"I just turned 15, and I'm depressed," Duff says from the Vancouver set of "The Lizzie McGuire Movie."
"I've got another year to wait. I feel like my life is passing me by without a license. I need to be driving!"
Typical talk for a teenager, but Duff is far from typical.She'll have two movies - the Lizzie McGuire feature and "Agent Cody Banks" - out in March.
"She's definitely not Britney, by any means, but she's quickly moving up the ranks," says Jen Smith, an editor at Teen People, which just made Duff one of its "12 to watch in 2003."
Duff is a 2002 version of Annette Funicello, the '60s star who emerged from Disney's "The Mickey Mouse Club" to become a favorites with the younger set. (Other stars have emerged from Disney TV shows in recent years: Spears and Justin Timberlake launched their careers on "The Mickey Mouse Club.")
Sisters in showbiz
Duff grew up in Houston and San Antonio, Tex., where her father, Bob, owns several convenience stores. Her mother, Susan, a homemaker, enrolled Hilary and her older sister, Haylie, in an acting class. A few local parts later, the girls became so serious about show business that Mom was persuaded to move with them to California, leaving Dad behind to run the family business. He remains in Houston.
It took years of meetings and promotional packages for Hilary to get a few roles in commercials and then some bit parts - on "Chicago Hope" and the miniseries "True Women," among other TV shows. She also got a part in 1998's "Casper Meets Wendy," the direct-to-video sequel to the 1995 theatrical movie "Casper."
"My mom worked so hard for us," Duff says. "It really wasn't easy, but we were pretty lucky." Her sister is a singer these days, as well as an actress with several movie credits.
A couple of years ago, it seemed Duff was ready to break out. An NBC family comedy, "Daddio," had cast her as one of the children.
"After working with her the first day, I remember saying to my wife, 'This young girl is going to be a movie star,' " says Michael Chiklis, who starred in "Daddio" and now has the lead in the FX channel's "The Shield." "She was completely at ease with herself and comfortable in her own skin."
Yet before the show aired, Duff was dropped. She wanted to quit show business at that point, but her mother urged her on, and a week later she won the title role on "Lizzie McGuire."
For the uninitiated, the show is built around a teenager dealing with the wonders and dramas of adolescence. She has clean-cut friends, nerdy but good parents and a cartoon alter ego who pops up to talk to the audience.
Since it started last year, "Lizzie" has become a huge hit for the Disney Channel, drawing 2.3 million viewers an episode. ABC is now airing it as well, on Saturday mornings.
Disney realized quickly that it had a franchise on its hands and a star in the making. Last year, it cast Duff in "Cadet Kelly," a Disney Channel film that became the network's most-watched program ever, leading to "The Lizzie McGuire Movie." In her other upcoming feature, "Agent Cody Banks," Duff co-stars with Frankie Muniz of "Malcolm in the Middle."
The actress' musical career blossomed after executives at Walt Disney Records heard that she was interested in singing.
"There are singers like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, who have legendary voices," says Jay Landers, senior vice president of artists and repertoire at Walt Disney Records. "There are artists like Britney Spears with lesser voices, yet they have the ability to communicate. They all possess that unique thing we call charisma. From the moment we met Hilary, it was evident that she has that in abundance."
While her record is a hit on Radio Disney - a collection of stations around the country catering to children - it hasn't aired on Top 40 stations. Duff has a solo album scheduled for next fall, with slightly more mature songs befitting a 16-year-old.
Will her market grow?
The question now is whether she can move beyond fame in the youth market.
"Young actors face the problem of whether they can be adults, without necessarily taking that step too early in their career," says Rich Ross, entertainment president at the Disney Channel. "Young girls are taking roles that are older, to prove their breadth of acting. With Hilary, to be able to get appropriate roles and to have studios find those roles that are right - that's the challenge."
It will make the pressures of fame more intense. Already, it's tough for the actress to go places where teens hang out.
"It's a little harder now," Duff says of shopping. "But I'm not going to let it stop me. Sometimes it gets scary if I don't have my mom or an adult with me."
Not shopping, for a teen, is like being 15 and unable to drive. But with all the projects Duff has planned, it may not be long before she has someone to drive her anywhere she wants to go.
"If they don't know her yet," says Teen People's Smith, "they're definitely going to know her name in the next six months."
Originally published on December 1, 2002