When Miley Cyrus stepped on the South African set of Black Mirror, there to film a just-released episode of the Netflix anthology's fifth season, it was supposed to be the start of a new chapter.
Filming the episode, entitled "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," marked a return to the medium that made her a star—television—for the first time since 2016's ill-fated Woody Allen-Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes. The role of pop star Ashley O. was an opportunity for the onetime Disney Channel queen to comment on the story of females in the music industry—her story, really—in a piece that was written almost expressly for her.
Little did she know that some 10,000 miles away, on the shores of Malibu, Calif., a natural disaster was ravaging the place she called home, changing life for the superstar as she knew it. It was November 2018 and the Woolsey fire was ripping its way through the SoCal hillside, leaving Cyrus to sit powerless a world away as her partner Liam Hemsworth evacuated their animals and little else before the wildfire consumed their haven with little regard, just as it had done to thousands of homes in the area.
"The day I heard we lost our home, my scene was set at my house in Malibu," Miley wrote in a personal memo to the world, published by Vanity Fair in February. "My character was having a meltdown panic attack, so needless to say the inspiration was there."
As she explained, the tragedy helped her deliver a performance that she's satisfied with—a rarity in her career. "Anne Sewitzky, my director, and I became very close, since going through all of this so far from home, she was really the only mother figure I had," Miley continued. "Experiencing that together and in the realness of it all, we created something I think is magical. It's hard for me to be proud of my work, I rarely walk away satisfied but I'm very proud of what we made. It really tells my story in some dark and funny way as that show does, and as life is."
But also, in that agonizing instant, the once-simple plan she'd had for 2018—hide out in the home that inspired her 2017 hit "Malibu," work on an album to follow-up that year's disappointing Younger Now, live her life—was rendered impossible. And before she could formulate a new one, she had to process just how having the rug pulled out from underneath her made her fee.
"I got the journal that was next to me and just started writing out what I was feeling," she told Vanity Fair in a separate interview in February, recalling her actions on that fateful night. "Some of the feelings did not add up with the others. Some of them were super-angry; some of them were relieved in a way, which feels really f--king weird. It feels like there were weights tied to my ankles and I was in the ocean, and someone just cut those ties, and I was able to float and be free ‘cause I didn't have all this s--t attached to me. Anger, relief, sadness. A feeling of: I'm never going to get over it, this is never going to end. But, we heal up and our brain gets used to imagining a worst-case scenario happening over and over again."
Gone was all her art—"A lot of which I made on my own, and by others, including personal letters and drawings from Heath Ledger, John Kricfalusi, Joan Jett, Murakami, David LaChapelle, and so many others that I respect," she wrote—and her music from 2013's Bangerz on, stored on laptops, hard drives, and scraps of handwritten paper, as well. In their place? A deep sorrow and an even deeper bond.
"Going through a natural disaster, the grief you experience is really unlike any other loss. No more, just different. In our position it feels or looks like everything is replaceable and you can start again, but you can't buy spirit," she wrote, adding, "Liam and I have also found a new bond underneath all that rubble."
As she explained in her interview, there was one unexpected benefit—if you can even call it that without seeming too perverse—to losing all of one's earthly possessions. "I'll never be happy that all those memories and pictures and things that I've loved are gone," Miley said. "But to have an experience like this—I find myself feeling more connected to being human again."
And it was through that devastation that Miley and Liam finally decided to go through with their long-delayed wedding, something they weren't sure they ever needed to do, in a private ceremony on December 23 at their home in Nashville, Tenn., where they'd been living since losing the Malibu property.
"When you experience what we experienced together with someone, it is like glue," she said. "You're the only two people in the world who can understand."
Elaborating further in her memo, she revealed that her relationship with Liam had become her "home," leaving her feeling "less misplaced when we are in the same room, no matter where that is."
"What Liam and I went through together changed us," she continued. "I'm not sure without losing Malibu, we would've been ready to take this step or ever even gotten married, who can say? But the timing felt right and I go with my heart. No one is promised the next day, or the next, so I try to be 'in the now' as much as possible."
While it all pales in comparison to the daunting task of rebuilding your life in the face of such unique devastation, Miley's also found herself in a career-rebuilding year of sorts as well. Her last swing at chart dominance, Younger Now, left her licking her wounds when the country-inflected pop album landed with a resounding thud, selling only 45,000 album-equivalent units (a newfangled metric that counts streaming and song downloads, as well as traditional album sales) in its first week—her lowest ever.
The album, a sharp reversal from the smash-hit hip-hop-influenced Bangerz (and the experimental psychedelic Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, given away for free on Soundcloud in 2015 and best left forgotten), saw Miley do something she'd never done for an album thus far in her career: write all the music and lyrics herself.
"I wasn't smoking weed and I wasn't partying and I had gone sober for a year," she told VF. "And I feel like that was challenging the system as much as anything else I've ever done—to have a female pop writer that says, 'All right, I'm only going to write all my own songs. I don't want to share lyrics with anyone else. I just want to write what I feel.'"
Her decision to abandon the sound of Bangerz—and her subsequent comments while promoting Younger Now, disavowing the hip-hop community while proclaiming that this newer, undeniably more conservative sound was the "real" her—left her open to renewed criticism that she'd appropriated culture that didn't belong to her when it was commercially convenient without fully realizing or respecting where it came from.
As she told Vanity Fair, in the years since, she's tried to have more of an awareness of her privilege as it compares to the people, like Mike Will Made It (who produced the lion's share of Bangerz and returned to work with Miley on her just-released EP) or Pharrell Williams (another Bangerz collaborator).
"I think we're so influenced by the people that we're around," she said. "And my community when I was working on Bangerz—Future actually wrote on ‘Love Money Party.' Those are the people in my life that I was really around and in the studio with. Future is fucking amazing and has a lot of wisdom, too. Just listening to him and Mike Will, who was going to call his first record Made It from the Basement—the way they grew up was obviously so different from the way I grew up. My dad was already in the industry. I grew up on a f--king tour bus. They are 100 percent self-made. That's really inspiring to be around. And that made me want to be more self-made."
While she's begun to grow up in the face of everything she's experienced in the last year, she's also had to go about finding "[Younger Now] was obviously a little bit more country influenced, but I still really love pop music and I love music that can be played at the club," she admitted on New York's 103.5 KTU in December. "I felt like that wasn't exactly the home for me, and I think that Mark helped me carve out my sound, where I could do everything that I want, which is more modern."
The Mark she's speaking of is Mark Ronson, whom she teamed up for the track "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart," the lead single on the powerhouse producer's forthcoming album Late Night Feelings, and who also worked on her new solo endeavor, as well. As for the sound, she explained to Vanity Fair, "There's psychedelic elements, there's pop elements, there's more hip-hop-leaning records. You know, in the same way I like to kind of just be genderless, I like feeling genre-less." The new album, she promised, would be "just kind of a mosaic of all the things that I've been before."
The first taste of this new sound arrived on May 31, when she released She Is Coming, the first of three EPs that will eventually come together as her seventh studio album, to be called She Is: Miley Cyrus. As her rep told Rolling Stone upon the EPs release, "each drop is a different chapter to a trilogy," with the second, She Is Here, slated for a summer release, and She Is Everything set for sometime in the fall or winter.
Of course, the question of just who Miley Cyrus is remains on the lips of many. And perhaps by the time the full trilogy is released, those wondering will have a fuller picture of the person she's become in this last year of strife.
In this new era, we've seen a bit of the political warrior jump out, as she responded to the shocking groping from a fan in Barcelona by reminding everyone that she can dress however she chooses and still not be "asking for it." She's partnered with Planned Parenthood and Marc Jacobs to combat Alabama's restrictive HB314 abortion law—although that collaboration has come under fire for IP theft in recent days. And she's spoken up about the gender imbalance in the recording industry, telling VF, "Every producer I'm working with on this new record is male. There's not a lot of female producer options for me. But it's fun to be the female in the room that has the most say." (We've also seen a bit of the old Miley peek back out as well, with the lyrics in "Cattitude" seeing her seemingly insert herself into the Nicki Minaj-Cardi B rap beef—something she's tried to backpedal, not entirely successfully.)
Since stepping into adulthood, Miley's career has been something of a study in contradictions—and she's OK with it. For her, it means that she's living in the moment, warts and all. "The way I feel can be so drastic moment to moment, perspective is everything," she wrote. "Time and Place. Here and Now. The now changes it all. In a second everything can change. It can be scary when you're not the one in the driver seat—inevitably sometimes we lose control. The key for me staying healthy and happy is by being the pilot and not a backseat driver. Thinking for myself. Sometimes that gets chalked up to an 'I don't give a f--k attitude, but that isn't my narrative. I do give a f--k. A lot of them, actually. Sometimes too many. I'm free and fluid with my speech, so by being this honest, I contradict myself sometimes, but like I said in that moment, that is my fullest truth.
"I want to live a long life full of love, music, and adventure," she continued. "I believe balance will get me there. Balance and moderation. (Which sometimes is like a foreign language to me.) But I am practicing. In that practice will come mistakes but it'll shape me and I can't wait to see who it makes me. Like Bowie said, I promise it won't be boring."
When Miley's just being Miley, how could it possibly ever be?