Shay Mitchell On "Pretty Little Liars," Playing a Lesbian on TV, Avoiding Mean Girls & More

Photography by Nyra Lang
Styling by Claudia Cifu
Hair by Rod Ortega
Makeup by Carlene K
Manicure by Julie Kandalec

Shay Mitchell knows what she wants. The actress, who plays Emily Fields on the show Pretty Little Liars, is getting readied for a photo shoot, with people attending to her hair, makeup, and nails all at once. She’s wondering if there should be more highlighter on her eyes, or maybe more of a shadow in the crease.

“I know my angles, what to highlight. It’s a good tool to have,” she says. “When I was modeling, if I didn’t like my makeup, I would completely change it.” It’s important, she says, for her to be at peace. If she’s in character, she’ll wear whatever it takes, but “when I’m Shay, I have to be comfortable.”

Related: Behind the Scenes with Shay Mitchell

She has no problem standing up for herself, which she thinks is an important lesson for girls to learn. “There’s a right way to ask for something; I never do it in a bitchy way.”

Before Mitchell was a teen star, before she had her own YouTube channel and 5 million Instagram followers who like shots of her kissing a life-size Ryan Gosling cutout and modeling her custom Nikes, she was a teenager hating high school in Canada. She says she ate her lunch in the bathroom to avoid the cafeteria. Mean girls were the bane of her existence, but she’s philosophical about the experience. “I knew back then that those girls were dealing with their own issues,” she says.

Besides, she was dealing with her own. Mitchell is half Filipino and grew up in a predominantly white area. “It was the first thing people noticed. They’d say, ‘Are you the daughter of my nanny?’ I hated being asked who I was, and all my friends had blond hair and blue eyes.” So she tried to change herself: She dyed her hair and wore colored contacts, and stayed out of the sun to make her skin as pale as possible. “That girl,” she says, “wanted to be something she wasn’t.”

Related: Sophie Tweed-Simmons Talks Body Shaming, Feminism & More

It took getting out of her hometown for her to start to like herself. “It’s good to switch things up,” she says. “If you’re always comfortable, you don’t grow.” After graduation, she moved to Thailand — she had never been to Asia before — with a boyfriend, and later moved to Hong Kong. It was a formative time, living on her own for the first time and starting to model. “I remember landing and walking in the market and seeing live eels being chopped, the heat, the pollution, the traffic. It was a huge shock,” she says. “I had to be completely independent. I hadn’t ever done a load of laundry before — my grandma was amazing,” she says with a laugh.

She learned how to budget what little money she had, which is a mentality she still has now. To a certain extent — she did buy a classic black Chanel 2.55 bag when she got the show. “I worked for it,” she says. “I was raised with the notion that if you got it on your own, no one could take it away from you.”

She plays a gay teen on the show. “I don’t feel like a gay icon,” she says. “I don’t feel like an icon at all. Every single interview was always, ‘What’s it like to play a gay character?’ It would be nice if I was never asked that again. Why isn’t anyone asking the other girls what it’s like to kiss a boy?” But she understands the impact that her character can have on young fans: It’s something she hears about, mostly over social media, every day. “I know kids are watching it with their families. If someone can say, ‘Oh Mom, I relate to her,’ then the conversation can begin.”

Related: Jennifer Hudson Dishes on Diet, BFF Beyoncé & More

She’s flirted with androgyny — she wore a tux on the red carpet recently — but her style is all over the place. “I’ll do motorcycle boots and all black one day and a floral dress and a flower crown the next. Today I’m dressed like a hippie gypsy.” Her greatest icon is “Sophia Loren, all day long,” she says. “She’s curvaceous and just the right amount of sexy. I love seeing her eat pasta.”

Food is something she could discuss all day long, and she can reel off her favorite restaurants in any given city. In New York, she goes to Bar Pitti and has a secret Mexican place she loves in Brooklyn. On the way to the airport she has a ritual where she always gets a large pizza to eat on her way. “Whatever I don’t eat I give to the driver, but let’s be honest — there’s only a couple slices left.”

She loves the kinds of random interactions you can have in New York. “You do not start conversations in L.A.,” she says. But she does go on hikes with her dog Angel, a German shepherd mix she rescued five months ago, and drives to Malibu. She loves the weather, but “I grew up in Toronto; I know my way around the snow,” she says.

When she was young and struggling and doing bottle service in clubs, she had a vision board. “I had a surfboard for the Teen Choice Awards and a picture of Hollywood. Now, when I attain something, I take it off and put something else on.”