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Being Hilary Duff isn't kid stuff. At 19, the singer and actress sits atop an empire that includes her own perfume and Barbie doll. She has also had to survive typical teen angst—including a breakup with Good Charlotte singer Joel Madden—under the media's microscope. How did the Houston-born dynamo—whose album Dignity hits stores April 3—stay grounded? PEOPLE's Sona Charaipotra found out.

This is your first time living on your own in L.A. Do you feel like a grown-up?

I definitely don't think that I am a full-grown adult. My mom [Susan, 53] moved out a year and half ago, but my sister Haylie [22] and I live together. There's no competition between us or rivalry, but I'm a little more of a clean freak and she manages to leave a trail throughout the whole house of all this ... stuff. So that's something that we fight about. Those fights last for about five minutes.

How do you cope with the media's speculation about your weight?

You're either too fat or too skinny [for them]. I don't think that I ever had a problem with weight. But I definitely felt the pressure [to be thin]. And if you don't like the way you look or feel insecure, when people say things about you—in magazines or just in everyday life—they can be hurtful. You're thinking, "Oh my God, I am fat," or "I'm too thin." But you'll never make them happy. It'll always be, "Look at her skin. Look at her cellulite." It's so judgmental and mean. How could someone not go a little crazy? I want to look pretty and for people to like my outfit. But another part of me is thinking, "Why do I care?" I don't care if they don't like what I wear because I like it. But you can't help but care. We're human and we want to fit in. But it's about making yourself happy.

On your new record, the song "Gypsy Woman" slams an unnamed man-stealer. Was this inspired by your breakup?

I had four songs to go when [Joel] and I broke up, and a lot of the songs on the record are obviously about him because I dated him for 2½ years. But it's hard to have people listen to your record and assume that there are songs on it about his new girlfriend. I don't know Nicole Richie. I don't have anything against her. I have nothing but good feelings toward them and want them to be happy. She seems like a nice person.

You tried to keep both the relationship and the breakup private.

It's not my job to talk about my relationship—I didn't want that and neither did [Joel], so we tried to keep it quiet. But the more you try to keep it quiet, the more people want to know about it. After a while, we said, "Okay, whatever, yeah, we're together. What about it?" You want to be able to go places with your boyfriend and not keep it a secret.

Have you been dating since the split?

I have been on a couple of dates, and it's just strange. I've never really dated before, but it's just nice to be independent. You feel kind of empowered and free to do whatever you want and make decisions based on what you want to do and not what's good for another person. If I meet someone, that's cool—but I just don't want to rush into things again.

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