Miley Cyrus's status at the record label of her biggest pop successes was "unclear." Her partnership with her longtime manager was over. Her "edgy" indie film was dumped in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter described her as a "once-budding superstar."
That was one year ago.
Cyrus was 19, past her big-money days on the "Hannah Montana" circuit and this close to living our cruelest, if not oldest pop-culture narrative: Child star grows up, career flames out.
But it didn't happen.
Today, at 20, Cyrus is a lightning-rod music act. Her new album, "Bangerz," sits atop the charts. Her October 5 "Saturday Night Live" appearance drew millions. Her 2014 tour — rumored, expected, but not-yet announced — will be "huge," an industry observer says.
What happened? Who made it happen? How did Cyrus step back from the cliff?
Answers that simply rhyme with "working," "lurking" or "2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance" are not allowed.
In the beginning, eons before "Hannah Montana" there was "Lizzie McGuire." Premiering in 2001, the Disney Channel sitcom became the network's most popular show, and made a breakout star of Hilary Duff, who was arguably the Magic Kingdom's biggest multimedia act since Annette Funicello and the golden age of the Mouseketeers.
Like Funicello, Duff acted, sang, and moved merchandise. ("Mickey Mouse Club" stars such as Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears did all eventually that, too, but during their stints club stars when individually they remained relative unknowns.) Her 2003 album, "Metamorphosis," released by the Disney-run label Hollywood Records, was a triple-platinum-selling, No. 1 hit. Its success was "kind of like the blueprint" for the modern Disney star, Duff's manager, Andre Recke, told MySpace.com in an oral history of the project; it reminded the House of Funicello how to, "develop talent on the channel and cross them over to the label side and build up these big careers and franchises."
The success landed Duff on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list, a measure of wealth and influence. "The pop star-actress-tween merchandise mogul has replaced the Olsen Twins as your teenage daughter's favorite," the money magazine declared in 2007.
Success breeds the desire for more success, but in Hollywood, that's generally a desire for exactly the same kind of success. "There'd be no Adele without Amy Winehouse. ... Each label had to have an Amy Winehouse. ... That happens," says Ian Drew, entertainment director for Us Weekly. "Obviously, with 'Lizzie McGuire,' Disney wanted 'Hannah Montana.'"
"Hannah Montana" began production in 2005, one year after "Lizzie McGuire" aired its last new episode, and debuted in 2006. In her Hannah Montana star wig, Cyrus, the daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus even looked like the blond, straight-haired Duff. The show would be the next stage of Miley's perky TV character and her real-world, album-selling prowess, creating a story about a regular girl by day who secretly becomes a pop star by night.
By 2007, Cyrus joined Duff on Forbes's accounting of the top-earning stars age 25 and younger. She made the cut on the strength of a reputedly $3.5 million year that was chalked up to her earnings from her TV show and her two No. 1 albums, "Hannah Montana" and "Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus."
A year later, Duff's fourth studio album, "Dignity," sold a fraction of what "Metamorphosis" had, and her best-of album didn't chart well at all. The Disney Channel's first princess dropped off the Forbes Celebrity 100 list. "She's never really made the transition from Disney star to sexy lady," Jennifer Cady wrote for E! Online in 2008. "It's the only way to stick around in this town."
Meanwhile, the 15-year-old Cyrus got a head start on aging up her persona with a provocative Annie Leibowitz shoot for Vanity Fair that scandalized media pundits, and her career was soaring. According to Forbes, she'd grossed $25 million from mid-2007 to mid-2008, largely due to her cut of the "Hannah Montana"-spawned "Best of Both Worlds" tour.
If it can be argued that there would be no "Hannah Montana" without "Lizzie McGuire," and no Cyrus without Duff, then it can be argued that there would be no Cyrus spectacle at the VMAs without Duff's fall. Consider the example that Duff set: She didn't go the hot-button route, and these days while she may be working, she's a long way from headlining.
"I wish we didn't have to be nude to be noticed," feminist icon and activist Gloria Steinem recently told "omg! Insider." "But that's the way the culture is."
Cyrus would not say that she's following the Duff model, or, conversely, blowing up the Duff model. (Neither would Us Weekly's Drew, by the way. "She's doing a Rihanna impersonation," he says of her "Bangerz" incarnation. "The whole act is what we've seen from Rihanna.")
"[Hilary] went down the same path that I'm about to begin," Cyrus said in 2006 as "Hannah Montana" was launching. "[But] right now I want to be my own person."
There were always distinctions between the Duff and Cyrus storylines. If it wasn't the Vanity Fair pictures, it was the bong scandal on Cyrus's end; for Duff, there was a break for a wedding and a baby.
But even as a career-minded Cyrus tried to avoid becoming a "former Disney starlet," the fate was difficult to steer clear of. In 2009, when Cyrus was just 16, Forbes noted that "competition [was] mounting" for her tween-queen crown. As if to keep competitors at bay, Cyrus pole danced at that summer's Teen Choice Awards. But still it wasn't enough.
"Miley is worth a billion, but she's not making a billion on TV," the New York Post quoted an unnamed industry source as saying in 2010. "But her franchise is worth a billion."
The same article pegged Cyrus's "Hannah Montana" salary at $15,000 an episode, a bargain compared with millennial peer Angus T. Jones's then-$250,000-an-episode paycheck for "Two and a Half Men."
Cyrus was soon to turn in her Disney TV badge. She taped her final "Hannah Montana" episode in May 2010. (The series left the airwaves in January 2011.) She had officially become a former child star, even though, at age 17, she was still a child.
From there, her storyline hit predictable signposts: Her 2010 album, "Can't Be Tamed," failed to reach No. 1 and fell short of record platinum- and gold-level sales. Her 2011 tour took a detour around her home. ("I just think right now America has gotten to a place where I don't know if they want me to tour or not," Cyrus told the Associated Press at the time.) And then the rest: the box-office failure of "LOL," the split with manager Jason Morey (for "unclear" reasons, The Hollywood Reporter noted in an article that read like a career obit), the end of her run at Disney's Hollywood Records..., and so it went.
"Miley was really at a crossroads," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert-industry trade publication Pollstar.
Then, in August 2012, Cyrus cut her hair, and cut it short. She bleached it blond, too.
To some, the fashion move harked back to Spears' shaved-head meltdown of 2007. But Cyrus defended the look, and stuck with it. That summer, a close-cropped Cyrus told Billboard that she was working on a "sick record." Acts, of course, are always working on records, whether those records get the push of a major label or produce hits is another story. There was no reason at that point to expect that Cyrus would regain her pop-star mojo anymore than Duff or the Jonas Brothers had. In retrospect, however, there perhaps should've been an expectation that Cyrus's haircut wasn't just a haircut.
"Long hair represents femininity and vulnerability and sex. It's princesses and mermaids and porn stars," Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote of Cyrus for Salon in 2012. "Short hair, on the other hand, says, 'If you think I’m gorgeous, great, but this isn’t about you, pal.'"
And, indeed, Cyrus's next career moves wouldn't be for everyone.
The Svengali (or Not)
In March, Cyrus signed with Larry Rudolph, the manager who had been with Spears when she bared her midriff in a school-girl outfit in "...Baby One More Time," when she locked lips with Madonna, and when she did a million-billion other things to keep her brand relevant (not including her aforementioned shaved-head-meltdown period, for which Rudolph wasn't present). Three months later, Cyrus was twerking her way into the headlines at a club date with rapper/producer Juicy J, and dropping the drug-referencing "We Can't Stop" single. And two months after that, in August, she was twerking to 300,000 tweets a minute at her already-legendary VMAs performance with Robin Thicke and a den of dancing teddy bears. All media hell broke loose. And then Cyrus appeared naked but for strategic arm positions in her "Wrecking Ball" video, and all media hell broke loose some more.
"Is Miley Cyrus' Manager Behind Her Sexed Up Transformation?" one of the more composed headlines asked.
The Svengali story is old as the Svengali story (from the 1895 novel "Trilby," to be exact). But did it really apply to Cyrus? The tongue that got so much attention at the VMAs had been greeting the paparazzi since back in her "Hannah Montana" days. The haircut that signaled a change was coming had been contemplated for years. ("One day I'm going to cut my hair like that," Cyrus told "Good Morning America" reporter Marysol Castro in 2008 as she showed off a picture of 1960s supermodel Twiggy. "I know I am. I will one day." Castro gasped.) The twerking of 2013 was the pole dancing of 2009.
"I think she has a pretty strong sense of self, and I think she's following her own playbook," says PR guru Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com.
Heather Wood Rudúlph, journalist and coauthor of "Sexy Feminism: A Girl's Guide to Love, Success and Style" says she sees no "evil Svengali at work."
"Are there producers, video directors and predatory photographers...who encourage, say, nudity and tongue porn? Of course there are..." Rudúlph said in an email. "– But I get the sense she is completely aware of what she's doing. She gets to take the credit or take the hit for what this little phase brings about."
Cyrus perhaps would argue that last point herself.
"If people could see the details, they would know this isn't just some mess," Cyrus said in the recent MTV documentary, "Miley: The Movement." "This is all thought out in my mind."
The documentary's executive producers were Rudolph, the other members of Cyrus' management team – including Cyrus' mother Tish Cyrus—and Cyrus herself.
What If Miley Cyrus Was Behind Miley Cyrus?
Three or so months ago, even with the hype building and the twerking picking up YouTube hits, Bongiovanni says there was no guarantee we'd be discussing Cyrus as a music act.
"The proof was when the record came out at No. 1," he says.
He expects "Bangerz" tour dates to be announced shortly, and he forecasts big sales: "I would expect it's going to be huge," he says.
For Cyrus to regain her status as a top power player, the tour will have to be big, says Forbes writer-editor Dorothy Pomerantz, who oversees the Celebrity 100. "If the tour doesn't materialize I don't see her getting [back] on the list," Pomerantz says. "...She's in a tough category. She has to have a tour. She doesn't have a lot of money coming in." (Not being on the Celebrity 100 is nowhere near the same as being poor; Cyrus' net worth has recently been estimated at $120 million-$150 million.)
So, Cyrus has a new challenge. In November, she'll be 21 going on Madonna. And she's been that way since she was at least 15.
"Madonna always reinvents herself," she said at the time," and that's what I want to do."