- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

“Artsy” can be dangerous.

Pouty lips, wispy hair, cherry-red toenail polish, satin sheets and a 15-year-old with a pristine image: What can go wrong here? Teenage singing starlet Miley Cyrus seemingly was stripped of more than her clothing during a Vanity Fair photo spread that morphed the down-home gal into a bare-bellied Lolita.

Miley, 15, is risking the very brand image that could earn her parent company Disney more than $1 billion in the next three years. The star of the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” initially seemed at home with the portraits produced by the disquieting visionary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has persuaded notables to do all sorts of things in the name of art.

I think it’s really artsy,” Miley told the magazine in an online preview of the story before its images were made public, prompting a predictable ruckus on tabloid TV and in the blogosphere.

The G-rated country girl initially insisted the display was not “skanky.”

Things changed as quickly as the media could spell “B-r-i-t-n-e-y” and connect the fallen-child-star dots. Radar magazine, for example, published a list of the top 10 youthful performers — Brooke Shields, Angelina Jolie and others — who appeared contrite about risque photos of themselves that mysteriously surfaced.

“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. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about,” Miley said in a statement.

“Most of all, I have let myself down. I will learn from my mistakes and trust my support team. My family and my faith will guide me through my life’s journey.”

Both the magazine and Miss Leibovitz countered that the young woman’s “parents and/or minders” had been hanging around the set all day and had seen preliminary images. They deemed the bare-backed, limpid-eyed portrait of Miley with a length of satin clutched to her throat “beautiful and natural.”

“I’m sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted,” Miss Leibovitz said in a statement released by the magazine. “Miley and I looked at fashion photographs together and we discussed the picture in that context before we shot it.

“The photograph is a simple, classic portrait shot with very little makeup, and I think it is very beautiful.”

Still, the connotations of both story and images are a long way from giddy concerts for prepubescent girls and “Hannah Montana,” the Disney Channel’s Emmy-nominated showcase that has earned record ratings since debuting in 2006. The program features the adventures of a teen girl who is secretly a pop singer. The franchise has become so important to the company founded by Walt Disney that it staged an “international” forum to discuss the future of “all things Hannah” in February.

Forums notwithstanding, the marketplace has become more speedy and insidious since the days when the wise Mr. Disney himself ensured that such young stars as Annette Funicello stayed on message and out of trouble as their careers unfolded. These days, the list of fallen — or at least compromised — former Mouseketeers includes singers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Some observers are not buying any of it. In a blog for Newsday, TV critic Verne Gay was convinced that Miley was deliberately trying to jettison her child-star status with the photos.

“She’s already moved past her ‘tween demographic’ and is trying to target a bigger, or broader one. It’s all about business,” Mr. Gay said. “The Cyrus brain trust knew exactly what they were doing too — they just forgot to tell Disney.”

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