Miley Cyrus is in many ways a typical 16-year-old, a contradictory, evolving mix of poised young woman and goofy kid. But where most teens only have to navigate the turbulent waters of self-discovery in front of their classmates and teachers, Cyrus is growing up before millions of watchful eyes.

Promoting her new film on 'Good Morning America'

Promoting her new film on 'Good Morning America'

Thanks to the astronomical success of her Disney Channel sitcom Hannah Montana, Miley has become the most famous teenager in the world. Her album sales are multi-platinum, ticket grosses for her 2007 concert tour earned $55.2 million, and her new feature film Hannah Montana: The Movie (opening Friday) is expected to reach similarly stratospheric box office numbers. She is the face and voice of a franchise worth an estimated $1 billion; there is Easter chocolate bearing her likeness at my local Walmart.  Now that's famous.

As a Disney icon, Cyrus is expected to be a paragon of wholesome virtue; as a professing Christian—"He died for our sins, that's how awesome he is," Miley says in this YouTube video (fast forward to 6:12)—she takes her influence over her young audience seriously.  But under the spotlight's relentless gaze she has not been able to completely avoid controversy.  Fans and critics alike questioned the appropriateness of a scantily clad Vanity Fair photo shoot in 2008—which also featured her co-star dad, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

The mothers of Miley's tween-aged followers worry that the young actress is in over her head with older boyfriend Justin Gaston, a 20-year-old singer and underwear model. And a recent photo of Miley and friends jokingly pulling their eyes into slits provoked accusations of racism.

At a recent Hollywood press conference promoting her new movie, CT Movies asked Cyrus about the pressures of such an examined life. Her reply was thoughtful … and honest.

In a scene from the new movie

In a scene from the new movie

"I'm gonna make mistakes," she said. "And I would not trade that for anything, because the minute you stop making mistakes is the minute that you stop learning.  And if I ever stop doing that, we're all in trouble, because that's what life is all about.  I never want to disappoint people; my decisions sometimes not only disappoint other people, they disappoint myself as well.  But there are times I'm going to do that and if I don't, then all of a sudden I'm not real and then you really can't look up to me."

In the new movie, 31-year-old Jason Earles plays Miley's older brother Jackson; he is quick to defend his young co-star.

"I think that it's unfair to expect a 16-year-old to raise your kids," said Earles. "So when Miley does occasionally make mistakes, that's a good opportunity for parents to educate their kids about different decisions they could make. While you can look up to Miley and there are things that are very inspirational about her, anybody who thinks that she, 100 percent of the time, should be the shining example for your kids … you're sort of misleading yourself as a parent."

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Caveats aside, Cyrus does embrace the fact that millions of young fans do look up to her.

"I find there are two different things," she said. "If you look at me as a role model, I agree with it. If you look at me as an idol, I don't. Because an idol is someone you want to replicate, you want to be them. I don't wish that on anyone, because if you lose what you have personally [to try to be someone else], that's when your spark is lost. What I think people like about me and the way they relate to me is the fact that I don't try to change and I haven't let what I do for a living completely affect me."

In a recent cover story for Glamour, Cyrus elaborated on that when the magazine observed that she seemed "like a totally normal young woman." Laughing, she replied, "I think at some point during everyone's life, you finally figure yourself out. I haven't even done that yet. I'm still learning who I am."

She seems to know her identity in Christ. In a USA Today story, she refers to herself as "an intense Christian," and last year she told our sister publication, Today's Christian, "Faith is a big part of my life." She has quoted Scripture on Oprah and thanked "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" at the Kids Choice Awards.

Miley with director Peter Chelsom on the set

Miley with director Peter Chelsom on the set

Cyrus is careful to distinguish between loving your work and being consumed by it. And she wants people to understand that her fame is a by-product, rather than a goal, of her passion for acting and singing.

"People will say that I'm overworking and I'm overexposed and that's what I want—all the attention—but it's not," she said. "What I love is the art of it all. I really am grateful for what I do, and I really do care about the fans. I can't help if there are 40 photographers outside my house. I keep my life as private as I can; I really don't do what I do for the attention."

Peter Chelsom, director of Hannah Montana: The Movie, emphatically affirms Miley's discovery that it's the work that matters.

"There's a scary statistic that if you ask 7-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, nearly 70 percent say, 'A celebrity,'" Chelsom said. "For what, they don't even know. If just one thing comes out of this film: 'Life's a climb, but the view is great'—in other words, it's all about the work—then the film's done its job."

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Miley's famous dad agrees that focusing on the work itself keeps both him and his daughter grounded.

With dad Billy Ray on 'Good Morning America'

With dad Billy Ray on 'Good Morning America'

"We love what we do," Cyrus told CT Movies. "Miley loves acting, she loves singing, she loves writing songs. So, for the most part, it's just about staying real, remembering who she is, where she comes from, and what it's all about."

When Billy Ray—or her mother, Tish—speaks, Miley listens.

"Most parents with kids in the [entertainment] business say, 'Go free, do what you want,'" she told Glamour. "My parents did not want me to go all Hollywood… . The last thing I ever want to do is disappoint my parents. [I want them to know] I made them proud."

By all accounts, Miley is making them proud, and, as her dad said, "staying real."

"The thing that's great about Miley and has always been since we started is that she doesn't really have a filter," says Earles. "What she says is what she actually means. There's not a lot of pretense there, so you always know where you stand with her—and there's something very charming about being that honest."

"Yeah," adds a smiling Miley, "if you understand me, it's adorable.  My parents love it, and my publicist really likes it."

Cyrus is having a good laugh at her own expense, but Earles is right. There is something charming about that kind of honesty. Just ask the millions of kids who look up to Hannah, er, Miley Cyrus.