A look back at Miley Cyrus's 'degrading' VMAs performance with a foam finger: 5 years ago today

Suzy Byrne
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
On Aug. 25, 2013, Miley Cyrus twerks at the MTV Video Music Awards with a finely manicured foam finger. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for MTV)

Miley Cyrus did what a with a foam finger?

If there’s one thing we remember about the 2013 MTV VMAs — which aired on Aug. 25 that year — it’s Miley’s foam finger. Oh, the utter outrage the world felt over the former Disney Channel star, then 20 years old, acting inappropriately with the foam prop. She “scandalized” Hannah Montana watchers everywhere by dancing around in a nude latex bikini and using the finely manicured digit to touch herself as well as Robin Thicke, with whom she shared the stage that night as she transitioned from her hit “We Can’t Stop” to an extra raunchy rendition of his “Blurred Lines,” in which her tongue was prominently featured and her twerking skills were on max.

Everyone had an opinion — not many of them kind

Everyone had opinions about the “embarrassingly raunchy” performance — including this writer. “Miley Cyrus didn’t blur the line, she straight up crossed it,” began an article on this website. But the outrage that truly bubbled to the top came from parenting groups. “MTV continues to sexually exploit young women by promoting acts that incorporate ‘twerking’ in a nude-colored bikini,” said Dan Isett, the director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, at the time. “How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds?”

Reactions from fellow celebs in the audience amplified the controversy. The consensus was that Rihanna was unimpressed, Harry Styles seemed confused, and the Smiths (Will, Jaden, and Willow) weren’t as horrified as people initially thought. Though social media was the gift that kept on giving.

Jaws were on the floor offline as well. Sherri Shepherd said that Miley was “goin’ to hell in a twerkin’ handbasket” for her bump-and-grind act. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t called twerkin’. They got these cute artistic names for it. … That was called a ho move right there.” And even her mama was a critic. Well, her Hannah Montana mom, Brooke Shields. “I don’t approve. Where did I go wrong? I want to know who’s advising her and why it’s necessary. It’s a bit desperate.”

And the complaints from regular ol’ viewers at home to the Federal Communications Commission raised a lot of good points, but in hindsight are pretty comical. Miley was “acting like a devil flicking that tongue as demons do.” That included “implying sexual acts with bears,” specifically “put[ting] her face in a fake butt” and “licking the butt of a stuff[ed] bear.” And that was before Thicke came out onstage. Because when he did,  Miley “humped” the then-married signer “like a bitch in heat,” causing him “to have a slight erectiοn which can be easily noticed through his pants.” 

Robin Thicke and Cyrus perform “Blurred Lines” during the MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on Aug. 25, 2013. (Photo: Jemal Countess/FilmMagic)

The foam finger was good for ratings though. The show attracted 10.1 million watchers — up from 4 million from the previous year. And it was quite a moment for the foam finger. At no point in its 41-year history of being waved at sporting events across the country had it gotten so much press. Yahoo interviewed stylist Lisa Katnic, who made Miley’s manicured foam hand, and she told us all about its journey. She actually made it a year earlier for an editorial, but it didn’t make the cut. It was used in Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit, and Miley’s entire racy ensemble was born out of that. Deciding to use it to poke Thicke’s crotch was Miley’s idea. 

And the founder of the original foam finger, a gentleman by the name of Steve Chmelar from Iowa, became a viral sensation for telling Fox Sports that Miley “took an honorable icon that is seen in sporting venues everywhere and degraded it.” (Somehow, thanks to story rewrites of story rewrites, that turned into “disgust.”) Though perhaps his best line was: “If I had a choice between Julie Andrews singing ‘The Sound of Music’ and Miley Cyrus doing ‘Can’t Stop,’ I’d go the Julie Andrews route, but everyone has their choice and their decision.”

There were even debates over the criticism Miley was getting. Some called it “slut-shaming.

Looking back

Now that time has passed — and Americans have reached new levels of outrage (pretty much daily) — Miley getting down and dirty with a foam finger doesn’t seem that crazy, right? (We’ll point out that two decades earlier in 1990 — two years before Miley was even born — Madonna simulated masturbation onstage while performing “Like a Virgin” during her “Blond Ambition” tour.)  It seems like just another instance of Miley being Miley. And, at the end of the day, it didn’t hurt her career — it just helped her break further away from her Hannah Montana role.

In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Miley said, “Everything I’ve ever done has been true to me at that minute.” She continued, “Me coming out of that teddy bear, to me, wasn’t just a teddy bear. … I was really breaking out — my show ended, and then I didn’t really work for two years. That’s when I did my most self-exploration. [The performance] was kind of going into this way of saying, ‘I’m just going to do what will make me happy.’ At that moment, that’s what really made me happy.” All the criticism surprised her. “People that I really loved and thought were my friends judged me for it. They were like, ‘You were on drugs when you did that performance.’ I did nothing! I still don’t get it.” As for rumors Thicke wasn’t happy with the risqué performance, she said he approved her outfits. “You were in rehearsals! You knew exactly what was going to happen,” she said.

Earlier this year, with even more time to mull it over, Miley described the performance — and aftermath — as life-changing. Amid the outrage, she realized, hey, people are paying attention to what I’m doing in a big way“Not only was culture changed, but my life and career were changed forever,” she told Wonderland magazine. “It inspired me to use my platform for something much bigger. If the world is going to focus on me and what I am doing, then what I am doing should be impactful and it should be great.” 

It led to her becoming an advocate for the LGBTQ and homeless communities through her charity, Happy Hippie Foundation. The next year, she arrived at the VMAs with a young homeless man named Jesse Helt, spotlighting a cause right on the red the carpet.

Looking back — with foam finger creator Steve Chmelar

And since hindsight is 20/20, we tracked down foam finger founder Chmelar — who is vice president of commercial sales at a construction supply company in Ottumwa, Iowa, as well as the nicest guy in the world (strictly this writer’s opinion) — to see what he has to say now that time has passed. At the time of the drama, he told Fox Sports that “the foam finger has been around long enough that it will survive this incident.” (Clearly, he’s loyal to his creation, which he made in his parents’ basement in 1971 when he was 16 years old to support his high school basketball team at the Iowa state championships.) So, did it?

Chmelar — who never patented his design (he was a teenager) or earned a penny off it (seriously) — tells Yahoo Entertainment that he got media requests from around the globe, including from the United Arab Emirates, following Miley’s foam finger drama. “That was my flash in the pan,” he quips. “I may have responded a little too extreme to call it degrading or demeaning or cheapening it. I still don’t have a great appreciation of the performance that night, but the foam finger continues on. It sure does.”

Chmelar went on to say that he “learned a little bit more about” Miley after the performance, including how she was trying to break away from Hannah Montana. (His children were too old to be fans of the Disney Channel show.) “Sometimes to do that, it takes an extreme swing of the pendulum. And the music world is all about attention, going back to Elvis and his hip swings, to push their stardom along.” He watched her documentary, Miley: The Movement, which came out a month after the 2013 VMAs. Other than that, he hasn’t kept tabs on her career. “I followed a little bit five years ago, but today I don’t go out of my way to track what she’s doing.”

He also learned a little bit about … being a viral star. “It really was surprising to me that it took on a momentum of its own,” says Chmelar, who still has his original foam finger. (“It’s a little torn at the edges, but it’s still around.”) “It’s like the old post office game where you start with one statement and you get around, and it changes a lot. There were many writers of stories that didn’t take time to read what I said initially — or interview me — and a few weeks later it had gone from ‘disappointed’ and ‘degraded’ to how I almost hated her and had disdain for her.”

Foam finger creator Steve Chmelar brought his homemade creation to the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s boys state basketball finals in 1971. The Associated Press snapped a photo of him, which appeared in the Des Moines Tribune, and the No. 1 hand, better known as the foam finger, was born. (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Chmelar)

Talking about it five years later, however, gives him a new perspective. “I’m able to put the story into a bigger picture,” Chmelar says. “Yes, Miley’s VMA antics remain shocking and somewhat distasteful, but it is certainly part of her journey. For me, I am simply reminded about the identity of what became the No. 1 foam finger. Each time that I tell the story, the uniqueness of the creation causes my chest to swell a little more. For those who take time to understand the backstory, they’ll know that I really don’t have an objection with Miley Cyrus. I chose to focus on the positive aspects of why I made the original No. 1 foam finger. They haven’t changed in nearly 50 years. From time to time, each of us has the chance to cheer for a winning team, and I have found that it feels exciting. I hope that wearing a No. 1 foam finger helps give everyone the chance to cheer for a common cause, sports-related or not.”

For the record, Chmelar still prefers Julie Andrews to Miley Cyrus, though. “When that was popular back in ’65 or so, I was probably 12 or 13 and I enjoyed it a lot then,” he says. “Quite honestly, I still do a lot now.”

And there’s one thing that still gets under his skin. When Miley appeared on Saturday Night Live soon after the VMAs, in the opening monologue she talks about foam finger-gate and says she made it up to the creator by bringing him to the show. Only they used an actor — not Chmelar — and Miley called him “Jeff,” not Steve. “They pan over to the audience where some guy named Jeff has a foam finger with the thumb pointing up saying he was OK with it. I thought it was strange that they didn’t even call the guy Steve, my name. I was a little taken aback about that. It could have been a little more accurate.” When we say they should have at least called to see if he was interested, he replied, “I sort of agree with that.”

So, as we mark five years since Miley’s foam finger-gate, don’t expect any apologies from Miley. In April, when we revisited how her shirtless photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine in 2008 almost derailed her career and she was forced to publicly apologize, she actually retracted her apology and added a “f*** you” to the New York Post for publicly shamed her at the time. And that’s Miley.

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