Tween Queen Rules 'Hannah Montana'

The first time country singer Billy Ray Cyrus held his baby girl, Destiny Hope, she flashed him a smile. He called her "smiley" and rhymed it with "Miley."

The nickname stuck, as legions of children and tweens can attest. Miley Cyrus is a phenomenon. She stars in the second season of Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana," in which she plays a typical teen by day. When she dons a blond wig, she's Hannah Montana, international teen pop star. Her country singer father, Billy Ray, plays Hannah's country singer dad, Robby.

Hannah's fans go wild. They buy her records and can't get enough of her -- just like in Miley's real life.

"Hannah Montana" merchandise spans party goods, DVDs, video games, karaoke machines, clothing, jewelry and cosmetics. The "Hannah Montana Soundtrack," released last October, became the first TV soundtrack to enter the Billboard chart at No 1. It's now double platinum, having sold more than 2 million copies. A two-disc special edition of the CD, released in March, pushed combined sales to 2.5 million.

Her next two-disc CD, "Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus," which was released in June, features 10 tracks from the current season and Miley's debut solo album.

Despite the perfect match between character and performer, the show was not written for her.

"When I read the script of 'Hannah Montana,' I said, 'You know what?' This is Miley!'" Billy Ray says. "Originally, it was a little girl named Chloe. The writers kept hearing me call her Miley, and the day we shot the pilot they came and said, 'Everything Chloe is Miley.' They held auditions around the world. She earned this."

Billy Ray had not yet been cast. Miley fiercely sought this role.

"The audition process for anything is so scary," Miley says. "You walk into a room with 60 girls. In my case, I have to say, if I was them I don't know why they chose me. You can see their head shots and just know they know a lot more than you do. They don't like you -- that is the scariest part! I did taping. I did two tapes, four tapes. I started out as Lily (Hannah's friend), and they wanted me to audition for Hannah Montana and that sounded very positive. They said, 'You are too small, too young. Bye-bye.' Well, that's rude. So I made another tape. Dang it! They are going to watch my tape and like it!"

That determination kept her going. The first audition was when Miley was 11, and the show started shooting when she was 13.

"We went out [to California], and I auditioned one more time, and I got the part," she says. "And once you get the part and film the pilot, you have to wait again to see if it is going to get picked up."

For most adults that sort of wait would be maddening, but for an adolescent, there was an added dimension -- physical changes.

"I had lost my teeth before the audition," Miley says. "My front teeth, four of them, had braces on top. Even though I talk a lot, my mouth and face is tiny. I was sitting there with huge buck teeth and huge braces and huge hair and tiny little body."

Clearly, though, it all worked.

The TV series' ratings are the sort many established actors never experience.

It runs daily and is No. 1 in its time period on basic cable among children and tweens, according to the Nielsen ratings. Its March 24, 2006, launch was the highest-rated series premiere on a kids network in seven years.

The show also attracts fun guest stars. Dolly Parton and Brooke Shields have played, respectively, Hannah's godmother and deceased mom, the latter in a dream sequence. Camryn Manheim says she called the show to obtain tickets for her 6-year-old son and wound up taking a guest spot.

By all accounts, it's a fun set. Jason Earles, who plays Miley's brother, Jackson, says, "I was really nervous when I first found out Billy Ray was going to be the dad. They've got all this history and get each other, and I am going to be the outsider. They are classic Southern hospitality. It took me all of two days to feel accepted. They gave me Ray as a middle name. Everybody has Ray for a middle name."

Billy Ray is clear about keeping the set and his smiley girl, 14, normal. Miley, who talks like most girls her age -- at a rate that sounds faster than the speed of light -- can't stand history, does well in math despite disliking it and enjoys shopping.

"I relate more to the Miley character because that's kind of how I am when I am not working," Miley says. "We go down and get ice cream down the street. I like my Miley Stewart life, and (when) I go to the set I definitely feel like I am living the script."

Like her TV alter ego, who moved from Tennessee to Malibu, Calif., Miley moved from the family's 500-acre ranch just outside Nashville to Los Angeles. The family, which includes five children (Miley is the middle child, not so forgotten in this case), also has six dogs, seven horses, three cats and fish.

Initially, though, Miley was California-bound without the whole family. As the car carrying her pulled out of the driveway, Billy Ray was struck with a song, "Ready, Set, Don't Go." This became a track for his CD, "Home at Last," scheduled for release July 24.

Billy Ray, who shot to stardom sporting a mullet singing 1992's "Achy Breaky Heart," started bringing Miley onstage when she was a toddler. Yet he did not play Svengali, orchestrating her career. Rather, he talks about giving her space, especially now that she's a teenager, and uses his common sense to guide her.

"It's art imitating life imitating art imitating real life," Billy Ray says of "Hannah Montana." "There are so many parallels to our real life. There really has never been anything like it, where a real father and real daughter are making fun of ourselves and our lives."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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