The world is a very different place today than it was when Shay Mitchell snagged the role that would come to define her early career, as one of ABC Family’s titular Pretty Little Liars, Emily Fields. Mitchell, newly 31, has broadened her platform considerably since the series first aired in 2010, adding fitness guru, travel vlogger, and Instagram influencer—19.5 million followers strong—to her résumé.
But Mitchell is also aware of the pitfalls that come with a mega fan base. Which is why she wants you to take what you find on social media with a grain of salt. Mitchell fields bizarre stories and online rumors on a daily basis, like the recent claim that she was dating Kendall Jenner’s NBA star ex Blake Griffin.
Her fail-safe method for dealing with the gossip? Humor.
“It’s funny!” she says with a chuckle. “If I read something about me that’s so blatantly untrue, I want to set the record straight—and I have the power to and the voice to. That’s the one way that we can use social media in a positive light." But, she says, you can't always change people's minds, in which case, letting things roll off her shoulder keeps her sane. "It’s like I’m living a real life Gossip Girl. You can think I’m with whomever or this or that … Go do it. At the end of the day, everybody’s going to have their own opinions anyway. I can’t set the record straight for everybody.”
Though her teen drama days are behind her (mostly—she wants to wait at least five years before entertaining the idea of a PLL reunion), Mitchell’s new project places her alongside a familiar face in the teen soap annals, Gossip Girl himself, Penn Badgley. You, set to premiere in September, is what Mitchell describes as a “modern-day romance,” focusing on the thin line between casually viewing someone’s Facebook page and becoming an full-on social media stalker.
“He is just such a great artist and he played this character so well—too well,” Mitchell says of Penn’s Internet-savvy character.
When doing your own social media stalking, she wants you to remember that even the narratives people post about themselves aren't always true to life. Mitchell herself was recently called out for posting vacation images that she'd culled from other online sources, with critics questioning whether her trips were real. They are, in fact. But that doesn't mean her Instagram account actually reflects her day-to-day life, she admits.
“I think we all have to realize and recognize the fact that Instagram and social media in general is, a majority of the time, our highlight reel—it’s certainly my highlight reel,” she says of her more than 5,000 FOMO-inducing posts. “That’s not my everyday life. Now, are those real life moments? Yes, absolutely. But are they heightened? Have those photos been taken 5,000 times to get the right angle? Do I have full makeup, lighting … ? One-hundred-percent.”
Knowing that is key, Mitchell says. "It can get really dangerous if you start to believe that [social media is] realistic." But, she adds, "If you can go into it knowing there’s filters behind each and every one of those, or this is a photo that was professionally shot, then I feel like it allows yourself to be less harsh on your own photos. Everybody’s life in general isn’t maybe always what it seems.”
Don't call Mitchell a role model, though. “Role means I’m taking on this role of what I think is the right way to do things, for other people,” she explains. “So if you want to call it a ‘real model,’ that’s a new term that I feel is more appropriate for it. I want to live my life as real and as authentic as I can, and from that, yes, hopefully I make the right decisions and inspire other people to take more chances, to say yes to more experiences—whatever that is, encourage people to do in a positive way, I think that’s great.”