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The pitch went something like this: What if someone like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson led a double life? Picture this: By day, she is a typical teenager with all the social drama that comes along with it—boys, schoolwork, parents. By night, she is a world-renowned rock star.
This, of course, was before the Spears saga took a turn from bubblegum unreal to sordidly bizarre. As for the story premise: If it sounds familiar, it should. Seven years ago, Barry O’Brien pitched the idea to Disney executives. The result: the wildly popular Emmy Award–nominated tween series Hannah Montana. By day the lead character is Miley Stewart; by night, pop sensation Hannah Montana.
Entering its fourth season, Hannah Montana is consistently among the top 10 rated cable shows, drawing 3 to 6 million viewers each week in the United States alone. In addition to the show’s high ratings, Hannah Montana concerts have generated millions of dollars. In 2007–08, the “Best of Both Worlds Tour” brought in $36 million in ticket revenue, making it the 15th highest-grossing concert tour in North America for that year. The film Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert became the No. 1 movie at the box office in February 2008, earning $31.1 million in just three days. And of course a line of ubiquitous Hannah Montana–inspired merchandise, including clothing, watches, bedding, spa kits, and toys, crowds the shelves of Target, Macy’s, and Wal-Mart. In 2008, People magazine estimated the Miley Cyrus franchise was on track to be worth $1 billion by the end of last year.
“The scope, the success, the size, it’s just surreal,” O’Brien says.
Thanks to his pitch, O’Brien holds the title of Hannah Montana co-creator. As for his golden idea, it hatched out of an experience nine years ago when O’Brien was producing a show called All That… for Nickelodeon. The live-action, sketch comedy variety show featured weekly musical guests, including Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney Spears’ younger sister. Britney made a few appearances on the show as well. Having the older Spears on the set opened O’Brien’s eyes to the madness that surrounded her every move.
“Helicopters literally followed her to work in her Range Rover,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘She should have a double life—her pop-star identity, then a civilian persona that would give her some freedom.’”
When O’Brien was invited to pitch series ideas to Disney, he shared that teenager-with-a-double-life idea; execs commissioned a script immediately. But despite the interest, the Hannah Montana series took a while to get off the ground. The challenge: finding the right actress to play the lead.
Over the course of 18 months there were a number of development cycles, all of which ended with the studio not picking up the show. In the meantime, O’Brien took another job with the CBS series Judging Amy, a prime-time drama featuring a family court judge and her own experiences as a divorced parent. O’Brien was happily writing for the series when Disney called and told him that they “found a girl.” The opportunity was tantalizing, but with guidance from his agent, O’Brien decided not to leave his steady gig with Judging Amy.
The girl Disney found was Miley Cyrus, daughter of country music superstar Billy Ray Cyrus. “She was the key to everything,” O’Brien says. In 2008, at the age of 16, Miley Cyrus was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine. Her annual earnings topped $25 million. Yet despite coming of age in the Hollywood spotlight, Cyrus is still “real,” O’Brien says. “She’s grounded, she’s sweet. She’s wonderful to my daughter and accommodating to fans. Just a regular kid from the South who happens to be enormously talented.”
O’Brien’s co-creator status brings royalties from the show, plus a percentage of the merchandising—more than 140 products and growing. O’Brien and his wife, Rachel, have two children. Their toddler son, Declan, may not be quite old enough to understand the craze around Hannah Montana, but Delaney, their 10-year-old daughter, is “keenly interested.” From concerts to behind-the-scenes meet and greets with Miley Cyrus, O’Brien figures he’s bought enough street cred with his daughter to carry him through the teenage years. And that, as all parents know, is priceless.