Last Sunday night (August 24), the pomp and circumstance of the 31st annual MTV Video Music Awards came to a grinding halt when Miley Cyrus was announced as the winner of the Video of the Year award for her single, “Wrecking Ball.”
Instead of swinging onto the stage atop a wrecking ball, Cyrus sent Jesse Helt, a shaggy-haired, handsome young man in a simple black suit to accept the prize in her place. Helt nervously read a handwritten message explaining that while he was from Oregon, he was currently homeless and living on the streets of Hollywood.
“I am accepting this award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving and lost and scared for their lives. I know, because I am one of those people,” he said to the hushed crowd of pop luminaries and their fans while Cyrus stood and openly wept. “I have survived in shelters all over this city…The music industry will make over $7 billion this year, and outside these doors are 54,000 human beings who have no place to call home.”
The unexpected moment was allegedly a surprise even to the people of MTV, who had no idea that Cyrus would be sending Helt to accept the award (according to Mashable, only rapper Juicy J, who was seated next to Cyrus during the show, knew what was coming).
According to Cyrus’ PR reps, the singer was inspired by Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his award for Best Actor (he won for The Godfather). Littlefeather was booed as she attempted to read Brando’s statement on boycotting the ceremony in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans and an incident at Wounded Knee earlier in the year.
Throughout the relatively brief history of music award ceremonies, there aren’t as many onstage protests from winners as one might expect. While bands have famously declined entrance to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as British artists turning their noses up at knighthood, only a handful had have the guts to walk onstage and use their award-winning moment to make a political statement.
In 1991, thanks to her first album sung in English, Unison, Dion was awarded the Anglophone Artist of the Year award at Quebec’s Félix Awards that are presented by ADISQ. When the singer took the stage, she explained exactly why she was refusing the honor. She proclaimied she was not an English-speaking artist but a proud product of the French-speaking province, she was allowed nearly three full minutes to explain her position. She even went so far as to suggest to ADISQ that they change the award to represent Quebec artists who’ve achieved the most success at the international level. Dion was cheered by the audience, and publicly lauded by politician Jacques Parizeau, who would go on to become the 26th Premier of the Canadian province of Quebec.