Coming of Age
After High School Musical 1, 2, and 3, those nude photos, and some crazy fans, Vanessa Hudgens is ready to graduate.
By Brooke Hauser
“Hey, uh, I don’t normally do this, I swear, but my daughter’s a huge fan, and, uh, can I just take your picture…?”
“Sure,” Vanessa Hudgens coos, saving another dad from endless dithering. Tonight, three nervous fathers will ask the High School Musical star, whose adorableness has infiltrated their living rooms, for her photograph. Dad number one hooks a hairy arm around her delicate shoulders and smiles for posterity. “Oh, my 12-year-old’s gonna shit!” he blurts out when the shutter snaps. “Sorry, I mean… God bless you.”
“I love dads because you get to see them squirm. It’s extremely awkward because they don’t want to put their arm around you,” Hudgens says once he’s gone, settling into a sidewalk table at an Italian restaurant in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of New York. “It’s the crazy moms who are the worst.”
Not to mention the screaming kids who swarm Hudgens in the street like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds; the paparazzi who park for hours outside of her house in Studio City, California; the autograph scalpers who hound her at the airport; and the lesbians. “One time, I was with Zac,” begins the 20-year-old actress. Wait. OMG. Zac? Zac Efron, her dreamy High School Musical costar turned real-life boyfriend? The other half of “Zanessa,” as the couple has been dubbed by the tabloids, the mini Brangelina?
Yep. “Zac was doing Jimmy Kimmel, ” Hudgens continues. “He’s, like, saying good-bye to people, and I’m standing right behind him, and we walk by these two girls in their early 20s. They say to Zac, ‘Oh, your beautiful girlfriend….’ Then they look at me, and one of the girls is like, ‘Can I just have a hug?’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ You know, I’m a nice, naive person. I go in for a hug, and I feel her lips start to go down my cheek, and all of a sudden she’s kissing my neck.” Hudgens’s big brown eyes widen like melted Hershey kisses. “Definitely the weirdest fan experience I have ever had. I’m dealing with adult issues here.”
Clearly. Ever since that little made-for-TV movie High School Musical (HSM for short) premiered in 2006—earning more than $100 million for the franchise—Hudgens has become royalty to the training-bra set. In addition to spawning a string of sequels, an ice show, and a concert tour, HSM 1, 2, and 3 established Hudgens, who was 16 when she got cast, as a marketable triple threat: She has two albums under her belt, her gold-selling solo debut, V, and the follow-up, Identified, as well as endorsement deals with Neutrogena and the clothing line Ecko Red. But despite HSM having launched her career, she has a love-hate relationship with the franchise, and particularly with her goody-two-shoes character, Gabriella Montez, who, in the first film, whines to her mother: “I don’t want to be the school’s freaky genius girl again!”
When I mention the fact that I have just watched the original HSM for the first time, Hudgens visibly cringes. “Oh, my God, that’s so embarrassing. It really is,” she says. “People think of me as the High School Musical girl. There’s nothing wrong with that. My character was a great role model, but I get so bored doing the same thing. I want to grow like everybody else.”
“I feel like for the first time, people might actually be somewhat intimidated by me.”
Earlier today, the actress flew in from Montreal, where she is filming Beastly, a modern-day film version of “Beauty and the Beast,” in which she plays the belle. When she returns to Los Angeles, Hudgens will begin intensive training for her next film, Sucker Punch, a fantastical thriller that has been described as “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns.”
“It totally is my Angelina Jolie part. I get to run around with guns and fight big men,” says the star, who plays Blondie, a role that requires gun training. “Whatever that means,” Hudgens continues, giggling. “Like, go to a shooting range and shoot away? I don’t know much about guns, but I’m really excited. I feel like for the first time people might actually be somewhat intimidated by me, because it’s always like, ‘Hi, I’m Vanessa!’”
It’s true: Tonight, Hudgens might as well be wearing one of those stickers: “Hello, My Name Is…” She is at-a-glance approachable—blessed and cursed with moppet-like cuteness. Her tousled brown locks and floppy bangs seem to ask for a friendly mussing. Paired with a dimpled chin, her baby cheeks practically scream, “Pinch me!” They are her least favorite asset because they make her appear “very young,” she complains. “I think if my cheeks thinned out, I might look somewhat my age.” At five feet four, she has only recently embraced her petite size. “I used to hate it, but I’ve learned that I can wear five-inch heels and still not be a giant,” she says, “so now I love it.”
Dressed in designer bell-bottom jeans, a blousy white top, and a pirate’s chest worth of gold jewelry, Hudgens brings to mind an Olsen twin with a Filipina twist. In fact, she admits to emulating the style of Mary-Kate Olsen, who costars in Beastly as a witch. “We’ve gone vintage shopping together, and she’s a whole lot better at it than I am, so I’m learning from the best,” says Hudgens, who shares Olsen’s penchant for baggy clothes. “Seeing the things that she’s drawn to and how they look on her, I’m like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I pick that up?’”
In fashion, as in her career, Hudgens seems to be searching for the right fit. She shares a stylist with Halle Berry, whom she counts among her idols, along with Julia Roberts and Natalie Wood. “I really want to pick Halle’s brain,” she says. “She’s such an empowering, sexy woman. As soon as I get home, I’m calling my stylist, like, ‘Set me up with Halle—you know you want to!’” Hudgens jokes, and adds in all seriousness, “I just want to know what inspired her, what she’s gravitated toward. I want to do things where people are like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Vanessa?’ And not have it be something that’s expected.”
As for the unexpected, there was that one time. In 2007, several risqué photographs of Hudgens, including one full-frontal nude shot, surfaced on the Internet. (She had emailed the pictures to Nickelodeon star Drake Bell, but the actor claimed he never received them.) For a while, it was rumored that the racy images could cost the actress her relationship with Disney. In the end, Hudgens issued a public apology and moved on, reputation intact. But the photos have followed her, with a second set appearing online in August.
“One of the girls is like, ‘Can I just have a hug?’… All of a sudden she’s kissing my neck.”
“It’s just really unfortunate, and to this day people hate me for it, but it’s not like I chose to put that out there in the world, you know?” Hudgens says, her voice rising a key. “It’s so aggravating and frustrating, and whenever anybody asks me, would I do nudity in a film, if I say that it’s something I’m not comfortable with, they’re like, ‘Bullshit, you’ve already done it.’ If anything, it makes it more embarrassing, because that was a private thing.
“It’s screwed up that someone screwed me over like that,” she adds, sighing. “At least some people are learning from my mistakes.”
Hudgens is trying not to stare, but the stuffed pink dress that just crossed her line of vision is making it difficult. “You missed it!” she squeals. “This girl walked by with the longest blonde hair, and the biggest fake lips, and the biggest boobs!”
Hudgens has traveled around the world, from Argentina to Australia, and sung for President George W. Bush. But despite her worldliness, New York is still new. In fact, at this point in her life, just about everything is new.
She has just bought her first house, where she regularly hosts pool parties and movie nights in her home theater (equipped with a popcorn machine) for a few of her closest friends, including her younger sister Stella, Efron, fellow HSM alum Ashley Tisdale, and Hairspray’ s Brittany Snow. Then there’s Hudgens’s new car, a sporty black Audi S4 Cabriolet convertible.
All are outward signs that the HSM star is growing up fast. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find a guilelessness that’s refreshing and often absent in former child actors. When the waiter brings Hudgens her order of gazpacho, she takes a spoonful and frowns: “Ew, it’s cold.” I assure her that gazpacho is supposed to be cold and ask if she’s ever tried it before.
“Mm, yeah,” she replies.
“No,” Hudgens admits sheepishly. “Bravo, Vanessa, bravo.”
Despite offers, she never orders another dish; she has sworn off salt in preparation for a photo shoot in the morning. But between eating bites of my dinner (a far more hearty pasta with sausage), Hudgens schools me in a few things, too. When I ask her about being cast as the first dark-haired “Beauty,” in Beastly, she chides: “Beauty is a brunette! Get your Disney characters straight, woman!” I put my foot in my mouth again when she recounts a story about singing the Little Mermaid theme song in a taxicab with Olsen and their costar Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.
“You mean ‘A Whole New World?’” I ask her.
“No, ‘Part of Your World,’” she says, rolling her eyes. “‘A Whole New World’ is Aladdin. Oh, my God, you are the worst with Disney!”
Granted, she has a leg up. Weaned on Disney movies as a child, the actress credits the Mouse House for sparking her love of singing. Born in Salinas, California, the first child of Gina Guangco and Greg Hudgens, a former firefighter, Hudgens started performing at age three. Her big debut was in a preschool nativity play. She starred as Mary and sang “Away in the Manger,” surprising her parents. Later, when she began dressing up as Catwoman and choreographing routines to C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now,” they enrolled her in dance classes.
Calling Hudgens a child star might be a bit of an overstatement. She was more of a child character actor. Her first parts in community and professional theater were of the second-string variety: playing Sebastian, Ariel’s sidekick crab, in a production of The Little Mermaid, as well as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. “As I got older, it was more adult films,” Hudgens says, and freezes, her spoon midarc. “Adult…theater productions.” The actress blames her musical-theater roots for her early introduction to makeup—that is, stage makeup, and too much of it: “Every night, I had to cake it on.” Since then, she has adopted the philosophy that less is more, paring down her beauty regimen to the bare essentials: mascara and bronzer. Last year, she even posed without makeup for People magazine’s annual “100 Most Beautiful” issue. “It was so empowering—I loved it,” she says. “It was just fun to step outside what you’re comfortable with and let people see the real you.”
In Hudgens’s case, that’s a girl whose ethnic background is unlike that of any other actress in Hollywood. She thanks her mother, who is originally from the Philippines, for her flawless complexion, and her father, who is of Irish-English and Native American descent, for her strong gams, which have served her equally well whether she’s hoofing it onscreen or wearing thigh-high socks. With the success of a multimillion-dollar franchise already behind her, these days her hard-to-peg, unusual girl-next-door look gives Hudgens an edge over her competition. But for a long time, casting agents didn’t know what to do with the actress, who checks both “Pacific Islander” and “Caucasian” on forms. “I was never anything enough. I missed so many roles because it was like, ‘You’re not Latina enough,’ ‘You’re not Asian enough,’ or ‘You’re not Caucasian enough,’” recalls Hudgens. “It was frustrating for so long. What the hell am I supposed to be?”
Eventually, Hudgens made her big-screen debut in the gritty coming-of-age drama Thirteen, which led to more film work and the decision to begin home schooling, an experience that positioned her for success, but at a cost. “I just feel like I missed out on life,” she explains. “High school is such a vital part of becoming who you are as an individual. That’s why I’m so thankful for HSM, because I feel like it filled in that gap.”
She was 15 when she tried out for the part of Gabriella, the Latina love interest of the school basketball star (Efron). Both unknowns at the time, Hudgens and he got paired from the beginning and continued to go through the casting process together, while other couples were mixed and matched. She recalls: “We were like, ‘Well, they either really like us, or they completely forgot about us.’”
“I like having my life private…I just hate knowing that people are looking at me.”
Clearly, Hudgens and Efron have made an impression as a couple, both onscreen and off. But that could be problematic as both stars try to break out of their High School Musical molds. There are rumors that people in their respective camps want them either to break up or stay together for business reasons. Hudgens isn’t worried. “We just keep our heads down,” she says. “We both strive to do different things. The fact is, we’re both separate individuals.”
Zac is calling, and Vanessa is not picking up. Their faces, cheek-to-cheek, flash on her iPhone. She hangs her head and laughs. The timing couldn’t be better—or worse, depending on her response to a question I’ve just asked about marriage. On the Web, there has been buzz about a wedding ceremony in Hawaii. Of course, that doesn’t jibe with speculation that Efron doesn’t want to get married until he’s 40.
“People love making up craziness. It’s ridiculous,” Hudgens says breezily. “I’m 20; I’m happy; we’re all good.” So she’s not thinking about marriage and babies? “I haven’t gotten to that place where my motherly instincts have kicked in yet,” she says, with a throaty laugh. “I’m thinking about what movie I’m going to do next, what directors and actors I want to work with…. There’s nothing I would rather do than play [a role like] Catherine Zeta-Jones['s] in Zorro. ”
As for the other side of fame, she’s learning to deal with the paparazzi and the fans who have conniptions every time Zanessa walk down the street together. Sometimes, though, she just needs a break. “I like having my life private,” Hudgens says. “I hate the whole see-and-be-seen feeling. I just hate knowing that people are looking at me.” She has just bought a wig, but wisely won’t reveal the style or color, saying only, “I feel like a whole new person.”
At least tonight, however, there is no disguising her. Before heading back to her hotel, Hudgens is approached once more, this time by our waiter, tripping over himself as he delivers the check. “Sorry,” he says. “I have a request. I have a daughter who is crazy about you. All I need is just one picture….”
Hudgens nods and smiles.
Cover: Allure / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast.
Article: Copyright © 2009 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
Originally published in Allure. Reprinted by permission.