Tweenage kicks: Meet the new kids on the block

Cooler than Christina, bigger than Britney – the next generation of cute, perfectly formed, brilliantly marketed Disney stars is here to stay. Tim Walker on the rise of Miley, Zac & friends
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The Independent Culture

If you're a child under the age of 14, or if you have a child under the age of 14, this will not be news to you. Everyone else, listen up: tween culture has been taken over by toothsome young Americans with shiny hair and flawless morals. They don't smoke, they don't drink, they don't have sex (at least, not on videotape). They respect their elders. What is the world coming to?

Courtesy of Disney
This weekend, the 3-D concert movie Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds arrives at UK cinemas. Hannah Montana is the fictional alter ego of fresh-faced 15-year-old starlet Miley Cyrus, whose biggest claim to fame among anyone old enough to have their "Achy Breaky Heart" broken is her father, the country singer Billy Ray. But to a pre-teen with cable television, she is bigger than Britney. Her children's sitcom is the Disney Channel's number one show among six- to 14-year-olds. Her debut album sold more than two million copies. At one point, an unprecedented seven songs from the record sat in the US top 100 singles chart simultaneously. Cyrus is currently the most Googled girl on the planet.

Tickets for the Best of Both Worlds tour sold out in under five minutes last year, and were soon changing hands for upwards of $2,500 – such is the power wielded by tweens over their parents. When Disney unleashed the film version on American theatres at the beginning of February, it scored the highest ever gross for Superbowl weekend – a date the studios reserve for female-friendly releases – making $29m in two days from just 683 screens. The expectations for its UK release are understandably high.

Hannah Montana, the sitcom that made Miley's name, tells the inoffensive tale of a 14-year-old California girl (called, confusingly, Miley Stewart) who, by day, has to contend with the tamest of teenage problems but, by night, becomes the pop megastar Hannah Montana. It's a life that Cyrus is learning to live for real. Brought up in country music's capital, Nashville, Tennessee, Cyrus had minor roles in films and a series featuring her father, before being cast in Hannah Montana aged 13. Her family – Billy Ray, mother Tish and five siblings – relocated en masse to Los Angeles, and within two years Miley was on the Forbes Rich List, with estimated 2007 earnings of $3.5m. Her fame, even in the adult mainstream, was considered sufficient by the Academy for her to be invited to this year's Oscar ceremony as a guest presenter.

She already has her fair share of nutters. In December, a young mother from Texas admitted she had ghostwritten a moving essay for her six-year-old daughter to win her tickets to a Hannah Montana show. The story, which turned out to be complete cobblers, described the death of the girl's father in Iraq. In January, a 16-year-old boy, armed with handcuffs and a roll of duct tape, planned to hijack a plane bound for Nashville and crash it into one of Cyrus's concerts. The airport police who arrested him admitted the plan had always had "a low probability of success".

When the definitive history of tween culture is written, Hannah Montana may occupy pride of place, but she'll have stiff competition. Her illustrious predecessor in the monster marketing stakes is High School Musical. The made-for-TV movie has

spawned two sequels and a stage show, which is due in London for a 10-week residence at the Hammersmith Apollo from June. A separate, year-long touring production of the show, currently gracing Wolverhampton, has already made more than £9m in advance ticket sales.

The original High School Musical was first shown on American television in January 2006, and became the Disney Channel's most successful home-grown movie, with almost eight million people tuning in. The soundtrack was the top-selling album in the US that year, and when the wave of hype reached UK shores, it just kept on rolling. More than a million children and their parents watched the first UK screening on the Disney Channel; then 3.4 million sat down to BBC1's Christmas screening.

The High School Musical monster was originally created as part of a deliberate shake-up of programming by the Disney Channel during the noughties. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and their animated peers did not inspire the same sentiments in young children as they had in their parents, so the channel turned away from endless cartoon repeats in favour of live-action sitcoms such as Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire, the show that made a star of Hilary Duff.

Since 2005, when the European operation had a similar makeover to its US counterpart, the Disney Channel has made its way into nine million more British homes. The corporation is much more possessive of its talent than it once was, and keeps a firm grip on Hannah Montana, High School Musical and their stars. The alumni of the channel's Mickey Mouse Club include Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, as well as acting stars Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell.

Disney made their names in the Nineties, then promptly let them go – they won't make the same mistake again.

Like West Side Story and Grease before it, High School Musical is a straightforward contemporary rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. But while West Side Story ended with a death, and Grease contained an unwanted teenage pregnancy, High School Musical's plot is decidedly free of such dark, adult subject matter. The couple at the heart of the tale don't even share a kiss until the end of the sequel. The films have made squeaky-clean superstars of Zac Ephron and Vanessa Hudgens, as a jock basketball player and a nerdy maths whiz, who unite to play the leads in the school production of the title. The second instalment, High School Musical 2, was an even bigger hit than its predecessor; its 2007 TV premiere was the most-watched basic cable broadcast ever. Six months on, it has been watched by 179 million people worldwide.

A third film, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, is due to arrive in October – the first in the franchise to get a full cinema release. Meanwhile, the success of the series on this side of the pond has prompted Disney to invest in young British talent. The studio is on the hunt for British Britneys, Justins and Mileys to appear on the Disney Channel.

Already, the My School Musical talent contest asks young British hopefuls to submit short clips of themselves performing to a dedicated microsite. Fellow users vote to decide on three finalists, who then appear on the programme. In 300 schools and community groups across the UK, children are limbering up to appear in licensed amateur productions of High School Musical.

Sugar magazine's readership have grown up with High School Musical. The editor, Annabel Brog, says she is thrilled by the success of the franchise. "The last time there was an explosion in teen was the Spice Girls," she says. "It's been hard over the last few years, because everybody between 14 and 40 wanted to be Sarah Jessica Parker or Jennifer Aniston, so the same cover star would be appearing on Sugar as on Glamour or Red.

"Now teenagers are happy to be teenagers again. I think it's nice that teens and pre-teens have something teen-centric to be excited about. Our teen readers fancy Zac and they want to be Vanessa."

Compared to the travails of some members of the previous generation of teen stars, the harmless fun of Hannah Montana and High School Musical ought to be a concerned parent's dream. But their success has nonetheless stoked fears in the US that children as young as six will be targeted by marketing companies hoping to capitalise on the phenomenon. Young girls are particularly susceptible to the allure of cosmetics, and a study last year, by a New York-based market research outfit, found that 55 per cent of six- to nine-year-old girls used lip gloss or lipstick, while nearly two-thirds used nail polish. Many of them had been targeted by online companies offering Hannah Montana-style makeovers.

Watch Miley Cyrus in action and you can't help but recall an angelic Britney Spears, strutting happily across the stage of the Mickey Mouse Club, before runaway solo success swept her off her feet and carried her away to rehab. Cyrus herself may remain resolutely incorruptible, but her friend Jamie Lynn Spears – Britney's 16-year-old sister – has been making magazine covers for all the wrong reasons since she announced her pregnancy last year.

In September, High School Musical's 19-year-old star, Vanessa Hudgens, had her wholesome image tarnished when her nude photo surfaced on the internet. Then she split from her boyfriend, her co-star Zac Ephron, a schism that will have devastated young fans the world over. Disney, however, stuck by Hudgens and she is returning to the part of Gabriella in the franchise's third outing.

Photos of Cyrus have also emerged on the web; the online community's seedier segments declared them proof that the 15-year-old was dabbling in lesbianism. Needless to say, the photos, which were taken at an entirely innocent sleepover party, proved nothing of the sort. Similarly, rumours that she was dating her fellow tween sensation Nick Jonas (from a group called The Jonas Brothers) were swiftly quashed.

However, the celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton has found a new muse: since Cyrus dyed her hair and started wearing dark eyeliner, he has featured her regularly in his blog, alongside none-too-favourable commentary.

Brog is not convinced by the Britney comparisons. "Miley Cyrus has actually been pretty famous for a few years and managed not to do anything awful and embarrassing," says Brog. "But God knows what sends them down that Britney road, poor things. I suppose if she gets famous enough and people do whatever she says, she'll probably end up there."