Shay Mitchell's first suggestion, when asked to think of something "fun" to do during her Teen Vogue interview, is a trapeze class. "I just love a thrill," the 25-year-old Pretty Little Liars star explains, shortly after sitting down to her notably less death-defying second-choice activity: making candles. We meet at Make Meaning, a craft lover's dream on Manhattan's Upper West Side (Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise are regulars!), and despite the decidedly low-key environment, the Canadian-born actress is serving up some serious Hollywood-style glamour in black leather leggings, a low-cut T-shirt, and a short-sleeved neon pink jacket. "People are always shocked that I don't dress like Emily," she says, referring to her far sportier on-screen alter ego. "But I'm not her. I'm more comfortable in heels than I am in sneakers."
Clearly, Shay isn't afraid to stand out. But as she talks about her breakthrough role as one of the few lesbian teens on television ("It means so much to me when someone says, 'Thank you for playing this role' ") and the charity that's closest to her heart (the Somaly Mam Foundation, whose mission is to protect women and children from sexual slavery and trafficking), it's evident that her boldness is more than just skin-deep. Read on to learn all about the outspoken, surprisingly badass chick behind one of our favorite shows.
TEEN VOGUE: So, you obviously don't have a fear of heights. Is there anything that scares you?
SHAY MITCHELL: I'm terrified every time I go into an audition. I think that it's more about facing your fears. But, honestly, there are times when I look back at the stuff I've done and even I can't believe it. Like, I think of myself at eighteen, moving from Vancouver to Toronto on my own, and I'm like, "Who is that girl?" It was brave, sure, but also kind of crazy.
TV: Was this the first time you'd left home?
SM: Actually, no. I went to Bangkok first, right after high school, to model. I lived there for three months and then spent another three months in Hong Kong, and then I came back to Canada. It didn't take me very long to realize that modeling wasn't very satisfying. I was always asking people, "How are you going to set up this shot? How will it be lit?" And they'd say, "Stop. Just pose." I had a problem with that. So when I got to Toronto, I sent my package out to, like, 34 different talent agencies, and in the meantime, I got a job working as a hostess at a restaurant/lounge, which I did for three years. Finally, someone at one of the agencies called me back. I started doing small parts in commercials and TV shows, and then I auditioned for Pretty Little Liars.
TV: In the books the series is based on, your character is described as having pale skin, strawberry blonde hair, and freckles. . . .
SM: Right. I remember being so excited to get the part, and then I started getting messages on Twitter saying, "You are not right for this." In the casting breakdown, the producers said they were looking for the girl next door. Who's to say I'm not the girl next door in this day and age?
TV: Totally. Did you have any trepidation whatsoever about playing a lesbian?
SM: No. The casting directors told me Emily was gay and asked if I was cool with that, but I didn't have to think twice. I have a lot of friends who are gay; my aunt had a girlfriend. It's just normal. And the way that fans have reacted [to my portrayal of Emily] has been amazing: I'm not playing the gothic chick dressed in all black who eats lunch in the corner and is a lesbian. If you look at the poster, you wouldn't necessarily be able to pinpoint which one of us is the lesbian, and that was really important to me.
TV: And if "Shay Mitchell gay" is the first thing Google suggests when someone searches for you, so be it?
SM: Right. My grandma saw that and was like, "What is this?" People always ask me, "Are you gay like your character?" But I don't feel like I need to answer, because honestly, it doesn't matter. And it means so much to me when someone says, "Thank you for playing this role." It's one thing to entertain people, but it's something else to actually have a small impact on their life in a positive way, and that's why it's important for me to meet my fans. Whenever there's a meet and greet, whenever I can do a signing, I love that.
TV: Besides acting, what is your passion?
SM: I work with a cause called the Somaly Mam Foundation, and that is my purpose in life, above anything else. Everything that I do, I'm thinking about girls. As strong as we are, we're also sensitive, and I feel like men take advantage of that. I'm not talking about adult [prostitutes], about the red-light districts. That's a whole other thing. I'm talking about children; they don't have a say, and they're being brought into [slavery].
TV: Is this something you've seen firsthand?
SM: Yeah. When I was living in Thailand, my boyfriend at the time was Caucasian. And when we'd be out together, guys would come up to me, like, "What are you doing later? Where do you work?" As soon as I'd say "Excuse me?" and they heard my accent, they were like, "Oh." But it happened several times, to the point where someone would approach me and I would just be like, "Do not. Don't even ask me."
TV: Yikes. You've said that you're interested in reaching out to young girls. What advice would you have if you could talk to your own younger self?
SM: I'd say embrace what you were born with. I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community, and most of my friends had blonde hair and blue eyes. So I was always straightening my hair, wearing colored contacts, and I never tanned, if I could help it. Now that I'm older, I realize that the things that made me different are the things that make me special. And when a girl comes up to me and says, "You're so pretty. I want to look like you," I say, "No, you don't. You want to look like you, because you're unique and you're beautiful." I have no problem telling anyone that I wear false eyelashes when I'm filming, and we've always got makeup on, even in the scenes where we just woke up, and we have lighting guys who are making sure we don't have double chins. We all have our things, but I embrace them, because I know nobody's perfect.
shaym Sad. Leaving is always the hardest part... #byebyeboracay
shaym Island life at its finest :) #Boracay #neverwanttoleave
shaym Met some lil beach angels 👭👭 ... #Boracay
shaym On our way to @AEO_PH to meet you guys!!! @lmn723 #excited
shaym Hahahahahaha oh wow. @michaelablaney just wait until you're caught ! #pilot #pilotjr
shaym Flea market shopping- always a good time
shaym #BTS photoshoot with the glam squad @davenmayeda & @crystalboyce
shaym Do not disturb. This is amazing... #lifeisbutadream
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