When the world first met Vanessa Hudgens, she was a 19-year-old “bopping to the top” on Disney Channel. Her “High School Musical” character — Gabriella Montez — won the hearts of teenagers across the country.
Nearly eight million people tuned into the premiere of the first film in the series on Jan. 20, 2006 on Disney Channel. The debut was so successful, additional airings of “sing-along” and “pop-up” versions of the movie quickly followed. Hudgens went from an unknown actress to a household name overnight.
Critics were quick to suggest the fame and popularity of the movie wouldn’t last, but instead, it was an instant phenomenon. The soundtrack went triple platinum, followed by a concert tour that raked in $33 million. Hudgens went on to release two of her own albums in 2006 and 2008, and starred in sequels “High School Musical 2” and “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.” The latter premiered in movie theaters across the U.S. and the world.
Disney Channel has always been somewhat formulaic in its creation of stars. Start with a TV show, release a debut single and soon, you’re a teen celebrity with a semi-promising career.
Hudgens took a different path. She wasn’t starring in her own TV show by age 14 like Raven, Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus. In fact, she had barely appeared on Disney at all until she landed the role of Montez. Her debut movie launched her career and celebrity status overnight.
And after “High School Musical,” Hudgens began a career path that went in multiple different directions.
“We have to go back to 4-year-old Vanessa. I just loved performing," Hudgens said in a November interview with “Entertainment Tonight.” “Some people call themselves actresses, some people call themselves musicians, I call myself a performer, because I grew up doing musical theater, and being on the stage and embodying other characters, because that’s how I felt comfortable being a functional member of society.”
As many Disney actors have noted over the years, it can be hard to “break free” of the constant pressure felt to act a certain way and speak a certain way when millions of your fans are under 13.
As part of her efforts to break out of the image that accompanied her after her time with Disney, her latest roles have included the upcoming “Bad Boys for Life” alongside Will Smith and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s upcoming production of “Tick, Tick...Boom!”
“I always wanted to be the indie girl; I always wanted to be in the movies where I’m playing a drug addict or a stripper or a prostitute,” Hudgens told The Guardian last year.
In 2011, she played the stripper Blondie in Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,” and then portrayed a pregnant teenager addicted to drugs in the 2013 indie film “Gimme Shelter.”
“It seems as if the actress is starting to find her footing as someone to be taken seriously,” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey in a 2014 review of “Gimme Shelter.”
For someone who has worked hard to eradicate the good-girl persona she carried on the heels of the “High School Musical” success, she seems okay with playing similar characters now and lately, her brand has been defined by Netflix Christmas movies — “The Princess Switch” and “The Knight Before Christmas,” released in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She is also in the middle of working on a sequel: “The Princess Switch: Switched Again.”
“The reason why I started doing these Christmas films is because holidays can be stressful, and I love the fact that we have films to find escapism,” Hudgens told Entertainment Weekly in November.
Elena Nicolaou, culture editor for Oprah’s magazine, suggests that beyond Hudgens’s mere liking for the joyfulness of the films, she could also be attempting to insert herself back into a more diverse fan base.
“I think she has transitioned her cheesy persona [from ‘High School Musical’] into these Netflix movies,” Nicolaou says. “[Netflix films] take themselves seriously but give massive winks to the audience to say ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to make fun of us because we already are.’”
Hudgens says she was attracted to the role she plays in “The Knight Before Christmas” because it moves beyond classic Christmas movie tropes.
“The character was really appealing to me because she is a strong, logical, intelligent, young woman who is looking for love but isn’t someone who needs to be rescued,” Hudgens told Refinery 29.
“It’s a crazy time in the world and everyone could use a bit of light-hearted love,” she continued. “If I can be a part of bringing families together at a time that can be difficult and allowing a little escapism or inspiration, I think that’s wonderful and beautiful.”