Vanessa Hudgens On Self-Love, The Hardships Of Adulting + The Best Career Advice JLo Ever Gave Her

Vanessa Hudgens
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Photo Credit: Frederic Auerbach

Photography: Frederic Auerbach 

Styling: Jason Bolden 

Hair: Chad Wood

Makeup: Robert Sesnek

Shot on location at the Kimpton La Peer Hotel, West Hollywood 

The name “Vanessa” means “butterfly” in Greek and in Latin, “of Venus.” Vanessa Hudgens is living up to both definitions as she bids farewell to her third decade and emerges from a cocoon of uncertainty to embrace a new era of career clarity and self-love.

When we first chat, her 30th birthday is still a month away. Most women—especially in fickle, flighty Hollywood—would be stressing (and fearfully Botox-ing). But not Hudgens. Her 20s were both the best of times and the worst of times, and she’s truly ready to put them behind her.

“At 25, I felt like I had life figured out. Like, ‘I’ve got this, I’m great at life; I understand how to do it.’ And then, at 27, I woke up on my birthday and felt like I had no idea who I was, what I stood for, what I was doing with my life. I felt kind of lost,” she admits.

A further epiphany: Adulting is legit hard business. “I realized, ‘I am not a child anymore. I am not a teen. I am fully an adult, and there are so many responsibilities that come with that.’ I felt extremely overwhelmed,” she adds.

And then, in 2016, she lost her father to cancer… just a day before one of the biggest and most stressful moments of her career, performing as Pink Ladies leader Rizzo in Fox’s Grease Live. “My 20s were such a roller coaster,” she sighs. “I had so many high moments, but I lost my dad. My [boyfriend of seven years, actor Austin Butler] also lost his mom. We dealt with a lot of death.”

Vanessa Hudgens
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But instead of plummeting into a dark hole of despair, Hudgens embraced the power of being powerless and walked away feeling stronger and more resilient. “I felt like [the death of my father] really pushed me to expand and grow as a person, whether I liked it or not,” she says, noting that as time passes, so has her perspective. “I [now] feel like those moments are really great to have because they force you to reassess your life, what you believe in, what you stand for, who you want to be.”

In a word, she’s been “found.” She has no doubts as to the woman she hopes to be. “The last year of my 20s was very informative as to the woman I am becoming,” she notes. “I feel very empowered and very scared because I know there are big things ahead of me. [On the flip side], I feel like I’m grounded, I’ve gotten rid of my baggage, so to speak, and have made way for myself to go into my 30s just a bit more streamlined, leading with love and light.” 

Make that love, light and J. Lo. Superstar Jennifer Lopez has been an instrumental force in Hudgens’ professional road to rediscovery, taking on the role of mama bear and pseudo occupational advisor. Since the two hit it off while filming the romantic comedy Second Act this year, the multitalented superstar took Hudgens under her wing to dispense some motherly and mentor-ly advice.

“We’d be between sets, and we’d just talk. I’d tell her about my career and where I think I’m lacking, and she’d tell me what she thinks the right steps are to get to where I want to be,” Hudgens confides.

Specifically, “She told me, ‘If you aren’t happy in a certain aspect of your career, look at who is doing what you want to be doing, and mimic it,’” Hudgens recalls. “[Jennifer] was great at being like, ‘In order to do that, you’ve got to do this,’ and she spells it out in the most simplistic way possible. And I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, of course, I’ll do that, and I’m going to conquer the world just like you!’”

Though Second Act revolves around Lopez’s character—an underachieving 40-year-old mother who scores a second chance at the corporate career she’s always dreamed of—it also fueled Hudgens’ determination for an equally epic second try.

In addition to the bonus of some wise career advice and a premiere date of December 21 for their film—one week after Hudgens’ 30th birthday—working with Lopez was legitimately a gift. “[Jennifer] is the queen,” Hudgens enthuses. “She’s the O.G. of rom-com; she starred in my favorite [films] growing up. When I came in to do camera tests with her, I immediately felt this insane connection. She’s so real and honest. It was something magical that happened then; that continued to happen as we were filming. I felt like we got to a point where we could be in a scene, and we were talking telepathically, where she’d be trying to tell me something, and I’d just go with it. I’d be like, ‘Are you trying to tell me this because I feel like you are?’ And she’d say, ‘Yes, baby.’ I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I totally read your mind!’” she giggles. 

But seriously, “Not only was it a fun, exciting, iconic experience, but I also got to connect with someone that I admire in a real and deep way. [Jennifer] ‘mama’-ed me. She embraced me; whenever she sees me, she gives me the biggest, warmest hug. She always checks in on me and sees how I’m doing,” she says.

What Lopez will find, time and time again, is that she’s had a serious impact on Hudgens’ professional path. “I feel like I do take my career more seriously now,” she confides. “I grew up in this industry. I grew up onstage—I’ve been doing professional theater since I was 8 years old—and have been acting for so, so long. It never came from a place of ‘This is my career, and I’m going to do this forever.’ It was ‘This is fun. I enjoy this and want to do this.’”

Vanessa Hudgens
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PANTS: Vintage
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Her early career moves were pure, unadulterated Disney (which is synonymous with fun, really)–she skyrocketed to fame in 2006 as one of the shiniest stars of the network’s High School Musical franchise. But since graduating HSM’s Gabriella Montez, Hudgens has had to work harder than most to gain street cred and lose the perceived bubblegum image. She’s done so with diverse and distinctly non-Disney roles such as an exotic dancer in Zack Snyder’s pulpy Sucker Punch; a brothel worker in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills; a party girl in Harmony Korine’s risqué Spring Breakers; and a runway pregnant teen in Ronald Krauss’ Gimme Shelter, among others. What these films have in common is that they have nothing in common with High School Musical.

While her career perspective has shifted, personally, she maintains that she’s still the same girl she always was, with the same sense of fun. She may be an adult, but she’ll always have that part of her that’s still a kid, too (kind of like Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”). “I feel like the way that I live my life has remained the same,” she declares. “If anything, I’ve come out of my shell more, and I feel more comfortable with myself, my voice and my choices. Even though I am [now 30] and turning into a woman, I still always have a childlike wonder. I love that about myself, seeing the world through my eyes. There’s always a sense of playfulness that I have. I don’t think I will [ever lose it]; if I’ve come this far, and it hasn’t gone away, I think it’s going to be here forever. Life’s hard, and the world’s a crazy place, but you’ve got to be able to see magic in it somehow.”

Signing on to star in Fox’s live version of Rent is, without a doubt, both a strategic and a personal choice. Hudgens, who earned rave reviews for her performance in Fox’s 2016 Grease Live, was asked by producer Marc Platt to play bisexual performance artist and activist Maureen Johnson in Fox’s January 27 live reimagining. While this isn’t her first time appearing in Rent, it is her first time playing Johnson: She played HIV-positive erotic dancer Mimi Marquez at the Hollywood Bowl back in 2010. R&B singer Tinashe will play that part on Fox. Other co-stars include Dancing with the Stars winner Jordan Fisher, R&B singer Mario, Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon and The X Factor competitor Brennin Hunt. Plus, The Greatest Showman show-stopper Keala Settle will join in on “Seasons of Love,” arguably the musical’s most famous tune, and one that’s performed by the entire cast.

“When Marc approached me to play Maureen, I thought, ‘This is interesting, granted that I did this show almost 10 years ago, and I’m at a different place now that I was then,’ and ‘It’s exciting to learn the show through a different character’s eyes,’” Hudgens recalls. “I loved playing Mimi—it’s such a fun character—but it almost felt too easy to do Mimi again. I thought it would be a fun challenge to play Maureen, and one that I hadn’t done yet.”

Vanessa Hudgens
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If she’s being honest, Hudgens—who has been acting since she was 8 years old, appearing in local productions of Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz and The King and I in her hometown of Salinas, Calif.—has always preferred the unknown to playing it safe. “I feel like I wouldn’t have the career that I’ve had if I only wanted to do the same thing,” she says. “I’m always pushing myself and challenging myself because that’s the only way you grow, and if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

She’s certainly big on keeping things fresh. From a rom-com to a live musical to her upcoming Netflix action-noir-comic adaptation Polar with Mads Mikkelsen, no two projects are even slightly in the same wheelhouse.

“That’s what I try to incorporate into my work ethic,” she maintains. “I try to push myself, to work on new things and to be working on new accents [as she did recently for Netflix’s 2018 Christmas rom-com The Princess Switch]. I allow myself to feel like I can’t be held back by any limitations, to kind of lean in to everything I’m interested in, so that when the time comes, I’ll be prepared.”

In addition to film and TV work, she’s dabbled in other fields, making her Broadway debut in 2015 with the musical Gigi; released two albums—V and Identified—through Hollywood Records; and designed her first clothing line, Suistudio, a collaboration with Suitsupply, this year. Eventually, she hopes to include all of her passions in her life plan: She’s seriously considering starting her own events company (prompted by gleefully planning her annual over-the-top Halloween bash) and, at one point, toyed with the idea of becoming a makeup artist.

That said, Hudgens is all about acting, as much to honor the legacy of a father who gave his all for her career—moving her entire family south to Los Angeles—specifically for her talent. “My dad sacrificed so much of his time and money in order to get me to the place I am now… He gave so much for me. I think I will continue to always honor him in everything that I do,” she admits.

Her resolve to become a serious actress is as much for herself as it is her father, though. With her newfound clarity, she can make no mistake—this is what she wants, too. “I’m at a place where this isn’t just fun or a hobby, this is my career, part of my livelihood, and I need to nurture and take care of it with kindness and grace. I need to be a little more strategic and have more of a plan [for my future],” she notes.

Vanessa Hudgens
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Right now, she’s focused as hell. “It’s incredible how you can manifest things for yourself,” she marvels. “Manifestation is a real thing. If you’re really, really specific and have your mind set on something and are doing the work, you get there. [Right now I’m doing a lot of] self-reflection, cleaning up in all different areas of my life and getting myself to a place where I feel very confident in all the decisions I’m making, and that they’re aligned with who I am.”

Who she is—or “what,” rather—is an anomaly. She’s confident, secure and likes herself, which is a rarity for any young woman in Hollywood. She loves life, loves her life, and has no qualms about admitting it. 

“I’ve always been able to look in the mirror and think, ‘I feel great. Thank you, God, for making me the way I am,’” she maintains. “That’s always been something that’s rooted in my DNA. It’s carried me quite far and I’m very, very grateful for it.”

She trusts her gut implicitly. Despite getting some solid career advice from Jennifer Lopez, it’s the advice she gave herself at age 8 that’s really shaped the person she’s become. “[The best advice I know is to] trust your intuition, especially as a woman,” she says. “Whether that’s in life, whether that’s with people, whether that’s with career choices, to really listen. I feel like a lot of the times, we know the answers but we get too busy and the noise becomes too loud and we can’t hear it. Listen to what your gut and your heart is telling you because your gut and your heart have the answers.”

When we express surprise that she was so enlightened and yet so little, she laughs. ”I was always a wise little kid. Starting off in this industry, you have to be a little more tapped in and tuned in than the average 8-year-old. When I was going to auditions, I’d tell myself, ‘No matter what happens, it’s okay because the next thing that comes along will be bigger and better.’ That kept me going. It carried me through, and it still carries me through to this day.”

Hudgens reminds us of the butterfly she’s named for when she says, “There’s something empowering about pushing through something extremely uncomfortable and surviving it. I love getting into my beast mode. For me, that’s the moment when you’re working out and you feel like you’re going to collapse. But then you open up that secret, special compartment that holds your reserve energy. Whenever I tap into that, I feel like I can conquer the world.”