Shay Mitchell is an optimist by nature, and a global pandemic is no exception. She and her family are staying home in self-quarantine, as are the people who typically work in Mitchell’s home, and the team that works with her on her travel brand, BÉIS, which, despite everything going on in the world, launched its spring collection March 25.
Working remotely, Mitchell and the BÉIS team went back and forth over whether to release the line of totes, duffel bags, and cosmetic cases — products that sort of hinge on the ability to leave one’s house. Mitchell is positive people will want to travel again, but it’s hard to speculate when, and she imagines people may be opting for road trips and getaways that are closer to home than the international jet-setting she’s known for.
The decision to go ahead with the launch — “to experience a little bit of normalcy and optimism, even if just for a few days,” as Mitchell explained on Instagram — implies extreme confidence and an audience with deep reserves of goodwill. The 32-year-old actor, social media influencer, and entrepreneur has both of these things, and her product drop was met with hundreds of loving emojis and a very small handful of critical comments. Two days later, she announced the company was leveraging its supply chain to source, manufacture, and donate N95 masks to the medical community on the front lines.
On the late February day I am invited to Mitchell’s home in Los Angeles, COVID-19 is still mostly called coronavirus, there are only a few dozen cases in the United States, and the BÉIS team is gathered around the dining room table, waiting for its meeting to start. The company has an office on the west side, near the water, but often meets in Mitchell's home, especially since she gave birth to her first child, Atlas, in October.
When her assistant asks me to take off my best clogs because “we’re a shoe-free home,” and leads me into the kitchen, I recognize Mitchell and her surroundings immediately. Everything feels oddly familiar, like I’ve seen it before. Then again, given what she shares on social media, I pretty much have. She is wearing a black T-shirt and sweatpants, but on her, the look is more laid-back fashion than tired new mom of a 4-month-old. She is apologetic about not having any makeup on, but she is glowing with perfect skin, one of those maddening humans who is somehow even prettier without makeup. After we exchange hiiiis, her assistant tells me that the BÉIS meeting will start in five minutes, and until then, Shay will be in the kitchen arranging flowers she got at the market that morning. “Nice!” I say longingly, wondering if she took the baby to the market or if Mitchell got to go by herself. If this was an errand meant to give me the impression of a wholesome, dreamy existence, it worked.
The house is spotless. Two women shuffle around with pairs of hospital-blue covers over their shoes, like the ones they make you put on at open houses. In the downstairs bathroom is a giant framed photo of Keith Haring and a gilded magazine rack with the March 2018 edition of Shape magazine with Mitchell on the cover. In the kitchen there are signs of life: a Baby Bjorn bouncer on the counter amid the flowers and a copy of The First Forty Days postpartum cookbook on display. Next to the sink, a deeply humanizing array of breast pump parts is air-drying on a towel.
Part of the day’s agenda is to brainstorm ways to “bridge the cash flow gap” created by coronavirus-related manufacturing setbacks in China. The idea is to create merch, specifically a sweatsuit. Something light that could be worn year-round because they’ll be trying to sell it in summer. Mitchell thought it should be in the beige/tan/nude family but the others weren’t so sure.
There's so many things I want to do. Why can't I do it? I have one life, as me right now.
The nature of Mitchell’s fame depends on where you find your entertainment and, relatedly, how old you are. Some recognize her as Emily Fields from Pretty Little Liars, the delightfully campy teen drama that had 4.2 million viewers in its prime. But on Instagram, Mitchell has 27.5 million followers, the fruit of her savvy pivot to part-time social media influencer. Before Pretty Little Liars ended, she started Shaycation, a YouTube series documenting her international travels — skydiving in Dubai, kayaking through a glacier in her hometown of Vancouver, posing topless in front of a stampede of wild horses in Jodhpur, India — in a mesmerizing style that seems influenced by both music videos and the advertising industry. In 2019, she starred in another series documenting her pregnancy, called Almost Ready. In the gender reveal episode of Almost Ready, Mitchell and her boyfriend, Matte Babel, watched a pink and a blue Mighty Morphin Power Ranger battle it out. (Pink won. Gender is a construct, but then again so are the Power Rangers.) Three and a half months later, Atlas was born.
Mitchell is still a TV star — she had a scene-stealing turn in Netflix’s You as the semi-villainous BFF Peach Salinger — but her heart is all over the place. “I can't just do acting. I can't just be an entrepreneur. I can't just be on social media,” she says. “There's so many things I want to do. Why can't I do it? I have one life, as me right now. I could come back as something else, but I have to do everything that I want to do.”
Four people, five including Mitchell, sit around the dining room table looking at fabric samples with their MacBooks open and their phones in their hands, dinging at urgent intervals. A beige mesh is not quite right; Shay runs upstairs to grab a few pairs of mesh heels she recently bought in New York to show the team what she had in mind. The group spends a long time comparing Pantone chips in different shades of orange for the trim. It’s clear that Mitchell is not just invested in getting this right; she has a vision for what she wants it to be.
Mitchell’s partner, Matte (pronounced “Matt”) Babel, 39, descends the wrought-iron spiral staircase holding baby Atlas, and everyone is eager to get his opinion. He's the chief brand officer for Drake, and it’s clear he has expertise. Before Drake, he was a reporter for Entertainment Tonight Canada. (Like his boss, and like Mitchell herself, Babel also played a minor role on Degrassi: The Next Generation.) Mitchell and Babel met in Toronto (they’re both Canadian) almost 12 years ago, though they didn’t start dating until late 2016. “We're both in this together,” she tells me later, “and I made that really apparent. That's why, I think, I chose to have a child with him, because we have really the same kind of morals and parenting ideas of how we would raise her.”
Time and again, Mitchell calls him over from the kitchen to look at a color swatch or a dye method or to get his feedback on fabrics (“Is what Kim [Kardashian] used for Skim a chenille or a fleece?”). He strides in with a pot of oatmeal and a spoon, skipping the bowl altogether. Their dog Angel — a German shepherd-lab mix rescue who is big and fluffy and docile, and yes, a literal angel — follows him.
Babel joins the meeting for 20 minutes, then gets up to leave. Mitchell is bent over someone’s laptop, squinting at something on Net-A-Porter. As he makes his way to the door, she stands up abruptly and looks over at me. “Please be sure to write he didn’t kiss her when he left.”
“See how she barks at me?” Babel says, smiling.
“I’m calling you baby daddy in this interview,” Mitchell threatens. Like many not-technically-married partners, how seriously they define their relationship is a running joke. The meeting is officially paused as everyone can’t help but watch Babel pace around the table to come over and give her a proper goodbye.
Later, sitting in the corner of a green velvet sectional in her sunken living room, Mitchell tells her assistant that it’s fine, she doesn’t need a “thingy,” by which she means a nursing cover. I’ve been there for two hours now and her 4-month-old daughter needs to eat. “You have two kids,” Shay says. “You know how it is.” I assure her that I won’t describe her boobs in writing. “Her right boob was much bigger,” Shay jokes, doing an impression of someone typing at their computer. Mitchell says that at first she wanted to breastfeed for a year, then after actually doing it, she revised her goal to six months. She doesn’t pump as often as she’d like to. After we commiserate about what a pain pumping is, she sighs and looks down at Atlas. “There is a part of me that obviously loves this moment, but … I can't stress about it. I'm just going to have to go with it. And when I run out of milk, then I run out of milk, and I'm already kind of weaning her on formula. It is what it is.”
There are moments where you're just like, ‘Well, I'll never be that person again.’
Asked what, if anything, Mitchell was afraid of when she was about to become a mom, she thinks for a minute and looks off into space. “Now, there will always be somebody that is on my mind for the rest of my life, somebody that I care about more than anything. And that's never going to change.”
“In a way, you really do have to mourn the life that you had,” she offers. “It was time, and I'd prepared myself for it, but still, there are moments where you're just like, ‘Well, I'll never be that person again.’”
But there are so many other people for her to be — including, potentially, “Shay Mitchell, showrunner.” Three months after Mitchell gave birth, Fox ordered a pilot from her production company (yes, she also has a production company), an adaptation of the Argentinian drama The Cleaning Lady.
I bring up impostor syndrome, and Shay pauses and looks at me with furrowed brows. “What's that?” she says, and I clarify. “Oh yeah, no. No, I don't have that.”
“You just don't have it?”
She shakes her head no. “I mean, what separates us from other people that are doing things we wish we could do? Just your will and your own self-doubt. So, if I remove my self-doubt, then the sky isn't the limit. I could do anything. We all could do anything.”
She says this with conviction, releasing her shiny hair from a messy bun and letting it drape perfectly on her shoulders, that I almost agree with her.
According to Adeela Johnson, the president of BÉIS, Mitchell’s ability to make you feel that you’re just like her — against all evidence to the contrary — is her superpower. “Shay is such a huge asset because people want to buy the brand but people want to be Shay. Realistically. Shay, or the lifestyle — they aspire to that.” BÉIS is the first line to come out of Beach House Group, the celebrity brand incubator run by “brand whisperer” Shaun Neff, of Neff Headwear (other collaborations include Kendall Jenner’s teeth whitening pen and Millie Bobby Brown’s makeup and skincare line). Eighty percent of the BÉIS site’s traffic comes from Instagram, according to Johnson.
Crucially, according to Johnson, Mitchell’s Instagram isn’t all aspiration. “She’s real,” she says. “She's incredibly in touch with the consumer and she's also very empathetic. I think that’s why she has such an engaged following. She knows what parts of her make sense to share with people that they will respond to and have empathy for.”
At the end of 2018, Mitchell posted her year in review to Instagram: a series of haircuts and vacations, the launch of BÉIS, and a previously undisclosed miscarriage. “Sometimes it’s easier to only showcase the good times on social media,” she wrote, urging her followers to remember that “we seldom really know or understand the struggles and hardships that other people are going through.” When she was pregnant with Atlas in 2019, she was open about her struggle with prenatal depression, and when she gave birth, she brought cameras into the delivery room, filming her 30-hour labor and relatable dispute with Babel about getting an epidural. She laughs when I ask her if anyone tried to dissuade her from doing that.
It bothered me to think of the other moms feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, is that not appropriate? Should I not be going out after?’ No. You should do whatever you feel like doing.
“Oh my god. So many people told me a bunch of everything,” she says. “But that was something that I wanted to share, because I was open with how it didn't go the first time around. I was open with the miscarriage, and I was able to have conversations with a lot of other women that were going through the same thing. I'm just like, ‘Let's have a conversation about it. We're all going through it. There will always be somebody else who can understand it to some degree.’”
While social media can certainly be a wellspring of support and camaraderie for new parents, it’s also a hotbed of judgment, as Mitchell knows firsthand. A few weeks after she gave birth to Atlas, she went with Babel to Drake’s birthday party, and people on the internet were frothing at the mouth, accusing her of being an unfit mother. In an Instagram comment at the time, she assured them she left Atlas with Angel the dog and left water out for them both. But today, in person, she is more sincere. “I was so proud of what I’d accomplished in those short three weeks of her life, that I was like, I deserve to go out, and so does every other mother that's gone through 10 months of being pregnant. You deserve to go out and do whatever the hell you want,” she says, gathering steam. “It bothered me to think of the other moms seeing that and feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, is that not appropriate? Should I not be going out after?’ No. You should do whatever you feel like doing. You're supposed to stay at home and your husband or your partner’s allowed to go out and do whatever? No. It doesn't work like that.”
I am taken aback by how grounded she seems, so reasonable and self-assured. Mitchell tells me that she never feels awkward (“Awkward situations are my favorite situations to be in, because [they] just don’t bother me ... in my mind, I mean, in reality, we all are humans, we all eat, breathe, and go to the bathroom”) or stressed out (“What is that important?”) and doesn’t listen to online criticism (“I’m living my best life!” she says). My next question: How are you so mentally healthy? Her parents, she says. (Mark Mitchell and Precious Garcia work in finance in Vancouver and, based on a Shaycation two-part spon video for Royal Caribbean Cruises, really do seem lovely.)
Johnson tells it a little differently. “Look, Shay is human. So of course she sees [the criticism online] and she hears it. But she's also got a strong perspective and she's got a network of people who support her. ... And she has a village, right? Not everybody has the village to help support them. I didn't have a village. Everyone should have that,” she says.
When I follow up with Mitchell over email a few weeks later, the world seems to have changed completely, but Mitchell has kept her positive worldview. “I think in a lot of ways this pandemic is bringing out the best in a lot of people … sharing vulnerabilities, offering ways to keep people busy and occupied, connecting with more and more people through this shared experience.” She says this time, for her, has felt like an extension of her maternity leave. “This situation is obviously different as it’s riddled with uncertainty about what the future holds for us and our kids — what a time to be a new mom, right? But it is giving me pause and time to be grateful.”
It’s a very aspirational outlook, the heavily filtered vulnerability of an influencer. But it’s also reality for Mitchell and those like her, who are young, healthy, and financially secure, with the ability to work from home and the space not to drive their loved ones insane. As usual, Mitchell makes a good point: “It’s important to maintain a healthy perspective at times like this,” she writes, “and to take note of things that we can improve in the future once the dust settles while also helping where we can now.”
Top image: MaxMara top, skirt; Jenny Bird earrings.
Photographer: Carissa Gallo
Stylist: Mecca James Williams
Hair: Glen Coco
Makeup: Ash K Holm at The Wall Group
Manicure: Tin Dimh