Unfortunately, being called “Mr. Hannah Montana” in a glossy-magazine headline is far from Billy Ray Cyrus’s biggest problem.
As many a headline has proclaimed, the once country, once Pax-network, once Disney-Channel star seems to be suffering from a brutally true-to-life “Achy Breaky Heart.” Cyrus is divorced from his wife and somewhat separated from his famous daughter, Miley, born Destiny Hope. Talking about his time co-starring as Hannah Montana’s dad in his daughter’s series by that name, he tells GQ, “You think, ‘This is a chance to make family entertainment, bring families together’ . . . and look what it’s turned into.”
Besides his divorce, it’s turned into a daughter, only 18, gone a bit publicly wild, in the tradition of many young female celebrities breaking into commercial not-quite-adulthood. Hers with a bong, Corona, and pole-dancing.
Her father walked right alongside her for a while, including in a now infamous Vanity Fair photo spread that included sexually provocative poses. His indulging her career instead of fulfilling his responsibilities is the way he explains how it all went wrong.
Cyrus gives a sobering interview now: “I’d take it back in a second. For my family to be here and just be everybody okay, safe and sound and happy and normal, would have been fantastic. Heck, yeah. I’d erase it all in a second if I could.”
It’s not a very flattering picture of Billy Ray, who “sound[s] like a walking stereotype,” as Jennifer Roback Morse, author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work, puts it. From the piece we learn about his divorced parents and their drama, and that he had two women pregnant around the time Miley was born.
But besides exposing a mess of a story, the interview ought to serve as a wake-up call to Billy Ray, and any man within the sound of his pained voice, thinking his family story is already a tragedy. That he has failed, past tense, with no hope of redemption. His story, as he tells it, reads as a cautionary tale.
At the time of the interview, Billy Ray hadn’t talked to Miley since before her latest scandal. But he says he texts her to remind her he loves her. Anticipating a visit to her childhood home where he now lives in Tennessee, he says, “Hopefully there’s something I can do. I don’t know. Who knows? Maybe she knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Billy Ray may have sung stubbornly “Don’t tell my heart,” but Glenn Stanton, author of Secure Daughters, Confident Sons, offers advice, “Billy Ray needs to gather his courage — man up — and do what his heart is screaming at him to do. . . . He, like all dads, needs to saddle up, ride in and be the protector of his daughter from a predatory world. And I am not talking about being overprotective, that’s not helpful either. But as Billy Ray explains in the profile, he has only been riding in after the damage to mop up the mess. That won’t do and it hasn’t. His daughter needs him, even if it seems she’s sending the message that she doesn’t.”
Billy Ray seems to know it — that father knows best. That being one is best. The most frequently quoted Cyrus lines from GQ appropriately are: “How many interviews did I give and say, ‘You know what’s important between me and Miley is I try to be a friend to my kids’? I said it a lot. And sometimes I would even read other parents might say, ‘You don’t need to be a friend, you need to be a parent.’ Well, I’m the first guy to say to them right now: You were right. I should have been a better parent. I should have said, ‘Enough is enough — it’s getting dangerous and somebody’s going to get hurt.’ I should have, but I didn’t.”
Billy Ray Cyrus underscores the predicament of fatherhood and manhood in our culture today. In her upcoming book Manning Up, Kay Hymowitz recalls that being someone’s father once “gave men a meaningful role and identity, not to mention a reason to go to work. A boy growing up in a dad world knew something was expected of him. The culture insisted: we need you!” Today, however, the message is more like: “You’re expendable!” Which is the song Cyrus seems to sing — back when he was in his daughter’s daily life, on and off screen, and now, letting others make the calls.
But he’s not expendable. Stanton emphasizes: “Boys who do not get love, warmth, protection, guidance, and affirmation from their fathers tend to become more violent and sexually opportunistic because they are seeking to prove their masculinity to the world. This is what gangs are about. Well-fathered boys don’t join gangs. They get that man-affirmation from their dads. Girls who do not get love, respect, care and protection from their fathers will desperately look for it from other males. This moves them toward being party girls and desperate sexual utilities for endless opportunistic boys. Mothers can play a role here, but no one can replace dad’s unique role. It is not too late for Billy Ray and other dads to bust down the door and go to their sons’ and daughters’ rescues.”
And as for the Hannah Montana fan at home? “This can be a good, teachable moment where our girls can see with their own eyes exactly what fame and wealth — too soon — does to young girls,” says Meg Meeker, author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. “We can use Miley’s story to teach them that the better way to invest time, talents, and energy is to work hard at school, enjoy their family relationships and work on building strong character.”
During his interview, Cyrus cites another song of his, “Some Gave All.” Whatever our vocation, that’s the call: All in. And the song’s not over. Not for the Cyruses. Not for so many reading his story. Not for a culture in desperate need of embracing its men and dads.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.