All the bad things you hear are definitely true,” says Lucy Hale. We’re spiralling down Hollywood Hills’ curling roads in her sensible white compact. The 24-year-old’s animé-scale eyes are shaded beneath Ray-Ban aviators and a wide-brimmed black hat from Urban Outfitters. “This town will chew. You. Up. And. Spit. You. Out.”
Don’t let the heart-shaped face fool you: after nine years in Los Angeles, Hale has a head for business. “The mindset of an actor is always thinking five steps ahead,” she says later, sipping an iced soy latte on the garden patio at Aroma, a Studio City café where “Luce,” as she’s known by her inner circle, is such a regular she worries about running into a former flame. “I did the other day,” she laughs.
It’s a rare moment of respite, as Hale has been working overtime to become country music’s next star. The result: her debut album, Road Between (Universal), out June 3. It’s the culmination of an 12-year campaign to hit it big in music, during which she unexpectedly fell into a phenomenon playing Aria Montgomery on teen soap noir Pretty Little Liars (M3, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET). Thanks to the blockbuster series (which returns June 10), she finally has the clout to record the country album she always dreamed of. When Pretty Little Liars wraps, she hopes to tour Road Between before returning to film an expected sixth season. As the show’s creator, Marlene King, says, “She’s now working two full-time jobs.”
Welcome to the labours of postmodern music, where an extraordinary voice is just a nice place to start. For performers such as Hale, “actor turned singer” is more than a cliché; it’s a prerequisite, with the reigning generation of pop royalty launching careers only after televised gestation periods. It’s a well-trod path …
Step 1: Ace Reality Show (see: Clarkson, Kelly; Jepsen, Carly Rae; Musgraves, Kacey)
In the Memphis suburb of Cordova, where Hale grew up, country music was inescapable. “I loved the stories and strong female vocalists,” she remembers, citing Martina McBride and Shania Twain as two early favourites. By age 10, Hale was singing their hits at local fairs: “It was terrifying.”
When Kelly Clarkson won American Idol in 2002, Hale saw her own future in the Texan cocktail waitress. Finding out about American Juniors, an Idol spin-off featuring kids five through 13, sealed it for the then-13-year-old. “MAAAWM!” she yells, recalling how she begged her mother to drive her to the tryouts in Chattanooga, Tenn. The last candidate waved through for auditions, Hale was one of the series’ bright spots. “You’re a phenomenal singer for any age—not just a junior,” judge Debbie Gibson says in a much-viewed YouTube clip. Hale politely accepts the glowing praise, but even at 14, there is a wariness behind the poise, as if she knows, as she says today, that “it can change at the drop of a dime.”
In the same segment, her mom, Julie, mouths along to the song Hale performs (“Make It Easy on Yourself,” by Dionne Warwick). In another clip, Julie predicts, “Ten years from now, I think everyone will probably know Lucy’s name.” Hale was one of five kids from the show recruited for an American Juniors group. By the time their debut album was released in October 2004, 14 months after the series finale, the Juniors were already has-beens. “Now, looking back, I’m like, that’s a lot of stress to put on some kids,” she says. “But it was fun.” When Jive Records dropped the Juniors after their first album, Julie cashed in her nurse’s pension, packed up the family car and drove her daughter to L.A., where they planned to stay a couple of months. “I thought, Oh, cool, I can easily get a solo deal,” Hale says. “I was super naive.”
Step 2: Anchor Television Phenomenon (see: Cyrus, Miley; Grande, Ariana; Lovato, Demi)
In Los Angeles, Hale found herself lost in a city populated by Next Big Things. “A girl who’s 15 and has no idea what she wants to do musically?” she says. “Naturally, nothing really happened.” Since the Hales’ arrival coincided with pilot season, Lucy went out for auditions, despite having no experience, or, frankly, interest in acting. “I was super self-conscious about it,” she says. “I just thought I wasn’t a good actress.”
“To the chagrin of struggling actors serving lattes all over Los Angeles,” says Mike Daly, a producer on her album and a close friend, “she came here as a singer and people were like, ‘Wow, you are fantastically good-looking, you should take some acting lessons.’ The stars aligned for her.” She was cast in the 2007 reboot of Bionic Woman as the titular cyborg’s little sister, and then as a poor little rich girl on the CW’s governess-to-the-one-percent comedy, Privileged, in 2008. Both shows lasted just one season, but Privileged’s production company, Alloy Entertainment, believed in Hale. They sent her the script for Pretty Little Liars, a series based on the bestselling novels by Sara Shepard.
Like the Nancy Drew stories if Nancy texted and wore Marc by Marc Jacobs, Pretty Little Liars centres on two mysteries: who murdered manipulative blonde teen queen Alison DiLaurentis, and who is “A,” a cyberstalker taunting the show’s core foursome. Season five marks Alison’s return from the grave (long story).
While initially drawn to the role of Hanna, the over-it mall rat role ultimately played by Ashley Benson, Hale brings much of herself to the precociously intelligent, artistically inclined Aria. “I think Aria and Lucy are both extremely passionate, extremely creative people, sensitive, romantic,” says King. Hale disagrees only with the claim that she shares Aria’s romantic heart. “I don’t know if it’s from being surrounded by divorce,” she says. (Her parents split when she was six.) “I think like a dude. Aria is the girl who has already sketched her wedding dress. I’m thinking about my next ex-boyfriend.”
Pretty Little Liars arrived on the heels of the Gossip Girl phenomenon, when blogs would obsess over the WASPy wardrobes of Blair, Serena and Little J. “ABC Family really wanted a show where fashion was a character,” King says. Costume designer Mandi Line used her own fantasy high-school style as a template for dressing Hale. Black-and-white stripes, graphic prints and glam-punk studded leather became the character’s signatures. “Aria, out of all the girls, is a risk taker,” Hale says. “It’s helped me break out of my comfort zone.”
The show is also a social media juggernaut, racking up 13.4 million likes on Facebook. Hale herself has a Twitter, Instagram and Facebook following in excess of 10 million. “Sometimes I find myself wanting to be way too honest or reply to something someone said,” she says. At FLARE’s shoot, she comes out in an asymmetrical brown leather hat by Steven Jones for Donna Karan, screeching, “Hellooooo, children!” She posts a selfie on Instagram captioned “Pharrell’s hat ain’t got nothin on this scarecrow/cowboy situation.” Three weeks later, it has more than 203,000 likes.
Step 3: Bare Soul (see: Adele; Perry, Katy; Swift, Taylor)
By the end of summer 2011, record execs who didn’t hear a future in post–American Juniors Hale were now “trying to push her into the pop world,” says Daly. Hale had dipped a toe into that sound, playing an aspiring singer in the direct-to-DVD A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song. An accompanying music video for “Run This Town” shows Hale gamely trying to nail the unambitious choreography for high-energy, heavily Auto-Tuned dance pop reminiscent of “Rumors”-era Lindsay Lohan.
Ken Bunt, president of Disney-owned Hollywood Records, a label known for propelling Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato from small screens to stadium stages, was one of the industry majors Hale met with. “I would love to work with you, but here’s the thing,” she blurted out. “I really want to make a country album.” Bunt was won over by Hale’s passion, and so, she says, “they gave me the reins. That was the deciding factor.”
Hale is 25 this June, and Road Between speaks to these quarter-life-crisis years. Evidence of her experience can be heard on a song called “Nervous Girls,” a ballad co-written by Hillary Lindsey, who won a Grammy for co-writing Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel.” Lyrics such as Penny’s dirty secret/getting spread all over town and Hanna and her skinny jeans/so damn scared to eat spoke to Hale, who revealed her own experiences with an eating disorder in 2012. When she first heard the song, she called Daly at one in the morning, moved to tears. “It’s saying it’s OK to not be OK,” Hale says.
She recorded the album in the wake of a messy breakup. “I felt like all these negative things were happening,” she says. “That’s sort of how the title track, ‘Road Between,’ came to life. It’s saying I’ve come a long way, but I’m not at the point where I’m gonna be. I’m caught in the in-between.”
Hale’s heartfelt confessionalism has yet to prompt the kind of spirited emails that Taylor Swift has reported receiving from embittered exes. “I don’t really keep in touch with many of my ex-boyfriends,” she says coyly. “But there are some digs in the album for sure.” Hale waves away any comparisons to the Swift oeuvre. “Taylor’s untouchable,” she says. “She made country quote-unquote ‘cool.’ And she made it OK to talk about your problems. And be vulnerable. And talk shit about your ex-boyfriend. That’s so fun! Everyone wants to do that.”
Thankfully, she seems to be in a very happy place with a new boyfriend, whom she says she’s crazy about. A few days before I meet with Hale, she posted a video of herself, a friend and her rumoured squeeze, fellow country singer Joel Crouse, on Instagram, belting the Frozen showstopper “Let It Go.” She’s still singing bars of it at FLARE’s photo shoot a couple days later.
Step 4: Achieve Dream (see: Hale, Lucy)
“It’s very scary being open, being vulnerable, putting yourself out there at the risk of failing. The scariest part is working so, so hard for something and then it not paying off,” Hale says. “But that almost doesn’t even matter to me anymore. Making the album was the best experience of my life.”
Her tour wardrobe will only politely curtsy to stereotypical country looks. “People automatically thought, She’s doing country, she’s going to be wearing gingham and cowboy boots and cowboy hats,” she says. “That’s not my style. As the country sound has evolved, so has the fashion.” Her recent looks have been influenced by Jill Lincoln, styling director at Rachel Zoe’s agency, who has teased out the boho elements of Hale’s style with peasant blouses, high-waisted skirts and floral-print rompers.
The project has also brought her closer to Tennessee, where her mom now lives, having resumed her nursing career in Memphis. “She’ll still call me up and be like, ‘Are you happy?’” Hale says. “‘Because if you aren’t happy, you can move back home; you can stay with me.’” There are times when it’s a tempting proposition. “For me, Tennessee is where my heart is,” she says. “I just feel more genuine there. I’ve always felt like—what’s that expression?—a little fish in a big pond in L.A.” And yet, after the surprising turns in her own life, she’s confident that the same winding path will ultimately lead her to where she belongs, to Step 5 and beyond. “Mom, I’m fine,” she’ll say during those worried phone calls. “I’m happy.”
FLARE’s July 2014 issue is available on newsstands now and on Next Issue Canada July 8.
Photography by JASON KIM
Styling by FIONA GREEN
Gallery: Behind the Scenes with Lucy Hale” target=”_blank”>Behind the Scenes with Lucy Hale