January 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Auditioning for the title role on the Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire in 2000, Hilary Duff was, like, really embarrassed. “The casting director was like, ‘You are totally unprepared. Do you know any acting coaches?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I wanted to get under a rock and hide.” It’s just that kind of adolescent drama (and occasional melodrama) that has made Lizzie one of the Disney Channel’s top-rated shows (with a movie due next year) and transformed Duff, 14, into a preteen idol. “Girls are just trying to find out who they are at this stage, and that’s totally what Lizzie is about,” says Duff. Whether Lizzie is squirting herself with ketchup or being dumped by her first boyfriend, Duff “captures every emotion that you remember living yourself,” says show creator Terri Minsky. “I love her genuineness,” adds her TV dad, Robert Carradine. “She’s really normal.”

The daughter of full-time mom Susan, 48, and Bob, 55, a partner in a convenience store chain, Duff grew up in Houston and San Antonio with sister Haylie, 16, and got her acting start in local commercials. Now living in L.A., she even has an on-and-off (currently off) celebrity romance with singer Aaron Carter, 13. “It’s hard to keep a boyfriend,” Duff says, but the subject is soon closed: Mortified, she dives for cover behind a pillow.

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