The pop star's antics are causing controversy, but does she have a longer game in mind?

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Once again, it's Miley's moment.

Back in 2007, pop culture couldn't get enough of sassy Southern ingénue Miley Cyrus, better known then as Disney's teen TV star Hannah Montana, whose concert tickets created a frenzy reminiscent of Willy Wonka's golden ticket sweepstakes. Fast-forward six years and Cyrus, now 20, is dominating the chatter-sphere thanks to sexually charged performances on stage and in videos.

If you didn't know what twerking was before Cyrus hit the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 25, chances are you do now.

The VMAs showcased a pigtail-bunned Cyrus fondling a foam finger and grinding up against singer Robin Thicke during a Blurred Lines duet. In the video for Wrecking Ball, the current single off her new album Bangerz (out Tuesday), Cyrus rides that demolition tool naked. Presumably, the sky's the limit for her next gig as both host and musical guest on this weekend's Saturday Night Live.

All of which raises the question: Is this yet another example of a wholesome American icon hitting the career skids with an ill-advised descent into depravity — or a strategic play to twentysomethings, whose sense of sonic and sexual adventure Miley is merely mirroring?

By all accounts, Cyrus is crazy — like a fox. Conversations with the singer's team, fans and industry veterans depict a young woman who, having grown up around masters of marketing such as her father, Achy Breaky Heart wonder Billy Ray Cyrus, and her honorary glam godmother, Dolly Parton, is simply doing what's necessary to forge a new image.

"I'm just a facilitator — this is Miley's total vision for herself," says Larry Rudolph, the manager Cyrus turned to earlier this year when she cleaned her professional house (his client did not respond to multiple interview requests). "She's 10 steps down the road already," says Rudolph, who also handles Britney Spears, another Disney star who had to grow up and out of her squeaky-clean image in public, often to deleterious effect.

"I told Britney when things got rough, you've got to have a thick skin if you're going to have an impact on pop culture," says Rudolph of the woman who caused a stir on MTV's 2001 awards show by suggestively singing I'm a Slave 4 U while draped with a white python. "Miley knows that, and she also has a message (to fans): Be true to yourself. Don't listen to criticism. Be big and be bold."

The results already are rewarding. Since her VMA thunderclap, Cyrus has received an estimated $79 million in free TV exposure, according to marketing research site Critical Mention. Online streaming platform Vevo reported that Wrecking Ballgarnered a whopping 19.3 million views worldwide on its first day — 7 million more than a previous record-setting effort from One Direction — and the song became her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling 1.4 million downloads to date. Stars' tongues have been wagging, too, from Elton John to Cher, whose kindest comment to USA TODAY about the VMA performance was that it was "so bad."

This all may prove so good for Cyrus' bottom line, perhaps returning her to Forbes' vaunted Celebrity 100 list, which measures money and fame. She peaked on the list in 2010 with earnings of $48 million (up from $25 million in 2008 and 2009), partly on the strength of big hits The Climb and Party in the U.S.A., but hasn't made Forbes' cut since.

Cyrus seems to be taking it all in stride. A peek into her philosophy appears in the new MTV documentary, Miley: The Movement (an extended version airs Sunday night): "You're always going to make people talk. You might as well make them talk for like two weeks, rather than two seconds."

And in a recent promotional spot for her upcoming SNL appearance, Cyrus good-naturedly mocks her VMA act with cast member Taran Killam ("Don't forget about the children ... Argh!").

Cyrus' devil-may-care attitude, which may or may not extend to the demise of her engagement to actor Liam Hemsworth, "resonates with a lot of pop fans, and really it's a message that has been resonating in various contexts of music for generations," says Bill Werde, editorial director at Billboard.

"People really underestimate the depth, breadth and legitimacy of the connection Miley has with her fans," he says. "Most of them have grown up with her. She'll have every opportunity to have a lifelong career as an artist as long as she takes care of herself and keeps releasing songs as strong as her current batch."

Cyrus is artfully taking advantage of today's globally connected audience, leveraging social media in a way few of her predecessors could, says Tom Corson, president of RCA Records, which signed her after Cyrus left her old label, Hollywood Records, in January as part of her re-invention.

"This is someone who is of-the-moment, living her lifestyle and sharing it in a world defined by Twitter and Facebook," he says. "She's very connected to her fan base, and that's a huge marketing driver in this day and age. When you put great star power behind it, great things can happen."

'I STILL LOOK UP TO HER'

Pleased to be on the Miley 2.0 Express is Sheri Berman, 20, of New York. "I'm happy she's proving that she's more than Hannah Montana," says the longtime fan, who credits the Disney show with getting her through a difficult teen phase fraught with bullying.

"Despite what people thought was wrong with that (VMA) performance, there was so much right to it," says Berman, social media manager for The Studio at Webster Hall, a recording facility. "Can we really criticize someone for growing up the 'wrong' way? I still look up to her. She proves it's OK to act the way you want. I've seen raunchier behavior at (clubs in New York), it just wasn't aired on national television."

Emily Ford, 20, has also been a fan from the beginning of Cyrus' career. "It's easy for me to see her as a peer or a friend," says the community college student from Boston. "Hannah is a character. Miley is a real-life person. She's grown up and moved on to bigger and better things."

None of those testimonials sways Tim Winter, neither as the parent of a 15-year-old girl nor as head of the Parents Television Council, which blasted Cyrus' VMA performance.

Winter says that as president of the PTC, he supports the right of artists "to perform in the way they want to," and has more of an issue with MTV labeling the program TV-14. "That says, 'Parents, this is OK for a 14-year-old child.' And it wasn't, so that's dishonest."

But as the father of a longtime Hannah fan, he feels downright offended.

"I cannot tell you how many thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours that our family invested in watching Hannah Montana, buying Miley's CDs and DVDs, going to the movies, the concerts, buying T-shirts," he says. "So I felt that foam finger (on the VMAs) was a middle finger, waved at folks like me and all the other parents who allowed her to have a career in the first place."

Cyrus' recent appearances may be not only offensive to some, but also risk tipping into career-threatening camp, says publicist and damage-control expert R.J. Garis.

"It seems too much, too fast in the extreme image department," he says. "Fans are very savvy nowadays, and they hate fake. Miley is right on the line for many between being a cool artist or a joke. I don't think she can afford to make any mistakes."

His advice is to mix things up, and fast. "The public is fascinated with child stars who go awry," he says. "If what (fans) see becomes too painful or uncomfortable to watch, they tend to tune them out and move on."

Manager Rudolph says change is precisely what will be served up next.

"The problem is people saw the VMAs as the only chapter; she twerks and sticks her tongue and (rear) out. But that is far from the only thing Miley can do. She is one of the finest vocalists around. She just did an acoustic performance of We Can't Stop for industry and media (at last month's annual Sony Music Showcase) in London and blew people away."

Impressing people with memorable music as opposed to zany shenanigans will be critical to Miley's longer-term success, which in turn may determine whether she winds up with a big enough catalog of hits to play Las Vegas residencies 20 years from now like Cher or Elton.

Evidence points to talent behind the sass. Beyond her London appearance, her recent performance at the iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas — which started at a side tent but wound up on the main stage — impressed critics. And SNL this weekend will be an opportunity to connect with millions in a more intimate setting, where her voice can shine.

Rudolph says his client is far from a one-trick pony. "What she did (at the VMAs) was meant to be fun and irreverent, and now we're moving on," he says. "Miley has an intelligence and humor that will carry her through. She came out of the womb that way."

What is at the core of Team Cyrus, in fact, is family, anchored by father Billy Ray and mother Tish. Dad clearly has confidence in his daughter's moves.

"Miley's a really smart young lady, she's a very creative artist," Billy Ray told Queen Latifah on her eponymous talk show Tuesday. "That intangible of re-invention, that's the thing that Dolly (Parton) is so good at, you know. … You have to figure it out yourself. You can't really count on someone else to give you that lesson. But then again, Miley was raised around a lot of legends herself."

Indeed, far from making career choices in defiance of her parents' wishes, Miley factors family into the process, according to those who have spent time with the star.

"Getting to know Miley and her family over the years just shows (me) how normal they are," says Olivia Rudensky, 17, who met the singer after she started the fan-focused Twitter account @MileyOfficial.

"They're all so down to earth, genuinely good people," she says. "I hate to see hate from people who really don't know them at all."

Cyrus' family was "really pleased with (her VMA performance)," says Paul Bozymowski, director of Miley: The Movement, who was backstage during her twerking-bears extravaganza. He says what was exciting to him about the project wasn't the chance to chronicle a star imploding, but rather one in flux.

"She is going through a transformation, and great art can happen in the midst of change," he says. "She's wrestling with her identity. But all the while I could tell she was in total control, not handled in any way. She has a keen sense of what's entertainment and what's real life."

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Josh Eells also got close to Cyrus recently for his Rolling Stone cover story, with adventures that included accompanying the star as she got the words "Rolling $tone" tattooed on her feet and going skydiving with her in the desert near her Los Angeles home. The magazine's cover features a topless and buzz-cut Cyrus in a pool licking her right shoulder.

"Look, she's 20, and clearly still trying to figure out what kind of career she wants to have and who she wants to be," says Eells. "But she's also been around adults and lawyers and managers her whole life, and is far more mature than any 20-year-old I've ever met. She just enjoys the attention, like every other celebrity."

And there's no better way to get it than turning up the sizzle factor. But Eells stops short of calling Cyrus' performances sexual.

"She's obviously using her sexuality, but she's not being sexy," he says. "She's treating it almost as a joke, between the strange outfits and the tongue sticking out of her mouth. I wouldn't call that sexy. And she knows it."

Part of Cyrus' intangible appeal is rooted in that very sense of playfulness, which extends to the distinctly country hitch in her singing voice that acts almost as a verbal wink. That instrument is in fine form on Bangerz, which gets a rave review from Ian Drew, entertainment director at Us Weekly.

"The album is a pop explosion, and in the end, that's all that matters," says Drew. As for her recent behavior, "she might regret some of it down the road, but who doesn't regret some of the things they did when they were 20? The bottom line is, everyone is talking about Miley."

That's Rule No. 1 of great marketing, says Peter Sealey, a consultant who ran marketing at corporate giants Coca-Cola and Columbia Pictures.

"As a father of girls, her (VMAs) performance was outrageous," says Sealey, not meaning it in a good way. "But from a professional's perspective, she had to re-invent herself or risk being a (middle-aged) Judy Garland, singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Every generation pushes the envelope, and if she hadn't, she'd be a footnote."

Van Toffler, who heads Viacom Media Networks, owner of MTV, says Cyrus simply "used the VMAs as a stage to make a statement as many of her predecessors have done — she's a student of people like Britney and Christina Aguilera. I think people will see clearly that Miley is in control of her destiny."

As much as a destiny can be controlled, that is. Even Cyrus' manager admits that as far as playbooks go for child stars hoping to hit it big as adults, he doesn't have one.

"We don't sit down with some giant strategic plan, complete with PowerPoint slides and detailed demographic studies," says Rudolph. "This is just a girl with an instinct. She knows what she likes, and she knows what she'd like to see someone else her age do.

"Remember, Elvis was considered scandalous when he was shown shaking his hips on TV. All we really know is, the lines keep moving."

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