While on vacation in Hawaii, Efron, 19, is photographed canoodling and kissing HSM costar Vanessa Hudgens, 18. Fans get a hold of the photos and chronicle the couple's vacation on YouTube with slideshows showing them kissing, building sandcastles and lying on the beach. Fans dub the new pair "Zanessa." Efron tells Rolling Stone, "The weird thing that no one expected about Vanessa is that underneath such a sweet girl is a very, very sexy woman."
After making PEOPLE's Most Beautiful list, Efron lands the cover of Rolling Stone, which proclaims the 19-year-old: "The New American Heartthrob." "I'm such a regular dude," Efron tells the magazine. "This whole [celebrity] thing is kind of awkward for me. I feel like the kid that snuck into some party and shouldn't be there."
When Disney's High School Musical 2 premieres, it attracts 17.24 million viewers and is the single most-watched show in cable TV history. The New York Times calls HSM2, "A candy-colored song-and-dance extravaganza set among teenagers for whom A.D.D. is rhythm and early-onset puberty is romantic comedy...Hating a phenomenon like HSM no longer makes you appear tasteful. It makes you seem stupid, as if you hated all of market capitalism, or all winners."
As the High School Musical 2 soundtrack takes the No. 1 spot on Billboard, selling more than 600,000 copies, details of Efron and Hudgens' real-life romance is featured in PEOPLE. Although they have kept their relationship relatively low-profile, their fans cause "chat-room pandemonium and teen magazine hysteria" over the silver bands they both wear. And in a testament to their commitment, Efron stands by his girl when nude photos of Hudgens surface on the Internet that September.
Taking a break from filming High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Efron wins an MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Performance for his role in Hairspray. When his name is announced for the award, Efron gets a kiss from his date, Vanessa Hudgens. Winning, says Efron, was "frightening. It's crazy. It's the last thing you expect."
The HSM hunk covers EW's photo issue, where he dishes on the franchise's last installment and making the jump to adult actor. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of former pretty boys turned Oscar contenders Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, Efron, who takes on a more mature role in the indie flick Me and Orson Welles, says, "They do it because they love it, not because they enjoy being famous...If you don't adapt and learn at a very young age, you can really mess up."
Efron reprises his role as singing jock Troy Bolton in High School Musical 3: Senior Year– the final installment in his star-making Disney franchise. When it opens, the big screen extravaganza tops the box office, making $42 million in its first week.
Efron headlines his first film post-HSM with 17 Again. To play the part of a middle-aged dad who suddenly becomes a teen again, Efron says he channeled his own father. "I tried to do a few things that I learned from my dad–things that he thinks are cool but are really dorky," the star joked to MTV. "That seems to be working pretty well." Efron's star-power proves to be a success, with the film topping the box office, grossing $24.1 million during its opening weekend.
Efron graduates from High School and begins showing off his grown-up body of work – by nabbing the cover of PEOPLE's Hottest Bodies issue. "One of my top priorities is taking care of myself," says Efron, who follows up his busy summer with a serious turn at the box office in the drama Charlie St. Cloud.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Todd Williamson/WireImage; inset: Splash News; Courtesy of Rolling Stone; ADAM LARKEY/DISNEY CHANNEL; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic; Disney; Jon Kopaloff/Filmmagic