Every Monday at the Cyrus household starts off the same—usually. Around 7:15 a.m. country singer and Dancing with the Stars alum Billy Ray Cyrus has a hot cup of Ovaltine ready for his 14-year-old daughter Miley when she tumbles out of bed. Then the two carpool over to the set of their hit Disney Channel show Hannah Montana for their 8:30 call time. But one recent Monday the man who sang “Achy Breaky Heart” was nowhere to be found. “I’m yelling for my dad up and down the house,” says Miley, curling up on a chair as her father sprawls on the floor next to her at the family’s Italian-style villa in Toluca Lake, Calif. “So I’m frantic. I go outside, and his car is gone, and my mom’s car is gone. So I call my dad and I’m like, ‘Dad? Did you forget somebody?’ He’s like, ‘You’re not with your mama?'”
“I didn’t forget her,” interjects Billy Ray in his southern drawl. “I just thought she had already gone.” Billy Ray drove back for his daughter and they headed to the set. “He was like, ‘You’re going to go in there and make me look like an idiot, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yup!'” recalls Miley, giggling. “Then he goes, ‘Well, I don’t need your help!'”
The tender bond between Billy Ray, 45, and Miley isn’t just an act on Hannah Montana. In the tween comedy—cable’s most-watched series among children 6 to 14—Miley plays an average kid leading a double life as a pop star and Billy Ray plays her easygoing but watchful father. In real life Billy Ray and his wife, Leticia, 40, are working hard to keep their daughter’s life as average as possible as she negotiates the perilous world of teen stardom. Her parents are all too aware of the troubles of young stars such as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. “The biggest phenomenon in all this is that the kid’s been able to keep her head on her shoulders,” says Billy Ray. “She hasn’t flipped out. I’m going to knock on wood.” He taps on a nearby wood candleholder. “I pray every day she can stay on that path.”
When it comes to her fast-growing fame, it’s tough staying a step ahead—even for Billy Ray, whose career is undergoing its own renaissance thanks to his turn this year on Dancing with the Stars. (His next album comes out July 24.) Last month the Cyruses and their five kids had to relocate to a new house (their third in less than two years since moving from Nashville to L.A.) with a gated entrance because so many young fans rang their doorbell, asking, “Is Hannah Montana home?” Miley’s Hannah Montana soundtrack went double platinum last year; her follow-up, Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, is just hitting stores. She says she now steers clear of movie theaters and amusement parks because the mob scenes “get pretty crazy.”
It’s a different story at home. “Everything is about keeping her grounded,” says Leticia, her mom and manager, who’s called “Tish.” “She knows that if there was any time I felt like things were getting to be too much for her, we would just not do it.” After all, says Tish, behind the blonde wig and glittery eye shadow of Hannah Montana “she’s just a kid.” Adds Billy Ray: “We try to make it as normal as possible living in this world that she’s in.”
So aside from juggling homework (she’s enrolled in a public school that allows her to study on set and come in for exams on Fridays) with her Monday through Friday shooting schedule, Miley tackles her share of chores, such as loading the dishwasher every night. When she’s grounded, her parents revoke all computer privileges and “I still threaten her with a wooden spoon to the butt!” Tish says. Every Sunday Miley must attend church with the rest of the family, which includes Braison, 13, Noah, 7, and Tish’s kids from a previous relationship, Brandi, 20, and Trace, 18, whom Billy Ray adopted as tots. (“They consider him their dad,” says Tish; Billy Ray also has a son from a previous relationship, Christopher Cody, 15.) Then there are Mom’s magazine-wielding lectures about the missteps of young Hollywood. “It is so scary as a mom to see all these kids who are so whacked now,” Tish says. “I don’t want to be too much and have her rebel. Not that we think she’s going to do that, but Miley does have a very explosive personality, which scares me a little.”
If Mom is the family’s disciplinarian, Dad is the confidant. “We’re really close,” Miley says. “I feel like I can tell my dad anything. When we come home, we forget that we even work together and just hang out.” Says Billy Ray: “It’s the same with Miley as it is with all my kids. I try to be their best friend…. It’s a real fine line, and thus far”—he knocks on wood again—”it’s a line I’ve been able to walk.”
And he brings the perspective of his own rough ride with fame. After “Achy Breaky Heart” became a huge hit in ’92, the Kentucky native struggled with lackluster album sales and a backlash from the country music community until he decided to take a step back. “I became a recluse,” says Billy Ray, who retreated to his 500-acre Nashville farm with Tish (they wed in 1993, a year after Miley was born). “All I wanted to do is be with my family.” When Miley—her given name is Destiny Hope, but she was such a bubbly baby that Billy Ray nicknamed her Smiley and shortened it to Miley over the years—was growing up, father and daughter would set out on horseback or ATV for daylong adventures. Says Billy Ray: “We played our hearts out.”
Billy Ray reinvented himself as an actor in 2001 with the TV drama Doc while Miley was also turning into a budding actress. Each time she was rejected for a role, “I’d see those little tears come down her face and I’d hold her and say, ‘Enjoy being a kid. There is too much heartache to mess up your childhood,'” recalls Billy Ray. But “she kept stepping up to the plate, and danggone, the right opportunity came at the right time.”
Opportunity’s name was Hannah Montana. When Miley landed the title role on the L.A.-based series, the Cyruses packed their bags for the wild, wild West Coast, where Miley uses her allowance to go clothes shopping with pals Ashley Tisdale and Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical. She’s also dating Nick Jonas, 14, of the rock trio the Jonas Brothers. Surprisingly, the idea of his teen daughter dating hasn’t caused Billy Ray’s blood pressure to spike—yet. “What the kids do these days is that they have group dates. A whole bunch of kids go to a movie or to a pizza joint,” he says. “She really hasn’t had a date date.”
Nor will she experience many of the traditional coming-of-age milestones. Recently when Miley went to a friend’s dance, “she pretended it was her prom, because she doesn’t go to a regular school. It made me sad. I get freaky just thinking about it,” says Billy Ray with a shudder. “I feel sorry for her sometimes. She sacrifices a lot for this.”
Which is why Billy Ray and Tish made one big concession and gave Miley a small section of the house that boasts a bedroom and a separate sitting room, where Miley “can just chill out,” says Tish—who in exchange made Miley promise to live at home until she’s 20. “We’re designing it so it’s really hip,” says Miley. “I forget what hotel it’s modeled after….”
“The Holiday Inn?” says Billy Ray.
“No, that’s your room, Dad,” says Miley with a laugh.
Billy Ray ruefully anticipates a time in Miley’s career when “it’ll be cool to get the old man out of the way.” But Miley doesn’t fret over the future. Like her dad, “we don’t really worry about anything,” she says. “We let life do its thing, and we just sit back and enjoy the ride.” That is if Billy Ray remembers to give her a lift.