After years away, Hilary Duff chooses the spotlight with a new show, new album

After a retreat into domestic life, Hilary Duff is back with a new show and a new album

The paparazzo languished in the sunlight, waiting for Hilary Duff to leave a café. He and a dozen other photographers had amassed outside Zinque on Melrose Avenue, leaning on the hoods of cars and snapping pictures of nothing, to make sure their gear still worked.

"She's attractive, and we're bored," complained Vladimir Labissiere, near the front of the pack. "We're literally waiting for Emma Watson or Emma Stone, and she happens to show up. Sales have dwindled because her cachet bottomed out."

On Tuesday, though, Duff's first album in seven years will be released on RCA, and in March she started appearing on the Darren Star-created TV Land series "Younger" with Sutton Foster and Debi Mazar. She may not have the professional success of her Disney Channel days, but the former "Lizzie McGuire" star could start seeing more paparazzi.

And so Labissiere waited — an hour, all told — for Duff to make the 30-second trek from Zinque to her Mercedes G-Wagon. Some of the photos ended up on the celebrity gossip site Just Jared a couple days later: "Hilary Duff Breathes In, Breathes Out in Beverly Hills" — a reference to her new album.

Over the last few years, most paparazzi photos of the 27-year-old show her not really doing anything: We see her smiling, clutching her iPhone, wearing a floppy hat. She's been dubbed the Walking Queen by the celebrity blog Oh No They Didn't!, which publishes entire posts devoted to "Hilary Duff Walking Places." Leaving Pilates. Leaving her son's baby class. Leaving a recording studio.

Yet there's something transfixing about them. She's celebrity-pretty and stylish, but in a nonthreatening way. She looks like the girl you'd choose to put your mat next to in yoga, the young, hip mom you'd strike up a conversation with on the playground.

That allure is what gave her a career in the first place. When "Lizzie McGuire" launched in 2001, Duff became a huge child star. There was a fragrance, a fashion line for Target, a doll. She started a singing career and sold out arenas, creating a template that would later be followed by other Disney teens, such as Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.

But after a while, she tired of it. She started to put more emphasis on her personal life, marrying former NHL player Mike Comrie when she was just 22. Two years later, in 2012, she gave birth to a son, Luca. And she decided to shut down all her businesses.

"It was a lot of pressure, you know?" she said, eating one of those health bowls with brown rice and avocado before the paparazzi snaps. "I didn't know what kind of artist I wanted to be. I didn't know what to write about. I wasn't booking roles that I wanted. I was in a box of what people wanted me to be."

What they wanted her to be, of course, was Lizzie McGuire: cheerful and wholesome and precocious. And for the most part, Duff fulfilled her duties. She never partied with Lindsay Lohan at the Château Marmont or gyrated on a wrecking ball à la Cyrus. But the constant references to her Disney days chafed.

"It meant a lot to people growing up, that show — and I feel grateful for that," she said. "But I went through a time where I hated it and felt like if one more person called me Lizzie, I was going to snap. I'd have parents come up to me and be like, 'Don't ever change, you're perfect the way you are.' I was 17. Everything was changing. Don't ever change? It'd piss me off."

For a while, her retreat into domestic life seemed the perfect solution. But in 2014, she and Comrie announced they were separating. The official divorce filing came a year later. Suddenly, Duff found herself awake at night, scribbling in her journal, itching to write new music.

She admitted that her last album, 2008's "Best of Hilary Duff," was kind of a joke. She owed Hollywood Records one more album, so the label asked her to release a greatest hits compilation. "It made me really upset," she recalled. "Like, I was 19. Why was I having a greatest hits album?"

When she started working on "Breathe In. Breathe Out." two years ago, she was without a label. But she reached out to songwriters she'd collaborated with previously (Toby Gad, Kara DioGuardi) and booked "Younger," the TV Land series that films in New York. As she began splitting her time between coasts, she wondered whether she was prepared to return to the balancing act of her teenage years.

"Trying to penetrate the music world takes all your time — you have to hit every radio station, or they won't play your single, unless you're, like, Taylor Swift," she said of getting back into the game. "That was when I realized that I really care about being an actress, a singer and having a life outside of both. So maybe that means I'm not going to be able to be where I was. I'm not going to be able to fight for being the biggest artist."

Her new music is also much more mature than, say, 2003's hit single "So Yesterday" (Sample lyrics: "You can change your life if you wanna / You can change your clothes if you wanna"). At least half of the 14 tracks on the new album — three of which were co-written by Tove Lo, one by Ed Sheeran — sound as if they're about Comrie. Especially the title track, about a relationship gone sour: "I remember we were sleepless in New York / I remember how my avenues were yours / I remember when they weren't anymore."

Duff, who maintains a friendship with Comrie, says that he's heard demos of many of her new songs and that he's aware the album reveals a lot about their failed marriage.

"I'm sure it was hard for him to listen to some of the things I'm sharing about him," she said. "But that's my job. I'm an artist. He knew that when he married me."

Early reception to Duff's first single, "Sparks," has been mixed; its music video, which featured Duff going on real Tinder dates, met such strong Internet vitriol when released that she soon put out a separate cut without the dating footage. She plans to support the new album with a tour in January, after Season 2 of "Younger" wraps, playing what she calls more intimate venues like the Wiltern.

But if the record doesn't go over well, she's open to pursuing other avenues — interior design, or creating a curated lifestyle site like Blake Lively's or Jessica Alba's. She thinks it's still "hard to have that and then be taken seriously" in Hollywood — "but it works for some women, and they make a ton of money." In other words, being the Walking Queen has its own cachet.

"I'm really proud of the person I am," she said. "I could be so different. It's funny, because my whole life, everyone's like, 'Wow, you're so normal, and you've got a really good head on your shoulders.' And when people say that, you're just like, 'Thank you? I don't know what to say?' But it's true. I do. And it takes being mature to say, 'Hey, guess what? I rock.'"

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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