Just when cynics sniggered when a clean-cut 15-year-old announced that she's writing a memoir, Miley Cyrus finally appears to have some juicy material, appearing semi-nude in an issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
The child actress who plays wholesome "Hannah Montana" may be transitioning to femme fatale, say image experts — a challenge for the Disney brand that is worth multi-millions.
The photo in question, taken by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, shows Cyrus posed in profile clutching a blanket to her chest with her back bare — one of several shots of the teenager scheduled to appear in the magazine's June issue.
It was a bold, if not altogether original, move for the teen icon, and one that she appears to be regretting since the news broke. Cyrus and her parents, who were reportedly on site for the photo shoot, say the image was a result of their naiveté.
With millions of dollars tied to her thus far squeaky clean image, the family is backtracking and Cyrus has already publicly apologized for the spread, which has not even hit newsstands yet.
"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, the daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, told the press this week. "I never intended for any of this to happen, and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about."
But some observers believe the foray into more revealing territory may have been a marketing move gone wrong.
For its part, Disney, which is also the parent company of ABC News, is all too aware of the value of the Hannah Montana brand and the investment in the star's good girl image.
"For Miley Cyrus to be a 'good girl' is now a business decision for her," Gary Marsh, the president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide, said recently in Portfolio magazine. "Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won't get it back."
Tens of of millions of fans worldwide know the fictional Hannah Montana as a school girl with a secret life as a rock star, and her popularity has spawned a marketing bonanza.
The Hannah Montana brand includes 15 million related books sold, two multi-platinum records, a sold-out concert tour and film, as well as fan gear, like lunch boxes, bed sheets and MP3 players. Reports in the New York Times and New York Post suggest that if her popularity continues to grow, the teen star could be worth $1 billion by the time she is 18.
Just last week, Publisher's Weekly reported that Cyrus had signed a mega-deal to write about her life, published by Disney Book Group, covering her early upbringing in Tennessee.
But even with all of that on the line, some wonder if the Vanity Fair shoot was a calculated attempt to change the young star's image and transition her into an ingenue adult brand.
"They could be getting ready for the next thing," said Evangelia Souris, president of Optimum International Center for Image Management. "Her image is her commodity and her brand, and it could make the stocks rise for that. As a strategizing point, it makes sense. But she probably could have waited a couple more years."