Shay Mitchell: Sexiest Woman Alive 2014


It’s my first and last interview assignment in Los Angeles. I’ve lived here for three years, and am finally moving out of the city tomorrow. This gives me joy. While I’ve found some wonderful people and places in the city of L.A., I have no love for the city itself. The supposed center of American culture (non-Angelenos constantly correct me in defense: “center of American POP culture”) is mostly a wasteland of uncultured execs more interested in making a quick buck than telling a good story and frustrated actors always saying they’re working on the next big thing. And then there are its denizens: superficial overpolitely fake farm-to-table Soulcycling wheeler/dealers who have made the phrase “You’re so L.A.” ubiquitous.

So you can imagine my fear when I was assigned to interview a true blue Hollywood celebrity: a major TV star now entering the fourth season of her hit show, the dark teen drama Pretty Little Liars. There were a few back-and-forth e-mails with her management, the strategy of which I’ve mastered in my life as a Hollywood assistant. Finally, we are scheduled to meet at Juice Served Here, a cold-pressed juice bar in Beverly Hills.

So L.A.

I meet Shay Mitchell as we both come in at the same time. I apologize for my hoarse voice and she apologizes for her slight breakout, both of us blaming it on last weekend’s Coachella Music Festival. We bond about Beck and Ellie Goulding for a bit before a bunch of teenyboppers storm in, telling her they recognized her from outside, asking for pictures Pinoy-style. She then buys me Charcoal Lemonade, an energizing mix made of Alkaline Water, Lemon, Sugar Cane Juice, Montmorillonite Clay and Activated Charcoal. While I find this really sweet, I am also terrified at the prospect of drinking clay and charcoal.

“Why would I try to change who I look like, what my race is? No. No no no. You are beautiful because that’s the skin you were both with.”

We sit down and talk about what it means to be a celebrity in the modern world—something far, far away from the preconceived notions that lasted a century and ended a few years ago. These days, celebrities are no longer supposed to be unreachable, larger than life entities. The more real they are—the more open they are with their lives and their thoughts—the better. If you want to be loved as a celeb, you must engage: constantly Instagram your life, tweet your innermost feelings, be as available to your fans as any friend would be. We talk about her website,

“I wanted to set up my website because I wanted there to be a place to share my experiences with everybody. It was just another outlet for me where I could do more than just 140 characters on Twitter, or a Facebook post. I really wanted it to be a personal place where people could go for different inspirations, whether it be recipes or fashion—just things I’ve been doing with my life that I want to share with others.”

She learned this philosophy from Pretty Little Liars, which encourages a more interactive relationship with the show’s fans.

“Our show was really the first show to do Twitter parties and stuff like that, so while the show was airing we were online tweeting to our fans. That was really cool because we could hear their thoughts, what they thought was going to happen, when the big moments happened for them during the show, their feedback.

"My favorite shows growing up were like The O.C. and Dawson’s Creek, you know? And if I had been able to tweet with Mischa Barton after watching an episode, that would have been so fun. It’s a time I appreciate having, because whenever a show airs, I really try to be online so I can talk back and forth with the fans.

“I think that’s why social media is so good because you can see me on the TV show and that’s how people know me as, but being on all these different social media platforms you get to know me as Shay and not Emily.”

I’m assuming that because this is Esquire you are not familiar with Emily Fields, but for girls 12 to 20 years old, she is a phenomenon. One of the main characters of Pretty Little Liars, Emily Fields is probably the most loved of the four girls: being the girl next door, the jock, and, as revealed in the fourth season, the lesbian.

“The writer and the producer told me from the pilot that I would probably be interested in girls, and that I would be a lesbian, and not just bi. And it didn’t mean anything to me. I was like, ‘Great. I wear shoes, I kiss girls, I’m on the swim team.’ To be honest, I prefer kissing girls over guys on the show. They smell very pretty and have nice wet lips.”

The fans warmed up to this new side of Emily, creating a massive shipping campaign called Emison. Emison is the coupling of Emily and her believed-to-be-dead best friend, Alison. I know this because I asked on Twitter what questions I should ask Shay, and ALL OF THEM were about Emison. I also find it amazing that the most sought after coupling on one of the biggest programs for the female teen demographic is a lesbian one.

“I love it how the fans have come up to me and all of a sudden they have a new character they can relate to. And if you look at the poster, you wouldn’t know who was the gay one or not. I’m just as girly as the other ones.”

And suddenly Shay is thrown into a completely new role; one with great responsibility that most L.A. people mess up—that of a role model.

* * *

"The comments and feedback and the conversations I’ve had with fans from around the world have been incredible. And our fan base in the Philippines is Ah-May-Zinggggggg. But it’s just so nice to hear how the character has helped them in a lot of ways. It’s one thing to be on an entertaining show and it’s another thing to have an impact on people’s lives. The show has made it easier for people to bring up the conversations about sexuality with their parents, and has made some kids feel less alone because they like girls too.”

And so in an age where a premium is put on beauty, where self-image is a very big problem among adolescent girls, there really only is one solution.

“Be yourself. Celebrate your uniqueness. I went to the Philippines and had a lot of conversations with the girls over there. They’re very insecure about their skin, about it not being lighter. I’m sorry—you come out anywhere else and everyone is tanning! I’m outside in my pool tanning every single day. This is the color we were born with. As Filipinos, you’re born with this beautiful golden skin that everyone out here’s trying to attain. Every celebrity gets a tan before the red carpet, and so when I saw all this I was like—‘What do you mean, whitening?! Why would I try to change who I look like, what my race is?’ No. No no no. You are beautiful because that’s the skin you were born with. Love it. And be proud of it. If not a lot of people are saying it and they think I’m crazy then so be it, but I’m sorry, I’m booking jobs out here in L.A. because I’m celebrating who I am and who my mom is.”

It’s moments like this when you see Shay come out. Asking about the show and about her character, one gets the feeling that she’s delivered the same answer hundreds of times. She knows when to pause, when to accentuate, the blurbable (how much do you wanna bet Esquire’s gonna make “It’s more fun kissing girls” into a blurb?) quotes. When she talks more about her passions and her philosophies in life, she becomes more fierce, more curt, less polite. It’s very sexy.

“I would tell my 14 year-old self not to pay too much attention to what she sees in magazines and billboards. The amount of Photoshop that goes on? I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of it. I had the experience when I was modeling; I have that experience now during photo shoots. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing but I’m also saying when I look at someone in a magazine I shouldn’t say ‘Oh, I want to be like her.’ You need to work on the best version of yourself and be the best you you can be. That’s all you need to focus on. Don’t worry about anybody else.”

* * *

And it has paid off. Shay is Esquire Philippines’ Sexiest Woman Alive—and sitting across from her watching her bounce from tangent to tangent, discussing everything from cute anecdotes to major issues in society, I believe it. 

“I was so happy I told all my family members,” Shay says, laughing. “I wanna go down there and throw a party in the Philippines. That is just amazing!” She found out from her manager, who asked her if she wanted to shoot the cover for June’s Esquire. “Sure,” she said, “what’s the issue?” And when her manager informed her that it was Sexiest Woman Alive, she couldn’t help but reply with “Ummmm. That’s CRAZY!”

And so what is sexy to the sexiest woman alive?

“Sexy is having confidence. In women and in men. I don’t care what you look like—overweight, underweight, it doesn’t matter. It’s that confidence that exudes. If you walk with your head held high and smiling—people that look happy, people that look like they’re enjoying life. That’s somebody that I’m attracted to, that you wanna be around. Their energy vibes and then you get that, and you just want to be around them. How is that not sexy? To me that doesn’t really have anything to do with looks.”

“Anybody there that wants to join forces and link up with me, let’s do it. We have to start talking about it: the socialites, the wealthy, the people reading this magazine—let’s start this conversation.”

In her spare time, aside from traveling the world, Shay does a lot of work with the Somaly Mam foundation, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating trafficking and sexual exploitation of females in Southeast Asia. She one day hopes to put up something similar in the Philippines.

“It happens a lot in the Philippines and it’s not spoken about there at all. I tried to research places that were over there and I couldn’t find anything. So that is my mission: because I went over there, because my mom is from there, because I am half Filipino I want to set up a women’s center out there. It needs to happen in the Philippines. You can’t turn a blind eye to that because you’re not involved in it.”

She sees herself doing more work in the Philippines—a country that, despite being so instrumental to who she is, she only visited for the first time a few years ago.

“I went there for the first time after the show came out. I hosted a fashion show and met all these amazing people. It was amazing, I brought my mom down and she was so happy because she hadn’t been down in so long!”

Shay came back a second time, just for a vacation. She went to El Nido, which instantly became her favorite place in the world. In those two trips to the Philippines she grew significantly because she was able to see her heritage and meet the extended family that she had never met before. She loved the people because they were so happy and jovial, but she does not hesitate to bring up the other side of the coin.

“There is such a separation from the wealthy and the not. And that needs to come down. Everybody needs help. It’s your race, it’s your family. That was one of the things that was saddest to me, I’ll be honest—just seeing the separation of the wealthy and the poor.”

“I’m all about beautiful photos and all that, and celebrating the body. But where I have a problem with that is with the children. That’s where it’s not OK. That’s what I want to change. And that’s what Somaly Mam has been able to do in Cambodia and Thailand. And so Somaly Mam has become such a close family member for me now, and I want there to be the same thing, I want there to be a place like that in the Philippines.

“Anybody there that wants to join forces and link up with me, let’s do it. We have to start talking about it: the socialites, the wealthy, the people reading this magazine—let’s start this conversation.”

We end the interview on that challenge. Shay is headstrong and determined to make a change, and the way she changed during this interview when the topic came up has me committing on the spot. It’ll be interesting, watching her grow in the next few years, both as an actress and as a humanitarian.

We stand up, and decide to take a picture for a common friend. “Come. Let’s take a selfie. I’m good at this.” She is.

We step out. I show her pictures from TV5’s remake of Pretty Little Liars, and she is shocked and amused to hear that there is an actual Pinoy adaptation. After that, we part ways. I watch Shay as she goes, turning heads, saying a quick “hello” to fans of the show, a skip in her step as she goes to the next order of business. She is Belle in Beauty and The Beast, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the girl with a sparkle in her eye who is doing time in Hollywood yet completely above corruption. A person like that is rare in Los Angeles, and I’m happy I got to meet one before I left.

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