If you’re going to be anywhere at 9AM on a Friday morning, you could do a lot worse than Topanga Canyon, with its chaparral-coated hills, eucalyptus breeze, and hazy mysticism that reverberates from somewhere deep within the Santa Monica Mountains.
The morning sun is sparking through the treetops as I pass a rusting statue of a plump pink pig with wings perched atop a metal pole. When pigs fly: an emblem of the canyon’s enduring free spirit, its winking whimsy and dreams of the impossible, its aging embrace of authenticity and spirituality, concepts since co-opted by the entrapments of social media. At one point, I almost drive myself off a cliff draining my second coffee of the day, a necessity since I stayed up half the night binge-watching You (a show so gnarled with thrilling twists and turns that it practically defies you not to watch it all in one sitting) in preparation to interview Shay Mitchell, whose sartorially flawless and emotionally fraught portrayal of crisp and calculating bestie-gone-bad Peach Salinger has a good majority of Twitter all up in a tizzy.
Perched across from me in a treehouse against the side of the canyon, Mitchell is fresh-faced and utterly self-effacing, a far cry from her character on the shrewd stalker drama, who may well be the pouty, possessive poster child for the dangers of unbridled wealth and toxic co-dependency. You, which transitioned from Lifetime to Netflix in December, caught a wave of cultural attention as a sort of soapy love child of Dexter and Gossip Girl, starring Penn Badgley as a pretentious bookstore manager in Brooklyn who stalks an aspiring writer while simultaneously trying to woo her, thanks to ample help from an eager accomplice: social media. Bouncing between self-aware satire and millennial horror story, the series ultimately casts a villainous pall over all of its main characters. Occasionally, it comes across like an indictment of the internet itself, the way interest can fester into obsession under its watchful eye. There are two sides to every coin, every story, and every person.
High in the hills of hippie country, where talk of social media feels almost sacrilegious, I ask Mitchell what appealed to her about the role. “I thought it would be fun to play the bad girl, but mostly I was drawn to the show because it was so relevant.” Her soft-spoken tone is matter-of-fact. “That’s the state of social media in this day and age. Everything is a highlight reel, everything is smoke and mirrors, and what you see isn’t always what you get. I think that’s what You is trying to get across.”
It’s an idea that hits close to home for the Canadian-born actress and entrepreneur. She is best known for playing Emily on the dark teen drama Pretty Little Liars, which ran for seven years and accumulated a rabid social media fandom comprised of mainly young women. Mitchell herself has a hefty Instagram following (22.6 million, to be exact) and in 2014 launched a YouTube lifestyle channel where she regularly posts makeup tutorials, fitness routines, and cooking experiments, as well as her wildly popular travel series, Shaycation, which documents her passion for globetrotting via glossy, in-depth guides to exotic locales. Merging confessional footage with movie-quality cinematography, it’s easy to get sucked into these educational- meets-eye candy segments, and although you come for the gorgeous views and glam lodgings, you stay for Mitchell—her commentary slips easily between playful and profound, and her easygoing magnetism keeps the series grounded. She never takes herself too seriously, but her earnest enthusiasm for exploring other cultures feels earned. She is somehow both sides of the social media coin, both aspirational and relatable, both hashtag goals and hashtag me.
“When something’s too perfect, it’s not even aspirational, it’s annoying,” Mitchell sighs, closing her eyes as the makeup artist sweeps bronzer across her high cheekbones. “You can see beyond that. My Instagram photos are very heavily curated but my Instagram stories are very real—I like to give people both sides. When I post a photo, I’ll make sure to say, ‘This is the one good one out of 50,000!’ or show the glam team when I’m getting ready. If you want to filter yourself, awesome. If you want to change something about yourself, fine. Just be honest about it!”
It’s not exactly a rallying cry you hear often from celebrities, and it’s refreshing coming from a woman who understands the importance of a well-filtered photo and obviously enjoys the expertise of a well-stacked glam squad. I can tell early on in our conversation that honesty is something she thinks about often, as is toppling the cult of perfectionism that pervades celebrities and women in general. That’s why she started her YouTube channel, as a way to be open with her fans about her passions, her insecurities, her goofy sense of humor: “It’s like, if I can do this, you can do this. Let’s not take it too seriously. Nothing that I’m doing is perfect, and that’s what I want to get across.” She makes videos in order to satisfy her own seemingly endless curiosity, describing her channel as “a platform for me to learn and grow and share experiences, whether that’s traveling to a place I’ve never been or even just trying to do ASMR.” (For what it’s worth, the recent video of her and Internet celebrity Brettman Rock attempting ASMR—a genre of internet videos in which viewers search for sounds that trigger a frisson of pleasure—while eating spicy fried chicken and doing a makeup tutorial had me cackling gleefully.)