Miley Cyrus's twerking with a foam finger at the 2013 VMAs caused outrage: A look back at the performance

The ex-Disney Channel star, then 20, made headlines while performing onstage with Robin Thicke.

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Miley Cyrus and her foam finger — onstage with Robin Thicke performing his "Blurred Lines" — provided can't-look-away moments at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Miley Cyrus did what a with a foam finger?

If there’s one thing we remember about the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, which aired on Aug. 25 that year, it’s Miley’s foam finger. Oh, the outrage the world felt over the ex-Disney Channel star, then 20, acting inappropriate 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 and Robin Thicke, with whom she shared the stage as she transitioned from her hit "We Can't Stop" to an untamed rendition of his "Blurred Lines," in which her twerking skills were on max and her tongue got a workout.

Everyone had an opinion — none too kind

Everyone weighed in on what the Today show branded an “embarrassingly raunchy” performance — including this writer. "Miley Cyrus didn’t blur the line, she straight up crossed it," began an article on Yahoo Entertainment. But the outrage that 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,” Dan Isett, the director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, said at the time. "How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds?"

Reactions from celebs in the audience amplified the controversy. The consensus was that Rihanna was unimpressed, Harry Styles seemed confused (though he dressed as Miley, foam finger and all, that Halloween) and the Smiths (Will, Jaden and Willow) weren’t as horrified as initially thought.

Social media was on fire:

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." (Revisit all the reactions.)

The complaints from viewers at home to the Federal Communications Commission raised some valid points, but in hindsight are mostly 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 onstage. Because when he did, Miley “humped” the then-married singer "like a b**** in heat," causing him "to have a slight erectiοn which can be easily noticed through his pants."

(Jemal Countess/FilmMagic)
(Jemal Countess/FilmMagic)

The foam finger was good for ratings. The show attracted 10.1 million watchers — up 4 million from 2012 — and 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 about its journey. She actually made it a year earlier for an editorial, but it didn’t make the cut. It was used briefly by Emily Ratajkowski in Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" video (which is a whole other controversy), and Miley's entire racy ensemble was born out of that. Deciding to use it to poke Thicke's crotch and touch herself was Miley's idea.

The founder of the original foam finger, Steve Chmelar, became a viral sensation for telling Fox Sports at the time that Miley "took an honorable icon that is seen in sporting venues everywhere and degraded it."(Somehow, thanks to 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."

(Kevin Mazur/WireImage for MTV)
(Kevin Mazur/WireImage for MTV)

What Miley has said in the years since

Now that time has passed — and Americans have reached new levels of outrage almost daily — Miley getting down and dirty with a foam finger doesn't seem that world-ending, right? (We'll point out that two decades earlier — in 1990 before Miley was even born — Madonna simulated masturbation onstage while performing "Like a Virgin" during her Blond Ambition tour.) It was just Miley breaking free from the stranglehold of Disney Channel child stardom — and taking the heat for it solo, when Thicke was a participant.

Miley told the New York Times in 2015, "Everything I’ve ever done has been true to me at that minute... 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." 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 performance, she claimed he was onboard. "You were in rehearsals! You knew exactly what was going to happen."

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 25:  Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV)
(Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV)

In 2018, Miley told Wonderland magazine that the performance was life-changing. She realized that people were paying attention to what she was doing and channeled it into advocacy, including for the LGBTQ and homeless communities, through her charity, Happy Hippie Foundation. "It inspired me to use my platform for something much bigger," she said. "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."

In 2020, Miley — still processing what transpired years later — revealed she wouldn't wear a bikini for two years after the performance due to the public criticism of her body. "I was just so skinny and so pasty and [people made memes] putting me next to this turkey, and I was feeling so bad on myself." She said it was "really, really hurtful to be so body-shamed like that" and "affected me in my personal life."

Looking back — with foam finger creator Steve Chmelar

And since hindsight is 20/20, we tracked down foam finger founder Chmelar — who’s vice president of commercial sales at a construction supply company in Ottumwa, Iowa — to see if his opinion changed at all. 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 or earned a penny off it — told Yahoo that he had 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 quipped. "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. "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 did watch 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," said Chmelar, who still has his original foam finger (which is a "little torn at the edges, but it’s still around"). "It’s like the old [telephone] 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."

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 <em>Des Moines Tribune</em>, and the No. 1 hand, better known as the foam finger, was born. (Courtesy of Steve Chmelar)
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. (Courtesy of Steve Chmelar)

Talking about it years later gave him a new perspective. "I’m able to put the story into a bigger picture. Yes, Miley’s VMA antics remain shocking and somewhat distasteful, but it is certainly part of her journey," he said. "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 ... 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, though. "When that was popular back in '65 or so, I was probably 12 or 13 and I enjoyed it a lot then. Quite honestly, I still do a lot now," he said.

Though one thing does get under his skin. When Miley appeared on Saturday Night Live after the VMAs, in the opening monologue she talked about foam finger-gate and said 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. "I thought it was strange that they didn’t even call the guy 'Steve,' my name," he said. "I was a little taken aback. It could have been a little more accurate." Or the show could have called him? "I agree."

As we mark 10 years since foam finger-gate, don't expect any apologies from Miley. 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 shaming her at the time.

Besides, she's busy anyway, dropping a new single "Use to Be Young." In it, she sings, "You say I used to be wild / I say I used to be young," which could also be a two-line summary of the 2013 VMAs.

This story was originally published on August 25, 2018 and has been updated.