Tuned In

Did Hannah Jump or Was She Pushed?

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In a move that shocked parents and the Disney corporation’s accountants, teen star Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Hannah Montana, has posed seminude for Vanity Fair’s June issue. In the photo, by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, Cyrus appears bare-backed, with a blanket clutched to her chest. (No actual Montanas were exposed.)

In the article—and in Vanity Fair’s account of Cyrus’ seeing the pictures before they were published—Cyrus seems delighted with the pix (“‘really artsy,’ but not ‘in a skanky way'”). After the word broke and controversy ensued, however, Cyrus said that she regretted taking the photo (which, she said in a statement, “was supposed to be ‘artistic'”) and Disney blasted Vanity Fair for taking advantage of Cyrus.

So which is it?

It is impossible to know the mind of a child star, of course, but every indication I have of Cyrus is that she is an almost frighteningly canny professional, handled by other frighteningly canny professionals—including her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, who costars on Montana and helps manage her career. [Update: And who, I should note, was not only at the photo shoot but is in one of the photos with her.]

It is thus a little hard to entirely buy Disney’s outraged spin on the photo: “Unfortunately, as the article suggests, a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines”—as if Leibovitz lured a doe-eyed Cyrus into a van with the promise of a rainbow lollipop. Cyrus is a 15-year-old, and that statement may divert the anger of tweens’ parents from Cyrus to the big bad magazine, but she is not your average 15-year-old. (To Cyrus’ credit, by the way, her statement, unlike Disney’s, does not try to shunt all the blame off on other people.)

But that doesn’t mean that this was all a fiendishly clever publicity stunt that Cyrus engineered down to the finest detail in advance, either. Leibovitz does have a reputation of persuading famous people, mainly grown adults, to pose for photos they should perhaps not pose for—as good celebrity photogs do. (She also gets them to pose for fantastically flattering photographs, which is why stars want to work with her.) So it’s plausible that, as Cyrus tells VF, “You can’t say no to Annie. She’s so cute. She gets this puppy-dog look, and you’re like, OK.” It’s plausible that the photos came out racier than she expected, or that she simply misjudged how they would be received. Maybe.

Still: Cyrus knew what she was wearing, or not wearing, as did the handlers who were apparently there to handle her. This was exactly not a surprise papparrazzi assault. Rather, Cyrus is now repudiating, in a stage-managed publicity statement, her appearance in a stage-managed publicity photo. The truth, in these situations, is often somewhere between the brilliant publicity stunt and the dastardly media assault: part of being a great star is simply taking the situation you find yourself in and spinning it to your advantage.

And Cyrus could be doing that brilliantly well right now. The VF photo—which, after all, is PG-rated and not in the league of a leaked nude shot on the Internet—may ruffle some feathers, but she well knows that she’ll eventually have to transition from being a child star to a plain old grown-up star. You can do that well, like Justin Timberlake, or like Britney Spears for a while after her teenybopper years. You can do it poorly, like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears now. But unless you’re going to retire or go the Ron Howard change-of-career route, you’ve got to do it eventually.

Hannah Montana, in other words, is too smart to believe that she can be Hannah Montana forever. She’s already been engaged in a calculated effort to stop being identified solely as “Hannah Montana,” and to gradually roll out the public persona of, well, herself; on her concert tour last year, she performed part of her act as Hannah and part as Miley.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she has to stop being Hannah Montana tomorrow, or this year. But it does mean, at some point, gradually getting her audience used to seeing her as older. Now, I am not saying that nearly flashing one’s ahem-ahems to Vanity Fair is the only way to do that. But it is one way. (As is the circulation of the pix of an underwear-clad Cyrus that appeared online last week.) And her interests and the Disney Channel’s interests are not always going to be the same.

In the meantime, her reject-and-denounce statement on the photo—casting herself, Montana-like, as the down-home naif who made the mistake of posing for an “artistic” shot—may be enough to get fans and parents to excuse her and for the whole thing to blow over. If it’s not, well, she’s still projected to be worth $1 billion by the time she hits 18. How’s your 401k doing? Miley Cyrus may need a blanket, but I wouldn’t bother handing her a handkerchief just now.