Destiny Hope “Smiley” Cyrus was born on November 23, 1992. Hannah Montana, and her regular-girl alter ego Miley Stewart, were born eight and a half years later, in March 2006. But the Miley Cyrus we know today wasn’t really born until December 10, 2010, when the tabloid site TMZ posted a potentially career-ending video of the Disney kid at her 18th birthday, smoking something (salvia, according to Miley) from a bong. It was supposed to be shocking, but the only shocking part was how normal the whole episode was.
Watching the clip now, it’s annoying in the way anyone else’s home movies are. But while the specific activity depicted may have been illegal (laws regarding salvia vary depending on state and country) and/or dangerous (see Amy Rose’s drug primer), it’s also kind of mesmerizing in its silly, commonplace immaturity and relative innocence. It’s like any goofy high-school party: Bad ’90s alt-rock is playing in the background (Bush’s “Comedown,” just to eradicate all subtlety), and the boys outside of the frame are instructing Miley how to smoke, whether she needs their help or not, as boys tend to do. She inhales, coughs, makes a face, and performs the act of feeling something. Then she sees a guy who she thinks resembles her boyfriend, Liam Hemsworth: “He looks so much like Liam! Is that me tripping?” Then she devolves into a giggle-fit, grabs for some Frosted Flakes, and growls mangled Nicki Minaj lyrics.
This is what I love about Miley Cyrus, and what makes her stand out among a generation of former child stars trying to grow up in the public eye: She insists on doing standard kid stuff, even millions of people watch, judge, criticize, and assigning meaning to her every move—and it isn’t some tragic story. She doesn’t seem like a victim or a cautionary tale. She’s just…Miley. While Britney, Lindsay, and Amanda leaned into their extended breakdowns and let their struggles surpass their art, Miley tiptoed to the line, did a little dance on it, and then got back to work, both as a performer and a teenager.
There were always signs she could pull off this balancing act. The daughter of “Achy Breaky Heart” singer Billy Ray Cyrus and a goddaughter of the legendarily self-assured Dolly Parton, Miley saved her father from one-hit-wonderdom before she hit puberty. They had their father-daughter bumps along the way, with Dad doing more than his share of the acting out by participating in this pathetic GQ story, but they seemed to work things out and now banter back and forth on Twitter. Inside the machine, she excelled: She was a ball of charm and energy on her Disney Channel hit Hannah Montana and its various soundtracks and movies. And her early singles pretty much rule: There’s the faux-’80s catchiness of her first hit, “See You Again,” and the country-pop outrage of “7 Things.” Even the schlocky “The Climb” still sounds uplifting while perusing the candy aisle at the grocery store. And the genius of “Party in the U.S.A.” speaks for itself.