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The sweet life of Ashley Tisdale.

Please do not talk to Ashley Tisdale about how she looks like Hilary Duff. She knows. She's heard the comparisons umpteen times, and she's over it. She has talent and blond hair so, presto, she got hired. That's how Holly wood works--executives cast her because they have all this market-tested research that says you, girl viewer, expect your teen stars to look a certain way (certain being defined as adorably Duff-ish). Since Hilary has abdicated her teen-queen throne, a new girl is in line for the crown--to be placed on a mass of blond barrel curls.

Ashley Tisdale is cool with that.

Those Disney execs hardly saw the new Hilary when Ashley first stepped into their offices. Ashley is a naturally curly-locked brunette, so what they saw was a petite, dark-haired girl from New Jersey. They also saw her resume with 16 years of screen and stage experience, so they called on the powers of peroxide and heat-straighteners and sideways bangs. Basically, they made her change her look to fit the blond star-style.

So for all the endless online chatter about how Ashley is a wannabe Hilary the Sequel, please press "delete." Appearances can be deceiving. "I love change, and I love changing my hair. But it was strange to look in the mirror and think, 'Who is this girl?" says Ashley at her GL photo shoot.

She's been in front of the camera all afternoon, moving for the photographer like a seasoned model She fiddles with the heavy, long locks almost constantly. "I'm really looking forward to having my own hair back."

So cut the new girl some slack. Ashley didn't ask to have her waist-long brown hair bleach-damaged to the point it broke to shoulder-length ("It was dead! I have to have extensions now"). She didn't beg a stylist to tame her natural curls into the signature Disney Duff 'do. It was part of her deal: head for the Hils hair or Ashley would never be cast in The Suite Life of

Zack & Cody or High School Musical.

What would you do?

"I loved my long brown curls, but most mean girls look like this, don't they?" says Ashley as she rifts a thick strand of the fake blond, pinching it between her thumb and index finger. "The blond thing ... it's the stereotype of a popular mean girl." Stereotyping is the perfect subject to talk about with Ashley since she's muscling through playing a mean girl stereotype in HSM and the generous, but denied, nice girl in Suite Life.

"I feel like people expect a lot out of girls, like you're supposed to know who you are and what you want out of life right now," says Ashley. "Some girls know. I did. But lots of people don't know. You have to try a lot of things and not worry about what people are thinking. Fans might think I'm mean or shallow, like Sharpay, in real life, but I don't care. The mean girl is in every school. People relate to her even if they don't like her."

High School Drama

Isn't the blond girl-bully character getting old? On the teen screen, blond equals high-profile, privileged and mean-as-a-snake. Teen-entertainment executives always want the blond personality to rhyme with "witch." That self-important fair-haired monster is what Hollywood believes you think popular girls look like. They are sure viewers expect a perky, perfect blond with lots of money and drone friends and a knack for getting everything she wants with the wave of a polished pinkie. And what really sucks is they might be right, at least when it comes to what teens TiVo.

"People see what they want to see," says Ashley. "But that's just the packaging. I helped put together Sharpay's look, and I wanted it over-the-top, flashy, attention-getting, because that's her. But she has a heart. You never know what someone is about. People look at me and think I'm a young teen. I'm 21!"

Yes, that snot of snots Sharpay is played by a real-life 21-year-old. Off screen, little Maddie Fitzpatrick is actually several years older than Suite Life's London, another spoiled snip (even if she is a brunette). It's so hard to believe this sweet girl who speaks so maturely could be drama-queen Sharpay. Ashley, whose birthday was July 2 (a Cancer), is clearly not in high school anymore--and definitely not self-centered and plotting against everyone who breathes in her direction. She knows better.

"I moved from New Jersey to California, so I know what it feels like to be the girl trying to figure it all out," Ashley says. "There was this girl in the popular group who was jealous of me, even though I bought my own clothes and car--my parents didn't give them to me. I never told people in school I was an actress. I'm a girl, and acting is my job."

Before Suite Life, Ashley had recurring roles on high-profile TV shows like Charmed, 7th Heaven, Boston Public and Grounded For Life. She also made more than 100 network TV commercials. She made her first commercial at age 31.

And here's a big deal: If you ever went to the theater to see Les Miserables during its national tour, you'd have caught a live performance from Ashley in the lead role. This is a trained, experienced actress ... on a Disney sitcom! She is what you'd call a successful child actor, even if she was no longer a kid when fans, after meeting Sharpay Evans and Maddie Fitzpatrick, finally came to know Ashley Tisdale by name.

Get used to it. Ashley is the new "it" girl. Or haven't you noticed?

The fall season for Suite Life kicks in just as schools are starting the first semester. The difference with these new episodes is fans now know Ashley as more than lovable Maddie. She's also known as the unlovable Sharpay.

"The best thing that could happen is people get to see me as the smart and nice girl again, not as the mean or ditsy character," says Ashley, kicking back, all relaxed, on the modern red-vinyl couch at the photo studio. "Hollywood makes brainiac girls sort of plain but, in High School Musical, they're gorgeous. I'm glad girls get to see that it's not one or the other. They get to see that they can be pretty and smart."

For lack of a dull academic translation, we agree that stereotypes are expectations based on appearances. What do people really expect of teen girls? What's normal, what's trendy, and what's individual? Is being into fashion and beauty a neon sign to the world that a girl is vapid and shallow? If so, that's so not cool. Maybe people expect a pretty girl to be dumb because, if she were smart, then it wouldn't be fair. Like, why do some people get it all?

"There's a saying--'I have the looks, but I don't have the books'--that captures the whole idea of expectations, especially in high school," says Ashley. "You can be plain and smart, or pretty and smart. You can even be plain and dumb! You just have to be yourself. What do people see when they see me? I'm comfortable with myself, so I really don't care. People seem surprised to discover that I worked hard to be here."

The Sweet Life of Stardom

Like her character Maddie, Ashley has a lot to offer. Still, she had to conform to what Hollywood wanted. As is the nature of the show-biz beast, she is filling the Duff-like shoes of what's expected of her. Not that she doesn't take risks. She was 19 when she signed on to play Disney characters many years her junior, but the world is just getting to know her.

"My agent did not want me at the Disney channel because I'm older. But, honestly, I'm not ready for older roles yet, or even the things older girls do. I really am young! All my friends are 16 and 17. I don't go clubbing. I don't drink. I'd much rather have a sleepover or go bowling with girl friends. I guess you could say I'm not very worldly yet."

Not what you'd expect of a 21-year-old actress, especially considering there is no shortage of 20-something starlets who talk trash while getting trashed.

"Girls get mean when they feel threatened," Ashley theorizes. "Sharpay's feet get stepped on, so she gets vicious. Mean girls are the same way. I think they're very insecure. They look like they have it all together, but it's a mask. If you look at them and think they are this way or that way, you're actually buying into the stereotype and making it all worse. Like, I don't believe Lindsay Lohan is who the press makes her out to be, or that she's out every single night drinking and partying."

Tabloids, if you want to try a metaphor, are like the ultimate mean girl. They make a lot of unflattering assumptions based on a photo that often has nothing to do with the (usually) mean headline. Jennifer Aniston sneezes, and the photo of her reads, "Jen still sobbing over breakup with Brad!" It's creepy. But, in today's world, tabloid coverage is part of stardom. Ashley is currently splashed over the teen tabloid set, but at least they're being nice to her. For now.

"I get asked about college--I didn't go," Ashley says. We tell her she can go to college anytime she wants and that, at 21, she's not exactly geriatric. "I know! But people think you're not smart if you don't have that education. I may be young, but I've always thought about the consequences of a decision. My best friend is my older sister, and she chose to go to college. She's an actress, but she says she didn't feel like she gave herself the chance I did. She became a brilliant writer, but she also wanted to be in front of the camera. What I'm talking about is doing what you feel is right."

Ashley is smart in ways she might not learn in school. For starters, she's emotionally intelligent--reread the above quote. She also has an intriguing awareness, evident in her eye contact. She almost always takes a breath before answering a question, and the answers are thoughtful and never littered with "you know what I mean?" or even slang. And she's sure of her responses, which are often followed with ideas that relate to what she's saying, like when she talks about figuring out what you want to do: "If you wanted to be an actress but couldn't act, why not get a job at the theater so you could understand theater? What if it turns out you are amazing at lighting or, like, set design?"

Still, education is important to her. After high school, she studied acting with serious aplomb in formal settings. There's a lot more to drama studies, comedic timing and improvisation than just putting on blond hair and playing a ditz or knowing how to cry on cue. Not to mention the education of being on two national stage tours with Les Mis and Annie.

"I really believe in listening to your parents, and my parents are into education. But I was finished with acting projects and done with [high] school, and I said, 'Dad, I want to take a year off.' So I did. I got a job at the mall." A confessed fashionista ("I'm such a clothes horse"), Ashley did the "normal-girl" thing that year at an Abercrombie & Fitch store so she could chill out among hot guys lined up to try on $89 T-shirts. Good deal. And that's how fast things can come together for a girl. Imagine going shopping and you find Raven or Amanda Bynes, in mid-career crisis, behind the register ready to ring you up.

"Really, it was so I could take time to think ahead. It's good to step back and go, 'What do I like? What do I want?' I knew I wanted to keep acting. So I took it seriously and took classes. I knew I had to work to get what I wanted. If college will help you get that, then go. If it's something else, do that."

Ashley is like an artist who went to art school after selling a group of paintings. We get the drift studying her craft is part of her plan for future stardom.

"Some girls think acting is so glamorous, but it's hard work and 90-percent rejection," says Ashley, who admits her life hasn't changed much since the HSM song "Breaking Free" charted on Billboard or the new season of a hit show landed her on this magazine cover. "One thing has changed: I buy a lot of clothes. But I sort of did before. I don't have one look. I'll be glam or Bohemian, or go without makeup one day."

Ashley's look the day of her GL shoot is summer casual in cuffed moss-green Bermudas and a pretty white spaghetti-strapped tank. She's tiny. And tan ("I use self-tanner. I don't want sun damage"). Still, that ... hair. Dude, it's huge.

So here's our take: We say Ashley should be allowed to wear her hair natural, and ditch the bleach and Hilary associations, forever. Because for all Ashley's confidence, the extended and over-processed hair is the one thing she doesn't seem entirely comfortable with.

"I don't have a choice," she says, ignoring her phone, which is buzzing off the hook. "What was hard is when someone is telling you to change your style, it's like, 'Why? Am I not pretty enough now?' I've always wanted to try blond, just not exactly like Hilary."

Ashley tucks a bit of bangs behind her ear, reaches for her urban-cool Louis Vuitton sack, and adds this before heading out into the L.A. dusk: "With the new Suite Life episodes, I don't think fans see Hilary anymore--they see me. I wouldn't turn down a part over hair." Spoken like a true brunette.
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Article Details
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Author:Bryson, Jodi
Publication:Girls' Life
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
Previous Article:Mitchel Musso.
Next Article:This was my idea!

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