The biggest challenge of being a young actress is all the pressure,” says the 18-year-old, red-hot star of “High School Musical.” “It’s almost like being a child star. You’re doing the thing you love, but all eyes are on you — all the time, and it can get to you.”

If so, Hudgens seems to be handling her rapidly increasing workload just fine, despite the hurdles of being the center of

attention. With Disney behind her, she’s now in talks to star in a third “HSM.”

Hudgens grew up in Salinas, Calif., where she sang in her local nativity play at age 3. “My dad’s a musician, but it’s not a showbiz family, and they were taken aback, so I don’t know where it came from,” she says. “But ever since, I loved dancing around the house, dressing up in costumes and acting like Catwoman and singing.”

Hudgens parlayed her early enthusiasms into starring roles in local productions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Cinderella,” and went on to make her movie debut in “Thirteen” opposite Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood. Since then, the home-schooled Hudgens has worked nonstop in both film and TV.

Like “HSM” co-star Ashley Tisdale, Hudgens also has musical ambitions, and last year she released her successful debut hip-hop/dance CD, “V.” “My main priority is acting, but I got this great opportunity to do an album, and I love singing,” she adds. “And seeing Justin Timberlake in concert inspired me to do my second album.”

Hudgens also hopes to play Maria in “West Side Story” someday but says, “I don’t really have a specific career plan. I’d just love to do movies in every genre.”

A self-confessed fashionista, the star also does promotional work for Ecko Red clothing and Neutrogena. “Down the line I also want to have my own clothing line.”

Recent breakthrough: Of “High School Musical 2’s” success, she says, “We were all shocked when the first one became so big, but this went crazy.”

Role model: “Natalie Wood. I’ve always been a huge fan. She was so graceful and made such wonderful movies.”

What’s next: “I’ve started work on my second album, and I’m reading scripts and looking for the right thing.”