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Disney wishes on new tween star

Mouse hopes it's found the next Hilary Duff

When the Disney Channel puts “Hannah Montana” on the air next month, careful viewers will sense much more at play than a button-cute eighth-grader coping with her secret life as a pop star.

That rumbling is the sound of Walt Disney Co.’s star-making leviathan coming to life.

In its hunt for the next tween star, Disney believes that Miley Cyrus, the (just) 13-year-old daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, has the every-girl appeal of Hilary Duff combined with a singing voice like Shania Twain.

Cyrus will star in “Hannah Montana,” which Disney hopes will have the same shelf-life and multi-platform reach as “Lizzie McGuire” that launched Duff into recording and film stardom.

But even more than “Lizzie,” the new “Hannah” is art imitating Disney’s fantasy of what life holds for this 13-year-old, who has never professionally performed other than cute cameos at her dad’s concerts.

Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, a kid who masquerades as an ordinary high school student by day and, with the help of a blonde wig and rocker clothes, semi-secretly shifts into mega stadium star “Hannah Montana.”

Her real-life father plays her typically clueless onscreen dad, Robby. In an episode being shot last week, dad goes to a department store to buy Miley a birthday gift, just as the store is opening a new line of “Hannah Montana” apparel. With the help of a friend, Miley spies on her father by posing as a mannequin of herself selling her own clothing line.

This, of course, represents the endgame of what Disney hopes Cyrus will become, since Target already carries Stuff by Hilary Duff, a line of fashion and cosmetics.

By now the career trajectory of the tween star seems as codified as any in Hollywood: the hit TV show leads to the soundtrack, which leads to the made-for-TV movie, which leads to a big-time record deal, and ultimately, the feature film.

Duff represents the apogee of this progression and in many ways changed the way Disney looks at the potential of its tween talent.

Just a few years ago, Disney showed it was great at creating stars such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Keri Russell and Christina Aguilera, who launched careers as Mousketeers, but not so good at reaping the profits — all four made their big money outside the Mouse House.

Not only that, but teen acts like ‘N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Jessica Simpson were all catapulted by televised concerts on Disney Channel.

“We drove these kids into giant success stories,” says Disney Channel entertainment prexy Gary Marsh. “But we thought, ‘shouldn’t we be growing this internally?’ We were making celebrities out of other people’s rock stars.”

Even with Duff, Disney found that when she turned 15 she wanted more money for the “McGuire” series and a second film. They have patched things up a little since the 2003 break.

Needless to say, the mantra has changed at Disney, which courts kids to stay within the company for their recording and film deals. They do it not by coercion but a strenuous appeal to self-interest. Youngsters cast in sitcoms are typically signed to three-year deals rather than the typical six-year network deal, which agents see as a short-term bet that a show will become their star vehicle.

“It’s difficult to hold someone exclusively,” says Talentworks partner Bonnie Liedtke, who placed Mitchell Musso in “Hannah” as one of Miley’s friends. “It depends on the material; nobody at that age wants to sit on the shelf and not be performing.”

Even though Duff, now 18, makes movies outside Disney, she maintains close ties to the Mouse. She’s still signed to Hollywood Records, episodes of “Lizzie McGuire” still air, and Duff still does events with Disney.

Her business manager, Robert Thorne, says the benefits of her Disney association and “Lizzie” reruns still accrue to her adult career. “Having a show in the young demos is really a great asset,” he says.

“Hilary was the first one where it all came together,” Marsh says. “We look at her as the prototype.”

Since “Lizzie,” Disney has enjoyed other hits such as “That’s So Raven,” basic cable’s No. 1 series among girls 9-14, and “The Suite Life With Zack and Cody,” but it has been searching for another “triple-threat” star who can replicate Duff’s success. It does have Raven Symone, star of “That’s So Raven,” who besides the cable show had a successful CD and has been in movies such as “Dr. Dolittle.”

Also, teen siblings Alyson and Amanda Michalka have proven a triple threat, working on a series, movie and soundtracks for Disney.

Still, until last year, execs hadn’t found the star but they thought they had the script. Marsh did the normal casting calls in L.A. and New York, but was adamant that they didn’t cast the part until they found the kid who could hold the camera in a sitcom, sing and still be what he calls a “relatable, accessible girl.”

“If you find the needle, it’s a pretty lucrative haystack,” he says.

Over the transom came a tape from an 11-year-old from Nashville.

Cyrus had no performing experience short of taking acting lessons and cameos during her father’s concerts. Even though Disney thought she’d been the best candidate, it took more than a year to get comfortable with someone so young and unproven.

“Then she sang for us in a conference room in front of 15 people,” Marsh says. “That was the first moment it crystallized that she was the ‘it’ girl.”

Later, after father Billy said he was interested in the role of her TV father, the two sang a duet of his anthem to bad hair, “I want my mullet back.”

The first real test came at Glendale, Calif.’s, Alex Theater where Disney brass put on a concert for “Hannah Montana” for a group of 700 unsuspecting tweens who were invited with the promise of a concert and the chance to be on TV.

Video of the “concert” was shown to media buyers at the Disney Channel upfront presentation to advertisers in New York early February. It’s times like these that it looks easy. The teens reacted — or else just acted — as if they were meeting the Beatles at Heathrow or at least at a Britney Spears concert. The reaction surprised even young Cyrus, who had had four days with a coach and choreographer to get six songs right.

“It was crazy because I was expecting dead silence,” Cyrus says. “They had no idea who Hannah Montana was.”

Now she is loaded into the Disney cannon about to be shot across all divisions of the company. She has already recorded a track for “Disneymania 4,” a collection of classic Disney songs, and she’s signed a recording deal with Hollywood Records.

“Hannah Montana” will have a soundtrack, and Marsh is looking for a made-for-TV movie for her to star in. “We’d love to find a song we can embed in the movie, record a video and use that to launch her career,” he says.

If it works, and the show is a hit, the clock starts ticking, because all ingenues ultimately leave the demographic. For Spears, it happened when the pole dance became a staple of her videos. For Lindsay Lohan, it happened when she became a regular on the party circuit and in the pages of the tabs.

For others, it happens when their desire to do more mature work makes them incompatible with the tween nation. With a little luck, the Mouse has a few years yet to play with Cyrus.

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