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Photography by Sue Kwon
Miley Cyrus can't cross the street without causing a controversy, but at 22 years old, the megastar tells Out she's finally figured out how to enjoy having it all. "I've experienced fame, and money, and all that shit--and none of it will make you as happy as when you're actually fighting for something."
Last year, she sent a young man named Jesse on stage to accept an MTV award on her behalf. He, in turn, took the Moon Man in honor of "the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving, lost and scared for their lives right now" and pointed viewers to Miley's Facebook to donate money to My Friend's Place, the Los Angeles organization that had introduced Miley to Jesse earlier that week. They raised more than $200,000 in 24 hours.
It was a dramatic and unexpectedly complicated effort to bring attention to a worthy cause--and when the exposure brought Jesse legal troubles in the form of an old, outstanding warrant, Miley stood by him, tweeting: "People who are homeless have lived very hard lives. Jesse included." She also promised her 47 million Facebook fans that this commitment to fighting homelessness among youth, especially among LGBT teens, was "just the beginning for me."
"All these things that I do get all this attention," she tells Out. "But then what do I do once I have everyone's attention?"
Miley Cyrus, Laura Jane Grace & Joan Jett
Not content with single-night stunts, today she's officially launching the Happy Hippie Foundation, a non-profit that "rallies young people to fight injustice," with a series of exclusive "Backyard Sessions" shot at her own house, including performances with Ariana Grande, Laura Jane Grace (the singer of punk band Against Me), Joan Jett and Melanie Sefka. Facebook videos of the songs will prompt viewers to donate, and the funds will be used to help create digital support groups for vulnerable kids and their families--an attempt to help prevent some of the 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBT from being rejected and running away in the first place. "I'm fighting for people I don't know," she says, "but it's also a fight for people I do know, and people I'm close to and love."
Miley says she already spent a lot of time struggling with traditional gender expectations--and being resentful that she was a girl. "I didn't want to be a boy," she clarifies. "I kind of wanted to be nothing. I don't relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that's what I had to understand: Being a girl isn't what I hate, it's the box that I get put into."
She's been in the public spotlight since Hannah Montana, but the process of outgrowing her sweet Disney star image went deeper than just surface-level shock value. "As you get older," she says, "you start to realize what's happening around you. You realize, this isn't the world I want to be living in. And you say, what do I really want my life to be about?" She wanted to focus on homelessness, she says, "Because it's something that we all see every single day. It's like the birds chirping--we just ignore it because we're so used to it. You're looking down at your phone, but you never look at someone who's sitting there and needs help."
In recent months, she's also taken increasingly vocal stands against homophobia, calling out Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on her Instagram. ("You're an asshole," she wrote, explaining to her 19 million followers there how the state's claim of "religious freedom" made no sense.) "He didn't realize he would have the backlash, because he didn't realize that everyone had so many gay friends," she says. "It was like, what the fuck? What is that? That's not a culture that I really understand." Then she told her fans to call Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to protest a similar law. "Let's stir some shit up!"
After Bruce Jenner's 20/20 interview, she helped raise the profile of longtime community organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality by retweeting their commentary. And, she says, she's been haunted by the murders of transgender women and the suicide of trans teenager Leelah Alcorn. "The media moves too fast," she says. "I didn't want another story like that to be a little blurb that people hear about and then it just goes away."
With Happy Hippie, she can help direct some of the never-ending attention on her every minor move toward the causes she cares most about--in the same meme-driven language her fans already speak. Lately she's been posting pictures of celebs appearing to model Happy Hippie-branded sweatshirts--which are actually brazen, if crude, Photoshop jobs. "Is Kanye-fucking-West gonna come after me?" she wonders. "I'm using all these people as my models for it--but they can't yell at me, it's for my foundation! I'm shameless when it comes to the foundation. I'll do anything."