When a 15-year-old girl flashes a hint of her green bra in a playfully naughty photo on the Internet, hardly anyone -- aside from perhaps her parents -- blinks.
But when the teen is Miley Cyrus, the face of the billion-dollar "Hannah Montana" Disney Channel franchise, everyone stares. The provocative images risk tainting the squeaky-clean image that's made her a hero for young girls.
Disney Channel has emerged as a powerful creative engine for the Walt Disney Co., producing lucrative tween franchises such as "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana" that fueled sales of related merchandise, music CDs, video games and DVDs. In 2008, the Cyrus machine is expected to generate $1 billion in retail sales.
But the success of such enterprises hinges on youthful stars who do not always act according to script.
Last fall, for example, nude photos of "High School Musical" star Vanessa Anne Hudgens began circulating on the Internet.
The pictures had been sent to a boy -- but surfaced only after 19-year-old Hudgens was propelled to stardom portraying Gabriella, the chaste love interest of basketball star Troy Bolton in the Disney Channel movie.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Miley Cyrus: An article in Friday's Business section about provocative photos of teen star Miley Cyrus said 16 Mouseketeers appeared in the original "Mickey Mouse Club" television series. The number is 24.
The Cyrus images are comparatively tame. She appears draped over the lap of a young man -- the son of two songwriters on her album -- exposing her bare midriff. In another image, she tugs at her white tank top to flash her pea-green bra.
Disney executives acknowledge that the combination of celebrity and the Internet can magnify teenage high jinks in embarrassing ways.
"Being the most famous 15-year-old in the world is exciting but fraught with challenges and exceptional responsibility -- and the Internet adds a whole new twist to typical teenage life," said Gary Marsh, president, entertainment, Disney Channels Worldwide. "But above all, Miley is a bright, talented young lady who appreciates and understands the trust kids and parents have in her."
The pictures sparked furious debate among parents and fans online, some of whom dismissed the images as harmless, while others professed disappointment.
"At first, I had to be thankful that they weren't near as racy as Vanessa Anne Hudgens, but then I had other thoughts," wrote Mom2Three, who identified herself as a stay-at-home mom from the Kansas City area. "With her career being SO hot, and being on top of the world, why would she even take these pictures?"
Researchers say few teenagers appreciate the audience for images posted on blogs or social networks. They assume that posts are limited to a safe, closed network of "friends." But there's no such thing as privacy on the Internet. Nor do digital images fade away.
"There is a certain adolescent glee in being able to push the envelope of publishing something on the Internet that might shock your parents or other adults, but that your friends would think is great," said Amanda Lenhart, a researcher with the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington. "The problem is the failure to understand the persistence of images and material on the Internet."
One former child star, Paul Petersen, one of Disney's original 16 Mousketeers who is best known for the role of Jeff on "The Donna Reed Show," saw something more worrisome in the Cyrus images.
"This is a dilemma for every corporation that makes a big bet on an adolescent girl," said Petersen, who describes Cyrus' sold-out "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour" as a "calamitous break with normality."
"When you are drenched in that much adoration and audience love, things begin to change. You wonder who is it in her life that can say 'no,' " said Petersen, who started the child star support group A Minor Consideration. "I fear that since this path has been trodden so many times, that unless someone takes aggressive, active steps with her -- I'm talking serious intervention -- that we're going to watch yet another meltdown."