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Who's minding Miley?
Will tween queen's reputation, $1B franchise take a hit after photo saga?

Forbes.com staff

Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old star of Disney's Hannah Montana juggernaut, is the latest tween sensation to threaten her innocent reputation -- and give her parent company a headache -- after posing for racy photos that appeared online this weekend.

But the photos -- including one of Cyrus topless, clutching a blanket over her chest -- weren't taken by an amateur with an ax to grind. Instead, they were part of an Annie Leibovitz spread that will run in an upcoming issue of Vanity Fair. Cyrus apologized to her fans and told People magazine that she "never intended for any of this to happen."

In Pictures: Tween Sensations Courting Controversy

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Intentional or not, fans -- and Disney -- better get used to it. Like the Olsen twins and other stars before her, Cyrus is clearly growing up. But her risqué transition from tween to teen risks alienating her core fan base, and their purse-holding parents.

Some actors, such as Daniel Radcliffe, can pull it off. The star of the Harry Potter film series made waves last summer by performing nude in London's West End revival of Equus. The role helped establish him as an adult actor. Others, such as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, haven't fared as well.

"This is a typical issue for kids transitioning into adulthood, that their image becomes more adult," says Laura Martin, a senior media analyst for Soleil Securities. She doesn't expect the photo flap to have a material impact on Disney's revenues, despite online griping from angry parents. "Her parents are in charge of managing her reputation and should edit her image more carefully," Martin says.

Former Disney girls Lohan and Spears should have heeded that advice. Like Cyrus, both were once squeaky-clean Disney tweens. Yet by her late teens, Lohan tore that image to shreds, becoming a high-profile Hollywood party girl, adding car crashes, paparazzi battles and repeated rehab stints to her resume.

Related: Is Miley turning into the next Britney?

The "Mean Girls" star now draws weaker box-office crowds than she did prepublicity storm. Her campy 2007 thriller "I Know Who Killed Me" grossed a measly $7 million in the United States.

Spears was the most famous Mousketeer since Annette Funicello when she released the single "... Baby One More Time" in October 1998.The video showed Spears, then 17, writhing in a provocative schoolgirl uniform. The album went diamond, selling 25 million copies worldwide.

Spears' incendiary videos, lyrics and dances earned her comparisons to Madonna, while her next two albums also debuted at No. 1. For a while, Spears was one of the top-earning women in entertainment. Less than a decade later, she's better known for manic behavior, questionable parenting skills and substance abuse.

With Cyrus, the stakes are bigger. Tween-focused franchises such as "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical" have become a major element of Disney's strategy, as it attempts to capture the 6- to 14-year-old set as they outgrow animation-focused children's programming.

Revenue from Disney's parks and resorts, as well as its filmed entertainment, has slowed, and Cyrus provides content and a brand that can be cross-sold across different platforms, including TV, film, music and consumer products.

Since her 2006 debut, Cyrus has had four DVDs, two CDs, video games, young adult novels and a sold-out concert tour. Her rock-concert documentary, "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds," brought in $31 million in its opening weekend. This year, retail sales for the Hannah Montana franchise, which includes clothes, shoes, makeup and spa kits, is expected to reach $1 billion.

"You have to be overly cautious with a brand like hers," says Howard Bragman, a public relations executive and the author of the upcoming "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" "You don't want to risk upsetting the mothers." Bragman adds that, whereas the Vanity Fair photos aren't risqué, they're not appropriate for a brand that counts 4-year-olds among its die-hard followers.

Even so, says Bragman, both Cyrus and Disney should survive unscathed. "It's a skinned knee, not a career-wrecker."

In Pictures: Tween Sensations Courting Controversy

More galleries on Forbes.com
Eight Hot Kid Stars To Watch
Celebrity Billionaires
Top-Earning Young Superstars
Most Overexposed Celebrities

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