Miley Cyrus Plans Her Next Act—Without Leaving Home
Writing, directing and hosting a talk show, all while on lockdown, Cyrus has a found a new way to inspire and uplift her fans. What does it mean for her future?
Miley Cyrus first rose to stardom as a young teen, playing the title role on Hannah Montana, the popular Disney sitcom that ran from 2006 to 2011. On the show, she played a regular girl who secretly moonlights as a pop star. Then, as she entered her 20s, Cyrus herself emerged as a fully formed, grown-up pop star, crashing into the millennial zeitgeist with hits like “Wrecking Ball.” Since the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, however, the 27-year-old has been experimenting with a new role: talk show host. “It’s hilarious people call this a TV show when it’s just Instagram Live,” Cyrus says from isolation at her home in Calabasas, California, where on weekdays at 11:30 a.m. she has been broadcasting her interview program, Bright Minded: Live with Miley, to her 107 million followers. The show is also uploaded to her YouTube channel. (Full disclosure: I am YouTube’s director of fashion and beauty.)
Using her iPhone, Cyrus streamed the first episode on March 16, three days before California went into lockdown. Her first guest was her own therapist, Dr. Daniel Amen, who talked to her about anxiety in isolation. From there, Bright Minded took off. “I started calling it a show, and everyone was like, ‘OK, honey, we’ll play along with your little fantasy,’” Cyrus says over the phone. “Then, all of a sudden, I’m talking to Senator Elizabeth Warren!” Cyrus has also hosted fellow Disney alums Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, actors Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, comedian Amy Schumer, and musicians Alicia Keys and Elton John. After an initial three-week run, she took a week off and relaunched the show on April 13 to focus on “heroes,” including José Andrés, the chef who founded the World Central Kitchen; Dr. Oscar L. Maitas, an internal medicine specialist who discussed working on the frontlines of the crisis; and Shirley Raines, founder of Beauty 2 The Streetz, an organization that provides hair coloring, makeup and mobile showers to the homeless community on L.A.’s Skid Row.
On Bright Minded, Cyrus and her guests discuss a range of themes from Dr. Amen’s BRIGHT MINDS program: B is for “blessings/curses of social media,” R for “reliable sources,” I for “immune boosters,” G for “getting active,” H for “healthy anxiety,” T for “thoughts and attention” and “toxins,” M for “memories,” I for “inflammation,” N for “negative thoughts,” D for “dedicating 15 minutes to something new” and S for “sleep.” Cyrus produces the show on her own and didn’t confirm any ad revenue. With each episode, she has slowly added the trappings of a talk show. At one point she turned to Ellen DeGeneres for advice. “I texted Ellen and said, ‘Have you seen my show? Do you think it’s legitimate?’ ” Cyrus says. “She gave me the rundown of everything I didn’t have, including a sidekick and a DJ.” (DeGeneres makes a cameo via FaceTime in episode six, when Cyrus gives her a tour of her DIY set.) Cyrus is quarantining with her four dogs, and she promoted one of them, a Shetland sheepdog named Emu, to sidekick. She also quickly recorded her own opening musical number, which plays over zippy graphics. “A secret of mine is that I write a lot of jingles,” Cyrus says. “That’s how I remember everything.”
Where other celebrities have failed at quaran-tainment (Google “Gal Gadot” and “Blunder Woman” for an idea), Cyrus has been able to carve out a niche for relatable, informative content. “Like everything else, Miley got there early and she knows how to connect with people,” says Grammy-winning producer Mark Ronson, who collaborated with Cyrus on his 2018 song “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart.” “She’s Mensa-level smart and always ahead of the curve.”
I like the rawness of the show. I feel like people are yearning for that type of realism right now. Not something overly produced.
— Selena Gomez
Selena Gomez discovered the show with everyone else. “I happened to catch it one day and loved what she was doing and knew I wanted to be a guest. I liked the rawness of the show,” she says. “I feel like people are yearning for that type of realism right now. Not something overly produced.” Gomez appeared on episode 15 and spoke candidly about being diagnosed as bipolar. She says she wasn’t surprised to see a new side of Cyrus: “Miley has never been afraid to take risks or put herself out there. This new role really seems to suit her, and you can tell she’s really enjoying herself.”
The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon goes through a checklist of Cyrus’s skills: “Can she sing? Check. Can she act? Check. Can she host a talk show? Check. She really can do it all.”
Bright Minded quickly matured into a platform to celebrate medical relief workers, update fans on new government regulations and advocate for public policies like voter registration and climate change. “We’re adding information up until the last minute before I go on because that’s how quickly the news is evolving. I try to be the most reliable source for my followers and fans,” Cyrus says. She also uses Bright Minded to highlight nonprofits she believes in or to announce philanthropic endeavors, like her partnership with Lola to donate feminine hygiene products to emergency shelters in L.A. (Cyrus has long been involved in activism; her Happy Hippie Foundation, launched in 2014, supports homeless youth and the LGBTQ+ community through various programs across the country.)
Though Bright Minded has been on hiatus since April 17, Cyrus is at work planning future episodes. “This show has evolved so deeply from trying to provide some escapism to actually the opposite: to not escaping, to diving into deeper involvement with our community,” says Cyrus, who spoke to WSJ. about her process. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Derek Blasberg: I understand the concept for the show came to you in a therapy session when you realized how lucky you were to have someone to talk to about mental health in a crisis.
Miley Cyrus: That is exactly what happened. Like a lot of people, I started experiencing anxiety, and I began calling my therapist. I know I’m in a unique position, and my experience with this pandemic is not like most everyone else’s in my country and around the world. So to be able to share his services for free and allow people to get this therapy, I thought was really important.
DB: How long have you seen Dr. Amen?
MC: Since I was 17, when I first started experiencing anxiety. You know what, it actually makes a lot of sense: I had a routine doing my show. From the time I was 12, I went to the same studio every single day, drove there with my dad, and I knew what my life would be. I’d get to work at 8:30 a.m., I’d do my three hours of school, put my friggin’ wig on, and mash my mouth around and have my lip syncs and all that. When Hannah Montana ended, I started experiencing anxiety, and I think that’s because I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I’m not using my abilities, my abilities can get me into trouble.
DB: Is Bright Minded your new routine?
MC: Yep. My new routine is a lot like the routine I grew up with. It’s not a new idea that I would have a TV show and connect with people. I was actually [a guest host] on Ellen. I was literally at yoga—I’m not kidding—standing on my head, and my phone rang 150 times. I thought, What could possibly be wrong? I answered, and Ellen said, “I’m not able to make the show today.” I left yoga and went directly to take over for her show. That gave me a little training in understanding how it all works. Actually, the time I did “Miley Week” [on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon] is when we experienced the Las Vegas shooting. We had an idea of what the show was going to be that week—it was going to be me promoting my record—but that didn’t feel right. We completely turned the show to be about policy and voting. We had Hillary Clinton on, and I sang “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” and “No Freedom” with Adam Sandler. We made the week not about promoting the record, because at that point that wasn’t the right thing to do, and it’s not what mattered to me. At times, I use my music and entertainment because that does provide a source of escapism for the people who like pop culture. But that’s not always at the forefront of my priorities.
DB: I grew up idolizing Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer. Who were some of your talk show sheroes?
MC: I live somewhere between Cher and Oprah. I love the Cher show because I love the idea of a variety show, which is why my show incorporates music. I’m joking about Ellen bullying me about having no music on the show. It’s also because [music] is a part of the way that I communicate. That’s why it was so important for me to have so many writers, like Alicia Keys and even [actor] Lili Reinhart, who read a couple of her poems from her new book [Swimming Lessons, out in September].
DB: Were you ever afraid of doing this show?
MC: Yes, because I do not want to be a preacher or a teacher. I want to learn, and I want to listen. I want to just pass the microphone that usually is in my hands to someone who does not [have one]. Local activists fighting for their community don’t have the platforms I have, and I wanted to share that. I’m very, very cautious of ever claiming that I know best, because the one thing I know is that I don’t.
DB: The show ramped up quickly. When did you know you were starting to have an influence? When the media picked it up?
MC: I’m so involved in the show—writing the intro, writing the questions and making sure I know all the information about the guests—I didn’t have a lot of time to look at the way that the press was receiving it. I only knew my community was finding peace in it. Selena Gomez DM’ed me and said, “I love what you’re doing with this platform; I’m so inspired. I’d love to talk about my story and talk about mental health.” Then the folks that I’m talking to now, the everyday activists, started sliding into my DMs and started saying, “Hey, we’d love to talk about Skid Row, and we want to talk about indigenous peoples, and we want to talk about the way that this is affecting the environment.” It was cool to see everyone coming into my direct messages. When my community and peers and local heroes and activists started reaching out to me, I knew I had something special that was actually doing what it was created to do. It was connecting people.
DB: Is it true you book the show entirely through direct messages?
MC: I am the ultimate slide-into-the-DMs! This is the way that I have communicated and actually gotten things done for years. I ended up thinking, “Shit, I might as well send one to Reese Witherspoon. She’s probably not going to answer, but OK.” And then she answered and said she would love to give me a couple minutes. That was awesome. [I did that] with people that I knew and people that I didn’t know.
DB: Has anyone said no?
MC: I get some messages that say “seen” [and no response], which I guess is a no. And then I’ll send a smiley face emoji for like 10 days in a row.
DB: Until they finally respond?
MC: The door is always open! I’m sure some people I was reaching out to felt the same way I do, which is that my experience is so rare, it almost doesn’t feel right to talk about. This isn’t Covid-19, what I’m experiencing. My life has been pushed pause on, but really I have no idea what this pandemic is like. I am comfortable in my space and able to put food on my table and [I am] financially stable, and that’s just not the story for a lot of people. I’m sure a lot of the hesitation for other people saying yes to doing the show is because it almost doesn’t feel right for celebrities to share our experience. Because it just doesn’t compare.
DB: Talk to me about your process for producing the show.
MC: I am very thematic. I love acronyms and jingles because they always cement [a theme]. Today was Friday: F is for Friday but F is for the future, so we talked to some amazing climate change activists. I had a power booking when I had Women’s Wednesday, because I had Reese Witherspoon, Dua Lipa, Bebe Rexha and Hilary Duff. You just don’t understand how much I am a fan of Hilary Duff. I literally became me because I wanted to do whatever Hilary Duff did. So that was really cool. I talked to Reese about female-owned businesses, how it’s really important to support our local mom-and-pops, especially female-founded businesses because women have a harder time getting loans from the bank, so if their businesses fall through, it won’t be as easy to get back on their feet.
DB: Does anyone help you research?
MC: My team at the Happy Hippie Foundation is keeping me up to date and educated. That is a critical part of the show, because there’s a lot of unreliable, misleading information out there, and in BRIGHT MINDS, R is for “reliable sources.” It’s impossible for me to keep myself consistently, completely updated. Good news is a big part of the show as well. Something one of my guests said today is that the more bad there is, the more people will be doing good to counteract it.
DB: Have you ever been nervous about one of the interviews?
MC: Oh, my God! With Elizabeth Warren, I was so nervous I even put on a nice linen blouse. I don’t even own a friggin’ blouse! Everything in my closets is studded or leather or latex, honey. So I’m going through my damn closet, like, What am I going to wear to interview the friggin’ senator? That was my main stress, of course. How am I going to serve political realness? But a lot of the time it’s been important for me to be wearing what everyone else is wearing at home. I’m in my sweatpants and a topknot, just like everyone else. I’ve only washed my hair twice for the show: once for Elton John and once for Senator Warren.
DB: Is there anything you’ve been afraid to ask someone?
MC: This show makes people nervous because it’s not the usual talk show format. It’s intimate, and you don’t have your team when you’re [filming] at home. You don’t have your publicist and your glam and all the things. You’re letting people into your space, and you’re controlling the tech and all that stuff. I am protective of all my guests, no matter how famous or how not. I want people to shine. I want this to be a platform where people walk away going, “Oh, my God, girl, if you ever have a real show, I’ve got to be on your couch.” In this case it’s not literally my couch—they’re on theirs at home—but you want people to go, “Hey, I was really myself [on that show].” For example, Millie Bobby Brown was nervous. I said, “Literally, if we just play with our dogs for 30 minutes, I’ll be happy. This is just about seeing you for the 16-year-old you are, because I’m having a very different experience with this pandemic than a 16-year-old girl at home with her parents.” I wanted her true perspective. If that means playing with your puppy all day and experimenting with makeup, that’s totally cool with me.
DB: I saw you ask Paris Hilton if she could have any superpower, what would it be? I want to ask you the same question.
MC: I’ve got a funny one and then my real one. My funny one is that I would walk into any place and I’d immediately get all the tea [gossip]. A little subtitle would come down to the bottom of my vision, and it would just tell me all the tea that’s going on in every group, and I could just be the nosiest person in the world. That’s why I’ll be a good talk show host, because I’m really just nosy as f—. But for my real superpower, it would be for people to know their own power. I wish I could wave a wand or put a crown on someone who feels like they are not enough, and then they feel that they are. That’s another reason I wanted to start the show. I want to be able to give my sense of power to other people. And, yes, there have been times in my life I wished I could have even done that to myself.
My grandma runs my fan club. She is my biggest fan and she doesn’t have Instagram, so she hasn’t seen the show. I’m going to have to put this on VHS for her.
— Miley Cyrus
DB: After the first few weeks, you took a week off and shifted to “heroes.” Why did you want to reset?
MC: I received so much incredible advice from my guests, and I wanted to be able to use it. I wanted to be able to do the breathing exercises I had been encouraging. I feel like the show in the first week was much more about Covid-19. It was pandemic-based and I talked about pre-Covid-19, what were our flaws and issues. [Coming back,] I wanted to talk about post-Covid-19, what will the issues still be? Because the housing crisis and the financial instability: None of that’s going away. Heather [Carmichael] from My Friend’s Place, a homeless shelter in L.A., said, “A lot of these youths didn’t even know what was going on because their lives aren’t changing much from this. They never know when they’re going to get food, when they’re going to get clean clothing, when they’re going to have a place to call home. Not that much has changed in their lives.” Many of these issues are being highlighted because of Covid-19, but they existed before and they’re going to continue to exist and get worse.
DB: You had a good line in one of the shows that said you don’t want to go back to the way things used to be; you want things to be better going forward.
MC: I loved what Shirley [Raines] from Beauty 2 The Streetz said: “Hopes and wishes are for birthday cakes and shooting stars, but that doesn’t get the job done.”
DB: What room do you film in?
MC: This room in my house was my glam room but I rarely glammed. You know me: I’d put stickers on my face and call it a day. But I turned this room into an actual set. That was fun because I used a lot of materials I have. Not everyone has LED strips lying around, and that’s because I make things for my shows at home. I am always doing art. I love expressing myself with my own creations, so I created this set with materials I had, and I was also encouraging people to do the same thing at home. You know, take old scarves and create a garland. Even if you just rearrange a room with the same stuff you already have. It’s so easy to feel stagnant every day by being in the same place, so by rearranging the things you already have, you give it new life.
DB: Do you film in there completely alone?
MC: I’m in there alone, and I wish I had a fly-on-the-wall camera of me doing everything. I bet it’s hilarious.
DB: You’re not just the star of this show, you’re also the booker, producer and cameraperson.
MC: I actually have a producer’s jacket. It’s a puffer coat that makes me feel like I’m in production. When I’m setting up my tripod and lighting and I’m on the phone getting all my updates, it’s a much different vibe. Then it’s like 3, 2, 1, and you’re on. It’s fun playing everyone on the show: I’m supplying all the catering, props, and I’m also doing hair and makeup and sound editing.
DB: I know your house in Malibu burned down in the 2018 fires. Where are you now?
MC: I’m in Calabasas. I’m creeping closer and closer to my mom’s house. Every time I move I get a little closer, hoping she will take me back.
DB: Is this the longest you’ve gone without seeing your family?
MC: Yes. And my mom’s mom is still with us. I’m so lucky, and we want to keep it that way, so we haven’t been able to see her. My grandma runs my fan club. She is my biggest fan and she doesn’t have Instagram, so she hasn’t seen the show. I’m going to have to put this on VHS for her. But she’s my everything. She lives in senior living, so we are not able to go visit her. It’s the longest I’ve gone without seeing my mom or my grandma.
DB: How are you coping being away from your family?
MC: My mom [manager Tish Cyrus] and I pretty much FaceTime from the minute I’m awake until I’m asleep. I love that she has nothing to do; so she has to just sit with me every moment, which is like the good old days! My dad [singer, songwriter and actor Billy Ray Cyrus] had two BlackBerrys: He said two BlackBerrys equal an iPhone, which is not true. So we mailed my dad an iPhone that was already set up that only has one button, which is FaceTime, on the homescreen.
DB: You told Jimmy Fallon you don’t do anything halfway, so when you decided to do this, you went all the way. Do you want to be a full-time TV host one day?
MC: I love connecting with people. There’s something about when you listen to someone else’s stories that you realize all these pieces of yourself, too. I think that’s what I’ve missed in my life, those relationships. I also love entertainment and encouraging people to celebrate their uniqueness. A lot of what I’ve represented in my entire career is individuality and gender identity and sexual identity. So yeah, I would love to create a platform where individuality is highlighted and a place for good news and light and activism and optimism and highlighting the folks doing really big work who don’t always get the attention that is deserved. I think there’s a world where I could do it all and have it all.
DB: Are you working on music, too?
MC: Yeah, I kind of finished my record and I was ready to go to all these festivals, but it’s hard to feel appropriate releasing music at this time. But I made a record that’s kind of rock influenced, hence my mullet. This was not just a random Wednesday Tiger King haircut. This was to go with the new music, but now I’m rolling through Calabasas with a Joe Exotic mullet.
DB: What’s the first thing you want to do when you get out of quarantine?
MC: The first thing I want to do is definitely hug my mom and dad when I get the green light that it’s safe. Right now, my mom won’t get anywhere near me.
DB: Thanks for chatting, Miley.
MC: This is perfect timing. My dog just totally threw up all over the floor, so now I have to go and clean that up. This is my life now.