This year’s Teen Choice Awards, held at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, is as good a place as any to make some generalizations about girls under fourteen. Here is one: Girls under fourteen love to shriek. They will shriek for Keanu Reeves. They will also shriek for John Ritter. Also: Girls under fourteen love half-shirts, low-riding jeans and excessive makeup. Add ten years to the crowd’s age, and the place could pass for a stripper convention.
Though Britney Spears, who has arguably done more to advance the jailbait look than any other American, is a presenter, the most rapidly ascending pop icon in attendance may be Hilary Duff, the chirpy, wholesome fifteen-year-old star of the Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire. Since its debut in 2001, the show has become one of the highest-rated cable programs for viewers between the ages of six and fourteen. The Lizzie McGuire Movie, released in May, grossed $42 million, and the soundtrack, featuring songs performed by Duff, has gone platinum. She’s just released her first proper solo album, Metamorphosis.
Much of Duff’s success has to do with the fact that she comes off as the genuine article, a real-deal teenager. Her favorite expression is “Oh, my God!” She is blond and has dimples. When someone mentions that she’s been nominated for Best Hottie Female, she blushes. Tonight she is wearing a pink sweater with serrated sleeves, pointy yellow shoes, jeans with a gold chain pocket loop and a pink thong. The thong is visible only when Duff crouches to sign an autograph for a young fan in a wheelchair who is brought backstage by the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
While there is no “right” moment to take note of a fifteen-year-old’s underwear, noticing at this particular moment is clearly very, very wrong. Still, such is the state of the teen-pop world today, wherein there’s no denying that coy, Barely Legal flirtations can help a female performer’s career. Duff has yet to make a video involving an overtaxed indoor sprinkler system. Right now, she comes off as refreshingly innocent as her TV counterpart, so the innuendo is left to others — for instance, the show’s host, David Spade. “You’re almost sixteen?” he asks Duff in his opening monologue. “As my good buddy R. Kelly says, ‘If only she was two years younger.’ ”
Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis” begins with the line “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.”
Hilary Duff’s new album, Metamorphosis, begins with a song called “So Yesterday”:
You can change your life
(If you wanna!)
You can change your clothes
(If you wanna!)
If you change your mind
Well, that’s the way it goes
But I’m gonna keep your jeans …
They look good on me
You’re never gonna get them back!
Duff has not heard of the Kafka story, but she says it sounds cool. Then her sister Haylie asks, “How gross was the guy eating cockroaches last night?” During a Teen Choice segment about favorite reality-TV moments, a man dressed as an exterminator ate a handful of live bugs.
“So gross!” Hilary agrees.
We are having brunch at a bistro-style restaurant near Universal Studios. Haylie, 18, is also blond and pretty, and slightly bossy in a manner befitting an older sister. Hilary is excited because she was allowed to drive to brunch.
“We drive illegally around the neighborhood all the time,” Haylie says.
“Oh, my God!” Hilary says.
The Duffs were born in Houston. Their father, Bob, co-owns a chain of convenience stores. Haylie started performing in preschool. Hilary soon followed suit, and after the pair were cast in a few commercials, their mother, Susan, decided to move them to Los Angeles for a pilot season. Susan Duff insists she has never been a showbiz mother and that the choice to perform was always the girls’. “My husband and I were never involved in anything artistic, so it was never anything we focused on,” she says. The girls spent the next couple of years auditioning, with little to show for it.
Haylie: We worked on a pilot called The Underworld.
Haylie: Remember? The alien came through the window and ate us?
Hilary: Oh, my God! [Pause] No.
Haylie: You were probably nine.
Susan and the girls were ready to move back to Texas — where Bob Duff had remained, visiting L.A. every three weeks or so — when Hilary landed Lizzie McGuire. The show chronicles the travails of a lovable, put-upon junior-high student. Young girls quickly became enraptured with Duff. Expanding the franchise was inevitable.
Hilary met her music manager, Andre Recke, backstage at a Radio Disney concert in Anaheim, California. “I was never that into music,” she admits. Still, Recke, a lanky German who had initially made his mark with boy-band merchandising rights in Europe, spotted a potential star. He hooked Duff up with a vocal coach, and soon she was recording a Christmas album. For Metamorphosis, Recke assembled a team of crack producers and songwriters — including the Matrix, who produced “So Yesterday.” “I actually didn’t want to have control of the writing on my first album,” Duff says. “To write, you have to have time to connect with yourself. I don’t have that time right now, because I’m so busy.”
Duff says she listens to a wide range of music: Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Sublime, 50 Cent. Some other facts about her: She refuses to eat eggs, which she refers to as “pre-life.” She and Haylie joke about opening a Texas steakhouse in L.A., even though the restaurant thing didn’t work out so well for Britney Spears. “Didn’t somebody find something in the food there?” Hilary asks. She’s currently reading a book by a psychic who claims that babies who die from sudden infant death syndrome have actually done so by choice. She has also started Hillary Clinton’s autobiography. Her favorite television shows are Sex and the City and Nip/Tuck. After our interview, Duff has a photo shoot. “Then I have to go home and clean my room,” she says, sighing.
Metamorphosis is a slick collection of pop songs, master-crafted to appeal to huge numbers of young people, but the X factor, in the end, will be Duff herself and whether she, and not her Lizzie persona, will be appealing enough to sell the product. I ask the girls, and then their mother, if the sexually provocative route taken by Spears and Christina Aguilera is a concern or a consideration. Hilary looks embarrassed and picks at her food. Haylie shrugs: “It’s a choice. A career decision.”
Later, Hilary says, “There was a tabloid rumor saying I was at White Lotus, doing tequila shots and showing off my new boob job. Hello!” She gestures at her chest, as if she’s a magician showing off a conjured rabbit. Then she asks, “Have you been to White Lotus? It’s a cool club in L.A. But I was in Petaluma at the time.”
Susan seems annoyed by the question. “Hilary is personally a modest young woman. She does not need to go around exposing herself. What you see is what you get with Hilary, basically. It almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?”
In any case, the Duff juggernaut has only just begun, though the Lizzie McGuire series is over, after much-publicized tensions with Disney. (The Duffs claim Disney fumbled contract negotiations, then bad-mouthed the family in the press; sources say the Duffs demanded $100,000 per episode.) Coming soon: two movies (a Cinderella update and a remake of Cheaper by the Dozen), a WB special and a line of Duff merchandise, Stuff by Hilary Duff.
For most fifteen-year-olds, this all might be a bit much. But Duff seems unflappable. Backstage at the Teen Choice Awards, she is led to a VIP area, where the Teens’ Choices grab a variety of gifts — among them, necklaces that spell cute messages in Morse code. She fingers several before making her choice. “I almost took ‘effed up,’ but I took ‘sweet,'” she says, flashing her dimples. “I thought I’d be good.”