Miley: Textbook Case of the Inevitable Teen Star Rebrand

Reaching for a more mature audience

Jimmy Fallon and the Roots join Cyrus for an a capella version of 'We Cant Stop.'

Like it or not, Hannah Montana is dead and gone. For better or worse, fans are now stuck with the new, rebellious Miley Cyrus—the one who’s shed the bear suit and brought twerking to the world. Cyrus’ skin-tight, butt-bouncing metamorphosis has scored more media buzz than the government shutdown, generating its heat in the form of controversy. “This is getting more attention more than anything else because she was the Hannah Montana,” said David Johnson, CEO of public relations strategy firm Strategic Vision. “You don't expect this from Disney stars.”

Generally not. But that hasn’t stopped the suddenly grown-up Cyrus from appearing virtually nude in Terry Richardson's blog, and then almost immediately releasing her controversial "Wrecking Ball" video (directed by Richardson), which has garnered more than 205 million views. Most recently, during a New York media blitz, Cyrus left Matt Lauer somewhat speechless with her frank comments about sex. And this all led up to the release of her new feature project, "Bangerz." (Gee, what could that mean?)

Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Not only is the new Cyrus the result of a carefully orchestrated strategy (“There's definitely a certain measure of calculation behind-the-scenes to ensure [Cyrus] stays top of mind,” ventures Desmond Marzette, creative strategist at Zambezi L.A.)—it’s a rebranding act we’ve seen many times before. Cyrus is only the latest teen icon to face the enormous gulf that separates them from adult stardom. And, as many before have learned, a proven way to make the leap is with the bad-boy/bad-girl makeover.

Take Justin Timberlake. He started as a Disney Mousketeer, then became a teen pop icon as lead singer of N'Sync. But Timberlake’s leap to being the actor/singer/songwriter he is today required him to scrap the boy-next-door purity in favor of shedding his shirt and showing off his new muscles and tattoos—which is pretty much exactly what that other Justin (Bieber, now 19) is now doing. A generation ago, Janet Jackson went from being a young, playful sweetheart to launching her 1986 hit "Control," whose lyrics included “now I’m all grown up.” Just in case audiences didn’t get the message, Herb Ritts shot Jackson showing plenty of skin and cleavage.

If there’s a difference in the route that Cyrus is taking, it seems to be that she’s leaving nothing to chance—going not just for a sexy remake, but pure shock value. “She's aiming to be this generation's Madonna," Johnson said. “Miley's doing outrageous stuff. Stuff that moms and dads are up-in-arms about—but Madonna did that, too.”

Of course, dressing up and playing whore is no guarantee of adult stardom, either. Back in the 1970s, bubblegum star David Cassidy tried to get an adult following by posing nude for Rolling Stone. Years later, pop-singer Tiffany showed up without her clothes in Playboy. Neither striptease managed to sustain those careers. But teen stars face a difficult choice once their 20s start to loom: If they don’t try to grow up, they’ll be stuck as a dated archetype. “If [a child] becomes famous and they don't understand who they were yet, the fame becomes the thing that defines them," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a loyalty and engagement site. At its core, the teen-star rebrand is a cold lesson in the realities of the media age: Adapt or die.

And for now, that’s what Cyrus is trying to do—and it’s a gamble, given how deeply she has buried her Hannah Montana image. No doubt, brands that might have courted the younger Cyrus won’t want to touch her now, but Marzette says that doesn’t mean product endorsements are off the table. Unlike Taylor Swift, who can still reach young girls because of her relatively clean-cut persona, Cyrus is now speaking exclusively to an older demographic. “If you’re going to use Miley now, you can't overtly talk to that same audience," said Marzette. "But if you're marketing a product for a young woman, then Miley's right there.” In fact, look closely at those recent videos, and you’ll see the new Pill wireless speaker from Beats by Dr. Dre. Will other brands follow? Marzette certainly doesn’t rule it out.

“She turns 21 in November. I wouldn't be surprised to see an alcoholic beverage approach her,” he said.