05/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Outside Manhattan's Disney Store on May 3, a throng of thousands has brought the traffic on Fifth Avenue to a near standstill. Inside, fourth grader Alexandria Elbaz—who watches Lizzie McGuire
on TV every night and has been waiting in line since 3 a.m.—wears a pair of denim capris just like her idol, star Hilary Duff
, wore on her favorite episode. "She said 'Thank you for coming so early,' " says Elbaz, clutching a signed soundtrack CD. "I really like her because she's nice and pretty." And funny, adds her friend Gailann Singh, 9, who loves Duff because "she's a real kid." But few speak their hearts as artfully as the young man who showed up last week at MTV's studios—where Duff was hosting the show TRL
—wearing something akin to a giant bun. Recalls Duff with a puzzled laugh: "He had a sign that said, "I dressed up as a hot dog for you. I'm a dork!' "
Ah, teen longing. The 15-year-old phenomenon who inspires such devotion may be unknown to folks who thought X2: X-Men United
was last weekend's big movie event. But to the kids jostling to get into The Lizzie McGuire Movie
—and to the 31 million fans of Disney Channel's top-rated sitcom ever—Duff needs no introduction: She's Lizzie, the cute, klutzy teenager who struggles with school cliques and first kisses. Three years after landing the part, Duff is the force behind the TV show, the movie, the soundtrack's hit single, a forthcoming clothing line with her signature funky style and oh, yes, much teen-mag chronicling of her near two-year on-again, off-again romance with singer Aaron Carter, 15. (It's on again: "He messed up big last time," she says cryptically, "[but] he's being good this time.") As for her fame, "It's so, like, unreal to me," Duff says, ' "cause I'm really a normal kid."
And has been since she was a Texas 3-year-old bugging her mom to let her wear red shoes every day. "They went with everything—in her mind," recalls Susan, 50. Along with sister Haylie, now 18, Duff took acting classes in Los Angeles. After a few commercials and a direct-to-video movie, she auditioned for McGuire in 2000. She got it, says creator Terri Minsky, because she could "make all those early teen traumas seem not so scary, very relatable."
Today, her celebrity precludes such pastimes as mall-going—a bummer since she likes to "dress cool," says Duff, currently obsessed with "really high heels." Luckily, she's distracted by her busy career: She has just recorded a solo album and signed for a reported $2 million to do a big-screen Cinderella. Up for another McGuire
flick, she likely won't film any more TV episodes: "I want to move on," she says. In the L.A. house Duff, Haylie and Susan share (dad Bob, 56, a Houston resident and partner in a chain of convenience stores, visits every few weeks), Susan can tell her girl is growing up. "There's a bit more of that mother-daughter rolling of the eyes," she says. But so far, to the relief of her fans' parents, no body piercings or tattoos. Says Susan: "She's almost too good to be true."
Karen S. Schneider
Mark Dagostino and Regine Labossiere in New York City and Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles