The Lucy Hale You Think You Know Is Gone

by Rachel Simon
Ashley Batz/Bustle

On June 14, Lucy Hale will turn 28. Less than a week after that, on June 20, her TV show, Pretty Little Liars, will air its series finale. For the actor, these events are irrevocably intertwined. She's spent the entirety of her 20s — all of her adulthood so far, really — on the series, playing Aria Montgomery, the kindest, most stylish of the titular Liars. Her growth as a person, her achievements and mistakes, hell, even the name that gets written on her Starbucks cups (Aria, of course) is connected to her time on PLL. For nearly eight years, Lucy and Aria have been one and the same — but in just a handful of weeks, that connection will suddenly fade.

"It's typically around this time when we’ll go back to filming, and so now that I’m working on different projects and not seeing everyone..." Hale tells me, trailing off. "It’s just now hitting me that once all the episodes are out, it’s the end of a huge chapter in my life."

It's morning in late April, and we're sitting at a table in an empty New York studio, on break from one of the last photoshoots the actor will ever do for Pretty Little Liars.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Dress: Simone Rocha

For someone about to end a massive, career-defining chapter of her life, Hale is impressively calm. Throughout the day, she seems more concerned with the Fendi sweater she's wearing for the shoot and the puppies we find wandering the hall outside than the fact that come June 20, her entire life will change.

Perhaps it's because she's had so much time to process it. Seven seasons is a long time to be on a TV show, and the end of PLL has been hinted at for years. Each actor has booked new projects (creator I. Marlene King has a new show, Famous in Love), and the gang's farewell tour is nearing its end. The group photos have been taken, and the matching tattoos have been acquired (each PLL star got the initial of her character's first name on her "shh" finger, naturally). The conclusion of the show may be painful, but it is certainly not sudden. Everyone is already moving on.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Dress: Simone Rocha

And for the most part, Hale is excited about this prospect. "When you’re on a TV show, people think that they know you and think that you are your character and that you dress like your character," she explains. "It’ll be a nice challenge to get people to see me in a different light."

Her own new projects have already been booked, most notably a CW dramedy pilot called Life Sentence, and as always, she's working on her side career in music. Like everyone else involved with PLL, Hale is quickly carving a space for herself in Hollywood outside of the Freeform bubble, and she's looking forward to the chance to show fans something new.

"It’s been great to live in that Pretty Little Liars world for so long and get to fall in love with my character, which I did — Aria became part of my identity — but it’s gonna be nice to let that go," says the star.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Sweater: Fendi, Jeans: Re/Done, Earrings: Jennifer Fisher

Yet leaving the show, and Aria, behind will not be easy, especially when it comes to the closeness Hale has built with her castmates over the years. The night before we meet for our interview, she joined the gang to watch the first episode of the new season together, all of them taking selfies and tweeting jokes throughout the hour. They're a tight-knit bunch, with nicknames for each other (Hale's is "Goose") and those matching tattoos, and for Hale, it's difficult to contemplate a world without her co-stars in it every day. "It's definitely bittersweet," she says. "The show’s been huge for all of us."

Leaving PLL also means that for the first time in years, she will have to prove herself as an actor all over again and claim new fans. Although she achieved some success before the hit series, acting in movies like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and winning the singing competition American Juniors as a preteen, she knows that to fans, her identity is entirely interconnected to Aria's. She's so interwoven with the wide-eyed, fast-talking character that it might be hard for audiences to see her as anyone else.

Hale is fully aware of this potential roadblock, but tells me she's trying not to think too much about it. "Quality problem to have, you know?" she says with a smile and shrug. "But you can’t really focus on that... there might be preconceived notions, and people might have an idea of what they think I can or can’t do, but I like proving people wrong."

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Sweater: Fendi, Earrings: Jennifer Fisher

After so many years playing the same character, Hale is anxious to do something new, and that desire is bigger than any fear.

"I’m excited to show people different sides of myself," she says, smiling. "Hopefully I’ll even surprise myself a little bit." She has movies and that pilot lined up, and much as PLL has been a massive part of her life, she's ready for people to see her as Lucy, not her beloved TV character.

But even for Hale, separating the two identities isn't easy. Like Aria, Hale isn't loud, but she is confident. Playing the character, particularly when it came to the memorable, often eyebrow-raising outfits the aspiring writer often wore, helped the actor establish her own sense of self. Who Hale is today is due, in part, to who Aria was for those seven years.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Sweater: Fendi, Jeans: Re/Done, Earrings: Jennifer Fisher

"I used to be very timid about clothes," the actor says. "Just being on the show and then the attention the show got, and having to go more events... it’s definitely helped me grow and change and take risks and find out who I am."

In so many ways, Pretty Little Liars was "the job that everyone dreams of," Hale says — even when the show began to gain success, none of those involved ever imagined it would reach the levels it did. Over the course of its seven seasons, the show has become nothing less than a phenomenon, becoming the most watched show on Freeform (just for starters), inspiring spinoffs and Halloween costumes, and making each of its Liars a global superstar.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Top: Isabel Marant, Briefs: Coach, Corset: Philosophy Di Lorenzo Serafini, Choker: Are You Am I

"It was such a gradual growth," Hale says now, reflecting on the series' run. "We kept thinking, oh this is the peak, this is the top, it won’t get bigger, and it just kept getting bigger... What we achieved with that show is just unheard of."

The actor is acutely aware that replicating that amount of success — and thus, the amount of fame she currently has — will be next to impossible. Neil Patrick Harris and Jennifer Aniston aside, few TV stars, particularly those as young as PLL's core group, manage to establish full careers for themselves afterward. Hollywood isn't a welcoming place for actors hoping to change their images or find new audiences, and even the massive popularity of PLL isn't enough to shield its stars from that harsh reality once they leave.

"I know that it’s not always gonna be on that level, and I’m fine with that," Hale says slowly. "I’ve seen it really mess with people when they’re in the spotlight and then they’re not necessarily in the spotlight, and they do something crazy to be in the spotlight again. So you have to have a life outside of it, and luckily, I have really great friends and family to keep me grounded, and I recognize what’s real and what’s not. I have a sense of who I am outside of my job and the Lucy Hale that people know."

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Top: Isabel Marant, Corset: Philosophy Di Lorenzo Serafini, Choker: Are You Am I, Necklace, Lucy's Own: Lola James

Still, she'd be "lying to say" that the show's ending doesn't intimidate her.

"It’s scary to leave what you know," she says, adding that it'll be a serious change when "people aren’t always talking about the show, or what we’re posting on Instagram." All that fame is an "adrenaline rush," she says. "[You can get] addicted to that sort of attention." Once PLL ends and that all begins to fade, it'll be a massive switch in her life, for better or for worse.

"Not knowing what’s coming next, and leaving the success of Pretty Little Liars" is frightening, she says.

There are, however, a few things Hale won't miss, like the show's grueling nine and a half months out of the year filming schedule. "I can’t go home as much as I’d like, I’m a lot busier, I don’t sleep as much as I’d like," she explains. She's looking forward to being able to take on less demanding projects, as well as ones that aren't tied to Pretty Little Liars in other ways, too.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Top & Shorts: Philosophy Di Lorenzo Serafini, Earrings: Jennifer Fisher, Choker: Are You Am I

"I think the show is very specific for what it is," she says carefully. "Whether that be just tonally, and the things we talk about, or even acting choices, it’s very in this box. And that box is great, and I’ve had a lot of fun in that box, but there’s so many places to go and so many kinds of projects that I want to do."

She's excited to start auditioning again, and to not have to turn down opportunities because they conflict with PLL's filming schedule. Right after wrapping up filming on the show, Hale took on a role in Life Sentence, in which she'll star as Stella, a woman who learns she doesn't have the terminal cancer she thought she did and must contend with the choices she made while thinking she was dying. It sounds like an intriguing, complicated part, and Stella "couldn't be more different" from Aria, Hale says — which was no coincidence.

"I think that I strategically wanted to do that right after PLL because I don’t want people to be like, 'Oh she’s a one-trick pony,'" she explains.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Top & Shorts: Philosophy Di Lorenzo Serafini, Earrings: Jennifer Fisher, Choker: Are You Am I

While Hale's character in Life Sentence is a 20-something (older than Aria was for most of PLL's run) the new show's status as a CW dramedy means it'll likely attract much of the same viewership as PLL did: young girls and women. Hale has no qualms about this. Perhaps there's a comfort in taking on a show aimed at the same demographic as the one she starred on for so many years — even if some critics might insinuate that young-adult-focused series are silly or irrelevant.

"I think that anyone who says that shows like this don’t matter are very wrong," Hale says, leaning forward to emphasize her point. "The people who say that obviously haven’t watched [PLL], because it’s not a show about teen girls. It’s a show about friendship, and aside from the mystery and the drama of it all, the core is about friendship and [how] life is sh*t sometimes, and things are thrown at you. I just really love how the girls have stuck by each other."

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Dress: Salvatore Ferragamo, Choker: Are You Am I

There's no denying that over the course of its run, PLL has tackled issues many "adult"-focused shows have not. From body image to coming out, the series has covered it all, and Hale is clearly proud of how PLL handled each subject.

"Shay [Mitchell, who plays Emily, a lesbian] could speak out that she’s impacted so many girls that needed to come out to their parents and just needed that extra push, and she’s literally changed lives. That’s incredible," she says. "And I’ve had people who’ve come up to me and said, 'I had Stage 4 cancer, and your show was the thing that got me through.' Things like that — I know our show didn’t save them, but it’s things like that that shows it goes beyond just being a soapy teen drama... you can go ask any of the fans, and they would give you a different reason for why it’s so important to them."

Talking about the show's impact, Hale is passionate and protective, and although she may be itching to leave PLL behind, it's clearly not due to any bad blood with the series itself.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Dress: Salvatore Ferragamo, Choker: Are You Am I

"The show is exactly what the world needed at that time, for the people that watch it," she says, and she might be talking about herself, too. For a shy 20-year-old just beginning to develop her sense of self, taking on PLL was the catalyst for so many changes in Hale's life.

"I’m very lucky that certain things I learned behind closed doors," she says of spending her young adulthood in the public eye. "Now, at 28, I’m pretty sure of... the kind of person that I am and what I stand for, and I got to do that all while filming a TV show."

Pretty Little Liars may have helped make Hale who she is — but for the first time in a long time, she's getting the chance to show the world the sides of herself that Aria Montgomery has nothing to do with at all.

Photography: Ashley Batz/Bustle, Dress: Salvatore Ferragamo, Choker: Are You Am I

Stylist: Annebet Duvall; Set Designer: Pakayla Biehn; Hair: Lacy Redway at The Wall Group; MakeUp: Celebrity Makeup Artist Kelsey Deenihan, using mark. ; Manicure: Miss Pop using CND Vinylux in Honey Darling, Palm Deco and Cerulean Sea.

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