The Pretty Little Liars might be stuck in high school, but Shay Mitchell is fiercely grown up

Shay Mitchell wants to make her own wine. At 28, she’s already conquered the worlds of television, fashion, travel, YouTube, and publishing, but Shay is the kind of woman who is never finished. Every time she checks something off her to-do list, a new goal takes its place. Of course, Shay’s to-do list is a vision board and her goals are big picture. When asked what she wants to do next, she says she wants to make her own wine, but quickly follows that up with an admission: She doesn’t know how to make wine.

“I love drinking wine, and like, why not? I’d love to learn that whole process of, you know, creating your own wine,” she says. “I mean, is it gonna happen?”

Is it gonna happen? Mentally, before she forms her next sentence, I start filling in the blank because I know the answer to this one: Something like, “I don’t know, but I’m definitely going to try.” People use this formula all the time: Present a lofty goal and then soften the expectations by saying you’re not sure if it will ever really happen. I wait for her to say she’s hopeful and unsure, but she doesn’t.

“Yeah, it will,” she leans in, punctuating the statement with a firm nod of her head. “In the future, it will.”

And, you know what? I believe her.

Shay has made a career (and laid the groundwork for an empire — but more on that later) on that “yeah, it will” attitude.

A classic go-getter, she’s determined beyond measure and really believes that you can achieve anything you put your mind to. With her vision boards and endless positive affirmations, it would be easy to write her off as naive or silly, but she is neither of these things. She’s passionate and she backs up these beliefs with a lifetime of getting sh*t done.

She attributes her fearless attitude to her parents, particularly her father, who tucked her into bed each night with his favorite saying: “The world is your oyster.”

“I’d always be like, ‘Ew, what does that mean? The world is my oyster? Like, ew,’” she laughs effusively, then straightens up, back to business. “He would be like, ‘you can do whatever it is that you want to do and you can do it on your own.’ And that was something I always wanted — to work for what I had, because if you do that, no one can take it away from you. And that stuck with me; I don’t want anyone to take anything away from me because I didn’t earn it on my own.”

Now, a couple of years shy of 30, Shay has earned a lot on her own. She stars on ABC Family’s uber-hit, Pretty Little Liars, and she’s parlayed that recognition into an ever-growing brand. She travels the world as the host of her own YouTube series, Shaycation, coauthors a successful blog with her real-life bestie, Michaela Blaney (with whom she also penned her first novel, due out in October), and designs fashion lines with Kohl’s. She apologizes for making me work on a Sunday to meet up for our interview, but it’s nothing compared to her 24/7 hustle. It’s a lot of work, she admits, but it’s worth it because she only goes after things that she really wants. On the flipside though, she really wants to do a lot of things.

“This is my life,” she explains, almost matter-of-factly. “And if I have to rewatch the movie of it in those seconds when my time is over, I want it to be a good one and I want to know that I achieved everything that I wanted to do — and that should be the same for other people.”

That last part, the bit about wanting other people to achieve everything they’ve always wanted to, isn’t tacked on like an afterthought. Shay emphasizes it just as much as, and maybe even more than her own drive to succeed.

When Shay talks about going after your dreams, it’s not a sweet, cooing encouragement; it’s an impassioned, deliberate call to action. She speaks aggressively on the subject, like she’s engaging in a debate with an unseen opponent, booming to be heard over the little voices in your head that tell you you can’t, that you are less than.

Maybe that explains why positivity has become such an integral part of the Shay Mitchell brand. On Instagram and Twitter, she regularly posts inspirational quotes, bringing a little light to the people who follow her. She, herself, spends time each day scrolling through social media and finds that the universe has an uncanny way of delivering her the messages she needs to hear; she, in turn, shares those messages with others. Her blog, Amore & Vita, was created with the goal of encouraging others to “get out and do or try something new.”

Even her new Kohl’s clothing line, Fit to Wander, incorporates her desire to inspire, with affirmations hidden inside the garments, tucked into seams or under bra straps. “Wherever it is that you’re going, I want you to feel empowered, like you can take on whatever it is that you have on that day,” she explains.

It’s worth noting that, when Shay talks about empowering other women, it reads as entirely sincere, which is refreshing in a time when too many women secretly (or not-so-secretly) fear lifting each other up, crippled by the worry that there’s only room for one woman to succeed at any given opportunity.

“Whenever you can bring somebody else up, I think it’s important to do and especially other women, other girls,” she says. “We have enough sh*t we deal with, on the regular, you know? Growing up and all that. Cramps and things only we understand — pregnancy, birth. We have so much to deal with, wouldn’t it just be easier if we just supported one another instead of trying to tear each other down? That’s not what I’m about. I want to support everybody who’s doing well.” This is a message that resonates with Shay’s fans of all ages — and they span a wide age range. Pretty Little Liars boasts a rabid, almost cultish fanbase, and Shay doesn’t take for granted her rare place in pop culture, letting her inner fangirl show as she gushes about how much she wishes Twitter had been around when she was watching The O.C. and Dawson’s Creek. But as much as Shay loves her PLL fans, she’s excited for her character, Emily, to grow up with the midseason time jump (time moves slowly in Rosewood, where a single November spanned nearly three seasons of the series, locking the Liars in the longest senior year ever).  

The show has also given her a platform to talk about (and, to an extent, be a face for) important issues, like LGBT rights. Her character is a lesbian and Shay values the opportunity it’s given her to raise awareness, but she doesn’t love everything about how people approach Emily’s sexuality. She speaks candidly about how tired she is of being asked what it’s like to kiss a girl. When I praise her (and the show’s) portrayal of Emily, she thanks me before launching into her feelings about her most-dreaded interview question.

“I hope that in the future I won’t get asked, or the actors who are playing these characters won’t get asked, ‘What is it like to kiss a girl? Is it weird?’ No, it’s not,” she says decisively.

Overall though, Shay says playing Emily has been an incredible experience and one that will make her more picky about what roles she takes in the future. “It makes me want to play important, valuable characters going forward and ones that have a message,” she explains. “Strong, independent women, that are gonna kick ass and sometimes in high heels and that’s awesome, you know?” 

But as much as PLL has done for Shay, it’s also trapped her in some ways. She’s a grown woman trapped in a teenager’s body, both on the show and in the public eye, but she’s determined not to let that hold her back. She respects and loves her young fans, but she knows she can’t let their admiration dictate her every move. She is a creator and entrepreneur and she’s driven to create media that appeals to her own demographic. Her book, for example, is no YA novel — in fact, she encourages her younger fans to steer clear of it.

“It’s like Girls,” she explains, describing the tone of her upcoming novel, Bliss, which is loosely based on her life. “We all love that show because it’s real. Lena [Dunham] does a really amazing job of putting situations that we have been through in there. They’re raw. They talk about sex, they talk about love, they talk about money, they talk about careers, all of that. That’s what’s in the book.”

For Shay, writing the book was the goal; she’s not concerned with how it does or how it’s received — and that’s a common through-line in her endeavors. It’s the doing that matters, not the outcome. Shay doesn’t fear failure because, to her, the only way to fail is to give up, or worse, not try in the first place.

“I am who I am, and I f*ck up a lot of the times,” she admits, boldly and without shame. “But then I pick myself back up and I move on because that’s what life’s all about.”

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