(RollingStone.com) -- In the backroom of a tattoo parlor on North La Brea Avenue in L.A., Miley Cyrus is about to get some new ink.
"All right, face down," says the tattoo artist, a bald guy named Mojo. Miley flips onto her stomach and on the bottom of her dirty feet, in ballpoint pen, are written the words ROLLING (right foot) and $TONE (left).
"People get tattoos of the most f****d-up s***," Miley says. "Did you know Alec Baldwin has Hannah Montana's initials tattooed on him? No, wait -- Stephen Baldwin. He said he was my biggest fan, and I told him my biggest fans have tattoos. So he got 'hm' tattooed on his shoulder." She shakes her head. "People do f****d-up s***."
For her first Rolling Stone cover story, Miley wanted to do something fun. "I thought about going to play laser tag," she says. "But laser tag sucks. And we could have gone bowling, but what are we, 90?"
Naturally, the next idea was getting a tattoo.
"All right, darlin'," says Mojo. "You ready?"
"Ready," she says. Mojo fires up the needle, which begins buzzing extremely loudly. "I hate seeing the needle," says Miley. She cranes her neck backward. "Does it hurt? It hurts, right?"
Mojo: "Yeah, it hurts."
These are the 20-year-old pop star's first tattoos on her feet, but she has lots of others: a peace sign, an equal sign, a heart and a cross (all on her fingers); the words love inside her right ear and just breathe over her rib cage; a Leonardo da Vinci sketch on her right forearm, and above it, the Roman numerals VIIXCI, for 7/91, the month and year her parents first met.
And on the inside of her left forearm, the words ... "HIS PLACE SHALL NEVER BE WITH THOSE COLD AND TIMID SOULS WHO NEITHER KNOW VICTORY NOR DEFEAT."
"It's from a Teddy Roosevelt speech," she says. "It's about how people judge who wins and who loses, but they're not the ones in there fighting." In other words, "It's about critics."
Four days earlier, Miley performed at the VMAs. Maybe you heard about it. A lot of people got mad.
Miley did things with a foam finger that made the inventor of the foam finger accuse her of having "degraded" an "icon." Most people thought it was Miley's fault, but Miley didn't care. That's what the Teddy Roosevelt quote is about. Haters gonna hate.
In this era of deep national polarization, there's one thing on which we can pretty much all agree: It's an interesting time to be Miley Cyrus. She's been dealing with fame in varying degrees for her entire life, first as the daughter of country star Billy Ray Cyrus, whose "Achy Breaky Heart" was to 1992 what "Blurred Lines" is to 2013, then as the insanely popular Disney tween icon Hannah Montana.
But all that was just a prelude to Miley 3.0, a tongue-wagging, hard-twerking, all-grown-up pop star, like it or not.
Miley has been planting the seeds for her big transition to adulthood for the past five years. She was 15 when she weathered her first scandal, when she posed for Vanity Fair wearing a sheet that made her look topless. ("I feel so embarrassed," she said in a statement. "And I apologize to my fans, who I care so deeply about.")
A year later came a pole-dancing stunt at the Teen Choice Awards (the "pole" was on an ice cream cart; the dancing was PG at most). The following year she was photographed in Spain drinking a beer at age 17, and a month after that, TMZ posted a video of her taking a rip from a bong. (Miley claimed it was legal salvia.)
And yet, in millions of people's eyes, she's still Hannah Montana -- which may be part of the problem.
The morning after the tattoo shop, Miley sends a text: "What up, it's Miley." She wants to know if I can come to the house. "Maybe around 5? We could order some food and s***! Hang at the crib!"
Miley's crib is in Toluca Lake, halfway between Burbank and Studio City. It's the same crib the Cyruses moved into around the time Miley started working on "Hannah Montana." She lived at home until she turned 18, and then bought her own place in the Hollywood Hills, with lots of glass and cool furniture and an aquarium in the fireplace.
But she didn't really feel safe there by herself, and after a deranged fan jumped her fence wearing her dog's chew toy around his neck, Miley decided it was time to go. She moved back to her old house, and her parents moved a block down the street. Now she lives here with her four adopted dogs (Happy, Bean, Floyd and Mary Jane). But Miley says she still won't sleep in the master bedroom: "That's my parents' room!"
There are also two racks of clothes in one of her living rooms that belong to Liam Hemsworth, 23, the Australian actor she met on a movie set in 2010. The couple had been engaged, but in mid-September, they announced that they had split up.
The neighborhood isn't what you'd expect: very suburban, very Valley, very Old Hollywood. Bob Hope lived in the house behind theirs. Miley never met him, but she did meet his widow, who lived there until she passed away in 2011. "Miss Dolores," Miley says. "She was party-rocking till the end! Sometimes I'd walk by and see all these people in there dressed up like old-time flappers. I was like, 'Is this real -- or are you guys all ghosts?'"
Her neighbors now are a little more contemporary. "Diddy's baby mama lives right there," Miley says, pointing over the fence behind her pool. And down the street is Steve Carell, who has two preteen kids and doesn't sound like the biggest Miley fan.
"He always gives me the stank-eye because I drive so fast," Miley says. "The other day I was trying to reverse and I almost hit a thousand things, and I was getting nervous because I could see him going" -- she crosses her arms and lets out a big, annoyed sigh. "I'm like, oh, my God, 'Dan in Real Life' is watching me right now!"
She just got back from New York, where she stayed for a few days after the VMAs. She didn't realize how big a deal her performance had been until she saw the news. Her instantly infamous medley of her single "We Can't Stop" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" owned cable TV for the next week, launched a million GIFs and prompted 161 complaints to the FCC.
"I think," says Miley, "it's an important time not to Google myself."
Miley thought there was a chance the network might pull the plug on her mid-performance, but she didn't expect so much shock and vitriol. "Honestly, that was our MTV version," she says. "We could have even gone further, but we didn't. I thought that's what the VMAs were all about! It's not the Grammys or the Oscars. You're not supposed to show up in a gown, Vanna White-style" -- a little dig at Taylor Swift. "It's supposed to be fun!"
Miley admits that her performance with Thicke got a little -- her word -- "handsy." But she makes a good point: "No one is talking about the man behind the a**. It was a lot of 'Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,' but never, 'Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley.' They're only talking about the one that bent over. So obviously there's a double standard."
She was especially amused by the criticism from Brooke Shields, who played Miley's mom on "Hannah Montana" and called the VMA performance "desperate." "Brooke Shields was in a movie where she was a prostitute at age 12!" Miley says with a laugh.
"America is just so weird in what they think is right and wrong," she continues. "Like, I was watching 'Breaking Bad' the other day, and they were cooking meth. I could literally cook meth because of that show. It's a how-to. And then they bleeped out the word 'f***.' And I'm like, really? They killed a guy, and disintegrated his body in acid, but you're not allowed to say 'f***'? It's like when they bleeped 'molly' at the VMAs. Look what I'm doing up here right now, and you're going to bleep out 'molly'? Whatever."
Miley admits that before the telecast, she was feeling a little nervous. But then she got a visit in her dressing room that made her feel better. Kanye West had seen her rehearsals and wanted to talk to her before she went onstage.
"He came in and goes, 'There are not a lot of artists I believe in more than you right now,'" she recalls. "The whole room went quiet. I was like, 'Yo -- can you say that again?!'" She laughs. "I just kept repeating that over and over in my mind, and it made me not nervous."
After the show, Miley and Kanye met up at a Manhattan recording studio to work on a remix for his song "Black Skinhead." The next day he sent a text: "He said, 'I still can't quit thinking about your performance,'" Miley says. She also happened to mention that a pair of fur Céline slippers she'd bought were falling apart, and Kanye bought her five more pairs.
"Kanye is the s***," she says. "I kind of have a good relationship with him now. It's good to have someone you can call and be like, 'Yo, do you think I should wear this?' 'Do you think I should go in the studio with this guy?' 'Do you think this is cool?' That's what homies are supposed to do."
Miley isn't bothered by people who called her performance a disaster. "I wasn't trying to be sexy," she says. "If I was trying to be sexy, I could have been sexy. I can dance a lot better than I was dancing."
She knows sticking her tongue out isn't hot and that those weird stubby pigtails aren't flattering ("I look like a little creature"). And she even knows it's ridiculous for her to twerk.
"People are like, 'Miley thinks she's a black girl, but she's got the flattest a** ever,'" she says. "I'm like, I'm 108 pounds! I know! Now people expect me to come out and twerk with my tongue out all the time. I'll probably never do that s*** again."
Copyright © 2011 Rolling Stone.