Save the cheerleader. See a career blossom.

While 18-year-old Hayden Panettiere had been working steadily since appearing as a young girl on sudsers “One Life to Live” and “The Guiding Light,” it’s her turn as the indestructible teen on NBC’s hit “Heroes” that has given her exposure she couldn’t have imagined before the series premiered last fall.

With that uptick in public awareness — and top ratings for a show that was one of the few breakout hits last season — comes distinct challenges, including having your personal life strewn across the tabloids and compounded by increasingly long hours on the set on a new season that’s been stretched from 22 to 24 episodes.

“With the good comes the awful,” Panettiere says just days after her birthday made for lewd comic fodder on the Emmy broadcast. “It’s a very invasive business, especially when you’re a young female. It can be very demanding and heartbreaking at times. People go after you and drag you down because you’re an easy target.”

Her previous work in primetime — roles on “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Law & Order: SVU” plus a nice arc in “Ally McBeal” back in 2002 — gave Panettiere invaluable experience, but those roles were limited in scope.

On “Heroes,” Panettiere could remain busy for years, for which she — or any actor in her position — is appreciative.

“I didn’t expect this much work, but at the same time I’m the kind of person that if I don’t have a lot to do, I go crazy,” she says.

And as for where the multidimensional plot goes from here, well, she’s as much in the dark as any avid viewer.

“(The writers) purposely don’t tell us anything until we’re filming, but I have faith in them,” she explains. “There have been no storylines I’ve disliked.”

Recent breakthrough: “I got semi-noticed for ‘Remember the Titans,'” she says, but “Heroes” made her famous.

Role model: “Natalie Portman, because of how humble she is. … She’s done an amazing job of keeping her personal life and career separate.”

What’s next: “I did a film called ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ with Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe and Emily Watson. It’s a small role, but to be around those people was well worth it.”