From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Before Ashley Tisdale went in for her now infamous nose job on Nov. 30, she made a pact—complete with pinky swear!—with her mother, Lisa. "She promised she wasn't going to listen to what anybody had to say, whether it was positive or negative," Lisa, 52, says. "I told her, 'It's about how you feel.'"

Well, Mom, apparently the rest of the world didn't get that memo. Ever since Tisdale stepped out at the Dec. 15 Z100 Jingle Ball concert in New York City—only two weeks after her surgery, a scheduling decision she says she regrets—the Disney starlet has had to cope with an outcry of criticism over her changed nose. Even as Tisdale was feeling "totally happy" about the results, tabloid headlines screamed, "Ashley's Nose Job Mistake?" and Internet message boards filled up with postings from angry fans who claimed Tisdale had fallen victim to "Jennifer Grey Syndrome"—a reference to the Dirty Dancing star whose career dried up after a nose job left her unrecognizable.

"It sucked," admits Tisdale, 22, as she reflects on the backlash while lounging on the sofa in her two-bedroom North Hollywood condo. Of those pictures showing her face "practically paralyzed," as she puts it, "people were saying I was 'unveiling my look,' but I was still recovering! That's not what I look like right now."

To demonstrate, Tisdale shows off a myriad of facial expressions—she even scrunches her nose!—that call to mind her High School Musical character, Sharpay. And so although her mother points out some changes—"Her nose is more symmetrical; she doesn't have to worry about what angle she's being shot at"—the bottom line is, "I think I still look like me," explains Tisdale.

Still, even she admits that those initial post-op photographs were alarming. When Tisdale decided to go under the knife, it wasn't because she wanted a new nose. ("I liked the way I looked before," she insists.) She just wanted to get back the nose she was born with—one that had a deviated septum (a condition in which the cartilage between the nostrils blocks an airway) and had changed shape thanks to two fractures (one from a car accident at 16, the other after Tisdale was clocked in the face during an HSM rehearsal). "Through the years, my nose was to the left of my face—it was leaning in a different direction," Tisdale says. "There was something not right."

Tisdale says she told her plastic surgeon Dr. Raj Kanodia—who has worked on the noses of Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz and Ashlee Simpson—"to make my nose straighter, but please don't change it!" So she was a bit worried by what she saw in those early days after the bandages came off. "I was kind of freaked out," she admits. "I was so swollen, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, is it going to stay like this?'"

Now that her nose has settled back into place, the actress points to benefits besides the superficial ones. Until the surgery, Tisdale's deviated septum left her nose so blocked that she had trouble sleeping. "I'd snore and wake myself up," she says. She also had a hard time breathing: During last spring's HSM tour she collapsed backstage during a show. "I was hyperventilating. A doctor got me an oxygen tank," she says. "I knew I had to get help."

Today Tisdale is sleeping through the night and overall "feels better," her mother says. "Her voice is stronger and not nasally." Tisdale says, "I don't regret what I did."

And she doesn't regret the way she handled it, either. Although most celebrities who go in for a nip-and-tuck prefer to do so in secret, Tisdale felt it was only responsible to be up-front. "I didn't want to play a game of denying it or being coy," says Tisdale—who also had the support of her boyfriend Jared Murillo, a dancer she met on the HSM set in 2005. "I wanted my fans to know because I don't take plastic surgery lightly." Tisdale says that she isn't interested in getting any other surgeries—and, contrary to rumors, her nose job won't be written into the story line of HSM3, which she starts filming in April.

Still, don't challenge her to a Nintendo Wii game just yet. When her best friend and HSM costar Vanessa Hudgens came over and started playing, "I'm like, 'Stop swinging that thing next to me!'" says Tisdale. "I'm so protective over my nose now. I don't want to break it ever again."