Unfiltered And Ready
To Be Seen
It takes about 30 minutes before Camila Mendes looks me right in the eyes—the corners of her mouth starting to curl, cat-like, up into a grin—and says, in a quieter voice than she’d been using previously: “I probably would show my tits to anybody.” She laughs, and I laugh, and she goes on, louder now: “I actually would probably do that. I really don’t care. It’s just this genuine, Yeah, these are my boobs. Is there a problem? I don’t understand what the problem is.”
Neither do I. But then, just because something isn’t a problem, it doesn’t mean it’s expected, it doesn’t mean it’s something that’s usually done. And yet Camila Mendes, the just-turned-24-year-old star of Riverdale (she plays the preternaturally self-possessed Veronica Lodge), doesn’t really care about what’s expected, or about doing what’s already been done before; she’s far too invested in navigating her own path, in writing her own rules to whatever game is being played—or, actually, of stopping the game entirely, of refusing to play along with outdated ways of being.
But about, um, showing her tits: Mendes and I are talking on a sunny, summery day in New York City, sitting inside a cafe that we both agree has the best avocado toast in the city (Mendes takes hers with a fried egg on top), and it’s just a couple days after the photo shoot for this magazine. We’re discussing all the ways in which young women are taught to feel shame about things which are natural—and, specifically, shame about our bodies. Mendes isn’t having it.
“When I’ve been in photo shoots, and there’s a little bit of my nipple showing, there’s always a whole conversation about it. Like with NYLON, everyone was just like, ‘Is this okay? Are we going to do this?’ And I was like, ‘Everyone stop talking about it. Let’s just go shoot it. This isn’t a conversation,’” Mendes says, continuing: “I completely shut it down and said that this was something that we were not going to sit there and debate, because I know how I feel about it, and I’m totally fine to take a photo with my tits showing.”
Knowing how she feels about things and then acting on those feelings is clearly one of Mendes’ defining characteristics; it can be seen in how she approaches a photo shoot, and it can be seen in how she approaches her career, which is both only just getting started, and also, already, off to a wildly successful beginning, with her very first role, that of Veronica Lodge, being the kind of career-defining opportunity for which many actors wait a lifetime.
And yet while the phrase “overnight success” could theoretically be applied to Mendes, that would be ignoring the years of work and training she put into creating a foundation for her career, as well as her innate interest in acting.
“As a child, I was very performative,” Mendes says. “I never really liked playing with stuffed animals. I liked being stuffed animals. It’s something that has always been a part of me. There was never really a clear moment where I was like, ‘Oh I am going to be an actor.’ I just kept doing it.”
And that’s exactly what she did. Mendes studied at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, while there, Mendes interned at a talent agency, and started going to auditions as she finished up school. It wasn’t long before rumors of a new series, a reboot of the classic Archie comics, started swirling around and, Mendes says, she heard “everyone talking about Riverdale.”
From the perspective of young actors trying to catch their big breaks, it’s understandable why news of a series bursting with roles just for them would be exciting—but exciting doesn’t always mean, well, good. Because while the Archie comics are fun in a vintage, nostalgia-filled sort of way, the characters that populate their pages are reductive, with Archie Andrews being the quintessential milquetoast nice guy, and the two lead female characters—Betty and Veronica—emblematic of the ways in which women are often pitted against each other, with one—Betty—being the wholesome, girl-next-door, and the other—Veronica—being the vixenish rich bitch, and both of them locked in a never-ending struggle to win the affections of a boy who doesn’t really deserve either of them.
But Riverdale had no intentions of staying completely faithful to its original source; instead, it promised something different from its squeaky clean foundations, a teen Twin Peaks, complete with a reveal of a beautiful, blue-lipped, murdered high school student, whose mysterious death would be the central mystery of the show’s first season. Only instead of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” the question became “Who Killed Jason Blossom?”, with Riverdale neatly subverting the notion of the “dead girl” trope seen in so much of noir television, making clear that this was not a typical teen show, and that the young women in its world would not be tacit victims.
“It’s a huge power that I almost didn’t want to take at first. I didn’t want to be a role model because I didn’t feel like one.”
That wasn’t the only way Riverdale upended both its source material and most TV; the moodily lit Riverdale High hallways were filled with students of every ethnicity and sexual orientation; the conflicts these characters face are often absurdist and tinged with soap opera levels of drama, but the teens themselves are recognizably real—far from the two-dimensional archetypes that lived within the comic books’ pages. In Riverdale, Archie is a brooding, not quite bad boy, but bad enough to be having an affair with his music teacher; Betty might still live next door, but she has a dark side that manifests in self-inflicted crescent moon-shaped cuts on her hands and the donning of a black wig so she can transform into Bad Betty.
And Veronica? She might be the character who underwent the biggest change of all. Sure, she’s still a daddy’s girl, with sex appeal to spare, rich as the devil, and, yes, prone to a little bitchiness now and then, but Riverdale’s Veronica is so much more than just that: She’s also vulnerable, compassionate, conflicted within her loyalties, doing her best to navigate a treacherous world—and, thanks to the impeccable delivery of Mendes, able to utter the pet name “Archiekins” and have it be totally believable as something a teenage girl circa now would say.
Believability is the most important quality an actor can have, and it’s especially necessary when playing a character who finds herself in, frankly, hard to believe circumstances, like, say, discovering her father is the head of a crime syndicate and has a mortal rival who goes by the name of “Papa Poutine,” or that a biker bar would be super-invested in a trio of teenagers performing a karaoke version of “Mad World.” In the hands of a lesser actor, these situations might be eye roll-inducing, but Mendes makes them anything but; she makes it impossible to look away from Veronica, whose storyline, complete with struggles to maintain her sense of identity in a world gone, yes, mad, is among the most compelling on Riverdale. All of which makes it even more interesting to find out that Mendes didn’t even think she’d be right for the part of Veronica when she first heard about it.
“I’m so willing to talk about anything at any given moment in time. I thrive off that.”
“From the beginning,” Mendes says, “when I looked at the character, I thought, Oh, she’s like a pin-up girl. It’s going to be Krysten Ritter, a white girl with black hair. I saw her as a white girl.” But once Mendes found out that Riverdale’s Veronica was going to be Latina, she knew she had to go for that role: “I was like, ‘Wait, wait, I am that Latina Veronica. I can do that.’”
From there, a grueling audition process followed, although we all know how the story ends: Mendes was cast as Veronica Lodge, putting her indelible imprint on one of the most iconic brunettes in pop culture history. It’s the kind of thing that, in hindsight, feels less like an amorphous meeting point of hard work and luck, and more like fate, like Mendes’ casting was inevitable. It feels even more like this when Mendes reveals that she, Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty, and Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead, all auditioned for their parts together: “I remember that moment so vividly, the three of us being in that room. I remember sitting next to Lili, being like, ‘So, where are you from?’ Just small talk before the audition. I remember talking with Cole. We bonded over the fact that we both sweat a lot before auditions,” Mendes laughs, remembering: “I was literally in the room with paper towels… I would keep them under my arms and right before they called my name I would just put them away.”
In the time since Mendes first sat in that fateful room, her life has completely transformed, changing from that of an unknown college student who was going on audition after audition to an actor who is a primary member of a pop culture phenomenon, with an accompanying incredibly invested fanbase. But Mendes didn’t just build up her follower count (9.5 million on Instagram, and counting) by merely posting photos of her on-point red carpet outfits or behind-the-scenes glimpses of Riverdale (though there are plenty of those). Rather, Mendes’ social media presence is notable for its radical transparency, and her willingness to reveal the imperfect parts of what many might otherwise think is a perfect life. This is a refreshing quality in a time when people—both famous and not—are only comfortable putting out hyper-filtered versions of their lives into the world, distorting and obscuring themselves in such a way that it’s hard to recognize anything that’s actually real.
For Mendes, though, being honest about her life isn’t much of a choice; it’s just who she is. “I am a very open person, just in general with people,” she explains. “I’m so willing to talk about anything at any given moment in time. I thrive off that. I have to actively try to keep things private. My first instinct is to be open. Most of the time, I’m like, ‘Fuck it!. I’m just going to talk about this.’ I am not precious about a lot of stuff. I am just the type of person who enjoys connecting with people over absolutely anything.”
One of the ways in which she’s connected with people is through her candid account of her history of disordered eating, and her promotion of body positivity. Mendes explains why she decided to talk about these things, saying, “I only recently started dealing with my own eating disorder. So, as I was dealing with it, it felt like it was a good opportunity to talk about that, because I’m still in that vulnerable state too. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I am so past that phase of my life. I’m so perfect and happy now.’ I’m still struggling and I’m still dealing with all of those things. I might always still struggle.”
But just as she’s helped countless people feel seen in their own struggles, the response Mendes has gotten from fans has bolstered her enormously. She says, “I’ve been kinder to myself because of all positive feedback. I think all the encouragement from fans, and how much I see that they’re going through the same thing, and how much I feel like I actually have an opportunity here to inspire people and prevent people from going down that path, has shown me I actually could make that difference in someone’s life… So, the voices are starting to disappear. Well,” she laughs, “they’re just less prominent in my head.”
The responsibility of being a role model isn’t one Mendes was anticipating, but it is one that she now says “feels right,” especially because she approaches it in a way that feels true to who she is. She explains: “It’s a huge power that I almost didn’t want to take at first. I was like, ‘Oh my god. I don’t want to have a voice. I don’t want people to look up to me.’ I didn’t want to be a role model because I didn’t feel like one. But, instead of trying to be like, ‘You guys should all respect everything that I say and see me as this perfect thing,’ it was more like, no, I can be a voice, because I’m going through what they go through, probably. Since I’m a real person, I’m willing to talk about it.”
One of the first things that people learn in recovery is that they are only as sick as their secrets; it’s only when you start being honest with yourself and those around you that you can begin to heal. But that’s easier said than done, and full transparency gets trickier and trickier when the circle of people in whom you’re confiding numbers in the millions. This is precisely why Mendes feels like such an important act—only, of course, it’s not an act, it’s really just who she is.
There’s a game a lot of actors play when being interviewed, a game which is sort of like Keep-Away, only instead of ensuring a ball be held aloft and out of the hands of your opponent, this game has a different goal: Keep your private life out of public view. It’s understandable, wanting that filter, but it’s also revelatory when that filter disappears, and the full force of someone’s inner energy is unleashed. It feels nuclear; it’s no wonder Mendes seems to thrum with a vibrational luminosity. It’s kind of hard to look away from her glow.
However, as Mendes is quick to point out, “It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. It’s not like I’m finally in a place of self-love and self-acceptance. Yesterday I felt awful. There are good days and bad days. I have to separate how I feel about myself from what I intellectually know about myself. I can say all of these things, and I totally believe and understand them, but it’s so hard to change the way that you feel about yourself. They are two separate things and they both exist. It’s a dance between the two constantly.”
Balance has become a key part of Mendes’ life right now, as she works not only to tend to her burgeoning career (she’s made three films since being cast in Riverdale), but also to keep her eye on what she envisions for her professional future. Mendes is quick to say, “This career definitely means more to me than anything else in my life. This is a gift to me. I love acting and I don’t ever want to take that granted.” But she also doesn’t see success as any one thing, in part because, growing up, she didn’t have acting role models whose careers she felt like she could emulate.
“I didn’t really feel like I had people to look up to growing up that were like me,” Mendes says. “You think about all of the well-respected actresses right now, like the ones that were at the Oscars and winning all of these awards, and the most successful are usually older, white women. I don’t relate to that. That’s not me. So, how do I try and achieve a similar amount of success in my own way? Maybe, it doesn’t look like me at the Oscars.”
Mendes isn’t dismissing traditional markers of success so much as she is acknowledging that, much in the same way our idea of what kind of actress could play the role of Veronica Lodge has changed, the idea of what success looks like has changed too. And it’s not just success, it’s also things like beauty standards. Mendes remembers, “When I was a child, the shows that I watched, the media that I looked at, it was always tall, skinny, white women. Like, in Friends they were all thin and white. The O.C., which was another show I loved, Gossip Girl, every show I watched the women were tall, thin, and white. That has a huge factor in what my perception of beauty is. Now, we are putting all kinds of shapes into the media and all kinds of looks. There’s so much more color and variety in our entertainment world, and people are starting to see those different looks being glamorized and celebrated rather than pushed off to the sides.”
Mendes is quick to point out, though, that she loved all those shows, “But, it’s just there was nothing else. That was all we knew.” And this is why she loves the way changes are being made in the cultural landscape, and is proud to be part of the generation making those changes. She says, “We’re not conformist. People are taking pride in sticking out rather than shying away from it. That leads into beauty and body positivity as well. We’re embracing being unique. We’re understanding the fact that there is nobody else like you out there in the world. That is something that should be celebrated and not criticized.”
It can be easy to talk to Mendes and marvel at all the things she’s doing, all the ways she’s keeping busy and staying engaged, only to then realize that she’s so occupied with work and building her career that she could easily lose track of herself in the middle of everything else going on. But she promises that she does take care of herself. “I love to be pampered,” she says with a laugh. “I love to just show up and let someone else do the work.”
So, I say, it’s sort of like you want to take the “self” out of self-care.
“Yes!” she says, “Take the ‘self’ out of self-care. I love that… People forget we’re just bodies. We are flesh. Sometimes it’s just as simple as going to get a massage. Go turn off your brain for an hour. That makes such a difference in your mood, and in your clarity and in your focus. We’re just meat with a brain.”
It’s a refreshing take, one perfectly aligned with her earlier declaration that she’s okay with freeing the nipple, anytime, anywhere, and it reminds me that there is one thing I have yet to ask her about, one pretty private thing that is precisely the type of thing most celebrities would never be open about. So, in a test of her transparency, I decide to just ask: Are you… dating anyone?
Mendes smiles—a big smile, the kind that I specifically make a note about at the time, because it spreads so widely across her face.
“There’s a prospect.”
Is it a fellow actor?
“No, and that’s, I think, why it’s so great. It’s somebody completely out of the industry. It’s funny because I’m more hesitant to talk about it because I don’t want him to read this... I actually would totally talk about it right now, if I didn’t feel like, Wait, he might read this.”
It’s okay, we don’t have to talk about this…
But Mendes brushes me away, saying, “No, no, it’s fine. It’s just dating people in the industry is tough. I did for a little bit. I’ve just dated actors. It’s hard when that’s your world. You only meet people through work and that can be really tough, because you’re not necessarily meeting people that you’re similar to. It’s just people that you’re with because you’re working on the same project. I’ve learned to not do that. Thank god nothing bad has ever happened from those experiences.”
So you’ll never date another actor?
“I realize that I don’t think I like actors. Actors are really emotionally complicated. You would think they would be more in tune with their emotions, but sometimes they’re just not. I just really need to get out of this industry with someone who is in a stable environment.”
Stability is something important for Mendes right now; the need for it was even pointed out to her by a tarot card reader who she visited in New Orleans. Mendes reveals that the woman—who also told Mendes that she would be entering into a significant romantic relationship soon—”nailed everything.” Mendes says, “Right now, everything is a little overwhelming. it’s so much shit being thrown at me all the time and it’s all new. I’m like, well, how do I do all of this? How do I manage all of this and still stay sane?”
Mendes explains that the tarot card reader saw this, noting that Mendes was “busy as fuck,” but also told her: “Come next year, you will be just as busy, but you’re going to feel good about it. It will be comfortable.” And Mendes says she can see that, she can see the possibility for a solid reality in the not too distant future, one for which she is laying the foundation, day by day, decision by decision, revelation by revelation.
“It really is anything goes,” Mendes says. “I don’t know where this life is going to take me. I’m not going to try and predict it, or project anything onto it. Who’s to say where I’m headed?”
And it’s true, it is impossible to know exactly where Mendes is headed, because this industry, this country, this world, are ever-changing things, but when it comes to who will say where Mendes is headed? Well, that’s not actually that difficult to answer: Camila Mendes will steer herself down whatever path she determines is hers, into a future that’s as wide open as the smile that spreads across her face as she puts her sunglasses on, says goodbye, and walks off into the hot yellow heat of the summer-y day.
“There was never really a clear moment where I was like, ‘Oh I am going to be an actor.’ I just kept doing it.”