“I am honestly the freest-spirited control freak you’ll ever meet,” Vanessa Hudgens says, sitting in the backyard of her new Studio City home, the Valley skyline extending behind her. She just moved in this summer, so the place is sparsely decorated, but she has big ideas for the vibe — keywords include “’70s,” “porny,” and “masculine” — and plans to design it herself. (Her previous place required too much upkeep for someone as on-the-go as she is.) From her current perch, Hudgens can point to her first house downhill, where she lived for 11 years and experienced the kind of Hollywood whirlwind few can imagine. The property line even butts up to where she is now — she is quite literally looking down at her old life.
It’s mid-afternoon in early August, and Hudgens estimates she’s spent only five or six nights at the new house in total. It was her call to do our interview here, rather than the planned Mexican restaurant. She got back from a work trip to Capri the night before and is heading to Arizona in the morning to visit her boyfriend, Arizona Diamondbacks player Cole Tucker, whom she met during a celebrity meditation Zoom group. “I’m not going to call it a celebrity Zoom, but it was a Zoom meditation group that Joe Jonas put together, yes,” she says. “I did not expect it at all. I don’t think if I entered a meditation Zoom, I’d be like, ‘This is where I’ll meet my person.’ I just showed up and I was like, ‘Who the f*ck is that?’”
Tonight she is hosting a birthday party for a friend who has been staying at her house, and over the course of our two-hour hang, she is quietly directing the party-planning around her, at one point suggesting what flavors of ice cream another friend should pick up from the store. She takes partying very seriously. “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,” says Hudgens, dressed in a cropped white tank top and silk Versace pants, still in full glam from the photo shoot earlier. “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.”
After buzzing me through the gate, Hudgens welcomes me into her vast kitchen and offers a canned Caliwater, her brand of cactus water beverages — “We got a new distributor so the packaging is a little off, but it still tastes good,” she notes — then starts scrolling on Postmates to find something to eat. Eventually, she lands on H.O.P.E., a vegan restaurant nearby. Though I insist I’m not hungry, she hands me her phone to order something anyway. “Are you sure? Have you ever had H.O.P.E.?” she asks. We both get beefless jerky, per her suggestion. Finally situated cross-legged on a patio sofa, her dog Darla at her feet, she relaxes. “I just figured I’m home so rarely, it’s nice to spend as much time here as possible,” she says.
“I’ve been through two very long life-changing relationships, and no one really knows what happened except for me. When I write my memoir, it’ll be amazing.”
Last November, she starred in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Netflix film adaptation of Tick, Tick… Boom!, earning some of the highest critical acclaim of her career thus far. The same month, she reprised her roles in the third installment of Netflix breakout hit film series The Princess Switch, on which she also serves as a producer. Earlier this year, she stepped into a completely new role: red carpet host, taking on high-pressure gigs for the Oscars, the MTV Movie and TV Awards, and the Met Gala, the latter of which marked an acceptance into the high fashion world that eluded her in her early career. (She only attended Paris Fashion Week for the first time this year.) “I believe in divine timing, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t meant to be in that place any sooner,” she says. “I’m so grateful to have it later in life because I’m more comfortable with who I am as a human being.”
Hudgens has been working on herself a lot in the past few years. “I woke up at 27 like, ‘I have no idea who I am, what I want, or what I stand for,’” she says. Her Saturn return had snuck up on her. She started a form of therapy called shadow work that involves unlocking your unconscious mind to confront negative or repressed parts of yourself. Hudgens found herself asking questions like: “What are the things I actually don’t like about myself? What are the things that I put on a mask for?” It involved a lot of uncomfortable conversations. “I realized how much of myself I gave away to others, when I actually was giving away and turning off pieces of myself,” she says. “When you get older, the sexier boundaries are.”
Hudgens, now 33, has been famous for half her life, emerging first as a star of Disney’s High School Musical — a franchise fans are speculating she’ll return to — before sending up her teen-idol image in films like Spring Breakers and flexing her talents in TV musicals like Grease Live! and Rent: Live. She endured plenty of tabloid scrutiny along the way, but she always came across like an eternally good hang, earning the title of “Queen of Coachella” for her regular barefoot escapades at the music festival and her unabashed love of flower crowns. Still, she notes, “The public only sees so much. 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, it’ll be amazing.”
There’s a reason Hudgens has stayed as famous as she is for as long as she has: She is charismatic as hell. Hudgens is always “there with that contagious smile — it’s hard not to smile around her,” says her friend Sarah Hyland, who met Hudgens at Coachella in 2009 and had her as a bridesmaid in her wedding this year. “She’s a really busy person, obviously. But she made every single [wedding] event. Carved out dates. Took red-eyes. Didn’t sleep. Sought out a sound healer for my bachelorette trip. And still looked drop dead gorgeous the entire time.”
In conversation, there’s never a falter in Hudgens’ deep Valley girl-lite drawl, no story unfinished without a mannered girlish giggle. Her answers are short — perhaps a remnant of the House of Mouse media training — but it feels more like she’s just trying to have a normal conversation instead of holding back or dodging questions. “I’m at that point now where I’m like, ‘F*ck anyone who doesn’t f*ck with me,’” she says. “You either f*ck with me or not; it’s cool with me either way. But I f*ck with myself, so that’s all that matters.”
Twenty minutes into the 2022 Met Gala, Vanessa Hudgens lost her voice. This is of particular note for two reasons: One, she claims it rarely happens (“I don’t lose my voice; that’s not a casual, normal thing for me”), and two, she was hosting the red carpet livestream, interviewing A-listers for the fashion world’s Super Bowl. For more than three hours straight, Hudgens, dressed in a sheer Moschino gown, made high-stakes small talk: She teasingly pressed fellow High School Musical universe star Olivia Rodrigo about new music. She reassured a nervous Emily Ratajkowski. She laughed at Katy Perry’s dad jokes. No one turned her into a meme. “And then I went inside and had a great time,” Hudgens adds. “I literally sat down and was next to Megan [Thee Stallion], who I had met a few weeks [earlier] at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party. We just hit it off, but I never got her number. So I sat down and was like, ‘Girl, I never got your number.’ She was like, ‘Oh, I was going to ask you for yours.’ That was perfect.”
“She has an ability to connect with strangers in a natural and unforced way,” says her red carpet co-host Hamish Bowles, editor-in-chief of The World of Interiors and global editor-at-large for Vogue. “It was freezing where we stood, with a fabulous view of the facade of the Met for our viewers — but icy wind whistling off the fountain for us. 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.”
“[I used to think] if it’s not going to win me an Oscar, I don’t want to do it.”
The job of a red carpet host has changed greatly in the past few years. In lieu of commentators like Giuliana Rancic and Ryan Seacrest, awards shows and events have increasingly looked to actors (Laverne Cox, Keke Palmer) who can move seamlessly between Hollywood insider and audience surrogate. Hudgens’ pivot into hosting came through ABC, which asked her to work the official 2022 Oscars red carpet. “When I got that call, I was like, ‘That sounds terrifying, but I can’t not do it,” she recalls. So she psyched herself up to interview some of her idols, like Nicole Kidman (“She was above and beyond”) and Penelope Cruz (“It’s stupid [how beautiful she is]”), all of whom seemed delighted to be talking to her — a rarity on the tedious red carpet. “I was literally just like, ‘OK, what’s in my back pocket, see if it fits, try this on for size, hope it fits,’” Hudgens says.
Hudgens could see herself hosting a talk show one day. “I love what Kelly Clarkson’s doing. 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,” she says. “That would be nice for when I have kids and want to stay in one place and have the closest I will ever have to a 9 to 5. It’s that or being on Broadway.” (On the topic of kids, she says, “I always thought I would be married at 25, because that’s when my mom got married, and then when that didn’t happen, I was like, ‘Oh, OK. So we’re just going to shift everything back a bit.’ I always thought that around 36, 37 is when I would want to have kids, and that still plays. I don’t feel panicked about it.”)
Acting is still Hudgens’ main professional focus. Later this month, she’ll lend her voice to Kid Cudi and Kenya Barris’ genre-defying Netflix animated series Entergalactic, a companion piece to Cudi’s upcoming album of the same name that also features a cast of Timothée Chalamet, Jessica Williams, Laura Harrier, and Ty Dolla $ign. Cudi had eyed Hudgens for the role, even though the two had never met. “I was like, ‘Well, he’s dope, so of course I’d love to do it,’” Hudgens says. “I was like, ‘Let’s rip it!’ And now he’s a homie.”
“I travel with a spiritual entourage. ... It’s a casual thing. It’s not like they’re some ominous foreboding thing hovering above you.”
She makes a lot of decisions this way: by not overthinking them. Not everything will hit, she knows, but hasn’t that always been true? “There are projects that come and go that I will spend time [wondering], ‘Do I do this?’” she says. “In that moment, it feels like the whole world rides on a yes or a no. And then the things come out, and then the things are either cool or not so cool, but they come and they go. I try to not live with regrets.”
When she was young, she says, her ambitions were, “If it’s not going to win me an Oscar, I don’t want to do it.” “But then you grow up and you’re like, entertainment is entertainment, and I think that there’s a time and place for everything.” She points to The Princess Switch series, annually one of Netflix’s most watched films come the holiday season. “I just think about when I was a kid, how many times my sister and I watched The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan, and I was just like, ‘This is my Parent Trap.’ And it’s Christmas, which is so iconic — to have a little Christmas moment.”
The only time Hudgens pulls out her phone during our conversation is to show me a photo. “There’s literally a ghost in this picture,” she says, giddy but absolutely serious as she zooms in on a foggy window, where you can definitely see… something. “I hate when people are skeptics,” she adds with an eye roll.
Hudgens loves all things spooky. Halloween is months away when we meet, but she’s so worried about planning her annual bash that she extends my visit by almost half an hour just to brainstorm themes. She’s trying to find something that will outdo 2016’s New Orleans-themed fete, which came complete with fresh beignets, an apothecary, and a nine-piece brass band. (“That year, I ran out of alcohol,” she adds. “I invited way too many people. But it was iconic.”) Hyland says a typical night with Hudgens involves “wine. Showtunes. Witchcraft. Dancing.”
Hudgens’ fascination with the supernatural started young. “I feel like as a kid, I naturally was a garden witch, like an earth witch, always playing in herbs and smooshing things up,” she says. “And then at a certain point, I think that it scared me, so I tried to turn it off.” Years later, a conversation with a co-worker reignited her curiosity. “He was like, ‘What do you call angels?’” Hudgens recalls. “And I was like, ‘Well, I guess spirits?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, so do you think an angel will get close to you if you won’t let spirits near you?’”
These days, the spirits are all around her. “I feel like I might travel with a spiritual entourage because I’ll come into places that don’t have remnant spirit energy and still feel things,” she says. “Honestly, when you live with it, it’s a casual thing. It’s not like they’re some ominous foreboding thing hovering above you. It’s like you see them and they literally look like people.” She knows how this sounds. But to Hudgens, being open to the world in this way, trying to connect to something unknowable beyond yourself, was a crucial step in figuring out who she is today.
Her spiritual awakening also inspired her next project: a docuseries in which Hudgens and her best friend GG Magree will work with experts to learn to better use their, as she now calls them, “gifts.” (She is not the only star pivoting to the paranormal of late: Kesha and Demi Lovato have recently led shows about hunting ghosts and aliens, respectively.) “There are a lot of concerns from my reps that it won’t come together, but I’m like, at the end of the day, I bank on myself, and I know that we’re going to show up and do the thing,” she says. “I was like, ‘I understand and appreciate, like, the concern, but this is my baby.’”
Making the documentary is just one of the ways Hudgens has embraced what she calls “being a boss-ass b*tch” lately in her career. In addition to the screen projects she’s developing, she’s also steering multiple companies: Caliwater; Thomas Ashbourne, a line of ready-to-drink cocktails for which she is a co-founding partner with Ashley Benson, Rosario Dawson, and others; and KNOW Beauty, a skin care line she co-founded with Madison Beer. “My opinions matter, and I actually have really good opinions that are constructive and helpful and that actually work, so it’s just nice to be seen,” she says, as though this were a recent revelation to herself, if not others.
Before I leave (with a to-go box of beefless jerky in hand — she was right, it was delicious), I ask if she’s the happiest she’s been in her career. She half-answers. “I’m always going to want to do more. There’s that quote: ‘A blessed unrest that keeps us marching’” — from the late modern dancer Martha Graham — “that I feel will always be the pace,” she says. She sighs with full theater-kid earnestness. “There is always more to be done. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with anything,” she adds. “It’s just passion. I love it. I’ve always loved entertaining people. Because then, I also entertain myself in the process, because I actually do love myself. I get a hoot out of myself.”
Top image credits: Miu Miu clothing, stockings, and bag, Stylist’s own towel, Anne Sisteron earrings, Jacquie Aiche necklace, Talent’s own belly ring, Miscreants gloves, Manolo Blahnik shoes
Photographer: Vijat Mohindra
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Set Designer: Enoch Choi
Hair: Irinel de Leon
Makeup: Tonya Brewer
Manicure: Zola Ganzorigt
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Alex Van Brande
Associate Creative Director: Samuel Schultz