April 29, 2008 -- 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."
Worth $1 Billion By 18?
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."
Other young stars have made similar moves. Child actress Brooke Shields played a young teen who consummated an affair on a desert island in the 1980 movie, "Blue Lagoon." Britney Spears, once a Disney Mouseketeer, turned on her fan base and sexed-up her image before her career and personal life disintegrated.
Disney Television did not return phone calls for comment, but fired off a statement to Vanity Fair: "Unfortunately, as the article suggests, a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines," said the statement from Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague.
Public relations mogul Howard Rubenstein told ABCNews.com the photos would hardly damage a "strong" company like Disney.
"It slightly dents their image, but it will soon be dissipated," he said. "Oddly enough, our young society has seen and heard far more salacious things and this will be over very quickly."
Rubenstein faults Cyrus — or her parents — for not speaking out before she admitted, "Whoops, what did I do?"
"The picture is suggestive, but it's not so terrible," said Rubenstein. "It is contrary to the image she portrays, but she did a smart thing getting out ahead of the story. She did apologize."
Parents at Fault
Still, Rubenstein faults the parents, who he said should have made better choices.
"The parents had a very serious responsibility they didn't fulfill," Rubenstein said. "I blame it on them as much as the kid."
Joey Bartolomeo, celebrity writer for Us Weekly magazine, agrees that Cyrus's exposure beyond the Disney-age audience "certainly won't hurt her."
But she speculates the young actress may have been cajoled by the charming Leibovitz. "The only person who ever said no to her (Leibovitz) was Queen Elizabeth," said Bartolomeo.
"Miley has such young fans, and the last thing she wants to do is get their parents upset," she said. "She has a lot of people to please, her fans and Disney, number one. She came out sad and embarrassed, and people believed her. She has such a solid reputation and such a good girl image."
But the Vanity Fair dust-up comes just a week after less-than-wholesome photos of a girl, bearing a close resemblance to the 15-year-old superstar, made the rounds on the Internet. One showed a girl pulling down her tank top to reveal a lime-green bra. In another, she is draped over a young male, who rests his hand on her bare hip.
Airbrushed and False
Leslie Goldman, author of "Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-imagining the 'Perfect' Body," said the media, and not Cyrus, is to blame. And regardless of Cyrus' career consequences, her young, fawning fans are the most likely to be negatively affected by the risque image, she said.
"The purpose of these magazine shoots is to promote confidence and make girls happy with their bodies, but they are all airbrushed," said Goldman, who writes the blog "The Weighting Game."
"I wouldn't call it a nude photo, but it is suggestive," she said. "She has that 'come hither' look on her face and the sexy little pout. Part of me says, 'who wants to blame her in our society where young women are becoming sexual objects at such a young age?' But another part of me says, 'her parents were on the set and could have said something.'"
Women of all ages need to be more media savvy and realize the photos they are looking at give false messages.
"I think the danger is a young girl who looks up to Miley, sees the picture and thinks how sexy she looks and [how] beautiful she wants to be," she said. "The next things you know, she and her girlfriend have their photos on YouTube."
The "dangerous" message young girls draw from these types of images is "I need to take my clothes off to be loved," Goldman said.
Peter Kanaris, a New York psychologist and sex therapist, agrees that these images contribute to the sexualization of young girls.
"The message to young girls is your value is as a sex object, and you need to play that up in your appearance and put that self out into the world," he said.
Some are not emotionally or developmentally ready for the world's response to that sexuality.
The media "amplifies" the message that girls need to be sexy, according to Kanaris. "Sex sells and it's at the forefront of so many things, commercially and in entertainment."
Kanaris wonders if Cyrus's parents, themselves, buy into their daughter's sexed-up image, like so many other parents who see their children as "assets."
"The parents recognize the child has what it takes — whether selling sex for a girl or sports for a guy," he said. " We start them earlier and earlier, not because it's good for the child, but we found a product and want to shape them to make the product work."
With all the debate on sexuality, there has been little research on the effect of media images on pre-teens. But, says developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman, young girls sorely need more Hannah Montanas — at least the G-rated version.
"I was really distressed when I heard the news," said Tolman, a visiting professor of public health at Hunter College.
"In an age when there are so few role models — where the girl is cool and fun and popular and not getting that way by being sexy — taking that away can't be a good thing. We need to see more alternatives."