Shay Mitchell is about to destroy me completely with a single tap on her iPhone. The woman who plays the delectable lesbian next door on the most tweeted-about series in television history just accepted my invitation to see who could get more action on our social media feeds over the course of our time together.
Just looking at her tells me I’m a goner. The star of Pretty Little Liars, a cult-smash cable crime thriller about a group of mean-girl high school vixens tormented by a web of cyber threats, dark hoodies, darker secrets, and outrageous murders, arrived at a Los Angeles art museum on this rare rainy day dressed like the planet’s hottest secret agent—complete with a short-short trench coat, her pink cashmere thumb sleeves tantalizingly peeking out. There’s stretchy black denim underneath, knee-high riding boots, an adorable pink umbrella. Right on the nose for a girl who is famous as the most desirable DIY sleuth to ever wind up on the ABC Family network. My pathetic selfie is out-favorited the very moment Mitchell’s glorious pic hits Instagram.
“Whoa, this is kinda crazy,” she says as more than 1,000 likes register under her photo in less than 60 seconds. Yes, 1,000.
@Shaym can dominate you like that. At 27, she spreads her seductive magic in so many ways and via so many platforms—on TV; in print as a model; on her YouTube channel; with her lifestyle blog, charities, and endorsements; and via Facebook and Instagram—she seems like an entirely new kind of celebrity life form. Too alluring and ambitious to stick merely to one screen, Mitchell sucks you in to them all.
As we enter a gallery of Picassos, she snaps a shot of a reclining nude even after a uniformed guard announces that photos aren’t allowed. “I really like taking risks,” she whispers, gazing with a head tilt at the painting: a masterwork of cartoonishly large breasts floating over a disembodied vagina. Mitchell flips back her chestnut hair and grins.
“Poor woman,” she says. “Picasso obviously did this way before Photoshop.”
The path to becoming a goddess of all media began with a collage in her childhood bedroom back in Canada. Everything young Shannon Ashley Mitchell craved was thumbtacked up there: the Hollywood sign, glittery gowns, red carpets, a white Range Rover. “I always had this
idea that if you fantasized about something enough, it would come true,” she says. (Guess whose top-of-the-line white Range Rover is parked out front today?)
Mitchell grew up the elder of two siblings in Toronto and Vancouver with her mom, who’s Filipino, and her dad, a financial planner who has roots in Ireland and Scotland. She started dancing at age five, and by her early teens, modeling agents were elbowing each other aside to sign her to a contract. Mitchell isn’t coy about her determination to succeed. “Friends of mine would say, ‘Shannon’s gonna take over the world or die trying.’ Because that’s what I always talked about.”
As a young model, Mitchell contorted in bikinis for a few years on beaches in Thailand and atop skyscrapers in Hong Kong but ultimately grew restless. “A beautiful photo is amazing, but just walking into a room and being judged on your physical appearance, without being able to be yourself, or even say anything—that was very frustrating to me.”
A phalanx of field-tripping third graders glances our way as we stroll into a roomful of pop art. But it’s their young female teachers who get that starry, dumbstruck gleam of recognition in their eyes. To say that Pretty Little Liars is popular among a wide swath of millennial women (along with ever-increasing numbers of their male counterparts)
Is like saying the Pope is trying to make a few changes in Rome. Now in its fifth season, Liars is usually the most-watched cable program in its time slot. Most impressive, it consistently gets more Twitter love than any other scripted show ever—certainly helped along by the relentless social media activity of its stars. The season-four summer finale, in 2013, generated a mind-blowing 70,000 tweets per minute during the last scenes, setting an all-time record.
Mitchell is a huge part of the draw, due largely to her character’s story arc of a beloved star swimmer coming to grips with her sapphic nature. For the record, she is straight (and temporarily single) in real life. But her TV character, Emily Fields, is the über-darling of the (substantial) pretty-little-lesbian dating pool in fictional Rosewood, Pennsylvania. Em has a knack for showing up in a locker room just as a nubile friend tosses off a towel and leans in for a caress.
“People ask me what it’s like kissing a woman, as if there’s something awkward or weird about it,” Mitchell says. “I completely embrace it. When I step into Emily’s Converses, I’m truly in the moment, and I’m fully attracted to the women I’m fooling around with. I’m not Shay when I’m doing that scene; I’m Emily.”
Mitchell is comfortable with the fact that her make-out scenes are the likely draw for a majority of the show’s male viewership. She explains it like this: “It’s sexy because two beautiful girls are softer, more sensuous, slower, and also sort of educational. Guys watch because they like to learn from it. It’s like, ‘Hey, what’s she doing to that other girl’s body that I might want to try?’”
Mitchell used to be a bottle-service waitress in some of the most exclusive VIP rooms in Canada, amid the velvet ropes, the microminis, the $1,000 tips, the blatantly philandering pro athletes (“and the regular dudes who acted like them”). It’s where she learned everything she needs to know about the dirty secrets men keep to themselves. “It made me realize that I don’t want a guy unless he’s mine and mine alone,” she says. “I want eye contact, phones face down on
the table. If there’s something in the room that’s more interesting than me, why are we even pretending?”
It’s part of her larger worldview: a heavy dose of upbeat, can-do individualism, just the thing for a girl who grew up listening to Tony Robbins’ self-help CDs. “Two-thousand fifteen is going to be the biggest year yet. I can feel it,” she says. Pretty Little Liars is confirmed for two more seasons, and the audience and buzz continue to grow. Mitchell’s blog, Amore & Vita, is now a booming online fashion boutique. She has a slew of movie offers, and her new YouTube lifestyle channel drew 100,00 followers in its first 24 hours.
Speaking of numbers, Mitchell lets out a compassionate sigh when I ask if we can check the totals on our friendly Instagram battle. I’m not completely appalled to discover that my photo garnered 14 likes in the hour since it posted. (At least it wasn’t zero.) As Mitchell checks her stats, her smoky eyes communicate something between “I’m sorry” and “Prepare yourself, bro.” And then she hits me with the results: 71,500. When I check a few hours later, it’s more than 150,000. By evening, it’s 236,397.
Then again, what’s not to like?
Photos by James Macari