Miley Cyrus' bare back photo -- A racy ''Vanity Fair'' cover of the ''Hannah Montana'' star stirs controversy and questions about her future

She first offended our national sensibilities by appearing on film, in a backseat, without — gasp — a seat belt. Then came some widely leaked, kinda suggestive candid photos — from sharing a piece of licorice with a girlfriend to defiantly showing off the edge of a lacy green bra. Finally, the kicker: a Vanity Fair photo shoot in which 15-year-old Disney Channel star Miley Cyrus bared her back to the camera, wrapped in what appeared to be nothing but a satin sheet. Yes, it seems the tween idol has spent almost as much time issuing apologies in 2008 as she has dominating box offices, concert ticket sales, cable television ratings, and album charts.

Debate over Miley’s image — and how many dings a billion-dollar empire built on one girl’s goodness can take — came to a head with the April 28 release of photos by Annie Leibovitz, long famed for her au naturel celeb shots. Everyone from Bill O’Reilly to the New York Post to any blog with a passing interest in provocative shots of teenage girls (read: all of them) piled on to blame and shame the star (while, naturally, sensationalizing the incident for their own gain). But in a world that has survived Britney and Lindsay, Miley should be the least of our worries, right? Why the furor over portraits that were supposedly approved by her parents and published by a respected magazine?

The problem stems from what has become a necessary evil of the tween biz, marketing kids as commodities. Miley was carefully constructed from day one as a family girl — her costar (and, of course, best friend) is her dad, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. As her alter ego, pop star Hannah Montana, she sings of female empowerment (”Who said I won’t be president?”) and the virtues of BFFs. It’s a time-honored tradition, predicating a teen star’s success on her parent-courting image more than her talent. Never has the purity shtick succeeded, however, to such a demographic-targeting, corporation-synergizing degree. She made Forbes‘ list of top 20 earners under 25 last year with an annual take of $3.5 million. Hannah Montana merchandise alone — dolls, clothing collections, housewares (from cups to headboards) — is expected to pull in a billion dollars in fiscal year 2007 — 08. As if her handlers were just sitting around thinking ”What medium haven’t we dominated yet?” she recently signed a reported seven-figure deal to write her memoir. At the wise old age of 15.

So does all of Miley’s earning power make her every impure pose fair game? Many say that it does. ”It’s sullied the brand,” says Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute. Echoes Christian Coalition spokesperson Michele Combs, ”A lot of parents had faith in that wholesome pop-star [idea] again. And then for her to do this, they just lose that faith.” Even a publicist who has worked with several struggling young starlets agrees: ”For her audience, it’s saying, You can do naked photos. It’s not a good message.”

Whatever the message, many observers blame Miley’s parents, who were on the Vanity Fair set (Dad’s in several of the fully clothed shots). The mea culpas came in varying forms from all sides, but it fell to the billion-dollar baby herself to issue the most overt apology: ”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.” Disney, in turn, defended her virtue, saying, ”Unfortunately…a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines.” Leibovitz said that she was ”sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted.” Vanity Fair was even less contrite, pointing fingers at Mom and Dad: ”Miley’s parents and/or minders were on the set all day. Since the photo was taken digitally, they saw it on the shoot and everyone thought it was a beautiful and natural portrait of Miley.”

However you interpret the shot — as art or as a deep betrayal of public trust — the furor calls to mind other teen stars who’ve tried to break away from the Mouse House: Annette Funicello’s transition to bikini movies or Britney Spears’ jailbait shot on the cover of Rolling Stone, circa 1999, in her bra and underwear, holding a Teletubby. (The root cause of all her subsequent problems? Discuss.) Even Miley’s onscreen mom knows from baring a little pubescent skin: Hannah Montana guest star Brooke Shields virtually invented the concept with scantily clad turns at 12 in Pretty Baby, and at 15 in both those Calvin Klein ads and The Blue Lagoon.

The Vanity Fair brouhaha hews more closely to those clearly calculated moves than the overt mistakes made by Miley’s arguably more scandalous peers such as High School Musical‘s Vanessa Hudgens (whose personal nudie pics spurred outrage last year) and Zoey 101‘s Jamie Lynn Spears (whose underage pregnancy continues to feed the tabs). It is possible to ”age up” in the worlds of Disney and Nickelodeon while avoiding any sexualizing scandal — Raven-Symoné and Amanda Bynes are two modestly successful examples — but it sure seems a lot tougher for female stars to reach the masses without seducing them a little. (As for the boys? Our chart at right indicates that things are hardly equal on that score.) Perhaps Sheetgate merely demonstrates the canniest use yet of this tired trick: Miley gets (over-) exposure in a national magazine and a slight image makeover without having to sink to, say, Jessica-Biel-topless-on-the-cover-of-Gear levels. And if she’s lucky, she might escape without major financial damage. ”I don’t see the Hannah Montana empire taking a huge hit from this,” says Mark Fightmaster, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. ”She’ll probably be all right as long as she stays on the straight and narrow.” Besides, he adds, ”distancing herself from Disney could help her in the future. The 15-, 16-year-old charm can only go so long.” In other words, you can’t lead a dual life as a regular schoolgirl by day and a secret pop star by night forever. But a dual life as a Disney brand and a budding sex symbol? Perhaps — if you’re worth a billion bucks.
With additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez and Lindsay Soll