Maybe you really can't have the best of both worlds if you're a teen starlet, no matter what the Hannah Montana song says. Two sets of photos emerged in the last several days showing Miley Cyrus in poses at odds with the G-rated image that has made the 15-year-old a heroine of tween girls, a favorite of their parents and a $1 billion-a-year earner for the Walt Disney Co. One set, some candid snapshots with Miley cuddling up to her boyfriend and flashing a green bra, were leaked onto the Internet. The other, a collection of posed come-hither shots by photographer Annie Leibovitz, were taken under the consenting eyes of parents, handlers and editors at Vanity Fair magazine.
The photos are coming to light just as Miley's career is exploding. She just signed a reportedly seven-figure deal for her memoirs and starts production on the first Hannah Montana feature film in May. Since most of Miley's fans aren't even old enough for their own green training bras yet, the emergence of the racy images calls into question the viability of an entertainment empire balanced on the delicate, developing shoulders of an adolescent girl.
"I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed," Miley said in a statement. "I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about." The most controversial of the images, which appear in the June issue of Vanity Fair, is the classic, "Guess what I just did" pose, showing Miley apparently topless, with a silk bedsheet gathered around her chest, her hair and lipstick mussed. In other shots, Miley is draped languidly across the lap of her father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
"It really bothers me that Miley is the one apologizing for all this," says Susan Olsen, who played Cindy on The Brady Bunch. "Her parents were there. The kid is never in control in a situation like this." Miley, like many child stars, is managed by her mother.
But the Vanity Fair article suggests the person really in charge was Leibovitz, whose promise of iconic, arty shots seems to hold such power over her subjects, it's a wonder she never talked Mother Teresa into dropping her habit and showing a little shoulder. Miley told the interviewer she found the bedsheet photo "really artsy. It wasn't in a skanky way. And you can't say no to Annie."
A manager to many former child stars, including Olsen, sees darker forces at work. "It seems to be a strategic career move," says Bonnie Vent, of Genesis Creations. "She's already queen of the tweens, so now they need to make her queen of the teen boys." And maybe even, if you want to extrapolate from her Lolita-esque poses with her dad, grown men.
Miley's Vanity Fair shoot was not our strategy, says the Disney Channel, which airs Hannah Montana, the down-home show that made Miley a star and revitalized her father's career. The company, which did not have a representative at the shoot, issued a statement saying, "Unfortunately, as the article suggests, a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines."
Disney is not in quite as delicate a spot as Nickelodeon found itself in December when Jamie Lynn Spears, then 16 and star of their hit show Zoey 101, announced she was 12 weeks pregnant. Still, it faces a challenging damage-control project.
"When a corporation makes a major investment in a teen girl, they're in for trouble," says Paul Peterson, who played Jeff Stone on the Donna Reed show and founded A Minor Consideration, a group of 600 former child stars who serve as industry watchdogs and advisers. "It was nine years ago that Baby One More Time announced the sexualization of Britney Spears. And look how that turned out."
Managers for other recent teen stars either declined to comment or didn't return calls. Vanity Fair didn't call back either, although a spokeswoman told the New York Times, "Miley's parents and/or minders were on the set all day. Since the photo was taken digitally, they saw it on the shoot and everyone thought it was a beautiful and natural portrait of Miley."
In her song "The Best of Both Worlds," Miley sings, "Pictures and autographs/You get your face in all the magazines/The best part's that/You get to be whoever you want to be." It's not clear who Miley wants to be right now, as it isn't for most 15-year-olds. But it is clear a lot of grown-ups have a great deal invested in what she decides.