Hilary Duff Tries to Maintain Her Dignity

Westword’s August 16 profile of Hilary Duff finds the junior pop star touching on a number of tabloid friendly topics, including her breakup with Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden, who got over his heartbreak by quickly impregnating Nicole Richie. Below, scope the entire interview, in which the nineteen-year old emphasizes her desire to escape adolescence once and for all.

Topics include the title song from Dignity, her new CD, and how much the tune is, and isn’t, about scolding misbehaving celebrities; the disc’s jacket photo, in which its name is superimposed over a photo of Duff looking like genuine royalty, as opposed to the kind that gets slimed on Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards; how songs about her parents breakup have been wrongly assumed to be comments on the Madden-Richie match; her contributions to Dignity’s songwriting, and her contention that the co-writing credits she receives are fully earned; her fragrance and clothing lines; her resistance to being seen as a brand as opposed to a human being; and War Inc., her forthcoming movie, which actually sounds like something people will fully functioning brains might want to see.

Will wonders never cease?

Westword (Michael Roberts): There’s been a lot of talk about the title and the cover of your new CD, Dignity. Some people have interpreted it as a comment about other pop stars and celebrities who came into the spotlight around the same time you did. Has that been misinterpreted? Or was that what you were going for?

Hilary Duff: You know what? When I wrote the song, it wasn’t like… It’s funny. I’d never really sat down and written a whole record before, like I did with this one. And I took a lot of time off, where I wasn’t working on a million other things while I was making the record, like I had done in the past. I was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles and just kind of enjoying my time off and seeing what came up and what experiences I had – for writing, you know. And I think living in L.A. in general is really what that song is about. Yeah, maybe it’s a little bit about celebrities and young people who run in the same genre of work that I’m in. It is kind of a judgmental song. I’m really not that much of a judgmental person. I’m not, like, bashing anyone in particular. But definitely it’s a song questioning people’s dignity and what they think is okay and what’s not okay, and the way Los Angeles is very superficial. That’s what that song is about. And it’s not necessarily just celebrities. It’s people that live there that think money can get you anything you want, and you think you have the authority because you have money, and you’re treating people disrespectfully. It’s about all of that, so I’d say it’s not necessarily completely aimed at just celebrities.

WW: Still, the image on the CD’s jacket: There’s a difference between the way you present yourself there and the way we see fill-in-the-blank celebrity on and Entertainment Tonight. Was that a message you were sending? Be dignified. Don’t be the way a lot of people are being presented these days?

HD: On the cover of my record?

WW: Yeah.

HD: You mean the picture?

WW: The picture, yes.

HD: I don’t know. I think it’s a very classy looking picture. I just liked that it was my face, and it’s just me. It’s pretty much like… I don’t know. The record was so personal for me. The record cover is a big closeup of my face. So it’s not like I have no clothes on or I’m trying to do something really edgy or provocative. It’s just me.

WW: So for you, it wasn’t so much that you were trying to say with that photo, “Everyone should be dignified as this,” or “I’m going to be dignified even if other celebrities aren’t going to be.” It was more, “This is the real me.”

HD: Yeah. It’s not about anybody else. It’s my record and I would not ever want to try and make someone like me or say this is how you should be. I’m just saying this is how I am and this is how I want to be.

WW: It’s a very serious image, and there are some series themes on the CD. But there are also a lot of lighthearted moments. Is that something you want people to know – that it’s not only a somber record, but an entertaining one as well?

HD: It’s funny. When I have done some interviews in the past where people were like, “Explain this song, and explain this song.” Well, all the songs are pretty serious. All the subject matter is pretty personal. I had a pretty tough year last year, so, of course, when you’re writing a record, the only things to write about are the things you feel the most, you know? But even though it is serious, and the subject matter, some of it is pretty deep, the music isn’t. The music is fun. It’s like a total dance record. No matter what, you feel like moving and dancing when you hear it. But when you listen to the words, it means something.

WW: You mentioned the tough year. There was the guy who ended up being sentenced to jail time for stalking you, and your relationship with Joel Madden ended – and your parents broke up, too. I understand that a couple of songs people thought were about you and Joel – “Stranger” and “Gypsy Woman” – that people thought were about you and Joel were actually about your parents. Is that right?

HD: Yeah, that’s correct.

WW: Was it difficult to write those songs because you were so close to them? Or was it necessary, because you needed an outlet?

HD: You know what? Right when I started to write my record was right about when I found out about my parents. And I was really nervous at first to be honest about what I was going through. Since I’ve been in this business for such a long time, you really learn to keep your guard up and not tell anyone about you, because people make stuff up, and they’re so intrusive. It’s just kind of a natural defense that people put up – to not say anything, because you know everyone’s going to be talking about it. So when I was writing, “Stranger” was actually the first song I wrote for the record, and I didn’t want anyone to know what my family was going through. I don’t know if I felt it was embarrassing, or if I felt it was nobody’s business, but it was what I was dealing with, and it was the thing that was affecting me most in my life at the time. So I wrote this song imagining what it was like if I was in my mom’s shoes. And “Gypsy Woman” is completely about my dad, and this woman, and their relationship. I didn’t really hold much back there. But that was later on the record, when I finally came to terms with being really honest and not caring what people thought and realizing that, if anything, it’s just going to make people relate to the record more. Because this is something normal that happens to normal people, and I’m a normal person, and my life isn’t perfect. But I thought it was interesting that I had my guard up so much that “Stranger” looks like it’s about me and my relationship and really it’s about my parents.

WW: After the record came out, did the reaction that came out make you realize you’d made the right choices about being that open? Or did it bother you that you were being misinterpreted?

HD: I think that you get used to being misinterpreted. People are always going to make what they want out of what you say, and it’s going to get twisted. So I don’t care to much about that. But I did feel like I made the right decision. It feels really good to write my record and sing each song onstage and remember the specific reason why you wrote that song – what experience you had, what made you feel that way to write that. It’s so personal and it feels so good, and actually, for this record, I got the best reviews for any record I ever put out before. And that’s really exciting. Being so open and honest, you set yourself up for disappointment if people hate it or whatever. But I was really pleased. And, of course, people said “Gypsy Woman” and “Stranger” were about Joel and Nicole Richie’s relationship, and that was the only thing that kind of bothered me, because how do you defend yourself? People just think that you’re lying if you don’t tell them what they want to hear. But they were such personal songs for me, and to have them make them about something they weren’t was kind of upsetting.

WW: There’s been some controversy with one of Avril Lavigne’s co-songwriters saying, “She says she actually wrote this song, but she really didn’t do very much.” In your case, you say, “I wrote this record.” How did you collaborate with your co-writers. Did you have finished songs that you brought to them and you worked together? Or was it different on each song?

HD: Well, if you look at my record, I wrote almost every song with a lady named Kara DioGuardi. I’ve worked with Kara since the beginning. When I started singing, on my very first record, she’d write songs for me and stuff. And this time, I was like, “I want to do it. I want to learn this process, and I want to come up with all the ideas.” And Kara was the only person that I really felt comfortable with – that I knew would give me all the control and all the freedom I wanted, but also the confidence at the same time. Kara’s like great with melodies, and that wasn’t really my strongest point when I started. But I’m very outspoken. When it comes to what I want the song to be about, what I want the track to sound like, what message I want to get across, what I want the words to be. I was really good at that. And I like to stand my ground and have my way a little bit. It’s my record. I should be able to do that. But she did help me. She especially helped me with the melodies.

WW: So the lyrics are pretty much straight from you, and you worked together to make sure the settings were right?

HD: Yeah, yeah. And sometimes I would be like, “This is the point I want to get across, this is how I want to say this – but how am I going to work this words in?” And she helped me with that. That’s what co-writing is all about, you know? You sit down and talk about a subject matter – if I went through something, or some experience. It’s so funny: I would call her and so, “Oh my God! You’ll never believe what happened! We’ve got to write a song about this!” And she sits down and I sit down and it was really interesting because she sent me an e-mail, or like a note, after the record was done. And she was like, “I’m so proud of you.” She really did help me be honest, because sometimes I might be like, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I should say that. It might be too honest or too whatever,” you know? And she would say, “You really need to do this. You really need to do this for you.” So she really gave me the confidence to just open up and not really care. Just be myself… None of the things on the record were original. Every kind of song has been written before. Every feeling that you feel: They’re not original. It’s just your take on things – and everyone’s different. She’s like, “I write music all the time, but it was still great writing with you, because your take’s a little different from mine. It inspires me in a different way.” It was fun. We had a good time. It’s like therapy, you know?

WW: So it sounds as if your songwriting relationship with her has changed over the years, and you’re taking a stronger role now than maybe at the very beginning.

HD: Of course, of course. Before, the song would almost be finished, and I’d come in and say, “I want this song to be more about this, so let’s change this lyric to this.”

WW: But now you feel like a full partner.

HD: Yeah.

WW: Like a lot of celebrities, you’ve branched out into some other business areas: a clothing line and a fragrance line. Tell me about those projects. What’s the latest?

HD: The fragrance, I’m getting ready to have the spring scent come out, which is a little more floral. And it’s called Wrapped With Love, and it’s a version of With Love that has different notes in it. It’s not as heavy as With Love, because With Love came out in the fall-wintertime. This is a little more flowery. It’s lighter, and it has a different bottle. It’s really cute. We don’t have an exact date for when it’ll come out, but within the next few months, it’ll be in stores. And the clothing line, we’re working on. Fall should come out in early September. I’m working on a juniors line, but there’s no specific date, because I’ve been so busy and I don’t want to just throw it together. I really want to have it perfect.

WW: I came across a Forbes article that had you listed as one of the richest performers under the age of 25. It said you made $15 million in 2005. Is that kind of figure hard for you to grasp?

HD: It doesn’t feel real. I definitely don’t live like that. So just to think about it is kind of scare. As much as I work and realize it’s my job, and that I have to make a profit, because it’s how I support myself, I don’t know… It doesn’t even seem real.

WW: When you have so many products, you’re kind of turning yourself into a brand name. Do you have people telling you, “You need to do this or that, because it’ll be good for the brand”?

HD: I don’t like to think of myself as a brand. I’m not a brand. I’m a person, I’m an artist, I’m creative. That’s just not an appealing thing. I think maybe someone would think that because I have so much stuff going on, but I’m not a brand. I think I definitely make choices based on what’s going to be good for my clothing line and what’s going to be good for my fragrance. But isn’t that how you run businesses? Making decisions and doing things that will be good for your career? Different aspects of it? Definitely there are things that come along with my job that I don’t always want to do, but that’s the same with anyone’s job.

WW: And yet your name is definitely used to sell these products, much as Donald Trump’s name is used to promote buildings. It seems that you understand that relationship, but that you don’t want to think of yourself as only a brand.

HD: It’s interesting. Working with this new clothing line that I want to launch within the next year, it’s not going to have my name all over it. It’s going to have its own separate name, and it’s not like my face is going to be all over it. I think that my clothing line, stuff, is more like that, because it’s for a younger audience, and a younger demographic. And as I get older, I definitely want to keep those fans who are younger, and who enjoy my music and my acting. But I’m going to be doing things that they may not be as interested in, and I want to keep some things just for them. They care more about having my face everywhere, having my name on it, and I want to do that for them. That’s really what stuff is about. As much as we’ve made it a mini-fashion line, my name really does help sell it, and kids like that. It’s nice to get to have the best of both worlds and really think of it as a business. With younger people, that’s what sells, and with older people, that doesn’t sell. And so I get to be a little more creative and a little more fashion.

WW: It sounds like you’re hoping that the fans who came along early on can go through the same transition you’re going through – to follow you through your career.

HD: I hope so. I hope they stay fans. I’m getting older, and they’re getting older. It’s nice to grow up a little bit and challenge yourself and do new things, and I think they feel that way, too.

WW: On the film front, I understand you have a film coming out called War, Inc., with John Cusack. Tell me a little bit about it. From the description, it sounds a little bit like Grosse Pointe Blank.

HD: I wouldn’t say it’s like Grosse Pointe Blank, but he does play an assassin. He was an assassin in Grosse Pointe, right?

WW: Yes, he was.

HD: But this takes place in a made-up country called Turagistan, and it’s kind of like a dark comedy about war and about this country that we’re getting ready to go and hold this huge convention and Americanize this place that’s not really supposed to be like that. It’s like we blow it up to build it up again and be the heroes. And it just kind of shows how wrong that is.

WW: What’s your role?

HD: I play this Eastern European pop star who’s under the control of these very powerful, dirty business guys. She’s a big talker but she is kind of like overtly sexual and really rude and crude and loves to make people feel uncomfortable, but it’s really because she’s scared and kind of young inside. I’m making her sound horrible, but she’s really quite funny. And there are redeeming parts of the movie that make you like her, and make you see that she’s stuck in this place that’s horrible – it’s like a war zone. And her only way out, she thinks, is John. There’s a big twist at the end of the movie. And Ben Kingsley’s in the movie, and Marisa Tomei and Joan Cusack is in the movie. It’s really funny, but it really opens your eyes to so much.

WW: This sounds like this is an opportunity to play with your own image. Was that one of the appeals for you?

HD: You know what? The first time I heard about the script, I thought, “Oh God, I don’t want to play a pop star. No thanks.” And then I read the script, because my agent was like, “John wants to talk to you on the phone,” and I was like, “What?” So I read the script and I fell in love with it. I was nervous at first, because it really is such a departure from any movie that I’ve done, my own personal singing career, and who I am in real life. This character’s really out there and really different, and I was like, people might think I’m trying to be so far away from who I really am. But that’s what acting’s all about – challenging yourself and stepping outside of who you are getting to play around. And John really helped me with that. It was fun.

WW: Would you like to be in more films like this, where you’re going in different directions than you have in the past?

HD: Definitely. I want to grow as an actress and do things that are different. I think now that I’m an older, there’s more of an opportunity to do that. I’m not saying I don’t want to do funny movies or movies the whole family can go see. But definitely creative, artsy, more offbeat movies, I’m very interested in right now.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts