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When Miley Cyrus smiles, so does Disney

The Baltimore Sun

Miley Cyrus doesn't look like a mouse. Or a befuddled bear. Or even a princess. But make no mistake, like Mickey, Winnie the Pooh and Snow White before her, she is a Disney franchise.

Miley is the star of Hannah Montana, a half-hour Disney Channel sitcom following the travails of Miley Stewart, a young girl living in Malibu, Calif., who also happens to be pop star Hannah Montana. Costarring real-life dad Billy Ray Cyrus and consistently featuring a wish list of co-stars including Dolly Parton and Larry David, Hannah Montana is one of the top-rated kids' shows of all time (in 2006, it was second only to American Idol among kids 6 to 14). Miley's first album, the 2006 Hannah Montana soundtrack, made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart (a first for a TV soundtrack), sold more than 280,000 copies in its first week and subsequently went double platinum.

Her second album, a two-disc set titled Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, was released June 26 and beat out Kelly Clarkson's new album to be No. 1, selling 326,000 copies.

There is, of course, a feature film in the works.

This year, Miley performed as Hannah at London's famed Koko club (Madonna had been there a few days before) and, with Mickey and Minnie, cut the ribbon to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Disneyland Paris.

Only a 14-year-old would have that much energy.

Her country-singer father also plays her father on the show, and if no one was quite prepared for the juggernaut of Hannah Montana, the Cyrus family is quite familiar with fame - its requirements, its seductions and its limitations.

"My mom is always telling me it takes a long time to get to the top," Miley says in all teenage seriousness, "but a short time to get to the bottom."

It's hard to imagine what the bottom looks like for a 14-year-old, although names like Lindsay Lohan and Danny Bonaduce do present themselves. Right now, Miley is safe within the Disney biosphere, the multimedia incubation unit for adolescent stars such as The Suite Life of Zach & Cody's Dylan and Cole Sprouse, Raven-Symone of That's So Raven then The Cheetah Girls, and Lizzie McGuire's Hilary Duff.

Nickelodeon was the one to invent a channel dedicated to kids' programming, but the Disney Channel, which doesn't have to worry about a pesky little problem like attracting advertisers, often seems to own the demographic. (Nick's recent debut of The Naked Brothers Band is a clear answer to Hannah Montana in form and story line.) So with that and Radio Disney in full swing, Hannah is the perfect multimedia creation - music, concerts, TV, two sets of clothing and other merchandise, and a feature film coming.

"Hannah Montana has turned into a phenomenon," says Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide. "The music is a giant add-on. The ultimate wish fulfillment. Here at Disney, television is just the launch pad. For other networks, it's the end, but here it just launches them into the next tier."

As perfect as Miley seems for the role, she was not on anyone's A-list when writers Michael Poryes, Rich Correll and Barry O'Brien came up with the concept. Disney searched Los Angeles and New York for Hannah and came up empty-handed. Miley, who had the acting bug and an agent but no real experience, sent in an audition tape. The execs were impressed but in no way convinced.

"She was charming as all get-out and a natural singer," says Marsh. "But she was 12. And we didn't see handing over this show to a 12-year-old with no acting experience."

Still, as months stretched into a year and still no Hannah, Marsh and company decided to fly Miley to Los Angeles. Again, they were charmed but not quite sold. There was another actress, a 16-year-old with lots of sitcom experience, and it came down to the two of them. The vote in the room was, at last, evenly split, and Marsh had to make the call. A copy of the e-mail he sent the next day says it all:

"We pride ourselves not just on creating great television, but on creating stars; not just on launching careers, but on launching franchises for the entire Walt Disney Company.

"So, after consulting with everyone involved I'm ready to pull the trigger on Miley."

Now Miley can't go anywhere without an army of children, and adults, swarming her, begging for autographs and photographs.

Just recently, she says, she had to use a bodyguard for the first time. "We went to Six Flags and my little sister was with us, so we had to have someone to stay with me so she could go on the rides with my mom and I could stay and sign autographs. But it's important because the more out there you are, the less people think of you as a character. They think of you as a real person."

Her father has also experienced a renaissance because of the show - he was recently a contestant on Dancing With the Stars - although his casting was an afterthought.

"We had already found Dad before he came in," Poryes says. "We thought, 'Well, we'll be polite.'"

"But when he and Miley read together, Miley just opened up like a flower," says executive producer Steven Peterman. "There was such natural chemistry."

Billy Ray Cyrus put his own stamp on the show - not only did he bring music-world cred (and guest stars such as Parton) but he took a typically over-amped kids' sitcom and slowed it a bit.

"Billy has his own rhythms," Peterman says. "He doesn't do a quick, glib reading of traditional comedy; he calms it down."

"He makes you feel like everything is going to be just fine," Poryes says.

That "you" extends to his daughter as well. Miley describes their relationship as more friends than father and daughter, although the stories she tells seem pretty standard parent-child. Hollywood-style, of course. Cyrus embarrasses her by asking pretty much everyone he meets if they want to be on the show - "We were at this party and there was an Austin Powers look-alike and Dad thought he was the guy, you know, Mike Myers, so he says, 'You should be on our show,' and I said, 'Dad, you cannot be asking an Austin Powers look-alike to be on the show.'"

But her dad knows what it means to be in for the long haul, and that is what Miley wants: a lifelong career without the all-too-common stops in rehab and eating-disorder clinics.

"I think about that, but I don't worry about it," she says of other child stars who have had trouble on their way to adulthood. "I have a pretty strong family, and I think that is important. And my music keeps me focused. I like the acting and the music, but the music is what's most important. I want to do that all my life."

Which is precisely what Disney has in mind.

Mary McNamara writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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