Interview: Hot for Hilary

It's approaching 10am in an unseasonably murky Los Angeles and Hilary Duff has already been up for hours. "I never, like, sleep in, no matter how late I've stayed up," she says perkily. "Sometimes I wish I could just slob out but it's not in my nature. I'm a do-er."

That's something of an understatement. The measure of Duff's pro-activity over the past seven years is, to use one of her own pet adjectives, "awesome."

She's starred in several TV series, appeared in movies, released million-selling albums, presided over a highly successful fashion line and started her own kids' charity.

At 19, she's worth an estimated US$25 million. But if her name means nothing to you, you're probably the wrong side of 20; Duff is the original US Tween-Teen Queen.

Forget Britney or Jessica Simpson or any of the other pretenders; thanks to her embodiment of the Every-Tween title character in the Disney Channel's hit series Lizzie McGuire, Duff became an icon for the new breed of adolescent girl; media-savvy and street-smart, but still subject to the same old growing pains.

Such is her standing in this peer group that Elizabeth Arden, the makers of Duff's new scent With Love, have proclaimed that she "personifies the many dimensions of today's modern young women". What, I ask Duff, does she think they mean by that?

"Um, wow, I've never thought about it that deeply," she said, somewhat abashed. "That's a lot to live up to. I guess they're saying that today's girls want to be independent, they want to have fun, they want to work hard and they want to be successful. We want it all," she said. "But we want it on our own terms. And in many ways, I represent all of that."

She's pretty - with almond eyes and a wide-mouthed smile that can verge on the goofy - but not formidably so. What she lacks in singing ability she makes up for with her on-stage cheer-leading skills. As an actress, she's yet to give the Oscar panel any sleepless nights (though she has been nominated for a few worst- actress Razzie awards), but her charm has carried her through the teen wish-fulfilment roles, in the likes of the movie A Cinderella Story, that she's cornered the market in. Even her scent has a fresh, welcoming top-note (of `succulent mangosteen fruit').

But hang on, though - isn't that a more complex amber note unspooling at the base? Is this the first harbinger of a knottier, more adult Hilary Duff coming through?

"I think it is a reflection of where I'm at, sure," she said, her naturally breezy Valley Girl mode (there isn't a trace of her native Texas in her accent) subsiding briefly into a more thoughtful tone.

"As I become more mature, my tastes and interests change. Like, so many people have watched me grow up and I find it really weird when they say to me `tell us about your new look.' I'm, like, what new look? It's just me growing and getting more confident about my style."

These manifestations of maturity are also coming through in Duff's music. Her new album, her fourth, modifies her fluffy pop- rock template with some harder-edged dance sounds, as exemplified on the new single With Love (also to be featured in the ad campaign for her scent - a textbook example of what marketing types call `synergy'), which has a Gwen-Stefani-in-a-rah-rah-skirt feel to it.

"I've put some electro and some 80s-influenced stuff in there, and I'm also writing more. I mean, I never knew that I could write before, because when I first got my record deal, I was like, I got to sing! That was all I cared about. But now I'm older. I think it's definitely time to stretch my wings a little more."

The question is, can Duff loft her audience skywards along with her? Is she concerned about leaving them behind? "I think I'm at the place now where I'm more into doing what I want.

I worried about the fans for a while and I think it held me back. I mean, I do care about them, but moms would come up to me and say `oh my gosh, you're so confident, we love you, never change'."

She looks incredulous. "And I would feel like saying that's great, thank you, but if someone told you at 17, 18, whatever, never change? It's a pretty heavy thing to deal with, you know? Who would want to be in their 20s or even 30s and still be behaving like a teenager?"

Duff might be ready to tinker with the formula, but she - and the team behind Hilary Duff Inc, including her mother and manager, record producer Susan Duff - are too canny to make radical changes; caution is the watchword.

Thus, her clothing line, stuffbyhilaryduff, which made US$5 million in its first year at the US retail chain Target, and which is represented in the UK by a trinket line at Claire's Accessories, is looking to introduce a line that's "a little more high-fashion, for older girls, with a designer-vintage-mix look, more like my own style".

But Duff, a self-confessed shopaholic, said: "I can't go more than about 72 hours without shopping, but I don't think I'm excessive." She said, not entirely convincingly, that she will continue to oversee the main lines, which, she says happily, are "mass market - not forward or edgy. I create and design the line.

"I'm very involved. I draw designs, bring in tear-sheets of colours and styles I like, get involved in everything from how the jeans fit to the size of the buttons.

"I'm going to work really hard to stay successful and appeal to as many different people as I can, but I know there's always going to be someone younger and cooler coming after me, just like I have taken over from the one before me. And if it doesn't work, I guess I'm going to have to think harder and maybe try something else."

Brave words, but it's hard to see exactly what that "something else" might be, as Duff has been in what she habitually calls "the business" virtually all her life. Her apotheosis came in 2001, when she landed the title role of Lizzie McGuire.

It's Lizzie's shadow that Duff is now valiantly trying to shake off, but the `role model' aspect continues to haunt her, as seen recently when the Press has take her to task for appearing too sizezero a la Paris, Nicole or erstwhile friend Lindsay Lohan (the pair fell out years ago: "I can't even remember over what," says Duff breezily).

"I did get skinny," she said. "I've felt that pressure like everyone else in my position has. When a paper comes out that says `Duff Puff - she must have gained 15 pounds,' or something like that, how would any normal person react? It's so mean, but everyone keeps buying that stuff and talking about it, so it's not going to go away."

In many ways, Duff has the daunting professionalism of an industry veteran; she's adamant that "I don't want people to know everything about my life," but she confirms that she's currently single, following the break-up of her relationship with Good Charlotte singer Joel Madden last November ("I felt like we were great together, and being on my own is great too," she said, a little wistfully).

In other ways, she still sounds like the teen she is; she shares her LA house with her sister, but her mother has recently moved out to a house down the street.

""It was her idea," said Duff. "She said, I want to give you guys more freedom, and I'm like, I don't want that. I want you here. So I call her every day and I still always consult her before any big decision."

But whatever the growing-pain challenges ahead, Duff has the determination - and the work ethic - to meet them.

"Bottom line?" she said, before heading off to her next appointment. "I love being a career woman. I love being a business woman. I love getting older and being able to express myself in all these different ways. I love, like, doing all this stuff."

And she departs, leaving an intriguing, sultry hint of musk in her wake.

Hilary's single With Love is now playing over the airwaves. The album Dignity launched this week.


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