When Noah Cyrus first started seeing paparazzi pictures of herself in the tabloids, she was 11 years old. It was 2011, and her pop star sister and former Hannah Montana star Miley was among the top five most Googled celebrities in the world, her father Billy Ray Cyrus was one of America’s most famous country stars. By the age of 13 she was reading weekly headlines about her physical appearance; by 17 she was diagnosed with clinical depression and body dysmorphia.
“It was so stressful seeing pictures of myself online, of reading stuff about myself on the internet that I simply assumed must be true,” says now-20-year-old Cyrus, sitting at the dressing table of a south London studio having just shot the video to her new song, I Got So High I Saw Jesus – the single to her forthcoming EP.
She taps lethally sharp, manicured fingers dotted with tiny tattoos of moon crescents, stars and broken hearts across the nearby table as her saucer-wide eyes fringed with inch-long fake eyelashes flinch shut at the memory. “One picture even became a meme. People don’t realise their words carry so much weight. I am working so hard every single day just to undo the damage.”
Despite growing up riding horses with her father in their hometown of Franklin, South of Nashville, Tennessee, with plans to compete professionally, Cyrus moved to Los Angeles and eventually began kneading some of the traumas of non-consensual fame into song. Like Miley, she was born with a big voice, and Billy Ray taught them both how to sing. “I remember the first song he ever taught me was Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. We sang it together. It’s a really depressing song: I guess that’s what started my ‘sad’ songwriting,” she chuckles.
But if the success of Billie Eilish has taught us anything, it’s that sad bangers make money. Cyrus’s first single – a languorous break-up ballad Make Me Cry, draped over trippy synths and a hypnotic raindrop motif – was released in 2016. Featuring UK musician Labrinth and lushly exposing Cyrus’s gutsy, husky, country-twanging vocals, (close to Miley’s in tone until you hear Noah’s treacle sweetly around the edges), it zoomed to the top of Spotify’s Global Viral chart within hours, and earned her a six-figure record deal. By 2017 she was opening for Katy Perry’s world tour, and in 2018 she released an EP of eerily catchy songs frankly dissecting her fragile mental health, Good Cry.
“I remember hearing Make Me Cry on the radio when I was getting food from a burger drive through in my hometown, and my mum [Tish, who ‘momages’ Miley for a living] was screaming, ‘That’s my little girl!’. That moment changed my life forever,” smiles Cyrus, who now counts over 13 million monthly Spotify plays – not bad compared to Miley’s 25 million, considering her older sister has five number one albums and Noah hasn’t yet released her debut.
Cyrus's songs resonate with a generation crippled by anxiety and low self-esteem. F***younoah sees the singer take on the role of a therapist and doctor performing her own open heart surgery, while cruel lyrics lacerate her personality: 'Cause I'm a narcissist That's just what it is No one fucks with me 'Cause no one ever f**kin' loves a b***'.
It makes sense that one of her songs, Live or Die, was played on the soundtrack to Euphoria: the hit HBO drama about Gen Z angst in Los Angeles, starring Zendaya. “I love that show,” she says, before pinpointing why young people seem to be more distressed than ever. “Social media, for sure.” Cyrus downloaded Instagram aged 11, and has been wounded by the comments about her physical appearance. “My body dysmorphia probably started aged 13, and that's really held me back from fun sh*t in my life, going out with my friends... I’m only 20, so they always want to go out but I don’t want to go.”
Unlike with many disorders, Cyrus says her relationship with food is not the problem. “I’m actually okay with that, I love food, trust me, it’s more just, when I look in the mirror, the reflection that I see is not what others are seeing. People get so angry at me, but it doesn’t really matter if you’re the most beautiful girl in the world, it’s really hard for us to look in the mirror and see what other people see...”
Cyrus is brutally, admirably, honest, refusing to sugarcoat any part of her life. In fact, when I ask the fondest memory while opening for Katy Perry on tour, she retorts, briskly, “Well, on that tour my ex cheated on me, so.” A wry smile follows, then, awkward silence.
Will the new EP be a melancholy affair? Lord knows the world needs cheering up right now. Cyrus eludes an answer, but I Got So High I Saw Jesus sounds terrifying. “There have been so many times where I’ve been so stoned at home, thinking about the state of the world, and my life. The first verse is about how the rivers have run dry, Joseph has lost his job to a machine, and Mary has lost her mind to lines of code. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. But at the end of the day, all you have is your relationship with God, and you just gotta hope that everything will be alright.”
The Cyrus family is out-and-proud Christian (Billy Ray has recorded two strongly religious albums), and Noah says she and Miley attended Sunday School in Franklin. “We all still have relationships with God, and I actually do a little prayer huddle before each of my shows,” she says. Did her father prepare her for the pressures of fame? “Um, no, we don’t really think like that,” she glowers, perhaps finding the idea crass, but brightens once I ask her about going home to see him in Franklin.
“Girl, you don’t even understand. My dad refuses to even let us get the internet at home. He calls it ‘the internet box’, and we have to take it in turns to use an internet card. No Netflix, nothing. We have cable, but like, we have to hit the remote to make it work. The house is the same since we bought in ‘93, and sometimes the roof caves in. We’re like, ‘Dad, we need a new roof!’ but he won’t let us get a roof. He is so old school,” she says fondly.
Noah was his date to this year's Grammys, where the Achy Breaky Heart singer performed his chart-topping collaboration with breakout country rapper Lil Nas X. “My dad introduced my and Lil Nas. He said, 'This is your new brother. He is part of the family now,'” she beams. “He’s my favourite, he’s so much fun, I go home tomorrow so we’re all going to be able to hang out.”
Questions about Miley however, who recently separated from Hollywood star Liam Hemsworth, are strictly off limits. Any mention of her, or Noah's own cameo appearances as Miley’s sister on Disney’s Hannah Montana, on which Billy Ray also starred as his daughters' real life father, and Cyrus shuts down like an unresponsive computer. A question about whether the family has ever rewatched any old episodes for a laugh goes down like a lead balloon. “Why would we do that?” she clips.
Allowing discussion around the plight of the child star, however, Cyrus tiptoes around her sister’s reputation, which went from squeaky clean to wrecking-ball wild as soon as she left Disney (stirring controversy when covering Vanity Fair in the nude aged just 15).
“People think they know you, or because you’re in the public eye you owe something to them,” she reasons, carefully. “They’re always comparing you to the “old you”. Like, who is the old me? I’m evolving, I’m growing. I’m not going to be seven years old forever. I’m always amazed that people think their opinions matter to me, or that people think sh*t bounces off you just because you’re famous. People expect so much, they have these crazy expectations….” She shakes her head and tails off, before excitedly pinning down a specific anecdote.
“Like, my friends expect me to act perfect, because I speak out about my mental health. They like to throw it in my face. As soon as people see me happy they want to attack me to make me feel sad again. They say, ‘Well you speak about this, so you should be doing this.’ The other day, I had to leave my phone at the Apple store to get fixed, and when I got it back I had a text from my friend saying, ‘It’s crazy you speak out about this but you can’t answer your phone when I need you?’”
I ask Cyrus if, considering her vulnerability, whether the growing spotlight – admittedly now on her own terms – is something she ever regrets. She’s been walking red carpets since she was a child, and they’re only going to get longer. She shrugs, seemingly unfazed. “It’s a huge responsibility. But no one’s ever showing when they’re hurting. All these people on social media are not real at all. There is no depth. So that’s what I want to do, I want to show when I’m hurting.”
I Got So High I Saw Jesus is out now on all streaming platforms