Vanessa Hudgens is our December coverstar. The former High School Musical idol and star of The Princess Switch and Tick Tick…Boom! speaks to GLAMOUR’s Jessica Radloff about her journey from teen icon to finding her true self…
Vanessa Hudgens has a plan. She turns 33 on December 14, and since it’s the first time in two years that she will be home in Los Angeles for the holidays, she knows how she wants to spend the occasion. “I’ll probably get all my friends together and throw a rave. It’s pretty standard,” she says rather nonchalantly. “Two of my best girlfriends are DJs, so I’m definitely locked in. I got connections.”
Does she ever. The actor/singer/producer has been in the public eye for the better part of two decades, has worked with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez, and has amassed a social media following of more than 70 million fans. She is a Gen-Z and Millennial icon to a generation of women who grew up on Disney’s High School Musical, on which she was catapulted to global fame at the age of 18 playing the all-singing, all-dancing Gabriella Montez alongside Zac Efron’s Troy Bolton. Of the influence and impact of this generation-defining role she has said, “That’s beautiful that I got to create a character that is so ingrained in [fans] and a part of their childhood. It feels special to be a part of people’s lives like that.”
On her bios on Twitter and Facebook specifically, Vanessa’s mantra is front and centre: Be you. Do you. For you.
But who exactly is the real Vanessa Hudgens?
The California native is often seen laughing and giggling her way through press appearances, whether it’s talking about voicing the character of Sunny Starscout in the Netflix animated film, My Little Pony, or playing multiple roles in the royal/feel-good fantasy movies, The Princess Switch. She’s charismatic, happy and – to borrow a phrase from My Little Pony – sparkly.
But Vanessa is also complex, outspoken and private. A few times during our interview in a suite at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood she wants to keep some topics to herself, whether it’s baseball game traditions (her boyfriend, Cole Tucker, plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates) or the role she really wanted but didn’t get. After almost 20 years of red carpets, photo shoots and interviews, she has her boundaries. Remember, Be you. Do you. For you.
“I feel like I’ve lived many, many lives just because I’ve been in this industry for so long,” she tells me after a festive photo shoot for our December digital issue. “I had big dreams and was so excited and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You know, I think it takes time to get comfortable with yourself, like truly comfortable. I know the pandemic – like having to sit at home with myself and really work on my shadow self; those things you don’t really want to face – has forced me to grow because it’s uncomfortable. Those are the moments that challenge you and really force you to make an opinion as to who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world.” She adds, “I feel like I’ve had that moment multiple times throughout my life and it’s been evolving and changing just like I am.”
Speaking of evolving, Vanessa says she’s now in a place where she feels comfortable in the unknown, which has been a welcome surprise. “I have peace in feeling uprooted and not settled anywhere,” she explains. “And it’s the most freeing thing ever. There’s so much power within that because I think it allows me to really just be present in every moment and to make the best out of every moment. Because this moment is all we really have.”
Vanessa has learned some of those lessons the hard way. In March last year, at the start of the pandemic, she did an Instagram Live where she was dismissive of the Covid-19 virus, surmising that it was “inevitable” that “people are gonna die”. Her comments were met with an instant and widespread backlash (“Vanessa Hudgens, What Are You Doing?” asked Vulture) and she later issued an apology for her insensitive and inappropriate remarks, noting “This has been a huge wake up call about the significance my words have, now more than ever.”
Still, when I ask whether she gets anxiety knowing the massive influence of her social-media reach, she’s somewhat dismissive of the platform altogether. “Honestly, I don’t have time to allow [social media] to stress me out. That’s the space where I can share my life and be creative. It is just a place for me to keep my friends up to date with what I’m up to and where I am in the world because I do not stop. And at the end of the day, it’s just Instagram. It’s cute, it’s fun. Believe me, I take to Instagram all the time for inspiration and makeup looks and fashion, and I enjoy it, but I don’t really put that much thought behind it. It’s just Instagram.”
While I get the feeling Vanessa is downplaying the impact of the platform – especially given the frequency of her posts and the joy she expresses through her content – there’s no overlooking that it’s a creative outlet for her. Whether it’s Halloween-specific black and white photos throughout the month of October or glamorous looks from the red carpet, she takes pride in letting fans feel like they’re on the journey with her.
The next step on that journey is Vanessa’s latest project, Tick, Tick…Boom!, which is already getting plenty of awards season buzz. The Netflix film is directed by Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, and stars Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, the genius behind the Broadway musical, Rent. “Working on this film just made my soul soar,” she says of playing Karessa, one of Larson’s friends and fellow performers. “Growing up, musicals were my safe space. It’s what got me out of my shell.”
And yet, nearly two decades ago, Vanessa’s first film – and introduction to Hollywood – was the furthest thing from the world of feel-good musicals. In 2003, she starred in the gritty coming-of-age drama, Thirteen, opposite Nikki Reed, Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter. “I remember meeting Holly Hunter for the first time on set and [thinking], ‘This is actually happening. I’m working with amazing actors and this is what I’ve always wanted.’” And then, as almost every performer experiences sooner or later, one of her big scenes was cut. “I was so bummed, but it’s something that I had to learn because that’s just the business. It happens.”
That Teflon-like attitude has been serving Vanessa well. She’s seen Hollywood at its ugliest (pre-#MeToo) and its most promising (post-#MeToo, and the racial reckoning of 2020). “I have a really good outlook on life, so I try to not be defeated,” she says. “Just growing up in the industry, you are going to be told ‘no way’ more than you are told ‘yes’. [I tell myself] the next thing that comes along will be bigger and better. I truly believe in divine timing and the power of manifestation, the power of being very direct about what it is you want and asking for it and having faith that it will come your way.”
While Vanessa is understandably hesitant to talk too much about projects before they happen, there is one that she doesn’t mind putting out there: her own mother’s story of coming to the United States at the age of 25. “My mom is from the Philippines, and growing up there weren’t really that many women who looked like me and my mom and my family on screen,” she says. “It’s so important to share all the different stories because America is a massive melting pot, [just like the] world. There are so many different stories that need to be told so that we are exposed to them and can have more empathy towards different people.” Her hope is that her mother will write a book that Vanessa can one day turn into a film.
She continues: “As an immigrant, coming into the States and not knowing anyone, I can’t even imagine how difficult and challenging that is and what challenges she faced as a woman. And my father was a firefighter, so he was gone for a week and home for a week.” She says that while he was away, it was just her and her mom, Gina, until her younger sister, Stella – also an actor – came along. But at the time, her mother was finding her way in a new country with a young child. “I feel like that’s such a relatable story to so many women all over the world. The more that we can share, the more we can lift each other up.”
MY MOM IS FROM THE PHILIPPINES, AND GROWING UP THERE WEREN’T REALLY THAT MANY WOMEN WHO LOOKED LIKE ME AND MY MOM AND MY FAMILY ON SCREEN. IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO SHARE ALL THE DIFFERENT STORIES BECAUSE AMERICA IS A MASSIVE MELTING POT, [JUST LIKE THE] WORLD. THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT STORIES THAT NEED TO BE TOLD.
Leaning on the women in her life was never more needed than when Vanessa’s father, Greg, passed away from stage 4 cancer the evening before she was set to play Rizzo in Fox’s ambitious production of Grease: Live! in 2016. “There was never a moment where I thought that I wouldn’t do [Grease: Live!] because my dad would want me to do it,” she says looking back. “He gave so much time and energy into me achieving my dreams and for me to have a career where I can do what I love. So I felt like I needed to do it, because that’s what he would’ve wanted [me] to do. Obviously if I [hadn’t], that would be OK, too. But knowing that I was kind of doing it in honour of him is what made it really special and made me feel even more connected to him.”
It also taught her to be more protective of her own mental health. “You’ve got to take care of yourself. It’s easy to spread yourself in a million different directions, but at the end of the day, you are left to deal with yourself,” she says of how she looks after herself. “You have to take the appropriate steps.” She points to spending time with good friends, as well as the power of a soothing self-care routine. “Skincare is a big thing for me. It’s really nice at the end of the day and in the morning to have a moment with yourself in the mirror and know that you’re taking time out of your day to love on yourself.” A productive workout session is also helpful, she says, because, “Sometimes I’ll be at the gym and I will not want to do something, but I’ll push through it. Celebrating those small wins is so important for happiness.”
YOU’VE GOT TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. IT’S EASY TO SPREAD YOURSELF IN A MILLION DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS, BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY, YOU ARE LEFT TO DEAL WITH YOURSELF
So, going back to the initial question of just who is Vanessa Hudgens, she says it’s hard to say. “[I’m] so many different things. There’s the version of myself that is the most comfortable at home in my pyjamas with my girlfriends, a glass of wine, skipping around listening to music, but then there’s another version that feels most me when I’m done to the nines and my face is beat and my hair is snatched and I’ve got a dress on that is ready to stop traffic,” she says with a smile. “There’s so many different versions of myself, but I feel like the throughline is playfulness. I have a very youthful spirit.”
She tried to fight that “youthful spirit’’ in her younger years because, as with most pre-teens and teens, she wanted to be taken more seriously. But now, “The older I get, the more I realise it’s so important to keep that inner child alive and really celebrate your inner youth, and to not push that down, to really allow that sparkle.”
Having that mindset also gives her the confidence to be more authentically herself. When I tell her I’m still getting used to being on set at photo shoots because of the pandemic and therefore forgot to put on a bra today she has very strong thoughts: “Free the nipple! Bras are uncomfortable. If you feel more comfortable and ready to take on the world in a bra, then by all means wear one. But for me personally, they’re just not comfortable. I don’t want to feel restricted. Women used to have to be more covered up. And I feel like it’s a lot more accepting of women to express themselves how they feel fit.”
Plus, she says, “Feminism to me means being able to do whatever the hell it is that you want to do and be supported,” no pun intended. “We should have equal rights, we should have equal pay. It’s about supporting each other, lifting other women up so that we can achieve all the things that we want to do. There’s power in numbers, and we are more powerful when we’re together. I think if anything, it just attests to my tenacity and resilience, because women are the most resilient creatures on the planet. And if we tap into that, we’re unstoppable and we can truly do anything we set our mind to.”
Doing “whatever the hell it is that you want to do” has been something that Vanessa has been living by since she started in the business. “I was 13 years old when I did Thirteen, and I remember showing up to set the first day feeling hella cute wearing a red spaghetti-strap tank top with a Playboy bunny on it that I wore way too often. And the shortest skirt ever. I don’t know why my mom let me leave the house wearing this at 13, but I wanted to feel like a woman. I wanted to feel sexy. I wanted to feel powerful. And to me, I guess that’s how I saw it.” But she recalls director Catherine Hardwicke taking one look at her ensemble and basically saying, “Uh, we’re going to have to tone you down there a bit.”
FEMINISM TO ME MEANS BEING ABLE TO DO WHATEVER THE HELL IT IS THAT YOU WANT TO DO AND BE SUPPORTED. WE SHOULD HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS, WE SHOULD HAVE EQUAL PAY. IT’S ABOUT SUPPORTING EACH OTHER
Vanessa laughs at the moment now. “Even though I wanted to be my little fabulous bunny self at 13, that was totally in alignment with where I envisioned my career going. I always saw myself as the indie girl. I always wanted to be a part of projects that really push adversity and get really uncomfortable because I feel like that’s what really forces an audience to deal with their own demons and to reflect themselves. That is such a powerful part of storytelling.”
She also acknowledges that even though she acted like she was in total control back then, “I don’t think I really knew what was going on in that movie. And my biggest takeaway was I wanted my belly pierced, which my mom let me get when I turned 16. And I still have. There’s so much that I could have [learned] from that movie, but what I took away was, ‘I want my belly pierced.’”
It’s in stark contrast to what she says she’s taken away from the latest – and probably final – installment in The Princess Switch films, which premiered on Netflix on 18 November. She became a fan favourite playing a down-to-earth baker from Chicago who discovers she has a look-alike twin (also played by Vanessa) who just happens to be a princess. Naturally, they decide to switch roles, giving credence to the age-old notion that the grass is always greener on the other side. But Vanessa says she’s never had interest in the United Kingdom’s most famous family. “I don’t really keep up with the royals,” she says when I ask her if she tuned in for Harry and Meghan’s tell-all in Oprah’s garden this past March.
“I would never want to be a royal. The idea of it, the chicness of it, it’s cute, but like the reality… I’m just way too goofy. And I enjoy living my life to the fullest. The giving-back aspect of it, I think is really beautiful to be able to make such a significant change. And that’s something that I try to incorporate into my everyday life and my legacy, just working with organisations. But yeah, the day-to-day of it all… I mean, I guess I already am under scrutiny being someone who is in front of the camera, but the royals have it on a whole other level. I… This just, it’s not for me.
But what about the notion of fairy tales, I wonder? At a time when classic movies are coming under scrutiny for old-fashioned tropes and outdated stereotypes, Vanessa doesn’t necessarily buy into the notion that they’re not relevant, she just has a different take on them.
“I grew up loving all the Disney fairy tales,” she says emphatically. “But I never really believed that I needed a man in order to have all my dreams come true. That wasn’t my takeaway. My takeaway from those films was that life can be magical… and adversity you may face will push you into your destiny. And you’re probably going to sing about it along the way. To me it’s just… it’s about that magic that I truly believe is very real. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for all those Disney princess films.”
Plus, Vanessa is living her own modern-day love story. She first noticed her now-boyfriend, Cole, during a Zoom meditation class and later followed him on Instagram, where he messaged her a few days later. They were first spotted out in public in November 2020, and went Instagram official this past February. A truly 2021 Millennial romance.
“He’s his own person,” she says. “Our interests are very different, but our fundamentals are the same. He’s goofy and I’m very goofy. None of us take ourselves too seriously.” Their relationship is much like Vanessa’s friendships, which is why she says they work so well. “My group of friends are the most unique and expressive and dramatic group of people you may ever meet. And for some people that is way too much. But we support each other’s quirks and weirdnesses. I mean, my friends and I talk in accents all day long [or] in baby voices. It is about embracing your sparkle, finding what makes you unique and celebrating that. And I feel like it takes a while to get there.”
It’s one of the reasons Vanessa isn’t crazy about making New Year’s resolutions. Instead, “I am a very big vision-board gal,” she admits. “I try to always make one at the beginning of the year, just to have a visual reference of everything that I’m trying to accomplish.” She keeps it in her bedroom so she can see it every day, reminding her of the things she wants. “But New Year’s resolutions, I don’t know. I’m like, if there’s something that I want to change about my life, just do it.”
And by all accounts, she is doing it and then some. Aside from taking time over the holidays to have friends over, bake cookies and drink wine, Vanessa tells me she has no plans to slow down. “That’s the way I want it. I love what I do and I feel like I’m entering a new chapter of my career. If I’m passionate about [a project], then it doesn’t feel like work, especially when you’re surrounding yourself with people that you love and doing things that you are in love with; it’s a win-win.”
Source: Glamour UK