SHAY MITCHELL | Far Overhead, In the Light, Receding from View
If you’re going to be anywhere at 9AM on a Friday morning, you could do a lot worse than Topanga Canyon, with its chaparral-coated hills, eucalyptus breeze, and hazy mysticism that reverberates from somewhere deep within the Santa Monica Mountains.
The morning sun is sparking through the treetops as I pass a rusting statue of a plump pink pig with wings perched atop a metal pole. When pigs fly: an emblem of the canyon’s enduring free spirit, its winking whimsy and dreams of the impossible, its aging embrace of authenticity and spirituality, concepts since co-opted by the entrapments of social media. At one point, I almost drive myself off a cliff draining my second coffee of the day, a necessity since I stayed up half the night binge-watching You (a show so gnarled with thrilling twists and turns that it practically defies you not to watch it all in one sitting) in preparation to interview Shay Mitchell, whose sartorially flawless and emotionally fraught portrayal of crisp and calculating bestie-gone-bad Peach Salinger has a good majority of Twitter all up in a tizzy.
Perched across from me in a treehouse against the side of the canyon, Mitchell is fresh-faced and utterly self-effacing, a far cry from her character on the shrewd stalker drama, who may well be the pouty, possessive poster child for the dangers of unbridled wealth and toxic co-dependency. You, which transitioned from Lifetime to Netflix in December, caught a wave of cultural attention as a sort of soapy love child of Dexter and Gossip Girl, starring Penn Badgley as a pretentious bookstore manager in Brooklyn who stalks an aspiring writer while simultaneously trying to woo her, thanks to ample help from an eager accomplice: social media. Bouncing between self-aware satire and millennial horror story, the series ultimately casts a villainous pall over all of its main characters. Occasionally, it comes across like an indictment of the internet itself, the way interest can fester into obsession under its watchful eye. There are two sides to every coin, every story, and every person.
High in the hills of hippie country, where talk of social media feels almost sacrilegious, I ask Mitchell what appealed to her about the role. “I thought it would be fun to play the bad girl, but mostly I was drawn to the show because it was so relevant.” Her soft-spoken tone is matter-of-fact. “That’s the state of social media in this day and age. Everything is a highlight reel, everything is smoke and mirrors, and what you see isn’t always what you get. I think that’s what You is trying to get across.”
It’s an idea that hits close to home for the Canadian-born actress and entrepreneur. She is best known for playing Emily on the dark teen drama Pretty Little Liars, which ran for seven years and accumulated a rabid social media fandom comprised of mainly young women. Mitchell herself has a hefty Instagram following (22.6 million, to be exact) and in 2014 launched a YouTube lifestyle channel where she regularly posts makeup tutorials, fitness routines, and cooking experiments, as well as her wildly popular travel series, Shaycation, which documents her passion for globetrotting via glossy, in-depth guides to exotic locales. Merging confessional footage with movie-quality cinematography, it’s easy to get sucked into these educational- meets-eye candy segments, and although you come for the gorgeous views and glam lodgings, you stay for Mitchell—her commentary slips easily between playful and profound, and her easygoing magnetism keeps the series grounded. She never takes herself too seriously, but her earnest enthusiasm for exploring other cultures feels earned. She is somehow both sides of the social media coin, both aspirational and relatable, both hashtag goals and hashtag me.
“When something’s too perfect, it’s not even aspirational, it’s annoying,” Mitchell sighs, closing her eyes as the makeup artist sweeps bronzer across her high cheekbones. “You can see beyond that. My Instagram photos are very heavily curated but my Instagram stories are very real—I like to give people both sides. When I post a photo, I’ll make sure to say, ‘This is the one good one out of 50,000!’ or show the glam team when I’m getting ready. If you want to filter yourself, awesome. If you want to change something about yourself, fine. Just be honest about it!”
It’s not exactly a rallying cry you hear often from celebrities, and it’s refreshing coming from a woman who understands the importance of a well-filtered photo and obviously enjoys the expertise of a well-stacked glam squad. I can tell early on in our conversation that honesty is something she thinks about often, as is toppling the cult of perfectionism that pervades celebrities and women in general. That’s why she started her YouTube channel, as a way to be open with her fans about her passions, her insecurities, her goofy sense of humor: “It’s like, if I can do this, you can do this. Let’s not take it too seriously. Nothing that I’m doing is perfect, and that’s what I want to get across.” She makes videos in order to satisfy her own seemingly endless curiosity, describing her channel as “a platform for me to learn and grow and share experiences, whether that’s traveling to a place I’ve never been or even just trying to do ASMR.” (For what it’s worth, the recent video of her and Internet celebrity Brettman Rock attempting ASMR—a genre of internet videos in which viewers search for sounds that trigger a frisson of pleasure—while eating spicy fried chicken and doing a makeup tutorial had me cackling gleefully.)
Although she made a name for herself playing a teenage girl embroiled in an uncertain fate, Mitchell herself emanates a straight-shooting sense of self. Don’t confuse her for a wide- eyed starlet on the rise; she is a grown-ass woman who knows who she is and what she wants. And what does she want? She wants to play a superhero—maybe Jane Bond? “I want to do fight training. I wouldn’t even complain about the six hours of hair and makeup. I actually enjoy it.” She wants people to stop asking her what it was like to play two lesbian characters: “Would you say that to me if I played five straight roles in a row? Would you be like, ‘What was it like kissing another man?’ You wouldn’t. I don’t know why it’s even a topic of conversation. It’s like, ‘She had softer lips. And?’” She’s not exactly a party animal: “Honestly, there’s nothing that makes me happier than having a whole picnic on my bed. I don’t ever get FOMO of people going out, I get FOMO when I see my friends are at home in bed and I’m out. I’m like, ‘What are you watching? What are you eating? What popcorn is that?’” She sees how social media makes us feel less alone, but she wants us all to have a little more perspective: “If you don’t love it, don’t do it. The world is not going to end if you don’t post a YouTube video every Thursday. Your mental health is more important than your follower number will ever be. You shouldn’t exhaust yourself. Not doing this. There are single mothers working three jobs cleaning hotel rooms so yeah, you can complain, but I always pull myself out of it and say shut up.” She wants us to learn a thing or two from the Japanese: “I loved Kyoto. The peacefulness. The organization they live by. They were vacuuming the subway! I love how thought out everything is.” But the thing she wants most is to continue to travel the world, and parlay her experiences into her freshly launched travel brand, Béis.
Her voice swells with excitement when she talks about the travel accessories line, which arose organically as an extension of her Shaycation series. “Some people have their home base, but for me, wherever I am, I can make a home. I feel really comfortable being away, sometimes even more than I feel being home. I love traveling and I know what’s not out there and I know what I need. I spend hours of my life on a plane. People will ask, ‘How’d you think of that?’ Because I live it!” Béis’ first drop, which features chic backpacks, weekender bags, cosmetic cases, luggage tags, and passport covers, all in sleek neutrals and for less than $100, is an ode to her expertise as both a smart and stylish jetsetter: “There are a lot of things on the market that are absurdly overpriced. You don’t want to feel like you have to take care of your luggage with white gloves. I wanted to make people’s travels easier. I wanted it to be freeing.” She is quick to note that Béis is not a partnership nor a collab, but rather her own company that she built from the ground up—every product has her nod of approval. She has “little kid on Christmas” levels of excitement about their upcoming second drop, which will feature items such as a seatback pocket organizer that slips over the decidedly non-chic one found on most commercial airlines.
The brand itself feels like a love letter to the art and adventure of traveling, something Mitchell has been passionate about since she was a 17-year-old leaving her home in Canada to live in Bangkok for six months. “The education I got from being on the road and meeting different people and being uncomfortable allowed me to grow so much more. You can go to school and read all the books you want on different cultures but there’s nothing like living it and breathing the air and getting to talk to people who live there. You come back with such a different perspective. When I came back from India, I kissed the ground because I was so grateful we have running water! The littlest things become so apparent when you allow yourself to go experience how other people live. I think sometimes you get so caught up in this bubble of what you’re used to and you forget there’s a whole world out there. When you come back, it really balances your perspective.”
Striking a balance is something that Mitchell seems to have down to a science. Between social media and real life, between bare-faced and glam, between beauty and vulnerability—she is comfortable on both sides of the coin, all while being authentically, unapologetically herself.
After our interview, I stick around to watch a little of the photoshoot before heading back down the winding dirt road towards home. For the first shot, Mitchell stands on a grassy hillside so green it looks Photoshopped while the photographer sets up his equipment. In a flowing dress, her hair long and loose, her arms by her side, prisms of sunlight striping her face, she looks the part of a lady of the canyon. She clasps her hands at her heart and kicks her right leg straight up towards the sky, her face upturned to the sun. For two long seconds, it’s as if the whole canyon is watching. It’s as if the canyon itself is holding its breath. By the time she breaks the pose, everyone has pulled out their phones. Someone asks her to do it again. The spell is broken, but she obliges with a grin.