A Complete Look At Vanessa Hudgens Through The Years

Vanessa Hudgens — whether you know her as Gabriella from "High School Musical," Stacy/Margaret/Fiona from "The Princess Switch" trilogy, or from one of her onstage roles, the actress has become one of the most recognizable faces in millennial and Gen Z pop culture. After getting her start in Disney's "High School Musical" franchise, she went on to appear in a few grittier roles before leaving the screen behind for a stint on the stage, appearing as the titular character in a remount of "Gigi."

Since then, Hudgens has not slowed down for a moment. From acting to producing to brand collaborations, she seems to be doing it all. And let's not forget that she always finds time to fit in a rave or two. Curious to learn more about how this actress managed to bypass the child actor curse and go on to have such a remarkable career after her Disney days? Here is the stunning transformation of Vanessa Hudgens.

Vanessa Hudgens was raised in California

Vanessa Hudgens was born on December 14, 1988, in Salinas, California. "My dad was a fire fighter and my mum kind of bounced around jobs because I would call her from my babysitter too many times that she actually got fired and became a mum full-time," she recalled to Marie Claire.

Her mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, as Hudgens explained to Glamour. This shaped her childhood and eventually gave her a passion for representation on screen. "Growing up there weren't really that many women who looked like me and my mom and my family on screen," she said. "It's so important to share all the different stories because America is a massive melting pot, [just like the] world." She continued, saying, "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." 

She grew up obsessed with musical theater

As a young girl, Vanessa Hudgens quickly became passionate about performing. In fact, as she told Marie Claire, by the age of 3, her parents had already put her in acting classes. Soon, she found that she loved musical theater. "I started doing performances when I was younger than [6], so being on stage is something that feels like home for me," she once said in an interview. According to BroadwayWorld, she had her professional theater debut when she was just 8 and performed in shows like "Evita," "Carousel," "The Wizard of Oz," "The King & I," "The Music Man," "Cinderella" and "Damn Yankees."

As a child actor, Hudgens wasn't the star — she was simply part of the chorus. And she loved every minute of it. "I grew up being the girl in the sidelines, singing the harmonies," Hudgens told Shape. "That was my musical theater upbringing. Some of my fondest memories are of being in the rehearsal studio, practicing."

Vanessa Hudgens claims to have felt connected to the paranormal since childhood

When Vanessa Hudgens wasn't performing, it seems that she was exercising her imagination in other, somewhat unexpected ways. Apparently, she was communicating with the paranormal world. That's right, Hudgens has claimed that as a child, she spoke to ghosts. "I've accepted the fact that, like, I see things and I hear things," Hudgens told Kelly Clarkson in 2022.

Apparently, Hudgens had her first paranormal experience as a child. She recalled having a pull-along duck toy when she was around 8 years old, and discovered that one day, the duck followed her around the room."I kind of shut it down for a while because it's scary — the unknown is scary ... but I recently was like, 'No, this is, like, a gift, and something that I have the ability to do and I'm going to lean into it.'" Hudgens eventually embarked on a paranormal investigation with a spirit box to scan frequencies and try to communicate with spirits. 

She got her start in Thirteen

Vanessa Hudgens landed her first major screen role at the age of 13 in the aptly titled movie "Thirteen" alongside Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter and Nikki Reed. For Hudgens, there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to understanding what was expected of her on set. "I was very much about, I guess, going against the grain," she revealed on "Collider Ladies Night" podcast. "You know, I wanted to be cooler than I was and I wanted to have my own sense of style and I'd show up to set wearing makeup on and I did my hair and had a cute little fit on. And [director] Katherine Hardwick saw me and she was like, 'Oh, we gotta take that all off,' and I was just like, 'But I feel cute.'"

Hudgens also had to adjust to the disappointments that can come with making a movie. "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,'" she told Glamour. But then, one of her scenes with Hunter was cut from the final movie. "I was so bummed, but it's something that I had to learn because that's just the business. It happens."

She found fame in Disney's iconic High School Musical series

Vanessa Hudgens' big break came in 2006 when she was cast as Gabriella the Disney hit "High School Musical." The movie became one of the most popular Disney movies ever and its soundtrack went triple platinum. It was official: Hudgens was a star. At the time, she tried not to let the fame go to her head. "Even though the movie really has blown up ... it doesn't sink in, being in London and going to Australia and going to all of these places," she told Seventeen. "We're the same people and doing what we love doing, so there's no need to get a big ego from it or anything."

In fact, as Hudgens told Cosmopolitan, her natural shyness made it hard to embrace fame. "I love acting and being on the stage and hiding behind a character, but when it came to me, Vanessa, being out there, I was never one for that — and it's something I'm still getting used to," she confessed.

Eventually, the public attention took its toll. After shooting to fame, Hudgens was part of a major hacking incident in 2007 and some nude photos of her were released online. She was forced to apologize even though she was in no way at fault. As she put it, the experience was "really traumatizing." She continued, telling Cosmo, "As an actor, you completely lose all grip of your own privacy and it's really sad."

Vanessa Hudgens branched out to grittier roles

After her girl-next-door role "High School Musical," Vanessa Hudgens became known as one of Hollywood's golden girls. But for Hudgens, this wasn't exactly the direction she had hoped to go in. "It completely derailed me from where I originally saw my career going," she revealed to The Guardian in 2018. "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. That was my goal since I was like, 11." 

So, after her days as Gabriella came to an end, she made an effort to break out of squeaky-clean roles. However, she told Collider, "['High School Musical'] made it a lot harder for me to go after the things that I really wanted, which was still those really gritty, tough, dramatic roles and I learned how to say no very quickly and be really selective about what I was going to do next." She turned down roles that were too sweet or too nice.

Eventually, she got the darker roles she had been looking for (via Wonderland). These roles included playing the rocker Sa5m in "Bandslam" and the party girl Candy in the 2012 film "Spring Breakers" alongside Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson. "I feel like 'Spring Breakers' definitely hit the nail on the head, because obviously it is those things that I love. It's dark and it's weird and it's a wild ride," she told Collider.

She had two serious relationships with Zac Efron and Austin Butler

As Vanessa Hudgens' career went on, she had two serious relationships that went on behind the scenes. First, she dated her "High School Musical" co-star Zac Efron from 2005 to 2010. Then, in 2011, she started dating Austin Butler, another "High School Musical" alumn. That relationship lasted nine years. As she told Cosmopolitan towards the end of their relationship, they often found themselves dealing with long distance, which made things harder. "You start hating hearing yourself say 'I miss you,'" she said. "But if it's your person, you make it work."

Throughout these relationships, Hudgens liked to keep things private — although she has confessed that both relationships changed her life. "The public only sees so much," she told Nylon. "I've also been through two very long life-changing relationships, and no one really knows what happened except for me. "When I write my memoir," she mused, "it'll be amazing."

Vanessa Hudgens got back to her roots with several stage roles

In addition to seeking out gritty screen roles, Vanessa Hudgens also wanted to get back to the stage after her stint as Gabriella in "High School Musical." In 2010, she played Mimi in a production of "Rent" at the Hollywood Bowl. In 2015, she made her Broadway debut as the titular character in the musical "Gigi." In 2016, she starred as Rizzo in "Grease: Live," a production of the musical that was filmed and televised live for Fox.

As Hudgens told Wonderland, "I feel the most fulfilled when I get to tell a story on a stage. I just love the format of musical theatre — that's where I grew up, where I found my own footsteps — and it feels like the most organic thing for me to express myself with." 

According to Heidi Thomas, who adapted "Gigi" for the stage, Hudgens couldn't have been more at home in the world of the theater. "That girl has an aura about her only a real star has, but she's actually very sweet and humble," she told Entertainment Weekly. "She sits on the floor with the ensemble, changes her shoes, her tights, everything. I think she is a worthy successor to Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron in this role."

Shes became an icon of the Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe

As her career progressed, Vanessa Hudgens' work has been defined not by musicals but by Christmas. In 2018, she starred in Netflix's Christmas rom-com "The Princess Switch." This was followed by "The Knight Before Christmas" in 2019 and two more "Princess Switch" movies in 2020 and 2021. Yes, Vanessa Hudgens had become the Queen of Christmas. 

In 2021, Hudgens told ScreenRant that while she was honored to have her very own Christmas cinematic universe, she was ready to explore a new holiday. "I feel like I need a little break from Christmas for a minute," she said. "My first passion, really, is Halloween. So I feel like I'm going to probably start dipping my toes in that pool soon. But you know, it's so special to me to be a part of people's holiday season."

Whether or not Hudgens eventually comes back for another Christmas movie, it's safe to say that she has cemented her place as an onscreen Christmas icon.

Vanessa Hudgens takes partying seriously

While Vanessa Hudgens may be a bit of a workaholic (she always seems to have a project going on, after all), she also knows how to let loose and party. In fact, partying seems to be pretty important to the actress. 

In one interview with Nylon in 2022, Hudgens explained how she was throwing a party for a friend — and how the atmosphere would have to be perfect. "There's nothing that infuriates me more than when I'm ready to throw down, and then I show up somewhere and it's just not the vibe," she said. "If it was up to me, every club would be an underground rave with lasers and smoke machines and just vibes and it's dark and you can't really see anyone." 

Additionally, she told Cosmopolitan that she hates clubs in Los Angeles — they get the vibe all wrong. " I actually despise [them] — I love a good rave. I'm like, take me to New York or Berlin and put me underground in a warehouse with lasers and smoke machines and I'll be living my best life. That's something that makes me who I am and allows my soul to flourish."

She has quietly become a successful businesswoman

In addition to her work as an actor, Vanessa Hudgens has also established herself in the world of business. In 2021, she founded Caliwater, a company that sells cactus water. As Hudgens told Shape, she was inspired by her own passion for hydration — apparently, she has fainted twice after becoming dehydrated. The same year, she released a skin care brand called Know Beauty alongside Madison Beer.

As the actor told Harper's Bazaar, she was eager to create a product that actually worked and was grounded in science thanks to dermatologist Karen Kagha, who is the brand's chief medical officer. "We both have had such a long skincare journey," she said. "We were like, 'There should be an easier way to approach skincare, something that allows you to know what is right for your personal skin, because it's different for everyone.'"

Hudgens told Shape she's proud of her companies and is excited to be able to share them. "Working on them is a fun, creative expression for me that doesn't rely on getting the next [acting] job," she confessed.

As she gets older, Vanessa Hudgens is all about being herself

Life as a Hollywood star hasn't always been easy for Vanessa Hudgens. As a professional child actor, she had little time to discover who she was when she was young. By the time she reached her late 20s, she realized she barely knew herself. "I woke up at 27 like, 'I have no idea who I am, what I want, or what I stand for,'" she told Nylon. She began therapy and started to ask herself some profound questions. "I realized how much of myself I gave away to others, when I actually was giving away and turning off pieces of myself," she said. "When you get older, the sexier boundaries are."

Since then, Hudgens has focused on being real with herself first and foremost. "Over the past couple of years, I've really come into my own," Hudgens told Shape when she was 32. "When you're fully accepting of who you are, and you stop trying to suppress pieces of yourself, you can conquer the world." She went on to explain that she now loves aspects of her personality, like her sense of humor. 

She is considering moving in new directions

So, what is Vanessa Hudgens' next move? Well, chances are, we'll still be seeing her on our screens for years to come. As of this writing, she is set to appear in two upcoming projects, "Big Rig," a movie about a female trucker, and "Downtown Owl," a dark comedy with Ed Harris. But acting isn't her only ambition.

In 2022, Hudgens got her first taste of life as a red-carpet host when she took on the role at the Met Gala. And apparently, she was a natural. "She has an ability to connect with strangers in a natural and unforced way," her red carpet co-host Hamish Bowles told Nylon. He added, "She is a consummate professional who understands that the show must go on, and she was completely undaunted and the show went on. She is an icon of American talent."

In addition to red-carpet hosting, Hudgens is also keen on having her own talk show one day. "I love what Kelly Clarkson's doing," she admitted to Nylon. "It'd be so fun to have a show where I could have a band and sing things, where I talk to people about things that I'm interested in that they're professional at." Whether Hudgens is destined to be the next Kelly Clarkson or a lifelong actor, one thing's for sure — she won't be disappearing from our radar anytime soon.