Wagner says a great example of her resourcefulness on the series is the wardrobe of Kate, the sitcom’s preppy cheerleader antagonist played by Ashlie Brillault. (“There’s always a rich-girl foil on those shows,” Wagner says.) The problem? How to make a character look rich on a shoestring budget. “Kate had these nice pleated cheerleading hem skirts, and we’d hem them shorter,” Wagner says. “And then I’d take the material we cut off and make it into a headband. There was a lot of stuff like that. We really had very little money on that show.”
Wagner doesn’t have kids, so she wasn’t aware of Lizzie McGuire’s rapidly growing popularity with young viewers at the time until she received a piece of fan mail that included a photo of two girls dressed as the titular character. “I was like, Oh, okay, maybe this show really is doing something,” she recalls. Her feeling was right. A back-to-school line of clothing and accessories inspired by the show was soon released at Limited Too. (Wagner played no role in this.) Branded pillows, books, and CD players were made too. And a successful feature-length film, focused on Lizzie and her friends in Italy, grossed nearly $50 million at the box office.
Wagner, 63, chalks up her contribution to the channel’s aesthetic in one word: color. And lots of it. “When I was first working on the Disney Channel, someone told me, ‘You have to understand that live-action shows are basically competing with cartoons for kids’ attention,” she says. Thus, colors like turquoise, hot pink, and emerald green became reliable, crowd-pleasing go-tos for Wagner’s shopping hauls. “The producers always liked it when I tried that stuff out.”
From Lizzie McGuire, Wagner went on to work on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, starring Dylan and Cole Sprouse, and its spin-off series, The Suite Life on Deck. The fashion plate of the show was London Tipton, a hotel heiress (played by Brenda Song) who wore campy, Juicy Couture–adjacent getups. Glittery Uggs with a long dress? London was your girl. “Brenda was really easy to dress,” Wanger says. “She said yes to everything I ever showed her.”
Working on the children’s shows (which often veered into absurdist territory) also forced Wagner to come with creative solutions to service their wackier story lines. She recalls one episode where London Tipton turns into a vending machine—a plot point Wagner confesses she’s still a little confused by. “The writer had seen something on the internet about this Japanese…I don’t know,” she sighs. “Anyway, it turned out to be this folded piece of fabric that looked like a vending machine, but we had to rig it where we could make it open up in real time and she could walk inside. It was so stupid and so hard. We had four days to do it, but we did it.”