Miley Cyrus has this term: “doing it.” It roughly translates to “trying” or “acting”—and it’s not a compliment. Because, in Miley World, one of the worst things you can be is disingenuous. (People who suck up to her because she’s famous are “doing it”; the notoriously curmudgeonly Woody Allen, who directed her in this fall’s Amazon series, Crisis in Six Scenes, is, according to Cyrus, “not doing it.”)
Cyrus is, above all, staunchly committed to not doing it. After being in the system (another Miley-ism, this one for the entertainment industry) for most of her sentient years and fulfilling all the press obligations that come with promoting albums, tours, and television shows, Cyrus rejected it about a year ago—deciding to no longer employ a publicist and instead to share her life with her fans only via Instagram, where her followers find a mix of political commentary, New Age–y cheerleading, and images of her many animals. But she did decide to talk to ELLE, in part to get the word out about her new role as a coach on NBC’s The Voice, where she’s joining Alicia Keys, Blake Shelton, and Adam Levine for the show’s eleventh season, airing Mondays and Tuesdays this fall. And in part because she wanted “to do something like this where we are really talking, rather than somebody talking at me for five seconds.” We sat down twice with Cyrus over the course of two days, first at The Voice‘s Burbank, California, set, while she applied makeup between takes. (Cyrus doesn’t have a glam squad either—that would be the height of “doing it.”) She had just taken a break from filming an off-site mentoring session in which contestants receive singing and performance advice from Cyrus and special guest “advisor” Joan Jett. Cyrus burst into the greenroom where Adam (not Levine), her longtime manager, was scrolling on his iPhone. She went straight for him; demonstrating the same impressive, Pilates-honed inner-thigh strength she famously used on a wrecking ball, she managed to playfully wrap her lean, black tights–clad legs around Adam’s neck. She looked up at me midstraddle—her face now surprisingly mature, and arrestingly beautiful—and said, with complete self-awareness, in her lilting, slightly Southern baritone: “Miley Cyrus, nice to meetcha!”
For our second meeting, she arrived at a Mexican restaurant in Studio City by herself. And as with our first meeting, Miley was indefatigable, unfiltered, and genuinely passionate—about The Voice; about the Happy Hippie Foundation, which she founded last year for homeless and LGBTQ youth (funds raised, which have come from more than 8,000 donors and helped thousands of teens so far, go to the creation of digital support groups and drop-in centers); and about what’s wrong with the system. She was so engaged, loquacious, and articulate, it was almost hard to believe her detailed story about the blunt she said she smoked on her way to meet me.
This is a 23-year-old who’s been megafamous half her life. (And it should be noted that during the unmegafamous half, she was by turns a baby and the daughter of someone pretty famous himself, multiplatinum country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.) Born in the tony Nashville suburb of Franklin, Miley moved to L.A. at age 12 to star alongside her dad in what would become the Disney Channel’s four-seasons-running, 101-episode, two-film juggernaut Hannah Montana—on which she played a character also named Miley. By the time she was 21, she’d reached 15.9 million in album sales (last year’s Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz was released on SoundCloud for free) and had broken the record for the most video streams in a 24-hour period (19.3 million) with 2013’s “Wrecking Ball.” She’s also in one of the most famous relationships on the planet. (There are rumors, of course, that she and Liam Hemsworth are engaged; she quite clearly called him her “boyfriend” throughout our conversation.) When so much of your life is commodified, it’s easy to understand why you might want to “do it” if only to maintain some modicum of control. Not “doing it” is brave.
I hear you’re the most involved judge The Voice has ever had.
They actually had to give me boundaries of how involved I could be. Seriously! Like, legal boundaries. I’m like, Well, I’m out shopping! And they’re like, If you’re going to buy one person a rainbow vest, you have to buy every single person that exact vest! So I had to get reined in. This is a show for the people on it, the contestants. They’re not all going back to the SLS Hotel or wherever Blake stays. These kids are locked up without their phones, without their family, coming and singing in front of Joan Jett. It’s such a crazy experience, and this is their real life.
What’s driving you—the need to win?
I want to help these singers. [A producer says to me],”Shut the fuck up! You’re at 20 minutes!” I’m like, What are you going to do—kick out these two 16-year-olds from Arkansas when they’re still pitchy? If I’m here, I’m going to do it for real. I’m not acting; I’m not playing me. People forget that their actions make them who they are. So many people say, “I’m a good person!” Like, why are you a good person? To be a good person you have to actively be good. I try to show that how I treat these contestants makes me who I am as a human.
I like that on The Voice the contestants don’t get extra points for how sad their story is.
It’s like, if you’re going to have someone win because of their story, go write a screenplay about your life. On The Voice, I try to steer away everyone who comes in here with an idea of what “the voice” means, which is that you’ve got to be the pitch-perfect singer.
During filming earlier, you said to a contestant that not everyone can be Mariah Carey.
I’ve never really been a fan, because it’s so much about Mariah Carey. That’s part of her shtick; I can see through that. That’s part of what makes her a gay icon; like, it’s about Mimi! It’s about what she’s wearing, and it’s about her. What I make isn’t about me. It’s about sharing my story; it’s about someone being connected to what I’m saying.
Musicians today, at your level, have to be moguls to some degree, though. Do you find that to be at odds with being an artist?
That’s why you don’t see me, like, on the sides of buses, selling shit. I mean, what am I going to do—sell makeup? Mostly, I tell people, Don’t wear makeup. Today, I only have makeup on because Joan had eyeliner on yesterday, and we all think Joan looks so cool that I copied her. I don’t really [wear makeup] for the contestants, because some of these girls come from fucking Arkansas with cake face on. Like, I don’t want these kids to come out here and wear a bunch of makeup. I mean, I cover my zits, but besides that, I don’t really wear it. And Alicia doesn’t really wear it. But she’s got a makeup artist and I don’t.
So you do your own makeup for the show?
Yes, girl! This is my kit! People are like, “Oh, I want to make your eyes almond.” I don’t have almond eyes! Why are you trying to change my eye shape? When someone changes your face, it’s really shocking and scary.
You must be used to that feeling.
[People assume] that I play for 90,000 people. I just got off a tour [Milky Milky Milk] that was, like, 2,000 people a night, and that’s my choice. I’d rather have people who are enthusiastic about what I’m doing than like, “Well, I thought we were going to a Miley Cyrus concert and now it’s a strip show!” When I was on my Bangerz tour, it was hard for my soul to walk out and see people with their arms crossed. I walked out so many nights feeling judged. You’re at my show, why are you here to judge me? Real fans love you.
You mentioned that you don’t subscribe to the idea that you’re a businesswoman. But when you were younger, surely someone made smart decisions on your behalf?
Even though my dad was in the industry, he so wasn’t. But he was very smart—we have a huge farm in Nashville that he bought for nothing, and now it’s, like, a music capital. But I did not grow up spoiled in any way. I just wanted to be on TV. I mean, at one point—they’ll probably kill me for saying it—I was probably the least paid person on my [Hannah Montana] cast because I didn’t know any better. I was just like, I can be on Disney! Yeah, I want to do it! My name was Miley on my show, but I didn’t own my name—we didn’t think about that. Like, Yeah, you can use my name on your show, sure! My mom started understanding how many people take advantage of a child, so she hired smart people to protect me in that way. I’m happy that when I was younger, people protected me and put me in a position where I can now control my music.
You have some really incredible mentors yourself. Joan, whom you just mentioned. There’s also Dolly Parton, who’s your godmother; there’s Woody Allen.
I’ve had a lot of good people in my life. This one little tattoo I have is of [a note from] Johnny Cash; he was a friend of my dad’s. The people I had around me as I was growing up [brought] good energy—their true love for music and just being good people. They’re not pop stars—they’re country singers—and they’re so down to earth. I learned that that’s how you are as a musician: Just because you’re an artist doesn’t give you an excuse to be an asshole. I feel like a lot of famous people think that they’re doing a good thing by being kind. They’re like, “Hey, I could be an asshole, but I’m not! Isn’t it so cool that I’m so down to earth?” Like, No, you’re not!
Earlier you said something about how you used to be part of the system and now you aren’t. What did you mean by that?
Everyone does this as they get older. When I look at my little sister [Noah], who’s 16, I don’t judge her for anything she does because I remember where I was at that time. I was such an emotional person—I’m still such an emotional person—but I was trying to find out who I was. You go through these stages, especially in our industry.
Something I always wonder about famous people: Everyone always remembers you. Is it hard to remember all those people you meet?
I remember a lot of people, but when I meet people and I’m stoned, I’m not as good with names. But I’ll remember my fans who’ll wait outside. There’s some in the bigger cities who are there all the time. I actually saw one kid, who’s probably been standing outside for eight years, transition from male to female. I helped her through that process—when she had on just the fingernails, I was like, Yes! Get it! We’re about the same age, so you kind of grow up with your fans. Pop stars will have their favorite fans and [say], Oh, you know her? I know her, too; she’s so cute. Britney knows her, too.
Do you have a relationship with Britney?
[My manager] works with her; we’ve stayed close because of that. She’s a little distant in her world. I just want Britney to be happy. Every time she puts out new music, I’m like, Is that what she wants to be doing? Or does she just want to chill? She’s looking so good right now, and looking happy.
Do you text her?
I’m not sure if Britney knows how to text. [Laughs] I think I’ve actually texted her twice.
You and Katy Perry are both friends with [fashion designer] Jeremy Scott. Do you know her through him?
I fucking love Jeremy Scott, but I’m not in that scene. All my friends are super normal. All I want to do is yoga and hike, and smoke weed. It’s funny. I’m like the face of going out, and I never go out. It was another time in my life; I had just turned 21 and I could finally not have to sneak into the club anymore. Now, I’m not, like, a hermit, I just have my farm and my pigs and horsies, and I’m just chilling.
When did you make that turn?
Paparazzi always made me really uncomfortable. You’re growing up and you look weird sometimes. My zits were all crazy; I’ve gone through some hair trauma. That’s how I started sticking out my tongue in pictures. Because I hate everyone being so serious.
But you’re into fashion, no?
Okay, I slept in these. They’re all wrinkled. I wanted to wear my Under Armour workout pants, but it’s one step too real; I’ll look like a publicist.
I can’t imagine being famous at 16. What do you think you gained or lost from being famous so young?
When we were that age, we so thought we knew who we were. When people say you’re going to be so different at 22 or 23, when you’re 16, you’re like, I’m so not! And then you change drastically. But when you’re younger, you’re more selfish, because there’s so much self-exploration, you’re in your own mind. I didn’t think about the meat I was eating. I would wear leather; I would wear fur. I was just uneducated.
When was the last time you had what I’ve heard you refer to as a “growth period”?
Literally yesterday. I was watching this documentary about dragonflies—they go from this crunchy little larva to this crazy dragonfly. So why can’t we do that? If we’re so smart and so much better than all the animals, and man rules the world, why can’t we just change all the time from, like, a caterpillar to a butterfly? I just don’t think I’m doing enough—which everyone around me would kill me for saying, because I definitely can take it too far.
What actually made you start your foundation, Happy Hippie?
I relate so much to it. It’s very strange, because I’m not sexually confused in any way. I’m very much—the word is pansexual.
That just means everyone. It doesn’t stop at girl, boy, or if someone’s in a transition. I don’t see people ever for who they were before who they are right now. I think of who I was before who I am right now; that’s a transition in itself. Everyone is constantly transitioning. When there’s a thing you have to do, you have to do it. That’s how I got with [Saturday Night Live]; every time I was like, Why am I here? I’m so scared. You’re about to be live!
But you perform!
I love doing it, but sometimes, I’m like, Oh my God. Every few shows, you’re [thinking], Is this real? It’s like those dreams of people going out naked onstage. [But] I do go out naked onstage, so it feels like a dream. Am I really standing here dressed as a baby singing to these people who are on drugs? My life feels so surreal. That’s why I’ve made a shtick of being me. Because being me is funny. I’ve made this weird character, and I think it’s really funny.
Would you break down what’s funny about it?
The outfits are funny, because everyone is just so serious right now, especially in fashion. A few years ago, I started gluing cotton balls on my pants, and now Céline has cotton balls on their pants. I can inspire that, and I see it.
You’ve covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” It’s about a real woman, who worked at a bank that Dolly’s husband went to…
It’s cool to tell a real story. When I did my last record, I called it Dead Petz. It was inspired by my dog who died. You’re allowed to let people in. It doesn’t all have to be metaphorical. Everything on the radio is metaphorical in a bad way. But when I write a lyric, like “bang my box,” that’s pretty clear. Why not be honest? I can’t remember the lies.
Going back to The Voice, many of the memorable American Idol contestants didn’t win—Clay Aiken, for example, came in second to Ruben Studdard.
Totally. And I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but I’m going to tell my contestants: Be Bernie Sanders. Be the person people want and love. Don’t worry about the masses. That’s how you make a memorable moment. Let people talk about it.
What are The Voice chairs like?
The chairs are so fucking funny: 99.9 percent of the reason I did the show was so I could push the button. It feels ridiculous. It feels like I’m being that character—of myself. When you don’t turn the chair for somebody, it’s so confrontational, and I’m really not confrontational. So then I get really embarrassed and I’ll make it my fault—like, “I don’t know! I was high! I forgot to turn my chair!”
What’s the dynamic among the judges?
Adam reminds me a lot of my manager. They both spent too much time in the city worrying with their Jewish parents. And then Blake and I have this Southern thing.
You’re starring in Woody Allen’s new Amazon series. What was it like working with him?
I went to White Plains, New York. Do you know where that is? I adopted a weird cat named Harlem and just lived in a White Plains apartment by myself and went to Whole Foods with my main gay every day. Working with Woody was the best experience. He’s just being Woody. He’s, like, not doing it, putting it on. When I met him, the first thing I did was give him the biggest hug, and I’m in sparkly cowboy boots and a bucket hat with rainbows sprouting at the top of it, and he’s like, “Oh. Oh. Wow, hi.” He kind of pushed me off, like, Ayyy—get off me!
Did you relate to your character?
I’m playing this ’60s revolutionary. Woody plays someone who grew up in the suburbs of New York. He’s got an ice cream machine, and I’m like, People are starving and you’re sitting here making ice cream?! That’s my thing [in real life]. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep because I just felt so guilty. I was covered in rashes because I was so stressed. Even today, I dropped my water on my hike and felt like such an asshole. There are children being sold into sex slavery; how can I go on a hike right now? So now I try to do as much as I can through Happy Hippie. I’m not on a reality show [about me]: You don’t get to see all my family drama, you don’t get in my relationships, and you don’t get to live inside my personal life. But if you don’t pick at me, I’m pretty open to just let you in. [A year ago] I had to do the [A Very Murray Christmas] premiere, and I will never do a red carpet again. Why, when people are starving, am I on a carpet that’s red? Because I’m “important”? Because I’m “famous”? That’s not how I roll. It’s like a skit—it’s like Zoolander.
What’s your current social media philosophy?
I don’t have Instagram on my phone anymore. This chick at the office, I gave her my password. I’ll send her a picture of me feeding the pig in a bikini: “Can you post, like, ‘Fuck yeah, pigs!’? Or, ‘High in a bikini!’ ” I just don’t want to scroll. I don’t want to know what people are doing. Like, I don’t need to know who’s got a new music video and who’s got a new lipstick. It felt so commercial, like I was always getting sold. I used to literally post four times on the hour obnoxiously, but that was in a heavy art phase.
Are you on Snapchat?
No. I want to be. I don’t know how to use it. I feel like I’ll be an old lady that’s too held back, because I don’t keep up with it. I’m not on Pokémon Go. [This morning] Liam woke up and tried to go to the car wash because it was a—what do you call it?—PokéSpot. Like, “Got to go find them and catch them all! Ahh!“…Thank you for hanging. It worked out better. I feel better.
Hair by Andy Lecompte at the Wall Group for Wella Professionals; makeup by James Kaliardos; manicure by Stephanie Stone at Nailing Hollywood for Chanel; produced by Brandon Zagha; fashion assistant: Yashua Simmons