LOS ANGELES — For a second year in a row, Miley Cyrus hijacked MTV’s Video Music Awards on Sunday night, and this time she did it without debauched dance moves or wild tongue gyrations. In fact, she did not even take the stage.
Instead, the rowdy pop star sent a 22-year-old homeless man in her place — a 180-degree turn toward a serious cause and away from the frothy, twerking performance she offered last year that ignited a global media firestorm.
Near the end of Sunday’s live show, at the Forum in Inglewood, California, when Jimmy Fallon announced that Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” had won video of the year, a longhaired man who said he was from Oregon and had recently been living on the streets of Hollywood appeared at the microphone. “My name is Jesse,” the young man said, reading from notes without mentioning his surname. “I am accepting this award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving and lost and scared for their lives. I know, because I am one of those people.”
“I have survived in shelters all over this city,” he continued, before attempting to shame the music industry with a speech. “The music industry will make over $7 billion this year, and outside these doors are 54,000 human beings who have no place to call home.” (Los Angeles County estimates that it has a homeless population of roughly 54,000.)
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The speech concluded with an exhortation. “If you want to make a powerful change in the world right now, join us and go to Miley’s Facebook page,” Jesse said, while the cameras cut to Cyrus, who sat in the audience weeping as others clapped nervously.
With that, Cyrus, 21, had upstaged Nicki Minaj, who suffered a wardrobe malfunction during her performance, and Iggy Azalea, who sang her song “Black Widow” from inside what looked like the middle of a giant spider web.
Cyrus, according to a representative, modeled Jesse’s appearance after Marlon Brando’s decision to have a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather accept his Best Actor Oscar for “The Godfather” in 1973 as a protest against the movie industry’s treatment of Native Americans.
As Jesse spoke, Cyrus’ representatives introduced via her social media channels a Prizeo.com fundraising campaign for My Friend’s Place, an organization based in Los Angeles that helps homeless people from the ages of 12 to 25 find housing, jobs, health care and schooling. Those who make donations before Sept. 21 will be entered in a lottery. The prize: a chance to hang out with Cyrus when her Bangerz tour reaches Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 28.
Was Cyrus’ move a serious turn toward philanthropy? A crass effort to improve her image? “Ice Bucket Challenge” envy? All of the above? It was hard to fully understand her motives on Sunday night. It certainly demonstrated a Madonna-level understanding of media manipulation. (Detractors will undoubtedly cringe at some of the particulars: Fixing homelessness by competing to go party in Rio?)
In a video distributed by Cyrus’ representatives immediately after the singer’s stand-in spoke, she said his appearance was not a stunt. “Now is just the beginning for me,” she said of the anti-homelessness effort. “We gotta start somewhere.”
Cyrus, a former Disney Channel star, was informally advised in the effort by a well-positioned friend: Trevor Neilson, the president of G2 Investment Group and a co-founder of Global Philanthropy Group, which has designed charitable campaigns for artists including the singers Bono and Shakira in the past. Neilson declined to comment and would not disclose Jesse’s surname, citing the young man’s wishes.
Heather Carmichael, the executive director of My Friend’s Place, also declined to provide information about Jesse, except to say that he had received the organization’s help. Cyrus met him during a visit to My Friend’s Place on Tuesday, Carmichael said.
Cyrus, who appeared at the Video Music Awards in a relatively modest (for her) black leather halter top and pants, paid to put Jesse up at the BLVD Hotel & Spa in Studio City, California, over the weekend and bought him the black suit and white dress shirt he wore to Sunday’s event. They rode together to the show in Cyrus’ black SUV. Looking uncomfortable, Jesse sat next to Cyrus during the program (three seats away from Katy Perry) and posed in an Instagram booth backstage.