Miley Cyrus's Performance at Teen Choice Awards Has Viewers Wondering

Miley Cyrus's performance at the Teen Choice Awards had viewers wondering if it indeed constituted a pole dance.
Miley Cyrus's performance at the Teen Choice Awards had viewers wondering if it indeed constituted a pole dance. (By Chris Pizzello -- Associated Press)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009

Was it or wasn't it?

All through the week, the Internets -- the mommy bloggers, the celeb stalkers, the generally righteously indignant -- were studiously debating whether Miley Cyrus's performance at the Teen Choice Awards, which aired on Monday, could be described as a pole dance.

A brief recap: Midway through the actress-singer's choreographed routine, two stagehands lugged out an ice cream cart with a pole on the top. Miley, 16, jumped on and grabbed the pole, squatted to her haunches, stood up, was wheeled across the stage while holding the pole, jumped off. Some say the pole was there for balance, some say the pole was there to corrupt your children.

Whole thing took maybe 30 seconds, so the hubbub surrounding it (if Miley was pole-dancing, are all of the pole-holding Metro commuters doing it, too?) leads one to conclude something: It's not about the pole.

It's about how awkward it can be for teen and tween stars, especially the freshly scrubbed ones, to transition to adulthood.

The cycle has played itself out again and again: There was Britney Spears going from schoolgirl pigtails to flesh-toned bodysuit at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, an act that made co-host Marlon Wayans exclaim "Girl done went from 'The Mickey Mouse Club' to the strip club!" There was Christina Aguilera, purringly instructing listeners to "rub me the right way," just a few years after hanging up her own mouse ears. There was Vanessa Hudgens in lingerie, causing parents everywhere to have awkward teachable moments with their pint-size "High School Musical" fans. And there was, yes, Miley's first shocker: Last year's arty/creepy Vanity Fair spread, in which the star of wholesome "Hannah Montana" wore nothing but a bedsheet.

It's not a new problem -- Shirley Temple's audience cringed when she had her first on-screen kiss. It's not just the Disney problem, either, but the company's squeaky clean brand of kid-centered entertainment can make the abrupt appearance of adulthood seem especially shocking.

"We like our stars the way we first fell in love with them," says Michael Levine, a Hollywood publicist who has represented stars from Sandra Bullock to Demi Moore. "When they grow up we don't know how to interact with them. It's like the five stages of grief. You deny it: No! They're not really growing up! You get angry. You bargain: Well, what if we just let them grow up a little bit. Eventually you accept."

Or you don't. For every child star who has forged a smooth path to adulthood -- Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields -- there's another who has taken the Lindsay Lohan path, which leads Directly to Video.

Miley's booty-shorted performance on Monday might have had some parents cringing, but it also might have been a survival tactic. "Seventeen magazine isn't read by 17-year-olds, it's read by 11-year-olds who want to be 17," says Joal Ryan, author of "Former Child Stars: The Story of America's Least Wanted," who adds, "And 17-year-olds want to be 25."

The conundrum: When the tweens who now worship Hannah Montana age a year or two, they won't want to be reminded that they once worshiped Hannah Montana. Miley, just like Britney or Debbie Gibson before her, will become an embarrassing relic of her fans' childhood. "It behooves you to have an older audience," says Ryan, one whose tastes have already matured. Often, the child stars who thrive are the ones whose careers have paradoxically never depended on a kid audience. Nobody would say "E.T." was just a kids' movie, but Drew Barrymore seems to have done okay.

Gaining an older audience, though, can mean booty shorts. It can mean posing on the cover of not Seventeen but Glamour, as Miley recently did. It means leaving the chaste constellation of other tween idols like Taylor Swift and Ashley Tisdale, and competing against adult performers with adult sensibilities, like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.

Ryan points out that most successful ex-child stars reach their adult fame only after going through some kind of physical or reputational metamorphosis. "Even Michael Jackson," Ryan says. "He went through a whole period of wilderness. He was little and cute in Jackson 5, but had to come out the other side of [his teen years] with a completely different persona" by the time "Off the Wall" was released.

The smartest stars have eschewed the issue altogether by stepping away from the spotlight to finish growing up privately. Foster took an acting hiatus to go to Yale; Shields went to Princeton. "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson, 19, seems to be trying that tactic -- just as the leering fanboys began to beg for topless pics, she announced that she'd be absconding to Brown University. She'll be a freshman there this fall.

As for Miley, she's committed to a fourth season of "Hannah Montana," and is in the middle of filming "The Last Song," co-starring Greg Kinnear.

It looks like a wholesome family affair.

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