Although we’ve all come to know and love Janel Parrish as wily Mona Vanderwaal on ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, the actress — unlike her character — is decidedly un-devious.
That’s not to say, though, that Parrish and her character are totally unalike.
Like Mona, Parrish is stunning and smart. She’s articulate. And, well, a bit of a nerd at heart. And as Mona’s entry into the Rosewood upper crust wasn’t without a few hiccups, Parrish’s transition into Hollywood wasn’t exactly seamless either.
On “fitting in”
“The first couple of years that I moved to LA, actually, it was very hard,” said the star, who moved to the area to pursue acting at only 14. “I wasn’t working — I didn’t know any of the casting directors. You know, I didn’t have any idea how big the competition is out here and how hard the rejection is.”
But with the support of her family, Parrish learned not only to not doubt herself, but to actually embrace the differences that make her stand out.
“Being a mixed-race actress was very difficult, especially growing up,” she said. “When you’re younger and you have to fit into a family and you’re of mixed race, you don’t quite fit into the Hollywood look — which is usually the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl next door — and so I would audition for those roles, and they didn’t quite know where to place me.”
A shift has occurred over the years, though, Parrish points out.
“Now that I’m older and I don’t really have to fit into a family in roles, it’s not that much of an issue, and I think also Hollywood and the world has become a little less color-blind, which is wonderful.”
And she’s happy to see that sense of self-acceptance growing in Hollywood. “People like Maggie Q are getting lead roles as a beautiful Asian American actress,” she said. “And that’s wonderful… that’s not something I think would have happened 10 to 12 years ago when I first came here.”
On bucking the trend to bow to Hollywood standards
Women, she asserts, should just be able to be true to themselves.
“And I see a lot of that happening. I love that. Whether it’s style or speak[ing] out about what you’re passionate about or not following trends that aren’t classy — I think class is really sexy.”
Although Parrish hasn’t personally experienced some of the unfair pressure placed on young actresses by the industry, she concedes that she fights the same internal struggle many women do: “Wanting to be beautiful and wanting to look like the models in the magazines.”
Thankfully, she says, there are actresses in Hollywood who are paving the way when it comes to helping women just be themselves and not worry about fitting into any certain mold.
“Women like Jennifer Lawrence,” she told us, “who have spoken up a lot just about being herself and not following any fad diets, and thinking she’s beautiful the way she is. You know, that curves are sexy and just embracing yourself and your natural sexiness. I think that’s really great.”
On her favorite imperfections
Of course, holding on to that kind of confidence can be tricky in an industry where digital airbrushing to perfection is the norm — which is precisely why Parrish isn’t a fan of Photoshop.
She explained, “I have a little freckle on my nose, and I love this little, like, imperfection, if you will. And a lot of the time when I do photo shoots, they’ll photoshop out the freckle. I’m like, ‘But I love that little blemish!’ or whatever it is.
“I think people’s imperfections, whatever they are, give them character,” she added. “And I think it’s beautiful.”
Still, there’s a learning curve to self-acceptance, admits Parrish, who has always been self-conscious about what she calls her “chubby little chipmunk cheeks.” To this day, they are part of the reason she isn’t crazy about smiling in pictures.
“If you look at my Instagram, there’s a lot of smizing going on, because I just know that if I smile, my two flaws that I hate are going to show — one is my cheeks, and the second one is my teeth.” (The latter of which she says are “kind of crooked.”)
She’s getting there, though, pointing out that she has decided to embrace those insecurities. “The little flaws add character, so I’m gonna keep my teeth and my cheeks!” she said, laughing.