Shay Mitchell may star on a show called Pretty Little Liars, but off-screen, she’s comically honest. Sitting outside of Erewhon, a West Hollywood health food store that’s about as L.A. as it gets, she leans across the table wide-eyed and whispers, “I think they have a $40 ice cream here.” She straightens back up and shrugs: “But, whatever, they could sell pig shit and I’d probably eat it if it would help my skin.”

There’s no good way to put her claim to the test—even if that particular pork by-product were available here, her skin doesn’t need any help—but this kind of statement demonstrates why Mitchell has not just fans, but fanatics. In a notoriously self-serious industry, she’s learned to take herself only just seriously enough.

From its beginning, PLL sparked a social media hur- ricane, and Mitchell’s harnessed the power of the storm like a pro. She has more than three million Instagram followers, an eponymous lifestyle blog (“Goop is a huge inspiration for me, even though I can’t afford a damn thing on there.”), and she live-tweets the show every Tuesday using the hashtag #pllaywithshay. Though a commitment, it was also a no-brainer. “I mean, hello!” she says. “If I could have watched The O.C. and been able to talk to Mischa Barton throughout the episode, that would have been so cool!”

After growing up in West Vancouver, Mitchell left Canada at 17 and headed to Thailand to work as a model. “I’d jump on the back of motorcycles to get to castings. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t speak the language,” she recalls. “Living there was a huge shock, but it helped me grow in so many ways. It helped me affirm that I could go any- where and be OK.” After Thailand, Mitchell modeled in Hong Kong, then made her way to Toronto. When she booked the role of Emily Fields in Pretty Little Liars, she moved to Los Angeles alone. “I’d been there, like, five times before,” she says. “I remember standing in front of the CAA building as a teen- ager and thinking, ‘I will be here someday!’”

Not everyone she met along the way shared her certainty, though. “At my first acting class, I sat down after doing my mono- logue and some guy came up to me and said, ‘Honey, you’re too pretty. You could just be sitting shotgun in some guy’s Ferrari.’” Mitchell shakes her head. “Fuck that. I don’t need to sit in some guy’s car. I’ll buy the Ferrari. Get it on your own, and no one can take it away from you. No one can take this away from me, because I did it.”