April 05, 2010 12:00 PM

What hasn’t gotten Miley Cyrus in trouble lately? In the past month she’s come under fire for slouching on the red carpet at the Oscars; singing a sexy song with Bret Michaels; and slamming country music, calling the genre that launched dad Billy Ray’s career “contrived.” “You have to wear those cowboy boots and be as sweet as pie,” she told Parade. “It makes me nervous.” But as she sits on a plush blue couch in a Santa Monica hotel, popping M&M’s, Cyrus shows no signs of getting achy breaky over the constant criticism. “Now that I’m older, people can say what they want and I’m like, ‘Whatever,'” says Cyrus, 17. “Love me or hate me, I don’t care. I’m doing what I like. I’m happy.”

Not to mention eager to shed her Disney Channel alter ego Hannah Montana and break into more grown-up fare, like the movie The Last Song. In the new drama-which Nicholas Sparks wrote for Cyrus-the teen star channels the anti-Hannah, playing a troubled teen who spends a transformative summer with her estranged dad. The months she spent filming on Tybee Island, Ga., proved life changing for Cyrus as well: She started dating her Australian costar Liam Hemsworth, 20. “I wasn’t in my comfort zone,” she says. “I had to step out and meet new people. I’ve changed a lot.”

One thing that hasn’t changed: She still talks at a blistering speed. PEOPLE senior writer Michelle Tan tries to keep up as the pop phenom dishes about moving on from Disney and moving out of her parents’ home.

Has it hit you that Hannah Montana is coming to an end?

I’m a little nervous because now it’s like I don’t have something to fall back on. But I’m getting excited. I think a lot of pressure is going to be taken off of me. I’m not going to be tied down to a company where they’re like, “She sings! She acts!” I can choose when I want to do music and when to do movies. I won’t have this mold they want me to fit into. I can just be what I want to be.

You’ve said you were crying on the plane ride to Tybee Island last summer. What was going on in your life?

I think [they were tears of] relief. I was really happy to get out of the L.A. scene. There are so many people that just pick and pick, and for me it was the best thing to get away. Tybee was cool because I got to go somewhere without anyone holding my hand. I had to figure it out on my own.

You had also just gone through a breakup [with model-singer Justin Gaston]. How did you know it was over?

He’s a great person and I respect him, but I think a long-distance relationship would never work for us. Obviously I’m happy that that happened. It just shows everything happens for a reason.

There were hardly any paparazzi following you around Tybee. Did that feel surreal?

I was so stoked! It was so good to have a few months to forget them all. It was sad to leave that kind of fairy-tale land. Everyone thought I would be ready, but I wasn’t. I wanted more time there and more time with Liam. I didn’t know what would happen to us as soon as I left Tybee.

Was falling for Liam a huge surprise?

Yeah. I’m not really a big lovey person. I’m not, like, mushy. I was pretty much like, “I’m going to die alone!” Liam was the first person that made me want to be in a real relationship.

How are the two of you similar?

From the outside we look so different. I’m pretty much in, like, all black and very into fashion. He’s so surfer boy. He could care less. But it’s about the inside and how you feel and connect spiritually. We connect in that way.

When you went to visit Liam in Australia in January, did you try Vegemite?

No, I wouldn’t do Vegemite. I wouldn’t surf. I’m pretty much the worst girlfriend ever! But his mom cooked every night. If I moved there, I might gain weight! I was like, “I’ll be out of work if I don’t leave this place.”

Have you dropped the L word yet?

Uh … Maybe. Maybe not. [Laughs]

You’re turning 18 this year. Do you already feel like an adult?

I think I’ve always been independent just because of my job and what I do. I don’t feel like I’ve ever just been a kid like everyone else.

Your mom made you promise to live at home until you’re 20. Are you still being held to that agreement?

I got out of that! I’m actually buying a place. I haven’t moved in yet. I’m still reconstructing, but I’m happy to decorate a house the way I like it.

Congrats! Did your mother cry?

No, my mom’s stoked! She loves interior designing. My house is a loving place. It’s really Zen. I don’t care who you are, you’ll feel like you can just come there and relax. It’s serene, like my own kind of therapy.

Okay, homeowner, in what ways do you still feel like a kid?

I’m really goofy, and I’ll always be like that. I don’t care if I’m, like, 100. I just want to have a good time and laugh and giggle. I don’t take this life too seriously.

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