First, let's acknowledge just how weird it is that so many grown-ups know who Efron is. Even if you've never seen "High School Musical" -- and even if you don't have a tween in your household -- you probably know that he's the male lead of that TV-movie series, which leaps to the big screen with a second sequel, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," Oct. 24. Such is the power of Disney's unstoppable "HSM" juggernaut -- a franchise that started off modestly enough as a low-budget 2006 Disney Channel one-off but somehow morphed into a multibillion-dollar business, complete with best-selling DVDs, CDs and a blockbuster concert-tour component, not to mention endless merchandising (including Zac Efron dolls, modeled after his singing, basketball-playing "HSM" character Troy Bolton). With foreign broadcasts, an estimated 455 million viewers have seen the first two "HSMs" -- as Entertainment Weekly notes, that "translates to a mind-boggling one-fifteenth of the globe."
Still, if you're over, say, 15, you probably don't know the names of the other stars of "High School Musical" -- with the possible exception of Vanessa Anne Hudgens (who plays Efron's love interest, Gabriella Montez), largely because she's Efron's real-life girlfriend.
I've been thinking about Efron's unlikely fame again lately because his tanned face is plastered all over my gritty New York neighborhood. I'm used to seeing street campaigns for demographically-appropriate indie movies (like, at the moment, "Blindness") in my area, but it doesn't quite make sense to see "HSM3" posters in my largely tween-free 'hood. Unless, of course, you consider that it's in the celebrity-industrial complex's interest -- in Disney's interest -- to market Efron way beyond the core "HSM" demographic.
We used to allow teen-demo stars (Efron, who plays an 18-year-old in the latest "HSM," just turned 21) to be avatars of innocence, of sweetness, of uncomplicated cuteness. Sure, we expected that they'd eventually grow up and self-destruct, and/or grow up and confess that they were self-destructing all along (witness the latest child-star tell-all from Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick). But now Hollywood and the entertainment media have sped up the process: We want our baby-faced stars dark and dirty now, while they're still young.
That's why a topless Miley Cyrus ended up draped in a bed sheet in Vanity Fair last year (supposedly no adult's fault but Annie Leibovitz's!) and why even the Jonas Brothers are singing about how they "Live to Party" ("I drove her home and then she whispered in my ear/The party doesn't have to end; we can dance here").
I actually met Zac Efron late last year (I interviewed him for a glossy magazine), and it was fascinating to talk to him about his getting sucked into the entertainment-media machine -- becoming tabloid fodder and paparazzi bait. Arguably, he got truly mega-famous when shirtless shots of him looking Brad Pitt-cut (taken without his knowledge on a beach by a telephoto-equipped pap) alongside a bikini-clad Hudgens were sold around the world, appearing in magazines for grown-ups (more or less) from Us Weekly to Paris Match.
"The problem isn't the actual pictures," he told me. "It's the rumors and the things that they have to generate to make it news. No one wants to see one of 10,000 pictures of some actor walking around in L.A., or literally in their parking garage -- it's not interesting. So somebody has to make up some rumor to have it become news. Every day when really nothing has happened except I've gone home and played Xbox for three hours, there's a new controversy, or I've got a new drug problem. The paparazzi use espionage tactics, and they're malicious and relentless. Anything to get a reaction. It's like they try and create the controversy. You know, anything to get that frown, or a scream into the camera, or some kind of backlash. They've got that photo where all of a sudden, you know, Zac's frowning -- now he's on crack! They shout things about your mom, about your family. It's a weird industry that I'm still getting used to. But sometimes it just takes all your might not to literally swing at these guys."
How perverse this all is. On the one hand, I'm sure the latest "HSM" will be as treacly as its predecessors -- a cheery pop confection as pure as the driven snow. On the other hand, paparazzi are literally stationed outside Efron's Los Angeles apartment round the clock as a sort of morality-police squad, waiting for him to, say, bring home a gal who's not his girlfriend -- or, better yet, a hunky guy (which would clearly be Efron-obsessed blogger Perez "Queen of All Media" Hilton's wet dream). And there's a vast media market standing by, hungry for that sort of usefully ambiguous visual information.
Just a couple of years ago, before "High School Musical" blew up, a key Zac Efron résumé credit was his portrayal of a kid who blew up -- literally. Just another struggling young actor, Efron had a knack for scoring walk-on roles on network series, like the kid on the pilot of the short-lived 2006 NBC crime drama "Heist." Pizza Delivery Boy, as his character was listed in the credits, was abducted and made to rob a bank with explosives strapped to his waist -- and then got blown to smithereens.
It's a vile metaphor, but it resonates: The celebrity-industrial complex loves nothing so much as a doomed innocent.