“I have a lot of friends who are gay; my aunt had a girlfriend. It's just normal,” said Shay. “And the way that fans have reacted [to my portrayal of Emily] has been amazing: I'm not playing the gothic chick dressed in all black who eats lunch in the corner and is a lesbian. If you look at the poster, you wouldn't necessarily be able to pinpoint which one of us is the lesbian, and that was really important to me.”
Apparently, playing a gay character on television has opened Shay up to speculation about her own sexuality: “People always ask me, ‘Are you gay like your character?’ But I don't feel like I need to answer, because honestly, it doesn't matter.”
For Shay, what does matter is the recognition she gets from fans of the show who can relate to Emily’s character.
“It means so much to me when someone says, ‘Thank you for playing this role,’” she said. “It's one thing to entertain people, but it's something else to actually have a small impact on their life in a positive way, and that's why it's important for me to meet my fans.”
Just like Emily, Shay has a fearless streak in her. She moved from Vancouver to Toronto by herself at the age of 18 to pursue her dream of acting. A move that, in retrospect, Shay sees as “brave, but also kind of crazy.” But if she could give her younger self advice, it would not have to do with following her dreams, but rather embracing the qualities that make her unique.
“I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community, and most of my friends had blonde hair and blue eyes,” said Shay. “So I was always straightening my hair, wearing colored contacts, and I never tanned, if I could help it. Now that I'm older, I realize that the things that made me different are the things that make me special.”
Shay may not be able to dispense that advice to her younger self, but she can to the girls who come up to her and say, “I want to look like you.”
“I say, ‘No, you don't. You want to look like you, because you're unique and you're beautiful,’” Shay explained. “I have no problem telling anyone that I wear false eyelashes when I'm filming, and we've always got makeup on, even in the scenes where we just woke up, and we have lighting guys who are making sure we don't have double chins. We all have our things, but I embrace them, because I know nobody's perfect.”
Shay got some hate on the Internet when her casting as Emily first broke. In the books, Emily is pale-skinned with strawberry blonde hair and freckles. Shay decidedly has a different look, but says she focused on another part of the character description:
“In the casting breakdown, the producers said they were looking for the girl next door. Who's to say I'm not the girl next door in this day and age?”
Well we, for one, are glad she was cast. Shay seriously rocks as on-screen and off (Did we mention she spends her free time working with the Somaly Mam Foundation, an organization that combats the global sex slave trade?) We can’t wait to see more of Emily and Shay!
Catch the next episode of Pretty Little Liars on Tuesday, June 11 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC Family.