15 years ago, Disney Channel-obsessed kids knew something special was about to happen. Miley Stewart had been advertised for weeks as a regular girl with a big secret, and after the evening premiere of Cow Belles on March 24, 2006, we finally got to learn who this mysterious Miley was. The first episode of Hannah Montana debuted to an audience of 5.4 million people. Miley crushed on a boy named Johnny (Corbin Bleu from High School Musical) and tried to hide her popstar secret from her best friend, Lilly Truscott (Emily Osment). The “one girl best friend, one guy best friend” model seen in previous Disney Channel shows was employed for Hannah Montana, so Lilly the Hannah superfan was accompanied by Oliver Oken (Mitchell Musso), who was in love with Hannah. The friends started the series in middle school and went to high school beginning in the second season.
I was a sixth grader when Hannah Montana joined Disney Channel’s lineup. I was no longer a seven-year-old looking up to the actors on the screen–I was a “tween” who wanted to be just like them. Like other Hannah viewers my age, I was ready for a more kid-friendly act when Hilary Duff left the tween scene for more adult projects. Enter Miley Cyrus. She grew up not far from my relatives in Tennessee, and aside from a few TV appearances, Miley was relatively unknown (unless you were a Billy Ray Cyrus fan).
Fans of Hannah Montana know that Miley had to be persistent for a shot at a starring role. Many of us watched her old audition tapes years ago; some of us even saw them as a bonus feature on Hannah Montana’s first DVD release. Because Hannah and Miley are so connected, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. That’s one thing I discussed with showrunner Michael Poryes when I interviewed him in 2020. Poryes co-created and executive produced That’s So Raven before taking on those roles for Hannah Montana. Believe it or not, the series could have been quite different without Miley Cyrus attached:
“It didn’t start with Miley. Hannah Montana, hand to God, was a Jewish girl from New York. Because you write what you know. I’m not from Nashville and I’m not Southern. But Miley came in for several auditions over a period of time. She would hand in video tapes. Finally, after the third tape over the course of six months, we said, let’s fly her in and audition her. She wasn’t the best one, but there was something about her. The camera just loved her. So, all of the sudden, it became Miley Stewart, and it became Southern, from Nashville, and then Billy wanted to audition… And he came in and auditioned and blew us away. You write the truth, and we saw the truth up there. They had a father-daughter relationship that you couldn’t beat because they were really father and daughter.”
It’s hard to say what the show would have been like with a different father-daughter duo, especially since Miley’s life informed the identity of the series. But how did millions of viewers adapt so quickly to a new Disney star?
After Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens quietly vanished from the Disney Channel schedule, we still loved watching characters like Raven Baxter, Phil Diffy, Zack and Cody Martin (and London and Maddie!), and Kim Possible. Somehow, it felt natural to add Hannah/Miley to our list of favorite characters. Her show brought something we hadn’t seen since The Famous Jett Jackson–a celebrity kid trying to have some semblance of a normal life.
Hannah Montana fans can visualize a simple scene change on the show: Miley vocalizes a variation of a Hannah melody like “The Best of Both Worlds” on words like “whoa” or “yeah.” The ocean waves gently rise and fall behind the exterior of the Malibu beach house.
In addition to the signature segue, another interstitial within the show will certainly ring a bell for fans: Hannah’s sold-out concerts. While some performances were created specifically in the context of an episode, others were prerecorded. In the initial filming process for the series, Miley put on her Hannah wig and sang her heart out for kids who didn’t even know her yet. Michael Poryes and Jason Earles (Jackson Stewart, himself!) told me a bit about those concerts in relation to the show’s success:
Jason: We set up a mockup concert, had her sing the couple of songs we had at the time and then explained to the crowd what we were trying to do…She literally became what we told the world she was gonna be, overnight. She didn’t really have much in the way of musical experience in front of a crowd. Then the show premieres, and then we told the world she is an international pop star, and from that moment on, she was an international pop star. Which is the wildest sort of sociological experiment of all time.
Michael: It was a good story. You don’t ever start out thinking you’re going to create this megahit. Those things just happen. So Hannah came out, right on the heels of High School Musical. So here you’ve got High School Musical coming out, and the movie really takes off. Right behind it, Hannah Montana. It was at the right place at the right time, with the right company with the right writing, with the right talent. The stars lined up. So out of the gate, it was an enormous hit. And the other thing about it is, Disney decided to put money behind it. Meaning, they put on a concert in Glendale with Miley and 500 screaming kids.
The screaming kids on TV made those of us at home want to join them at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The Disney Channel had already primed us for some of their biggest musical acts. As Michael explained, Hannah came out “right on the heels of High School Musical.” The January hit was the channel’s most-watched Disney Channel Original Movie when it first aired in 2006. Before HSM, Disney Channel fans of the early 2000s were introduced to The Cheetah Girls. The Cheetah franchise benefitted from the acting and vocal talents of Raven-Symoné, already an established Disney star. Adrienne Bailon had a recurring role on That’s So Raven shortly after The Cheetah Girls made its debut. Similarly, High School Musical featured one of the channel’s popular The Suite Life of Zack and Cody stars, Ashley Tisdale. Other HSM actors guest-starred on The Suite Life around the time of High School Musical’s release.
Hannah Montana fit right in at the Disney Channel, and Miley fit right in with her TV friends and family, all of whom found success in other Disney projects later on. Emily Osment and Jason Earles were both in the DCOM Dadnapped, and Jason went on to star in Disney XD’s Kickin’ It. Moises Arias (who played Rico) had several guest spots on other shows at the channel. Mitchel Musso was in the DCOM Life is Ruff before he became Oliver Oken, and he continued to work with Disney on shows like Phineas and Ferb and Disney XD’s Pair of Kings. Supporting Hannah actors also appeared in more Disney projects. Mean girls Amber (Shanica Knowles) and Ashley (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) were both in DCOMs: Knowles in Jump In! and Perez de Tagle in the Camp Rock movies.
On a channel that was already a leader in successful kids’ programming, what made Hannah Montana stand out? I opened this project up to fans of the show to help answer that question. Lauren Jones is known for her love of Nickelodeon and her devotion to Miley Cyrus. She said,
“I am a long time Miley fan and have seen her in concert twice. Hannah Montana was obviously my introduction to her and her music, which makes it super iconic to me and my life. I remember before the Hannah Montana soundtrack even came out, you could listen to a handful of Hannah songs on Disney Channel’s website on this game that was basically like Guitar Hero for your computer keyboard. I would play it for hours and my mom would yell at me for slamming my fingers on the keyboard to “I Got Nerve.” I watched [the show] well through middle school and into high school for its full run. Leading up to that point I had stanned Hilary Duff before even knowing what stanned was. Because Miley and I are around the same age, I feel like I could really relate to her and to the storylines in Hannah Montana at the time, loved all of the fashion and of course the music catapulted what will be a lifelong obsession of staying up until midnight for every Miley album release, and hopefully seeing her on tour again when all this is over.”
Lauren went to concerts after Miley had already taken off, but my sister and I saw Miley in her Hannah wig towards the beginning of it all. She opened for The Cheetah Girls and sang early Hannah repertoire, like “I Got Nerve,” “If We Were A Movie,” and “The Best of Both Worlds.” It’s hard to fathom a time when Miley was the opener and not the headliner, but in a way, it’s a nostalgic moment for a lot of the fans. It’s equally hard to understand how Miley did it all–the TV show, the tours, recording studio albums (for Hannah and Miley), making a feature film, attending all her press events…But she did it. When it comes to the show, she was working with an amazing cast and crew. Michael Poryes told me that Hannah Montana “was truly the high point of [his] career and quite an exciting ride!” And if you ask Jason Earles, it sounds like everyone genuinely functioned as a family:
“Honestly, I just think that it’s a little bit of a lightning in a bottle situation where you have to get lucky with having the right people running the shows and then the right cast in the shows and the chemistry has to be right; there’s all these things that sort of have to come together for it to work, and I know on our show, we felt like we really just struck gold. We loved working with each other, and there was so much genuine chemistry and love, and even when we were, like, picking at each other and there was tension and it was literally, like, family tension; it wasn’t anything that was crazy, unworkable stuff. It always just felt like a big family, whether it was the guys who wrote and directed the show, or the actors, or the crew, there was this magic about what we were doing. Even before the show came out and premiered and the public was able to watch it, it just felt like we were doing something that was fun and made sense, and we felt like we were telling a really good story.”
As for the ending of that story, everything finished on a pretty good note for Jackson as a character:
“Not only having a b-b-bikini model girlfriend [as Jackson would say!], but actually looking back for me, the way that it finishes up with Rico was something I still sometimes can get a little emotional thinking about because that was a long journey between those two characters. Like, we hated each other in the beginning…I thought [Moises] did such a good job of making it interesting, funny, slightly evil, but you kind of like him by the end…I’m actually Moises and Matteo’s godfather because they’re everything to me. I got a chance to work with both those boys and be around their family for like nine straight years. I think that’s really what part of the magic was of that whole era; the friendships and connections between everybody were genuine and really strong. We were having fun with each other, and we cared about each other. I think that you can tell on shows when that’s forced versus when it’s not. It really was a part of the fabric of what Hannah was, anyway.”
As exciting as it was to watch guest stars like Vicki Lawrence and Dolly Parton, or to see Miley date Jake (Cody Linley) or Jesse (Andrew Roy), fans watched the show because of the core cast that kept them laughing, and at times, crying. The show was family sitcom, but it still touched on deep topics, like grieving the loss of a parent.
Hannah played into the specialty genre that Disney had already carved out (a kid “just like you” has something special), but the show still spoke to viewers in a unique way. Fans represent a wide age range of Disney Channel viewership from that time. I know of people who were just first or second graders (or younger) when the show first aired, like Disney Channel fan Rajah Conteh, who said: “It was pretty astounding, especially since that was the first time I had seen something trend in my life…I watched for the Rico, Jackson, and Oliver segments.” Other viewers faithfully watched the show as teenagers. Parents didn’t seem to mind watching the series with their kids, either.
Behind all the concerts, merchandise, music videos, and CDs, there’s a sitcom that touched a lot of hearts. The cast of the series kept Disney Channel’s Friday nights exciting, and many young adults are nostalgic for this era of their youth. Hannah Montana made a tween girl an icon right before our eyes. We’re thankful that she said, “I’m Hannah Montana,” some 15 years ago.