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BALTIMORE - Once upon a time, a teenager named Zac Efron lived in a modest house in Arroyo Grande, Calif., with his parents and his little brother, with whom he shared a room. He was a straight-A student and was aiming to get into a good college. He liked to sing in the car. He had a thing for old musicals, like ''Grease'' and ''Singin' in the Rain.'' He did regional theater as what he calls ''a hobby.''
''Really, I grew up and led a very normal life,'' Efron says.
Still, his mom agreed to drive him back and forth to L.A. - three hours each way - to attend casting calls. He got guest parts on a few shows, then a recurring role in a short-lived TV series called ''Summerland.''
Then Efron got cast as Troy Bolton, a basketball star with a secret passion for singing, in this little made-for-TV Disney movie called ''High School Musical.'' His castmates? ''We were all nobodies,'' he says, except for Ashley Tisdale, who was considered pretty cool for having a regular role on the Disney Channel sitcom ''The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.''
Want to know what it's like to suddenly, out of nowhere, become the biggest teen sensation not only in this country, but pretty much the world? Witness the scene at last month's premiere of ''Hairspray'' - at 19, this is Efron's first role in a major film - at Baltimore's Charles Theatre:
There are girls as young as 4 lined up dozens deep, screaming his name, holding up handmade signs with lopsided hearts inscribed upon them and clutching autograph books. Mothers - yes, women in their 40s - swoon (''Oh! He's so cute!'' says Kit Hedrick, there with daughter Maddie, 11).
''At the London premiere, we had people lining up in Leicester Square at 8 a.m. in the rain and they were there for Zac,'' says ''Hairspray'' producer Neil Meron. ''All for Zac.''
What's it like to wake up one morning and have your poster on the walls of girls everywhere? To go from the theater kid at school who studied like mad and never really did team sports to the on-screen epitome of the star high-school athlete with the blond good looks and the hot girlfriend?
''I'm in the twilight zone,'' Efron says.
In person, he comes across as a sweet kid. He's dressed all suave, with the gray silk shirt and tie, and the vest, and the black pants that emphasize the slim-hipped dancer thing he has going on, his hair dyed a dark brown with dark blond streaks. Still, he blushes; he gets embarrassed when asked about his love life; he backtracks wildly when he thinks something he has said might be misconstrued as showing ego. Like when he's asked about the similarities between his current life and that of his ''Hairspray'' character, Link Larkin, the teen star of a Baltimore dance show.
''Well, Link is just on this local show and he's looking for his break,'' Efron says.
And you, on the other hand, are already ferociously successful on a national stage?
''No! No! That's not what I'm trying to say!'' Efron says. ''Please, I don't want things to come out the wrong way.''
Nothing prepared him for this. Even when ''High School Musical'' (known as ''HSM'' to the initiated) premiered in January 2006, he had no idea what was coming his way. In what has already become industry legend, the movie became mammoth because of its repeat business: It got huge viewership no matter how many times it re-aired. The sequel premiered Friday on the Disney Channel.
Of all the stars of ''HSM,'' Efron is the first to take his niche success to a different level. ''Hairspray'' was, he acknowledges, a big leap for him, and he almost blew the audition.
''The first time, I went in with this long blond hair, the surferlike look,'' he says. He hadn't done his homework. He didn't impress. And he didn't expect to be called back. But the producers figured they would be idiots if they didn't give it another shot.
''How can you deny Zac's popularity?'' Meron says. ''He's like the leading teen and No. 1 thing out there right now, and Link Larkin is the leading teen idol in Baltimore in the movie. It came together perfectly.''
On his callback, Efron says, he did more ''nitty-gritty Link'' and got the job.
Efron is a throwback to the days of Donny Osmond and Shaun Cassidy. He made People's ''50 Most Beautiful'' list. He got invited to the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. And at a Cheetah Girls concert, his presence caused such a commotion that security had to take him outside.
He's also seen the downside. While vacationing in Hawaii, he and ''HSM'' co-star Vanessa Hudgens were beset by paparazzi, who snapped them nuzzling and hand-holding and generally confirming the rumor that they are an item.
''I don't want to be the 19-year-old kid who has his relationships all over the media,'' Efron says. ''I approach dating in a very lax way. A lot of things can get blown out of proportion. I'd rather be completely anonymous.''
Efron is leveraging his success in some ways. He's still negotiating when it comes to signing on for ''HSM3.'' One of the big secrets when ''HSM'' came out was the fact that most of Efron's singing was dubbed, using the voice of Drew Seeley, largely because the musical numbers were written before casting and the range wasn't suited to Efron's talents; in ''HSM2,'' Efron insisted on doing his own voice work.
''I wanted to fully play Troy, and that involved singing,'' says Efron, who calls his voice ''unpolished'' and ''not angelic,'' but who did his own musical numbers in ''Hairspray.'' As for the dancing, which is key to ''Hairspray'' and the ''HSM'' franchise, Efron calls himself a novice who had to work ''four times as hard'' as his colleagues to get the moves down.
He's about to go through another round of ''HSM'' insanity, with little girls like Maddie Hedrick looking at him with big, adoring eyes.
''He borrowed my pen,'' she said in almost a wail as she stood outside the Charles, Efron having disappeared inside for the screening. ''And he signed for everybody in my row but me!'' Which, on the one hand, is a tragedy.
But on the other? Zac Efron TOUCHED HER PEN.