At 3, Tisdale is spotted at New Jersey's Monmouth Mall by talent agency owner Bill Perlman. "She had a head full of beautiful curly hair, huge eyes and when she looked at me she made the hugest of smiles," Perlman tells the Asbury Park Press in 2006. At her first audition, Tisdale lands a JC Penney spot and goes on to appear in more than 100 commercials as a kid.
"When I was little, I saw the play Les Misérables on Broadway, I thought it was the most amazing thing I have ever seen," Tisdale tells Newsday in 2007. "So I went to my manager and told him I wanted to be in it. He asked me if I could sing, and I said no. He said, 'You have to be able to sing to be in Les Misérables.'" Tisdale takes one lesson and lands the role of Cosette in a national tour of the musical.
The Tisdales move to California, where Ashley is closer to the casting action. Small roles in TV series like 7th Heaven (left), Beverly Hills, 90210, and Boston Public soon follow. She also appears in Donnie Darko and lends her voice to the animated series A Bug's Life.
Tisdale is cast in the Disney Channel TV show The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. She plays the sweet, cash-strapped Maddie (right), a shop clerk and part-time babysitter at the hotel where the title characters live. "Maddie is very casual and comfy," Tisdale tells The New York Times in 2006. The show is nominated for two Emmys and wins a Young Artist Award for Best Family Television Series (Comedy).
Tisdale stars as super-snob Sharpay Evans in High School Musical. Producers did not initially consider her because of her good-girl image on The Suite Life. HSM reaches 100 million viewers in more than 100 countries its first year on-air, and is the highest rated program in Disney Channel history. The soundtrack, on which Tisdale sings lead vocals on several songs, becomes the top-selling album of 2006.
After touring with best friend and HSM costar Vanessa Hudgens for the original movie's 40-city tour, Tisdale releases her solo debut Headstrong. She cowrites three of the 14 songs, and Entertainment Weekly calls the album, "fiercer and more radio-ready." "I really want my fans to connect with me; my album's kind of an open journal," Tisdale tells PEOPLE.
Tisdale celebrates her 22nd birthday in Hawaii with boyfriend and Honolulu native Jared Murillo (left), a backup dancer in the HSM tour. She keeps mum about her guy until an interview with Girls' Life magazine: a reporter sees that the actress has "Jared" written on her hand and Tisdale says he's "someone I think is really cute."
The premiere of High School Musical 2 becomes the highest rated basic cable broadcast in U.S. history. USA Today calls it "a first-rate family film: sweet, smart, bursting with talent and energy, and awash in innocence." The soundtrack debuts at No. 1, and the cast – Efron, Hudgens and Corbin Bleu – head to the big screen for High School Musical 3: Senior Year.
Tisdale appears on the cover of teen magazine CosmoGIRL!, where she discusses her personal fashion sense (Hollister and Abercrombie are her favorite stores), her celebrity crush (it's Jake Gyllenhaal!) and her hope to "be a leader and not a follower." "I don't mind being a Disney girl," she tells the magazine. "I think you can be sexy without taking your clothes off."
Tisdale undergoes a rhinoplasty procedure. "Growing up I always knew I had a deviated septum on the right side of my nose, which caused trouble breathing. The older I got, the worse it got," she explains to PEOPLE exclusively. "I didn't do this because I believe in plastic surgery. I did this to help my health." The star reveals her new look in New York on Dec. 14 (right) before missing shows in Miami and Philadelphia because of the procedure.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett Collection; Everett Collection; amazon.com; Ethan Miller/Getty; ADAM LARKEY/DISNEY CHANNEL; Peter Kramer/AP