THE SUNDAY TIMES
19 OCTOBER 2008
ZAK EPHRON - WHAT ARE LITTLE GIRLS MADE OF
Sugar and spice and a huge, screaming crush on Zac Efron. Yes, High School Musical III has landed.
Everyone remembers their first proper unrequited crush. Mine, like millions of other girls circa 1971, was David Cassidy. Just thinking of that picture from Tiger Beat magazine I had above my bunk bed (remember the one? With him wearing that purple shirt unbuttoned to the waist?) brings it all back: how many times Could It Be Forever got played; what a momentous occasion it was in our household when The Partridge Family first aired. Honestly. The pain of not being born in California. The pain of not being born Susan Dey. How on earth did I bear it?
Scroll forward nearly 40 years. I am in Leicester Square, fighting my way through the crowds gathered for the premiere of High School Musical III. I know, rather me than you, right? But I need to find out what does it for the tweenager of today. Does HSM affect them the way Cassidy did me, the tweenager, back then. Judging by the mounting hysteria tonight, the way I've been asked to hold up my tickets so a group of schoolgirls, straining against the barrier, can photograph them, and the way the square has been cordoned off, the answer is, very definitely, yes.
I have brought with me Mabel, my friend Bella's 10-year-old daughter, who screams so deafeningly when the film's star, Zac Efron (Troy), a tiny dot from where we are sitting here in the gods, walks on stage, I fear her vocal chords might be damaged. Sitting next to Mabel is a seven-year-old girl who is clutching a teddy bear and blinking at the stage through her Coke-bottle glasses. "Zac! Zac!" she shrieks, bouncing up and down, as Efron, radioactive orange even from here, waves and then disappears. "He was looking at me, I swear, he was looking at me!"
Meanwhile, Mabel, clutching both her and my HSM goodie bags, is incapable of sitting still. Three times she has to go to the loo. Three times! Yes, she watches Hannah Montana on Saturday mornings, yes, she likes Camp Rock. The Suite Life of Zak & Cody, that's good too. But Efron, I must understand, he's, like, more important than any of them. He's just sooo cute. Do I really think I can get her his autograph? Because if I can, I have no idea, no idea in the world, what that would mean.
"I tend to accomplish a bit more with my fingertips . . . oh, wait, wait, don't write that. I didn't mean it like that!"
Plus ça change. The demographic may be getting lower (proved by all the children in the audience, who came in on their daddies' shoulders, and the toddler wailing throughout Troy and Gabriella's Disneyfied snog), but the desire for a nice safe boy to project one's as-yet-unformed fantasies on, a nice safe boy who hopefully looks like a Ken doll when he is undressed, a nice safe boy who would never - eeew - do tongues (imagine, Keith Partridge doing tongues!) . . . that's still there. Although to assume it's only Efron who does it for them would be wrong. As shown by the stage show, which stars total unknowns but is playing to an audience of 600,000 on its UK tour, it's the whole package that appeals. Why? Well, maybe - and this is for all you parents who, like me, dragged their poor 10-year-olds to see Juno - because it's for them, and them alone. It's just not for or about us.
"That's my theory, anyway," says Annabel Brog, the editor of Sugar magazine. "It's all a symptom of the fact that teenagers want to be teenagers again, the way we might have done when we were their age. They want boundaries that maybe, in the past 10 years (with shows such as Sex and the City, Friends and Desperate Housewives that daughters would watch with their mums) had temporarily disappeared."
Maybe it's because the heroes and heroines aren't too scarily, alienatingly beautiful, like they are, say, in Gossip Girl? "Omigod, I love Gossip Girl," says Louisa Laughton-Scott, 15, whose form at James Allen's Girls' School in south London are all like her - HSM-obsessed. "But the point about HSM is that they all seem normal. It gives us hope that getting a nice boyfriend who could also be your friend can happen to normal people like us."
But what about the really young 'uns? The six-year-olds dressed in Wildcats cheerleader outfits, those poppets who haven't a clue what it is to have a boyfriend? "It's a wonderful, abstract, sanitised portrait of teenagerdom," says the silversmith Frédérique Bailey, whose daughter, Callista, 7, is "utterly and absolutely obsessed".
Okay, it's time to meet Efron and, let me tell you, girls, what a nice, polite, kind boy he is. Not a hint of guyliner or foundation ("We have to wear that for the camera, not for press") and, in a very American hetero way, a proper show queen to boot (his first gig at the age of 12 was as a newsboy in Gypsy). Like any other 21-year-old, he loves the Nintendo Wii, but he loves his Xbox more ("I tend to accomplish a bit more with my fingertips . . . oh, wait, wait, don't write that. I didn't mean it like that!") and, yes, he has a few pimples. He won't talk about the rude photo of Gabriella/Vanessa Hudgens that has surfaced on the internet (I saw it: it's sweet, she took it herself on her mobile and lit some candles on a table behind her to create a romantic backdrop). What he will say, though, is that he doesn't have anything or anybody that means enough to him to get a tattoo. And that's not Disney talking, that's him. Quite a bit of the interview, I have to admit, is taken up with writing out autographs for me. In one way, it feels such a waste, not having Mabel to witness all of this. On the other hand, perhaps it's good to keep the fantasy intact.
High School Musical III opens nationwide on October 22