Michelle Tan and Liza Hamm
May 12, 2008 12:00 PM

On April 27, it seemed like business as usual for the Cyrus family in their hometown of Franklin, Tenn. Singer Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter Miley attended a private screening of a movie by Peter Chelsom, the director of her upcoming Hannah Montana feature film. The day of father-daughter bonding also included a family dinner at the Wolfgang Puck Express across the street. Says a witness: “Miley was low-key.”

By the next morning there was nothing low-key about being Miley Cyrus. The Disney darling—who stars in the sassy-but-squeaky-clean title role of the hit Disney Channel series Hannah Montana—found herself in the eye of a media firestorm after news hit that a revealing portrait of the 15-year-old would appear in June’s Vanity Fair. The photo, in which Miley is posed shirtless but partially covered in a satin stole, was released just days after personal photos leaked onto the Internet of the teen star cuddling with a boy and showing her bra (see box). Debate over whether the photos were too racy for a young teen—and for her even younger fans—became a hot topic from The View to countless blogs. In a statement to PEOPLE, Miley apologized for both sets of pictures. “I feel so embarrassed,” she said, adding of her fans, “[I] hope they understand that along the way I am going to make mistakes and I am not perfect.”

But for a Disney princess who is known for her Christian faith and tight-knit family—and whose show is so popular that merchandise sales are expected to hit a billion dollars this year—there’s considerable pressure to keep a pristine public image. Will the photos do damage to Miley’s career? On one blog, a mom contemplated burning her kid’s Hannah Montana merchandise, but many fans support Miley. “What we’re hearing the most is that [young fans] are disappointed, but they still love her,” says Denise Restauri, founder of AllyKatzz.com, a social networking site for teens and tweens. “They want to believe in her.” (In a People.com poll, 77 percent of readers thought the Vanity Fair portrait was inappropriate, but only 52 percent thought it would hurt her career.) Industry experts aren’t too worried about her. “Miley has a bank of goodwill,” says Jerry Del Colliano, a music industry professor at USC. “These pictures aren’t going to hurt her now, but if she doesn’t keep it clean she won’t be able to rebound as quickly.” And there are some who think the Vanity Fair story was worth the risk. “She’s growing up,” says John Eckel, CEO of Alliance Entertainment and Sports Marketing. “She’s going to be stretching as a performer. She may lose some moms as fans, but now people see her in a new light.”

Other young stars have also weighed in. “It’s not what I would choose to do,” Disney alum Hilary Duff, 20, says of the Vanity Fair photo. “It’s not an easy position to be in. People are pushing you to do something, and if you want to do it, that’s your choice.” Adds former Nickelodeon star Emma Roberts, 17, of fame in the MySpace age: “You’re a kid, people take pictures. It just stinks that we’re all growing up in the spotlight and everyone has to see it.”

The Disney Channel stands by Miley and claims Vanity Fair‘s renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz encouraged her to pose for the photo during the February shoot. “A situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines,” says a Disney rep. Vanity Fair says Miley’s parents, Billy Ray and Tish, or other minders were present for the entire shoot. “Since the photo was taken digitally, they saw it on the shoot and everyone thought it was a beautiful and natural portrait of Miley.” But a source close to the Cyrus family says that the shirtless picture was taken after Miley’s parents left the shoot and only her grandmother and teacher were on hand. “[Annie] took advantage of the opportunity,” says the source, adding that Miley’s parents “are mortified.” Leibovitz says in a statement that she is sorry the “simple, classic” photo has been “misinterpreted.”

Miley can weather the storm, says fellow Disney Channel star Brenda Song, 20. “She is probably the most charismatic and strong 15-year-old I know. She’ll definitely get through this.” Says Miley: “My family and my faith will guide me through my life’s journey…. I will learn from my mistakes.”

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