This year Thursday, Nov. 23, isn’t just a day to stuff yourself silly with turkey, watch football, and wait patiently for Black Friday sales to start. It’s also Miley Cyrus’s 25th birthday.
The singer-actress has come a long way in just a quarter of a century, transitioning from tween obsession to pot-smoking, tongue-wagging rebel to … what would you call this part of her evolution? Mellowed and romantic country crooner? The Voice mentor and Liam Hemsworth lover? Whatever you call it, Cyrus has grown up in the media glare and managed to survive — even in the midst of the massive hype that engulfed her around the time she was turning 16, which she marked with a massive, star-studded blowout bash at Disneyland.
It took place on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. The entire park was shut down unless you were an invited guest or paid $250 for a ticket, and it featured a who’s who of Disney Channel stars along with a cadre of unrelated celebrities who gathered to celebrate the Cyrus birthday milestone — and help the charity Youth Service America, an organization dedicated to youth volunteerism. It was total madness, and I was there.
The year 2008 was big for Cyrus, who was experiencing her first round of career highs — and what it was like to be grist for the rumor mill. She released her concert film Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert in February, following the success of her Disney Channel show, Hannah Montana. Later she was the subject of a Vanity Fair article that featured an accompanying photo shoot — with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz — that featured Cyrus in poses that some deemed too provocative for a 15-year-old, one of which appeared to show Cyrus topless, covering herself with a sheet while exposing her bare back. (Both Cyrus and Leibovitz apologized for the images.) Then there was the drama that surrounded the age difference between her and her rumored beau, Justin Gaston, who was 20 at the time.
Enter a wholesome sweet 16 birthday party at the Happiest Place on Earth, open to a scant 5,000 attendees who could afford the $250 price tag — and nab said tickets before the Disney Parks’ website could crash. At the time, I was writing for AOL when I got a call from a contact at Disney who told me, “It’s all a publicity stunt — her birthday is almost a month and a half later. But come to the park to cover it and have some fun. I’ll make sure you get to talk to her.”
I agreed, and soon found myself sandwiched between two other reporters — one a youngster from a junior high school publication who brought his mom — on a purple carpet that stretched down main street. (Everything was purple in honor of the birthday girl’s favorite color.) One side was jam-packed with media, the other with the lucky fans who secured tickets — and, by the sounds of their screams, were beyond excited to be there.
Celebs paraded down the carpet, some with their families — and most declined to speak to the press. Comedian Steve Carell brought his family, as did actress Jennie Garth, along with her then husband, actor Peter Facinelli. Model Cindy Crawford brought her kids, Kaia and Presley Gerber. Jennifer Love Hewitt was there. So was actress Sela Ward. And Vanessa Williams with her ex, Rick Fox. Newbies on the scene Julianne and Derek Hough were there as well.
Of those who stopped along the press line to chat, it was hard to hear them — every time a Disney Channel star showed up, the crowd would explode into wails of teenage adoration, drowning everyone out. After stars from High School Musical, or Hannah Montana’s Cody Linley and Emily Osment, or the tweens from Camp Rock, or Dylan and Cody Sprouse made their way down the carpet, I was pretty sure I was going to be deaf for the rest of my life.
Speaking of Camp Rock, Demi Lovato was there — and at the time, she was rumored to be beefing with Cyrus. (It reportedly started over a YouTube video Cyrus posted, wherein she and her friend Mandy Jiroux seemingly made fun of Lovato and then best bud Selena Gomez.) She claimed rumors of any spat with Cyrus were untrue, adding that she bought Cyrus a necklace from Tiffany. As Lovato told MTV News, “If we weren’t cool, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten her a nice gift. I pinky promise!” Later she revealed to the OC Register that the necklace was engraved. What did it say? “It’s just a secret,” Lovato said.
But nothing could compare to the mayhem that accompanied Cyrus when she appeared on the carpet. Fans lost their minds. The media squabbled and scrambled to get soundbites from her. Photographers were popping so many flashes, it was like the special birthday fireworks show had started early. By the time Cyrus made it midway through the press line, she was only doing one question per reporter — and they had to be quick ones. As she approached, wearing an ivory dress and green sparkly shoes, the mom next to me prepped her junior reporter son.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
He nodded nervously, readying his tape recorder.
“Do you know what you’re going to ask her?” she pressed him.
He nodded again, saying nothing.
Meanwhile, I’d started recording her soundbites from other reporters in the line ahead of us — what little I could hear of them, anyway. Then, before we knew it, she was in front of us. The boy next to me froze.
“Go ahead, honey, ask her your question,” his mom said.
Cyrus smiled at him. He melted. “What do you like best about Disneyland?” he asked quietly.
“The rides,” she said. “They’re just so much fun.”
He stared at her. She continued to smile. His mom nudged him again.
“What’s your favorite ride?” he asked.
“Space Mountain,” she said.
And then he thanked her. It was too cute.
With the purple carpet winding down, everyone retreated to the Rivers of America, where the evening’s host, Tyra Banks, started her duties for the evening by calling attention to herself, highlighting a movie she was just in and how Cyrus had personally asked her to host the event. When the crowd didn’t give her a sufficient reaction, she reiterated, “That’s right, MEEEEEEE!” (It was reported that Banks gave Cyrus a picture of herself as a birthday gift.)
From there, the Rivers turned into a mini-concert, during which Billy Ray performed a few songs, including the one-hit wonder that will never die, “Achy Breaky Heart,” along with Gaston and Cyrus’s sister, Brandi. Then Cyrus herself took center stage in a white tutu and white vest with “Sweet 16” written across the back in gold glitter and performed a four-song set including her then hits, “Breakout” and “G.N.O.” — some of which she sang from Belle’s raft from Fantasmic! as it floated along the river.
Meanwhile, the park was practically empty. Guests could walk on rides like Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and Cyrus’s favorite, Space Mountain, and ride repeatedly without long-line issues. There were stations to get a Hannah Montana makeover and play Disney-branded video games. Later, cupcake tables were set up to hand out freebies to attendees. They were little vanilla cakes in silver cups with a chocolate medallion emblazoned with “Miley’s Sweet 16,” stuck in a mountain of — what else? — purple frosting. The night ended with a giant fireworks show over Sleeping Beauty Castle, which bore 16 inflatable candles.
Publicity stunt or not, it was a pretty awesome way to spend a 16th birthday — and no doubt Youth Service America benefited from all those ticket sales. Miley’s birthday celebrations have come a long way since then too, though she’s still maintained that inner child whimsy. Witness last year’s 24th birthday celebration, for example, which was a rainbow-coated explosion of glitter and glee courtesy of fiancé Hemsworth. What will birthday 25 bring? Guess we’ll find out soon enough…
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