On Hilary Duff’s 34th birthday, looking into the series that created a brand out of the actress, making her one of the pioneers of Disney’s band of child icons in the 2000s.
With the turn of the millennium, Disney belted out yet another school teenage drama that had thousands fall for the cutesy girlish charm of the female protagonist and her band of loyal friends. Hilary Duff, with her sprightly, vivacious presence, got on screen to portray Lizzie McGuire. Revolving around the life of a 13-year-old adolescent, the eponymous show focused on her daily adventures as she tried to navigate her problems with best friends Gordo (Adam Lamberg) and Miranda (Lalaine Vergara-Paras).
Disney pumped in considerably hefty budgets into Duff and the rest of the show’s cast and quite promptly, a star was born. Lizzie was clumsy, relatable, cute, honest, charming, and goofy all at the same time. Her allure was doubled up by the fact that the show’s creators came in armed with a full range of meaningful narratives that addressed topics like height insecurities, body image issues, eating disorders, and changing emotional vulnerabilities among other things. This heady concoction was a first for Disney, and the channel understandably channelised most of its creative energies into this production.
Lizzie McGuire debuted within an environment that still had Nickelodeon reigning as the undisputed champion of children’s TV. Understandably then, it was a difficult uphill task for Duff and her team to carve a soft spot in people’s hearts. Disney’s profile till that point wasn’t the most exciting either. While it did have shows like The Famous Jett Jackson and So Weird, the channel was still looking for an inroad into launching a breakout series that would speak volumes to its prolific audience base that the channel had so painstakingly built.
Duff’s series fit the bill completely. The actress introduced a sense of relatability to Lizzie and showed the world that a teenage drama queen could be everything between adorable and abominable. Lizzie was neither a “mean gurl”, a cheerleader nor a nerd; she was just about average, a carefree clutz who just wanted to speak her mind.
Duff’s entry into the Disney camp was almost serendipitous since she eerily like her on-screen persona. All the topline child artists were considered for the role. Frontrunners included Lindsay Lohan to You've Got Mail's Hallee Hirsh and Sara Paxton (later of Sydney White and Aquamarine fame). Duff’s most notable work till then included straight-to-video Casper Meets Wendy and the Michael Chiklis sitcom Daddio, from which she had then been replaced and fired. And true to her character’s nature, Duff stumbled through her lines and cues on her very first audition. Yet, the actress’ unassuming nature and dorky habits attracted the makers and they realised they had a winner on their hands. Even when Duff screwed up, she had a charm that could ensure everyone rooted for her and since television was greatly dependent on such personality traits, she was a clear fit.
"The secret sauce of Lizzie McGuire was casting Hilary. It was just very, very simple — she was nice and sweet, and you wanted her to be your best friend. Hilary pulled that off because it's who she was, and it ended up being this perfect blending of character and actor,” Disney executive producer Stan Rogow said of Duff in an .
Rogow even chipped in about Duff’s relatability quotient when he narrated instances of children and teenagers gaping at him awestruck when he’d don the Lizzie McGuire baseball cap and ask if he knew her personally. When he’d laugh and ask them what they loved about her, the answer would be instantaneous — “She's good. She's kind. She's like me.” For Rogow, that mattered the most; even more than something like “I want to be like Lizzie.” He felt the humane qualities about her were what was gaining focus among the targeted demography. It almost became the guiding axiom that would draw more and more people to the series every week, bolstering TRPs considerably.
Within weeks of its release, the show began garnering big numbers. As opposed to the expected 1 million viewers per episode, Lizzie McGuire began pulling an average of 2.3 million views (with special episodes running up to 3.5 million). These figures gradually contributed to it becoming the most-watched show on the network, beating Even Stevens, which had debuted to great success seven months before that.
Duff’s ease with her screen presence became more evident by the day and consequently, she became a brand of her own. Stellar writing ensured that the show transcended from the popular kiddie-fare genre to something of a pop-culture icon that even had double entendres and the quick-witted humourous nods to a range of topics from The Beatles to The Sopranos.
Soon after the show wrapped up its 65 episodes by mid-2002, a movie was announced. The feature followed Lizzie and her motley crew as they painted the town red in Rome, post their eighth-grade graduation trip. The box-office returns expectedly erupted, with the film earning three times the production budget, along with a double-platinum soundtrack in its kitty.
Duff has seen lesser fortunes with respect to the Lizzie McGuire franchise ever since. After a 2019 announcement of a comeback, the series was quickly shelved following a shooting schedule that covered the first two episodes. Yet, the age-old magnetism of the show refuses to die down. Duff, who gained her popularity with the show, is almost intrinsically attached to its name now. And what’s better than to be identified as the confused teenager who defined American culture as, “eating junk food with your friends and watching TV while your brain turns to tapioca.”