A Disney Star Is Born

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Actress Miley Cyrus, who plays the title role in Disney TV's Hannah Montana, appears on MTV's Total Request Live October 23, 2006, in New York City.

She embodies every pre-teen's fantasy: a cool 13-year-old with great hair and a secret life as a pop star. But to executives at the Disney Channel, Miley Cyrus is more of a dream come true.

Cyrus stars as Miley Stewart in Hannah Montana, the cable channel's live-action show about a girl who leads a normal life by day but at night dons a blonde wig to perform as a famous pop star (Hannah). It's a role that has turned Cyrus into a real-life TV star and Hannah Montana into a monster hit among a generation of tweens too young for Degrassi and too old for Dora the Explorer. "In Miley we found the perfect girl to carry off this part," says executive producer Michael Poryes. "She has a kind of strength and sweetness that make her character appealing, an unmistakable something that makes you believe she's a star."

That's what Disney is counting on. Having just celebrated her 14th birthday, Cyrus is at the center of a synergistic whirlwind of guest appearances, concert dates and recording sessions aimed at hyping Hannah Montana. She's performing in several cities as opening act for The Cheetah Girls — a made-by-Disney tween-targeted girl group — on their 40-city tour. She rode a celebrity float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade before returning to Los Angeles to start production on the series' second season.

Since its March debut — which drew 54 million viewers and was the biggest premiere in the cable channel's 23-year history — Hannah Montana has become the most popular show on television among pre-teen girls ages 9 to 14 and is consistently watched by more kids ages 6 to 11 than any other TV series. The Hannah Montana soundtrack, which features Cyrus performing eight songs, debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart several weeks ago and is still holding its own in the top five. There are Hannah Montana fan clubs, web sites, mobile phone clips, branded apparel, and a movie isn't far behind.

But if you think the success of Hannah Montana is due solely to Cyrus' charm and talent, you've been watching too many Disney movies. Like her predecessors, Hillary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) and Raven Symone (That's So Raven), the twangy-voiced Cyrus was plucked from the ranks of minor actors by Disney and anointed to be its newest star. While she certainly has musical talent and charisma, she's also the product of a winning formula for creating shows that tweens love and make stars out of its leads.

"Disney has become a hit machine and all cylinders are clicking," says Jason Maltby, president of New York-based MediaShare, a New York based ad buying firm. "Its successes breed more successes and provide a platform for new shows like Hannah Montana."

The formula starts with a simple concept: an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. "It has to have an aspirational quality," explains Disney Channel Worldwide President Rich Ross. The idea for a show about a teen girl leading a double life as a pop star had the right fantasy quotient for the target audience. "Celebrity is huge for kids because of the sense of empowerment. Especially with all the reality shows now on TV," says executive producer Steven Peterman.

But the most important part, which Disney has perfected, is identifying and developing unknown talent to star in its shows. Like other Disney Channel series, Hannah Montana was cast-contingent when the network green-lighted the concept in 2005. The search for the right actress to play Miley Stewart — Hannah Montana by night — went on for a year. The young woman had to be appealing and cool for tweens but also parent-friendly. Producers say they want actors who can balance school with the demands of a TV show — and not end up in the tabloids. She also had to have musical talent. Eventually the script was shelved because they couldn't find the right actress to play the part. "It takes patience," says Ross of the search "We needed someone with talent but also the maturity to handle the pressure." Adds Disney Channel Entertainment President Gary Marsh: "We have brand promises to keep."

It so happened that Cyrus, who is the daughter of country singer Billy Ray ("Achy Breaky Heart") Cyrus — who plays her dad in the show — was raised on music, a prerequisite for Hannah, and had acted in several small roles. But she was sent home after an audition because she was too small. So Miley went back to Tennessee and spent the next year inundating the producers with tapes of herself performing, until they relented and gave the her role.

From the start there was no question that music would be a big part of the series. Around 2001, when the Disney Channel started to catch on with its kid-driven family friendly shows like Lizzie McGuire and Kim Possible, executives realized that music was an important part of the formula for serving a tween audience. By sponsoring concerts and turning series leads into pop stars, they could launch music acts and beef up the show's brand. Walt Disney Records' 2003 release of Hillary Duff's album and soundtrack proved them right, followed by The Cheetah Girls, a music-based TV movie about four friends aspiring to be pop stars featuring Symone of Raven. From that platform the Hannah Montana soundtrack was launched.

Cyrus takes her newfound success in stride. She says she understands why Hannah Montana is so popular. "Kids relate to it," Cyrus told TIME. "They see Miley Stewart as a normal girl with a huge dream. It shows them never to give up on their dreams, which is a cool thing."