It’s back to school time for most American students, which means: notebooks and pens, peak sales in the mid-range retail sector, infinite misery. A few of us have been able to escape the cycle, among them actress/musician Vanessa Hudgens, who left school after eighth grade to pursue her artistic career. Hudgens’ previous roles—from High School Musical to Thirteen to Spring Breakers—have explored the gamut of the adolescent experience, from drugs/sex at one end of the spectrum, to dancing and a looootta singing at the other. Now 25 years old, Hudgens has spent the past 10 years redefining herself, from musician to actress, from Disney to Korine, from California flowerchild to California floweradult.
We tend to think of coming-of-age as a linear process: at some point in our lives, typically around 21, we’ll know who we are (smart/wonderful) and what we want out of life (sex/a nice apartment). But the line between childhood and adult life has always been an imagined one. And Vanessa Hudgens has spent the past 10 years homeschooling herself, literally, figuratively, emotionally. What she studies is in a constant state of flux. The way she grades herself is not. When I asked Hudgens to tell me what high school clique she would’ve belonged to, she couldn’t quite pin it down (although she did reveal to me that she used to “dress Goth” to avoid men’s stares—God bless this woman). A “community theater” Cinderella now matured into a really big deal, Hudgens and I sat down to discuss what it really means to read, learn, and grow up.
Was there anything about the high school experience you missed, or were you glad to get out when you did?
I was definitely a loner because I didn’t go to school, which was a bummer, for a little bit, until I started making really good friends through High School Musical. I never really loved going to school. I was really shy, so being around a bunch of people really freaked me out.
You weren’t a member of any high school cliques?
I’ve always been the kind of girl that just has a best friend, and is happy. I’m not the kind of person who needs a ton of people in my life. That’s how I was even when I was young. I only had one girl friend, who I’d hang out with at lunch, [we’d] lay down on the grass together and look at clouds.
So what you’re saying is you’re from California.
I’m classic Californian.
When you were in middle school, did they ever teach you sex ed? Do you think any of it prepared you for adult relationships? It must have.
Oh God, no.
No, it was so awkward. I sat at a table full of boys. The entire time I was trying to hide under the desk.
So what did you think romance would be like at that age?
Well, my first boyfriend was in sixth grade. At the time, you think it’s a big relationship but it’s the furthest thing from a relationship you can possibly imagine.
And there are certain rules, too. Like you can’t let them [your partner] break up with you—you have to break up with them.
You can’t become the dumpee! You’ll become untouchable.
I had to break up with my boyfriend before he broke up with me. I had to.
The past few roles you’ve been in have focused a lot on teenagers in crisis—it’s been a big shift from High School Musical to Spring Breakers. Why the change?
It’s just something I haven’t done…different characters, different circumstances… It’s like trying on a different life experiences that you personally don’t have to have gone through, but you definitely connect to.
You were able to connect to your character in Spring Breakers?
She’s a wild child. She lives like there [are] no consequences. It’s done to an extreme, but teenagers can really feel that.
And now you’ve really covered the gamut of the high school experience. Wild childs, musicals, vampires. What would a Vanessa Hudgens high school movie look like?
It would include a school—an alternative school. Classes would be held outside and there would be a lot of art, a lot of dancing, a lot of singing. And you’d have to be barefoot.
Do you remember your first play?
I was a princess! Cinderella. It was a small part, but over time I got bigger and bigger parts, and became more and more comfortable on stage. I started to break out of my shell.
Now the stakes are…a little higher.
What do you think the biggest challenge is for teenagers?
Finding and being your true self. It takes so much energy to find—it’s easier to hide behind a mask. I mean, I went through a period where I shopped at Hot Topic. I didn’t want guys to look at me. But it made things easier.
And now that you’re an adult?
I love being myself. It’s hard to be yourself—you have to get into your core and into some painful places. But freeing yourself from judgment feels so great.
So how do you do that? How to keep yourself feeling okay?
Yoga takes my life. Going on trips, feeling nature. I’m a California girl. I need the grass, need the trees. It’s a high to know you’re treating yourself.
But there’s got to be some times you break diet, character.
Of course! You only have one life, and there are just so many delicious things. Like chocolate. Wine.
Any big projects on the horizon?
Yes! I’ll be working on music, actually. I’ll be collaborating with my best friend—so, you know—that’s an adventure.
What’s it going to sound like?
Probably something that you’re definitely not expecting.
You’re going back to your Goth roots?
Oh God, no.
This will be empowering.