Miley Cyrus has done well for herself. She’s a successful singer and actress who is a dedicated humanitarian and animal lover. She has a lot of love in her life, and she cares about the planet and our country. She’s good. But 10 years ago, the then-Hannah Montana star, just 15 at the time, was embroiled in a mega-scandal — over a photo in which she was shirtless but fully covered — and the whole thing threatened her career.
While Miley has gone on to spark some other controversies — whether it was the twerking at the 2013 VMAs or salvia-gate in 2010 — a decade ago she was a 15-year-old Disney Channel star ready to try new things. One of those things was an “artistic” photo shoot with famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair in April 2008. The concept behind the shoot included a set of photos where Cyrus took off her shirt and posed with a sheet covering her. It was nothing out of the ordinary for Leibovitz, but the reaction to the final product was.
You can’t blame social media for the reaction — the scandal was blog and media driven in that era. The young singer-actress, who was making a lot of headlines as she navigated the transition from child star to adult star (OMG — she showed her bra!), was taken to task for the “seminude” and “provocative” photo.
Parents complained about the overexposure of the so-called role model — “Bonfire anyone?” wrote one mom blogger captioning a photo of Hannah Montana merchandise — and the Disney Channel, which had a lot invested in the billion-dollar franchise (yes, a billion dollars), reacted by blasting Vanity Fair for creating a situation “to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines.”
Leibovitz stood her ground, saying, “The Miley picture was a beautiful, strong, simple picture. I think it’s actually sort of innocent on some level. She loved taking that picture, and she was ready to take that picture. It’s just that her audience wasn’t ready. I think that if there was any mistake made, it’s probably that she shouldn’t have posed for Vanity Fair.”
The magazine stood its ground too. “Miley’s parents and/or minders were on the set all day,” a spokesman said at the time. “Since the photo was taken digitally, they saw it on the shoot, and everyone thought it was a beautiful and natural portrait of Miley.” The mag also noted that Cyrus herself was happy with the photos. “Annie took, like, a beautiful shot, and I thought it was really cool,” they quoted Miley as saying. “That’s what she wanted me to do, and you can’t say no to Annie.” She added, “I think it’s really artsy. It wasn’t in a skanky way.”
But saying it wasn’t skanky didn’t work for the Mickey Mouse company. Cyrus soon had to apologize — and she blamed Leibovitz. “I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic,’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed,” she said. “I never intended for any of this to happen, and I apologize to my fans, who I care so deeply about.”
Even her dad, country superstar Billy Ray Cyrus, who was also her Hannah Montana co-star and participated in the Vanity Fair shoot with her, spoke out against the photo. “It felt like everything was in control,” he said on the Today show at the time. “Her publicist was there … I didn’t know they were going to strip her down and wrap her with a blanket.” As for the fact that he was actually there during the shoot, he insisted he was only there briefly, saying he took one photo with Miley before heading to another obligation.
The world wasn’t as social media obsessed back then — it was all blogs, all the time — but Cyrus did receive support from other stars. For instance, Rosie O’Donnell weighed in on her website, writing, “Leave Miley Cyrus alone. Disney is making her apologize. Ay yi yi.” She shared her experience working with the photographer. “Listen, Annie Leibovitz — I had two photo shoots with her. You kind of do what she says. It’s intimidating. I also didn’t think it was a pornographic photo in any capacity. I thought it was sort of a beautiful portrait. I like the one of her and her dad, too. I don’t know. It’s Annie Leibovitz, people.”
A huge deal was made of the photo in the press. The New York Post literally shamed Miley. (The front page said, “Miley’s Shame.”) And it was covered in the New York Times, which wrote that Miley was “[f]ifteen years old and suggestively wrapped in what appears to be a satin bedsheet.” People magazine ran a poll that had more than 70,000 respondents, with 77 percent of them labeling the photos “inappropriate for a 15-year-old.”
The then-president of entertainment for Disney Channels Worldwide, Gary Marsh, made it clear that Miley would have to change her ways, telling Portfolio magazine, “For Miley Cyrus to be a ‘good girl’ is now a business decision for her. Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won’t get it back.”
Miley continued to do her thing — and every wrong turn was met with a big reaction. Until she hung up her Hannah Montana microphone for good in 2011, parents groups continued to criticized her for becoming “the epitome of the anti-role model for young girls.” And even after the show ended, when she did something provocative — and she was good at that, including at the VMAs — there was always criticism that she was hurting the Disney brand.
Now 25 and a lot more settled down in life (including an on-again engagement with Liam Hemsworth), Miley Cyrus is able to be herself more, meaning no forced apologies. Though she’s still down with a racy photo shoot.