NEW YORK – The Walt Disney Co. is sticking with the 18-year-old star of its wildly successful "High School Musical" franchise, despite her "lapse in judgment" in posing for racy photos that were leaked to the Internet.
Vanessa Hudgens apologized Friday for the photos, which show her smiling as she posed naked and in underwear in a bedroom with a red curtain behind her.
"Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment," said Disney Channel spokeswoman Patti McTeague. "We hope she's learned a valuable lesson."
She said negotiations were ongoing to land all the actors for a "High School Musical 3" feature film — including Hudgens.
Hudgens, who played the brainy Gabriella in the first two made-for-cable TV movies, told her fans she was sorry.
"I am embarrassed over this situation and regret having ever taken these photos," she said. "I am thankful for the support of my family and friends."
Hudgens' publicist, Jill Fritzo, wouldn't say anything about who took the pictures and how they slipped out onto the Internet.
The bookworm Gabriella was the love interest of Troy, the basketball star played by pinup king Zac Efron. The sequel's premiere on Disney Channel last month attracted more than 17 million viewers, making it the summer's most-watched TV program.
Hudgen is a superstar among the preteen set, and Disney has spun a wide merchandising net around the series with albums and concert tours. She and Efron reportedly date in real life, making them big attractions for celebrity magazines.
The films' wholesome nature — for a company that has made its name on family-friendly fare for generations — is a big part of its success. Parents can relax with their children watching, knowing it won't make for any uncomfortable questions.
Gabriella and Troy coo, they make googly eyes, they barely kiss. Gabriella would doubtlessly blush at the idea of a young actress posing for nude photos.
If Disney executives had cut ties to Hudgens, not wanting the company's name associated with anything not G-rated, they would have run the risk of upsetting a formula that has made the company millions upon millions of dollars.
How would parents explain to the show's young fans that the old Gabriella was being replaced by another actress?
"That's her private life, not her public life. That picture got leaked by somebody who broke a trust with her," said Michele Smith of Westborough, Mass., whose 8-year-old daughter Kathryn is a devoted "High School Musical" fan.
Dropping her from future movies or other "High School Musical" projects would not only be unfair to Hudgens but to fans such as Kathryn, Smith said.
"If Vanessa is not in the movie, my daughter would not be so excited to see it," she said.
Smith said she hopes that Kathryn doesn't hear about the photo but, if she does, she's prepared to talk about it. She'll say that it's something private for Vanessa that shouldn't have been shared.
The best thing for Disney was to do nothing, said Michael Levine, a Hollywood image consultant and author of 18 books.
"What they shouldn't do is make a bigger deal out of it than is necessary," he said. "The picture is not salacious."
Michael Sands, a publicist whose clients have included the divorce attorney for Britney Spears' ex-husband Kevin Federline, said Hudgens should be commended for coming forward quickly and saying it was her pictures.
"She's very talented and this is a big cash cow for Disney," he said.
Associated Press Television Writer Lynn Elber contributed to this report.