In November, a strange and random thing happened on TikTok, as it often does. Seemingly out of nowhere, TikTokers latched onto a video from 2007. It wasn’t a particularly notable video, but it was enough to inspire a viral waterfall of content. The clip was of Hilary Duff — who was still then better known as Disney icon Lizzie McGuire — on the Today show near the peak of her pop music career, performing her single “With Love.” Duff must have been exhausted that day, because she executed the choreography with a kind of casual apathy, shimmying half-heartedly through the moves as her backup dancers gesticulated wildly. For fans online, Duff’s performance became an aspirational act of half-assedness that they delighted in recreating in their own videos. (“I love how she gives absolutely 0% energy. Slay me lazy queen,” one commenter on YouTube wrote.) And thus the #hilaryduffchallenge was born, an online micro-movement that resurrected one of Duff’s more embarrassing adolescent moments, turning it into a meme that was equal parts mocking and celebratory.
One disadvantage to having been a child star of Duff’s magnitude is that the Internet can readily dig up any number of awkward teenage moments that most people have the privilege of keeping locked in a vault forever. When the stream of text messages about the #hilaryduffchallenge started pouring in, the 34-year-old actor and mother of three was a bit taken aback, worried even. “I was like, ‘Is this going to dig up everything that I don’t want dug up? Is this just an opportunity for more fun to be poked?’” Duff tells me a couple of months later on Zoom. “Even though, at the end of the day, I know that a majority of people hold me in a very endeared space, it’s still… bullying. You’re like, ‘Let’s dig up photos of you when you were 16 or 17 or when you were eating 500 calories a day. Or when you hated the world, or your parents were getting divorced, or your boyfriend slept with your girlfriend.’”
Still, Duff took it in stride. In the 20-plus years since she became a tween Disney icon, Duff has gradually learned not to take herself, or the Internet, too seriously. She even has a little pep talk she gives herself when moments from her past pop up, as they often do: “I have such a great life that I have to be like, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ Or, ‘Oh, that was a rough period. But I made it through,’” she tells me.
And so, in response to her newfound (and unsolicited) fame on Gen Z’s preferred social media platform, she did the most endearing thing possible: logged on to TikTok and made her own version of the #hilaryduffchallenge. “I do remember that time, so I’m going to have some fun with it,” she remembers thinking. “No one will shut up about it, so here’s my attempt.”
What was especially ironic about the #hilaryduffchallenge was the premise that Duff was or is capable of laziness. (“If Lizzie McGuire and Disney taught me anything, it taught me how to work. And how to power through and be energetic and show up,” she says.) These days especially, there is no room for laziness in her life, which is a whirlwind of focused activity that provides her with virtually no time to spare. Duff recently started a meditation practice and found that five minutes was all her schedule would allow. “I do a mantra, and then once other things start coming up, I will accept thoughts that are positive, and then when they’re not, I focus on washing them away,” she tells me. She’s in the bedroom of her Los Angeles home, where she’s presumably retreated to get some peace and quiet for our interview. Dressed in a youthful pair of cream-colored overalls and a matching tank top, Duff is all pep and sunlight — nothing half-hearted about her.
I was like, ‘I’m me! I’m Hilary, not that person. That’s a made up person.’
These days, Duff juggles a perennially full slate of television roles, three small children, and a backyard chicken coop. She’s got a 9-year-old boy, Luca (from her first marriage), along with two daughters with her now-husband, the musician and producer Matthew Koma. She had Banks in 2018, and got pregnant again in summer 2020 with her youngest, Mae. (She delivered both babies in her home in Los Angeles.) When she’s on set, she’s often one of the most experienced actors in a given cast, which puts her into a de facto leadership role at many of her jobs. “I just don’t know how she has the energy to do what she does,” says Chris Lowell, her How I Met Your Father co-star. “Hilary would come to work on a Monday and ask, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ I slept and did laundry. And she’s like, ‘I went to a petting zoo [with my kids] and got a neck tattoo.’ Just how much she squeezes the juice out of the fruit of every minute of every day is very impressive.”
Fans of her work might be surprised to see Duff in this, her abundantly adult life. That’s because, on television, Duff plays characters who haven’t quite settled into themselves. She made her name as Lizzie McGuire, but for the last six years, Duff has played Kelsey on Darren Star’s Younger, a show about a 40-year-old woman (Liza, played by Sutton Foster) who pretends to be younger to get a job in publishing. Kelsey is one of Liza’s 20-something colleagues, and she’s the archetypal modern young woman in New York City fumbling through messy friendships and romances. This month, Duff stars in a sequel to the much-adored sitcom How I Met Your Mother. The new series, How I Met Your Father, reimagines the original from the point of view of a woman — Duff’s character, Sophie — another young New Yorker trying to navigate the world of dating apps, shifting friend groups, and one-night stands. (An older version of Sophie is played by Kim Cattrall.) Sophie, who is trying to get her career as a photographer off the ground, is a quintessential clueless 20-something who is not quite ready for the adult responsibilities that the real-life Duff has managed with grace for nearly a decade.
While How I Met Your Father zooms in on the perils of online dating, Duff has never had to use the apps. She married her first husband, the hockey player Mike Comrie, in her early 20s. After they split, she says she was “five minutes away from signing up for Raya,” but she wasn’t single for long enough. She met Koma while making her last album, Breathe In. Breathe Out. in 2015. A mutual friend thought they’d make good collaborators, and Koma wrote and produced multiple songs on the record. Today, her life — divorced and remarried with three kids and a nonstop, consistently successful television career — is a far cry from the arrested development of the bumbling millennials she plays on television. Duff is a grownup, and she feels it. “I’m starting to feel like… I can’t eat what I want anymore. I can’t drink how I used to. If I don’t get the sleep I need, I’m not good the next day.”
Duff has been in the business for most of her life. She and her older sister, Haylie, moved from their native Texas to Los Angeles with their mom at a young age to pursue acting. After a few years, Duff got discouraged and considered permanently moving back home with her dad in Texas, ready to put the audition hamster wheel behind her. But she soon received an offer to audition for the lead role in a new Disney show called Lizzie McGuire. She turned down the request, but her mother kept encouraging her to try it. Eventually she flew back to Los Angeles and landed the part (despite “bombing” the first audition). Duff had no idea how completely the role would change her life, not just in the immediate future but for years to come. “I think I was trying not to get too excited,” she says. “I remember meeting friends at the mall the day the show came out, and being mobbed by people. Someone who worked at the mall stuffed me in the closet and said, ‘You need to call your mom.’”
It was so unfair what we all did to her. Halsey shaves her head and it’s celebrated. Britney Spears shaved her head a long time ago, and it was like, ‘She’s gone mental! Check her into the institution.’
Lizzie McGuire would quickly become one of Disney’s biggest hits, and Duff’s character would provide a blueprint for the relatable tween girl who collapsed the weirdo-cheerleader continuum. (Even characters from present day shows like Pen15 or Euphoria fall in the post-Lizzie McGuire lineage.) Anyone who’s currently in their late 20s to mid-30s became intimately familiar with the storylines and the character. Lizzie, flanked by her trusty friends Miranda and Gordo, idolized Britney Spears and desperately wanted to fit in, but she was prone to awkward gaffes and overeager gestures. At the time, Duff didn’t know what it meant to create a character, and the lines between her and Lizzie got blurry. “I was too young to do a character dive on Lizzie,” she says. “I think I was just playing myself. And I really related to that girl. She was me, and I was her, and that was that.”
While Lizzie McGuire was on air, it was fine that the world kept conflating Duff with her iconic character. As she got older, though, it started to wear on her. By the time the series wrapped, Duff was deep into her burgeoning pop-music career. She released Metamorphosis in 2003, an album that landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and allowed her to tour arenas around the country. (She was on tour when the original How I Met Your Mother was popular, and since it was a pre-streaming era, she missed most of its early run.) Still, despite her commercial success as a musician, there was a sense that people were still refusing to take a Disney star seriously. “I was selling just as many records as all of the contenders in my realm, and selling out huge arenas, but could barely get played on the radio,” she says.
In Hollywood, the role of Lizzie McGuire loomed over her for many years. Duff remembers going on auditions and getting callbacks, only to be written off by producers and casting agents. “‘Oh, she’s too famous. She’s too sweet. We know her as Lizzie McGuire,’” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘Why are you giving me the callback then? Don’t fucking waste my time. I’m driving to Venice for this shit!’
“I was like, ‘I’m me! I’m Hilary, not that person. That’s a made-up person,” Duff continues. “It was a desire to be seen as a person outside of a character. By the time I was 18, I was like, ‘If I hear that name [Lizzie McGuire] one more time!’”
“Young people weren’t taken seriously,” she adds. ‘Now it’s like, if you’re not 19, there is no way you’re going to break. If you’re 30, you’re too old. And it’s amazing and I’m so happy for them. But when I was coming up, I was really trying to break the mold… It was a really challenging time.”
Back then, there was, of course, one surefire way for child and teen stars of that era to break away from their prepubescent identities: the rebellious phase. We saw it when Miley Cyrus went from Hannah Montana to wrecking-ball Miley and when Britney Spears infamously shaved her head. Mary-Kate and Ashley quit acting and started smoking. Lindsay Lohan became, and remains, a tabloid sensation for all kinds of public shenanigans. (Including an alleged feud with Duff over tween pop sensation Aaron Carter, whom Duff dated early on. These days, Carter is an OnlyFans star and celebrity boxing exhibitionist.) Justin Bieber had a run that included illegal drag-racing and urinating in a janitor’s bucket. These sorts of dramatic gestures forced the public to form new — if a bit unsavory — images of these teen idols.
In following the recent saga of Britney Spears, and the re-examination of Spears’ so-called public breakdown and media frenzy, Duff says she experienced an intense pang of recognition. “I 100% relate to and feel for her,” she says. “It was so unfair what we all did to her. Halsey shaves her head and it’s celebrated. Britney Spears shaved her head a long time ago, and it was like, ‘She’s gone mental! Check her into the institution.’”
Tapping into that part of myself that’s purely mine is really hard to do.
Duff never really had the same kind of shocking public transformation that Spears did. She was angsty, sure, and she admits she did like to party occasionally. “Not every night but some nights,” she remembers. “I knew I had a responsibility. If I found myself in a situation of being drunk at the club, I didn’t want to be on the cover of a magazine like that. I kept a low profile, [used] the back door, not the front door.” By age 24, she was married to Comrie and had her first child, Luca. Oddly, because Duff kept her act together and matured so quickly, Hollywood continued to see her as an innocent.
To this day, Lizzie McGuire impacts her professionally. I ask her if being a Disney star hindered her career. Was she typecast as a bubbly young woman, always in family-friendly roles? She responds without skipping a beat. “Of course. I still am.” But after many years of self-reflection, Duff has come to an understanding. “I’ve obviously had to think about [Lizzie] a lot. The lines get so blurry between me and her, and I think they are for the world, still. And they probably always will be. I think just accepting that has brought me a lot of peace,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have a backbone, and I don’t have a drive, and I don’t have a vision. I have all of those things.”
Duff revealed just how much vision and backbone she has when, in late 2020, she pulled out of the Lizzie McGuire reboot she was developing with Disney+ — not because she was tired of Lizzie but because, as she indicated on Instagram, Disney was trying too hard to make the show, which chronicled the character’s life as a 30-something, “family friendly” in a way that didn’t honor Lizzie. “I want any reboot of Lizzie to be honest and authentic to who Lizzie would be today,” she wrote in a post to her almost 20 million Instagram followers. “It’s what the character deserves. We can take a moment to mourn the amazing woman she would have been and the adventures we would have taken with her.” (Before I can even mention the reboot, Duff tells me, “I really don’t want to talk about the version that almost was or could be.”) She seems to have come full circle on Lizzie. “Now I’m like, ‘I love her.’ She’s the greatest. She made everyone feel good,” she says, beaming.
Duff has grown more and more comfortable calling the shots within the confines of her current universe. Working on How I Met Your Father, Duff, who is also a producer of the show, says she was intensely involved in the casting decisions and the styling of the show. It’s a right she’s earned with experience. “I’m obviously very opinionated because I’ve been doing this for so long,” she says.
Duff hasn’t put out an album since 2015, and she recognizes that she no longer has the same relationship to pop stardom. When she first began making music, her pop career was a natural continuation of the teen-friendly, overachieving performer she’d learned to be through Disney stardom. Her last album, Breathe In. Breathe Out., showed a more adventurous and adult side, blending dance-pop and folk influences. Only recently, she’s started plotting her return to music, but she is treading carefully. Between her responsibilities to her family and the show, “It’s so hard to find myself in there, and what I have to say. Tapping into that part of myself that’s purely mine is really hard to do,” she says. She’s just also trying to give herself a break. “I don’t want to cry, but I might cry. I put a lot of pressure on myself, personally. And I want to release that stuff that doesn’t serve me. I have a lot of trouble sitting still and not having a ton of things going on to manage. Which is weird, because I’m not a control freak at all — I just like to have my plate really fucking full. And finally, at 34, I think that’s slowly chipping away.”
Going easier on herself also means making career moves with a different set of considerations in mind: “If I were to make a record, it would have to be: What do I think is cool and what makes me happy?” she says. “Lizzie is a little bit like that.”
Top Image Credits: Dior top, Swarovski earrings, Third Crown necklace
Photographer: Kerry Hallihan
Stylist: Sarah Schussheim
Hair: Nikki Lee
Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan
Set Designer: Robert Ziemer
Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Alex Van Brande