Disney star regrets flashing her flesh for Vanity Fair's Leibovitz

Sitting for Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old television superstar who plays Hannah Montana in the popular Disney Channel show of the same name, is now wishing she hadn't.

The problem is one of skin – and of branding. The portrait, due to run alongside a full-length interview in the June edition of the magazine, shows a seated Ms Cyrus seemingly naked from the waist up, a satin sheet artfully wrapped to cover her chest while leaving her back bare.

First glimpses of the much-too-racy shot popped up on the internet and on gossip TV shows in America over the weekend, provoking fury among some parents' groups and prompting a hurried apology from Ms Cyrus, whose father is Billy Ray Cyrus, the country rock star. Less than pleased also is Disney.

"I appreciate all the support of my fans, and hope they understand that, along the way I am going to make mistakes and I am not perfect," she said. "Most of all, I have let myself down. I will learn from my mistakes and trust my support team. My family and my faith will guide me through my life's journey."

If, in asking her to partially disrobe, Ms Leibovitz was threatening to crack the image of wholesome innocence that Disney has so carefully cultivated for Ms Cyrus, apparently neither she nor her dad, who also took part in the shoot, realised it. And now, of course, it is too late.

"I was so honoured and thrilled to work with Annie," she said. "I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be artistic and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologise to my fans, who I care so deeply about."

Playing Hannah Montana, Ms Cyrus has become one of industry's most valuable assets. While her main fan base is six-to-14-year-olds, her show is second only to American Idol in US ratings and generates about $1bn (£500m) a year in sales of fan gear such as lunch boxes and bed linen. There is a feature film in the works and last year she toured with a concert that also became a 3-D film.

Disney knows very well what is at stake. Other young stars nurtured by the studio who, as they grew older (and wilder), went on to make career errors slightly more serious than shedding a shirt on a photo shoot have included Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears.

The company blasted the photographer and the magazine's publishers.

"Unfortunately a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines," a spokeswoman said.

Ms Leibovitz has been in trouble before for asking a subject to remove articles of clothing – or decorative jewellery. A BBC documentary film about her photographing inside Buckingham Palace suggested that Ms Leibovitz elicited the wrath of Queen Elizabeth II after suggesting she shed her tiara.

Vanity Fair, meanwhile, defended its star photographer, noting that Ms Cyrus, and everyone with her, seemed happy with the pictures when they were taken.

The June issue of Vanity Fair goes on sale on Thursday

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