By now just about everyone has heard that Milie Cyrus posed "topless" for Vanity Fair magazine (news reports here and here). Okay, so it's not exactly what you expect when you hear the word topless. But the critics are right, no matter how unrevealing or artsy the photo is, it is simply wrong and exploitative to ask a fifteen-year-old to pose for this kind of suggestive photograph, even for Annie Leibovitz.
So why did Milie do it? Why would her parents, who were reportedly on the shoot, allow it? Some have argued it's another case of Hollywood values and bad parenting (and they may be right), but I think there's something more to it than that. I think it comes down to competing brands.
Hannah Montana will make something close to one billion dollars for Disney this year. That's right, billion with a B. It's a great story, a more or less regular girl living a secret double life as a rock star. The best of both worlds, as the theme song says. And Disney has built the character into a powerhouse brand.
On the other hand, Milie Cyrus will take home something closer to twenty million dollars for playing the character on TV and in concert appearances. Now twenty million is nothing to sneeze at, but it's not a billion. Not even close.
So how does Milie go from being the actress that plays Hannah to a rock star in her own right, and grab a bigger piece of the billion-dollar pie? How does she move beyond the eight- to twelve-year-old girls that make up the television-watching HM fan base and appeal more to the high school and college kids that attend concerts? How does she develop her own brand story, separate from Disney's Hannah Montana character? One way is to be more controversial. Get noticed.
So we get the photo (which may or may not have been a publicity stunt). Then a quick apology. But there will be more. Maybe not photos, but something else to make it clear that while Milie plays Hannah, Milie is not Hannah. Because when it comes down to it Milie Cyrus' brand story will always be more important to Milie (and her minders) than the Hannah Montana brand story.
One brand that is certainly enjoying the controversy is Vanity Fair.