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Video: Mom in ‘Hannah’ hoax speaks

By
TODAY contributor
updated 1/4/2008 8:55:23 AM ET 2008-01-04T13:55:23

The Texas mother who helped her daughter win a “Hannah Montana” essay contest by making up a story about the girl’s father being a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq says she made a terrible mistake and hopes she can be forgiven.

“I meant no disrespect. I just made a bad decision which I sincerely regret,” Priscilla Ceballos told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer in a prepared statement she read from Friday. “I apologize to my daughter for getting her mixed up in his mess. I wanted to help my daughter realize her dream of seeing Hannah Montana. Instead, I brought so much negative attention to my family. Please accept my heartfelt apology, and please, do not punish my child for my mistake.”

The 25-year-old Ceballos, who has two other children, said that the negative publicity and public scorn heaped on her since her ruse was exposed three days after Christmas has forced her out of her home and destroyed her life.

“I’ve had to move out of my home,” she told Lauer. “I’ve received a lot of bad — a lot of harassment all over the Internet. I’ve been forced to close down my MySpace page. I have not been able to eat or sleep well. I have been very depressed.”

“She’s been constantly harassed,” her attorney, Frank Perez, added.

“There’s been all types of shows and panels saying she’s not a good mother, when, in fact, she is. Priscilla made a  mistake. Priscilla wanted her daughter, Alexis, to see Hannah Montana and didn’t have the means to do that. She used poor judgment in what she did.”

At the center of the controversy is the essay Ceballos helped her 6-year-old daughter write last year to win a princess makeover and a trip to Albany, N.Y., to see a Jan. 9 Hannah Montana concert.

The contest was sponsored by Club Libby Lu, a national chain that sells princess makeovers and pink and purple clothing to “tween” girls.

The winning entry, submitted in the name of Ceballos’ daughter, read in part: “My daddy died this year in Iraq. I am going to give mommy the Angel pendant that daddy put on mommy when she was having me. I had it in my jewelry box since that day. I love my mommy.”

Ceballos identified the allegedly dead soldier to contest organizers as Jonathan Menjivar, who is alive and well and has never been in the military.

Story unravels
More than 1,000 girls entered the “Hannah Montana Rock Your Holidays Essay Contest.” Hannah Montana is the fictional teenage singing star of the hit show by the same name on the Disney Channel. Montana is played by Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old daughter of country music star Billy Ray Cyrus.

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Ceballos’ daughter had already received her makeover and was at a Dec. 28 party thrown in her honor at a local Libby Lu salon when it all unraveled with stunning swiftness.

The media had been invited to the party, and when the girl was asked about her soldier father, her mother interrupted, saying the girl didn’t want to talk about that.

When reporters attempted to check on the story, they discovered that no soldier named Jonathan Menjivar had died in Iraq or was even enlisted in the armed forces. Confronted with that information, Ceballos said she thought the task was to write a compelling Christmas story. “We wrote whatever we could to win,” she said at the time.

The news that the essay was not true was relayed to Libby Lu CEO Mary Drolet, who later that day issued a statement that read: “We regret that the original intent of the contest, which was to make a little girl's holiday extra special, has not been realized in the way we anticipated.”

The tickets and another makeover were awarded to another contest entrant, whose name was not released.

Ceballos told Lauer that the tickets weren’t taken away from her. Rather, she said, when the deception was revealed she refused to accept them.

In the statement she read on TODAY, she also said, “I sincerely apologize to those people who feel misled because of my bad judgment. I helped my daughter write an essay that was not true. It was not my intention to mislead. I just wanted to help my daughter write a compelling story. There is no more compelling story than the struggle and sacrifices of our military and their families. I apologize to our military and their families.”

Asked how she explained the events to her daughter, she said, “I told my daughter the truth. I told her we wrote an essay and they said it was a lie. And I refused to accept the tickets. I told her there will be another time.”

Psychiatrist Lisa Clayton said that the story Ceballos made up struck a nerve with Americans.

“I think the country is very raw right now with young soldiers being killed in Iraq,” Clayton told Lauer. “Priscilla does have a young cousin who was killed in Iraq. She’s been in contact with his family. As an extended family, they know the pain of losing someone in Iraq.”

Clayton repeated Perez’s plea for forgiveness.

“Hopefully, the public out there can realize she’s a young mother who made a horrible mistake,” Clayton said. “She’s coming clean. She just wants to move on with her life so that she can raise her three children.”

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