Hilary Duff as Lizzie
Photos via Disney 
Entertainment

How Lizzie McGuire Reinvented Tween TV and Became a Millennial Obsession

Sometimes she made it. Sometimes she faked it. Twenty years after Lizzie McGuire's TV debut, the cast and creatives reflect on the groundbreaking Disney Channel series—and ill-fated reboot.
January 12, 2021, 12:00pm

On January 12, 2001, tweens across America tuned in to Disney Channel for a landmark event. It was the premiere of the much-anticipated Zenon: The Zequel featuring the dulcet tones of Proto Zoa and return of "zetus lapetus!"-worthy space fashion, yes. But it was also the night the network aired a special sneak peek episode of a new, wholly grounded series called Lizzie McGuire. From the moment Lizzie's opening credits introduced a lovable cast of characters getting pulverized by giant rubber balls and the show's theme song—written by the same man who gave us "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)"—thumped through low-def speakers, a TV sensation was born.

Advertisement

Centered on 13-year-old Lizzie as she navigated life alongside her quirky family and best friends Gordo and Miranda, the show tackled the stress of being a middle schooler with heart and humor in ways few before had managed. It dropped pop-culture references about Britney Spears and Titanic, while also delicately addressing serious issues like eating disorders, height insecurities, and the emotional turmoil of first bra shopping. For a Disney show, that was revolutionary.

"I never thought, 'I'm writing for tweens,'" said Nina Bargiel, who co-wrote roughly a third of the series, including the hallmark "I want a bra!" episode, when she was in her late 20s. "I don't have kids. I don't even particularly like kids. The thing that I realized is a. middle school was awkward as fuck. That was the toughest period in my life. And b. I can actually try to unravel some of this trauma in a way that is funny." 

At the time of Lizzie's debut, Nickelodeon still reigned supreme in kids' television. By the end of the ’90s, they'd managed to churn out scripted live-action hits like Clarissa Explains It All and The Secret World of Alex Mack, and produced certified stars in the form of Melissa Joan Hart, Larisa Oleynik, and Amanda Bynes. Disney Channel wasn't exactly at that level. While the network had Disney Channel Original Movies and shows that were well-received by their young viewers like The Famous Jett Jackson and So Weird, they'd yet to nail the formula to create a breakout series with greater cultural impact.

Advertisement

Lizzie McGuire marked the dawn of a new era.

Animated Lizzie.png

The animated Lizzie

When creator Terri Minsky first pitched Disney the idea for a show called What's Lizzie Thinking? she'd crafted a script about a high school-aged Lizzie featuring a voiceover that gave insight into Lizzie's thoughts. But the Mouse House wanted a younger and "higher concept." So Minsky retooled the pilot script to focus on a middle school Lizzie, while executive producer Stan Rogow and Disney exec Gary Marsh came up with the idea of a cartoon alter-ego who could dramatically illustrate whatever dilemma Lizzie was facing. The series was a go. Before shooting the pilot, however, Minsky stepped away, opting instead to work on ABC's short-lived The Geena Davis Show. That left Rogow and fellow executive producer Susan Estelle Jansen to turn Minsky's initial Lizzie idea and script into a 65-episode series that would captivate the Y2K generation.

"One day, I ended up watching a German movie called Run Lola Run and it blew me away," Rogow said. "It's a piece of odd experimental filmmaking, but all of a sudden it opened up a style that led to Lizzie McGuire, which had very aggressive cutting and random digital stills thrown in wherever we wanted. The rule was simple: If it's funny, we'd get to do it."

But first, they needed the perfect titular lead. Disney considered a parade of both unknown and established young stars to embody Lizzie, a spunky junior high student who wasn't a popular girl, a jock, or a nerd, but just an average kid. Frontrunners ranged from Lindsay Lohan to You've Got Mail's Hallee Hirsh and Sara Paxton (later of Sydney White and Aquamarine fame). And then there was a bubbly, blonde 12-year-old whose biggest credit to date was the straight-to-video Casper Meets Wendy and who had recently been fired and replaced on the Michael Chiklis sitcom Daddio. Enter: Hilary Duff, a Texas transplant who flubbed her lines and tripped over her cues at her first Lizzie McGuire audition.

Advertisement

Fortunately, it was exactly the kind of thing Lizzie would do.

"She did bomb the audition," Rogow said. "But it was so cute and charming that it was like, okay, let's bring her back. And she just kept on getting better."

As casting director Robin Lippin put it: "Was she Meryl Streep at 12? No. Very few child actors are. But there was something so appealing about Hilary that even when she screwed up, you still really liked her, and you were rooting for her. In TV, it's so much about personality, and her natural qualities and how real she was won over."

After filming the pilot, Disney brought on an acting coach to work with all of the kid actors (especially Duff, who needed to be in almost every scene) to bring out their inner Streeps. But what really made Lizzie and Duff click with viewers is that they were one and the same. “That character was me," Duff said in 2015. "I wasn’t acting.” (Duff, who is currently in production on season 7 of Younger, was not available to comment for this piece.)

"The secret sauce of Lizzie McGuire was casting Hilary. It was just very, very simple," Rogow said. "She was nice and sweet, and you wanted her to be your best friend. Hilary pulled that off because it's who she was. It ended up being this perfect blending of character and actor." 

Lizzie in unicorn sweater

In fact—with the exception of Ashlie Brillault, who played mean girl Kate and was by all accounts actually incredibly kind and non-threatening in real life—the lines between fiction and reality on the show were blurred. Adam Lamberg was a student at the Bronx High School of Science when he landed the part of brainy, quick-witted Gordo because he essentially already embodied the character. When Hallie Todd, who played Lizzie's mom Jo, was running late to her Lizzie audition, she tossed her hair up with some clips and put on her trusty fake glasses that she wore whenever she wanted to hide tired eyes. That hairstyle and those same plastic prop frames became Mrs. McGuire's signature look

"Disney wanted to save a nickel and decided that they would only buy one new pair of the glasses for Jo," Todd said. "If anything happened to the pair on the set, somebody would have had to drive to my house in Studio City and get my personal pair out of my glasses drawer."

Advertisement

But the main focus of the show's fashion was, of course, Lizzie’s, and costume designer Kimberly Adams painstakingly sourced pieces from Forever 21, Paul Frank, Bubblegum, and other popular yet accessible brands (or in the case of the "Picture Day" episode, made the 3D unicorn sweater by hand), which she and Duff would then put a unique spin on by adding rhinestones or pairing in extremely loud ways. Orange floral pants and a purple tie-dye shirt? Sure. Camo print and patchwork denim? Why not!

"Hilary was fascinating because you could bring all this stuff back and she could mix and make things work," Adams said. "She had a very unique style. She wasn't trying to set a trend for people. She was just experimenting with what worked for her character."

The original rule that the show’s hairstyles would never be so complicated that a regular girl couldn’t replicate them on their own at home in 15 minutes or less quickly went out the window as an ever-evolving stream of bandanas, butterfly clips, chopsticks, and excessive and creative use of a crimping iron unfolded on Lizzie and Miranda's heads thanks to Adruitha Lee, a hairstylist who later won an Oscar for her work on Dallas Buyers Club.

Still, when Rogow would wear his baseball cap with the Lizzie McGuire logo on it around town, kids would gawk and ask him if he knew the believable girl they watched on TV every week. "I'd ask them what they liked about Lizzie. They’d say, 'She's good. She's kind. She's like me.' They all saw themselves in her, and that was very different than 'I want to be her.' It was, 'I already am her.' That became the guiding principle of the stories that we would tell every week."

Advertisement

There was just one aspect of Lizzie's relatable appeal that Duff was less than thrilled about. "At one point, she said, 'Do I have to fall down every episode?'" Rogow recalled. "And I said, 'Well, yeah, Hil, you do because it's really, really funny and it makes you so accessible.' When Lizzie would fall down, kids would go, 'Hey! I fall down too. Not necessarily literally, but if she can do that, and she's okay, then I'm okay.'"

Lizzie and Matt.png

Duff as Lizzie and Jake Thomas, who played her younger brother Matt

Everyone who spoke to VICE remembered the Lizzie McGuire set as being exceedingly warm, collaborative, and protective of its young stars who juggled on-set tutoring between takes. "I treated them like they were mine," Robert Carradine said of his TV kids, Duff and Jake Thomas, who played Lizzie's little brother, Matt.

In their downtime, Duff, Lalaine, who played Miranda, and Clayton Snyder, who played middle school heartthrob Ethan Craft, would hit up teen clubs in L.A. or the Millennium Dance Complex, where Jennifer Lopez was known to take classes. Snyder even took Duff as his platonic date to a dance at his public middle school, but her fame was already making normal kid events nearly impossible. 

"My mom thought it'd be a great idea to invite her," Snyder said. "It ended up being all my fellow classmates just forming a giant circle around her and staring at her the whole night. I can't say she had a great time, but she’s a great sport for going."

Advertisement

Rogow said he had initially been told by Disney execs that if Lizzie McGuire could pull 1 million viewers per episode, they'd consider it a hit. Instead, the series quickly began averaging around 2.3 million viewers (special episodes could draw nearly 3.5 million) and became the most-watched show on the network, surpassing Even Stevens, which had debuted to great success seven months prior. Lizzie was bigger than anyone dreamed.

"I remember doing an event at Disneyland during the height of the show, and we could not get from one ride to the other without a swarm of kids coming up," Jake Thomas said. "For a 10-year-old, that's a very different thing to try to adjust to."

Lizzie, Miranda, Gordo, Tudgeman

LaLaine as Miranda, Duff, Downes as Larry Tudgeman, and Lamberg as Gordo

Even the actors with smaller roles in the series would get bombarded as they went about their daily lives.

"Shortly after the show had begun airing, a gaggle of tween girls began serenading me to the Lizzie McGuire theme song as I walked home from Hermosa Beach with a surfboard under my arm," Kyle Downes, who played "weirdo" Larry Tudgeman, said. "I remember thinking how surreal a moment in life this was for me. And one not repeated since."

Guest stars like Carradine's brother David, Frankie Muniz, and Aaron Carter (who became Duff's real-life boyfriend after their on-screen mistletoe kiss and who later set off the infamous Lohan-Duff feud of the early aughts) upped the show's headline-making power. And Steven Tyler’s young kids were such big fans that the Aerosmith rocker agreed to appear in the season 2 Christmas episode as Santa Claus. "He was just a cool cat," Carradine recalled.

Advertisement

In fact, the show's appeal had quickly stretched beyond the assumed audience of 11 to 14-year-olds. College students had Lizzie McGuire viewing parties in their dorms, and parents made it appointment viewing with their kids. "It was something that adults could watch without wanting to stick their finger down their throat and roll their eyes," Todd said. According to Rogow, the largest share of viewers for Lizzie were those over 18. Its subtle double entendres and blink-and-you'll-miss-it nods to everything from The Sopranos to The Beatles made it more akin to a primetime comedy than the usual kiddie fare.

The series was filmed in two chunks of 30-something episodes, and by the time the first season finished airing, Disney had begun to recognize they had not just a show but a franchise on their hands. They rushed out a slew of Lizzie McGuire merchandise, and Rogow convinced the execs to release an accompanying soundtrack in 2002, featuring S Club 7, Jump 5, and Duff's musical debut, "I Can't Wait." There was no reason for Duff to be singing on the album—this wasn't Hannah Montana—but she wanted to and fans loved it, so she did it. The album went platinum and Duff's music career began to unfold from there.

By mid-2002, Lizzie McGuire had wrapped shooting its 65 episodes (the standard number of shows for all Disney Channel series at the time, regardless of popularity), but the network spaced out the fresh content at a snail's pace through early 2004, airing mostly reruns and sometimes going two or three months without a new episode, to ride the wave of Duff- and Lizzie-mania as long as they could. In a network first, they also forwent an accompanying low-budget Disney Channel Original Movie on TV and took a chance on the theatrical The Lizzie McGuire Movie, which saw Lizzie and co. venture to Rome on an eighth-grade graduation trip showed fans what dreams are made of, and earned more than three times its budget at the box office, plus a double-platinum soundtrack.

Advertisement

(The film's premiere in April 2003 also marked Carter and Duff's red carpet debut as a couple, and while no photo evidence exists of Lohan attending the event or afterparty, Carradine remembers the Freaky Friday star and Duff "shooting daggers at each other the whole night" until finally "Lindsay couldn't take it anymore. She left.")

As the dollars rolled in, Disney knew they’d struck gold and planned to follow Lizzie through high school with a theatrical sequel film and spin-off series for ABC’s TGIF lineup. But both iterations fell apart within weeks of The Lizzie McGuire Movie's release, due to Duff's contract negotiations. As Duff's mom and manager, Susan, told Entertainment Weekly at the time, "Disney thought they’d be able to bully us into accepting whatever offer they wanted to make, and they couldn’t… We weren't feeling the love." Another Disney Channel spin-off centered on Miranda's family and starring a pre-Wizards of Waverly Place Selena Gomez also never made it to air. Yet, the seeds planted by Lizzie's success—not just as a ratings hit but a star vehicle, popstar launchpad, and merchandise machine—paved the way for the network's next decade of mega-successes with Hannah Montana and High School Musical in 2006 and subsequent shows for Gomez, Demi Lovato, and the Jonas Brothers. Lizzie had shown what was possible.

Ethan and Kate.png

Clayton Snyder as Ethan and Ashlie Brillault as Kate

In the years that followed, the cast of Lizzie McGuire mostly went their separate ways. Duff remained in the spotlight and is currently expecting her third child. Thomas is focused on acting and directing, and said he's pitched ideas to Disney to possibly helm a series of his own in the future. Lamberg went to Berkeley and now works at an Irish arts center in New York. Former pro water polo player Snyder is a real estate agent in L.A. Lalaine is easing back into acting with a role in Sujata Day's indie Definition Please, and Todd recently co-wrote, produced, and plays a very un-Jo McGuire-esque mom in the new VOD film, The Last Champion.

So, when the news came in 2019 that a Disney Plus Lizzie McGuire reboot was finally going to happen, the actors rejoiced at the chance to reunite and reprise their roles. Terri Minsky would serve as showrunner and Duff would star as a now 30-year-old Lizzie. It seemed like great news—until it wasn't. 

Advertisement

After shooting two episodes and getting most of the original supporting cast—including Carradine, Todd, Thomas, Lamberg, and Snyder—on board, the project was abruptly tabled in January 2020. According to a Variety report, Disney was uncomfortable with the direction Duff and Minsky were taking the series, namely that it featured a storyline acknowledging that Lizzie had sex. Minsky was reportedly fired from the project and Duff made a public plea to Disney to let the series move from Disney Plus, which houses the original series and movie, to the edgier Hulu. (Rogow, along with Jansen and the original series writing staff, were not involved in the reboot.)

Reboot McGuire family - Disney Plus.jpg

Todd, Thomas, Duff and Carradine on the set of the reboot

“I’d be doing a disservice to everyone by limiting the realities of a 30-year-old’s journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating,” Duff wrote on Instagram last January. “It’s important to me that just as [Lizzie’s] experiences as a preteen/teenager navigating life were authentic, her next chapters are equally as real and relatable.” 

Alas, following months of discussions and internet rallying cries to “Let Lizzie fuck!”, Duff and Disney announced in December 2020 that the project was officially dead. The news left Carradine and Todd, who had appeared in the first two episodes, baffled. How could Disney let a much-hyped reboot with a hungry millennial audience slip through their fingers?

"When we did the read-through of the first two scripts, there were literally three rows of chairs and in each chair was some kind of a Disney executive. I mean, there were 25 of them in there. And they were laughing their asses off," Carradine said. "Every single step of that trajectory had to be greenlit by somebody who's high up in the organization. So, you go to all that trouble and they decide at the last minute, out of the blue, that it needs to be more kid-friendly? I don't get that."

Added Todd, "I'm sad. We had the best time when we got together for those two episodes. It felt like no time had passed, except that all of a sudden these kids were adults. It just seems ridiculous. There's always more to it than you hear, and I certainly am not privy to those conversations in the back room."

For Thomas, who is now 30 and the same age as many of Lizzie's most devout followers, the whole experience was an emotional roller coaster that ended with him pouring a copious amount of alcohol into a Lizzie McGuire tumbler on TikTok.

“Fans always tell me how watching the show was a staple of their childhood, and honestly, I was right there with them running to the TV every week to watch the latest episode," he said. “When I walked onto the set of the rebuilt McGuire house for the reboot, it felt like such an unreal homecoming, an overwhelming childhood nostalgia. It saddens me greatly that the fans don't get to share in that feeling.”

And yet, the wording in Disney's official statement, which stressed that fans have "high expectations" and a reboot would not happen “unless and until we are confident we can meet those expectations," still leaves a glimmer of hope that one day the series could move forward.

For now, Lizzie McGuire stays belovedly frozen in time, forever a tween and figuring it out on the way.

Follow Ashley Spencer on Twitter.