoots, and it’s minimal. Her previous over-the-top persona, she decided, had served its purpose. “It became something that was expected of me. I didn’t want to show up to photo shoots and be the girl who would get my tits out and stick out my tongue. In the beginning, it was kind of like saying, ‘Fuck you. Girls should be able to have this freedom or whatever.’ But it got to a point where I did feel sexualized.”
Plus, everyone else is doing it. “Even at the Met Gala, everyone had their boobs out, everyone had their ass out, so what’s punk about that now?” she asks. “It’s more punk actually for me to not.”
Miley says that as she pondered her new identity, she asked herself, “How can I fucking be the role model I’m supposed to be?” She gives me a sharp look. “Yeah, I just said fucking role model,” she repeats. “Who gives a shit? Because I got my tits out before doesn’t make me less of a role model.”
Indeed, maybe it makes her more of one. “I think I show people that they can be themselves,” she says. “I also think something that has been important for me, in this next little, like, transition phase of my career is that I don’t give a fuck about being cool. I just want to be myself.”