Flap over Cyrus' bared shoulder is more about the pointed fingers

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What's it all about, Miley? C'mon, you can tell us. Was last week's Vanity Fair photo fiasco just about you growing up? Was it asserting independence? Shocking your Disney bosses? Tossing off the Hannah Montana shackles? All of the above? Or was it something else that we'll find out about in a couple of years when you finally talk about it with Diane Sawyer?

All I know is, this thing that erupted from the pages of Vanity Fair's June edition and circulated all over the Internet after being captured in the artsy lens of Annie Leibovitz sure was great to watch. The outrage! The shame! The apologies! The finger-pointing! The denials! It was like watching a particularly blustery edition of "The Jerry Springer Show" unfold, minus the bouncers.

The only other thing missing from this scenario was an elusive intangible called the truth.

The photo in question is relatively tame, depicting a 15-year-old female flashing back and shoulder skin, accompanied by the requisite come-hither glance. These might be considered overly provocative by some, considering Cyrus' age. Yet it still comes across as teasing and coquettish rather than depraved.

But of course, the resulting brouhaha had little to do with the actual poses or composition but rather the unswervingly chaste reputation of the teenager depicted. Cyrus is the latest in a long line of wholesome Disney-bred femme icons whose veneer of squeaky cleanliness renders them something of a walking morals clause. It's the Faustian bargain struck by Cyrus when she signed to star on Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana." The show's breakout success made her famous and the idol of millions of impressionable young girls and teens. It also left her confined inside a public bubble of innocence and purity.

So how did the Vanity Fair shoot happen? The easy and likely inaccurate answer is that it was the frustrated Cyrus' attempt to bust free from the shackles. But we surely understand that things in Hollywood are rarely if ever so simple. In fact, if you take a close look, none of the three parties escapes the taint of insincerity. Everybody's dirty!

Let's begin with Cyrus. As soon as it became clear that there would be hell to pay, she released a statement hinting at betrayal from Vanity Fair and Leibovitz and expressing her profound embarrassment. But it's tough to buy the argument that she was a naive waif who trusted and got burned, as Cyrus and her parents claim. It looks more like a calculated career move that backfired, at least temporarily. Duped? Not hardly. Exploited? Maybe. But if so, it surely cut both ways.

Vanity Fair can wail all it wants about how this was all about the art and "beautiful and natural." But it also knew what it was doing in publishing a shot from Leibovitz that it knew would spark a feeding frenzy. The indignant pose struck in the wake of the controversy looked disingenuous.

And then we have Disney, the prime beneficiary of a Miley Cyrus cottage industry that's expected to pull in $1 billion in retail sales in 2008. Its statement took Vanity Fair to task for having the temerity to "deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines." Disney ought to know given its skill in deliberately manipulating 12-year-olds in order to sell "Hannah Montana" tote bags.

A cynic — or perhaps a realist — might see Disney's muted blame-the-messenger reaction as a back-door ploy to move Cyrus to the next career phase. If you see your meal ticket poised to be devalued by the age monster, keeping her happy and relevant becomes a top priority. With so many mega-millions at stake, a studio might even be inspired to stage a mock uproar to help that process along.

So we probably should chalk up this whole Mileygate thing as a telling example of showbiz mendacity at its most shallow. It reminds us that in Hollywood, aging isn't seen as inevitable so much as an occupational hazard best dealt with in a photo shoot.

Ray Richmond can be reached at ray.richmond@THR.com.
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