As the saying goes, when door closes, another opens. That holds true for actress Janel Parrish who, after seven seasons of playing Mona Vanderwaal on the cult-hit Freeform TV series Pretty Little Liars, has quickly moved on to star in diverse roles for various films and projects, including a return to where it all started—musical theater.
This year, she filmed a movie in Vancouver based on the book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and prior to that, the romance thriller The Purple Rose-in both of which she has lead roles. More recently, she worked on hell is Where the home Is, a home invasion horror flick shot in Malibu.
“It’s edgier than what I’ve ever done before,” she shares of her latest project, “Pretty Little Liars fans might not want to watch it because it’s going to be a little grittier, a little darker and bloodier for sure.”
Now, she’s in Toronto, where she’ll be playing Sandy in Grease at the historic Winter Garden Theatre.
“I believe the show opens in November and runs through the middle of January, so I’ll be there for the holidays and playing Sandy, which has always been a dream role, but as an Asian-American woman, a role that I never thought I would be able to play,” says Parrish, who also dreams of playing Kim in Miss Saigon on Broadway. “So I’m very excited that in 2017, they’re making a version of Grease where I have a place to play Sandy.
“Also, my heart is always on the stage since that’s where I grew up, so anytime I get to go back to that, I’m completely fulfilled. I’m so excited.”
Born Janel Meilani Parrish, the Kane‘ohe native, who is Chinese, Irish, English and German, grew up singing and acting, and was cast in the Broadway and National Touring Company of Les Mise?rables as Little Cosette.
She later attended Moanalua High School (her grandparents lived nearby) before moving to L.A. with parents Mark and Joanne Parrish to pursue acting.
She went on to appear in a number of television shows before landing the role of Jade in Bratz, and then the life-changing role of Mona in Pretty Little Liars. The show became one of Freeform’s top-rated series, lasting seven years, with its final episode airing last June.
For her role, Parrish won Choice TV Villain at the 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017 Teen Choice Awards, and a TV Guide Award nomination. She also competed in ABC’s Dancing with the Stars in 2014, finishing in third place.
As she often did with every Pretty Little Liars episode, Parrish watched the finale with her parents, who still reside in L.A.. “I cried a lot [watching the finale],” she says. “I knew I would. It’s seven years of my life, and a lot of my career is because of this show. It was definitely bittersweet and sad, and just odd that once we’re done, there are no more episodes, but I loved it. I thought [executive producer] Marlene [King] wrote a beautiful ending to the story for the fans.
“I thought [actress] Troian [Bellisario] was incredible as A.D. and obviously as Spencer. And I couldn’t have asked for a better ending for Mona. I thought she got her completely twisted version of her happy ending.”
No doubt the show brought her fame and fortune, as well as a devoted fan base. She has a staggering 4.7 million-plus followers on Instagram, where she openly posts things that make her happy, including her rescue schnauzer dog Kleo, which she admits to being obsessed with, and her chemical engineer boyfriend Chris Long.
“Two of our childhood friends are dating and they thought we’d hit it off ,” explains Parrish on how they met. “Both of us [at the time] really didn’t want to be set up on a date, but we finally gave in. We met and were instantly as he says, just fell in love, which is true, and now we’ve been together for a year. I’ve taken him home to meet the family twice. He loves Hawai‘i and I made him try all the local food.
“We also just moved in together. We live by the beach, which is great because being a Hawai‘i girl I love being by the water. And I have my little dog, and it’s a dog beach, so we take her every day and she loves it.”
When she’s not busy working, Parrish, who turns 29 this month, enjoys traveling, taking road trips and being outdoors. “I like the little things in life—food, wine, bonfires, and spending time with friends and family,” she says.
And while recent roles have her play- ing characters as young as 18, Parrish is all grown up and living her dream, which she credits to her parents.
“They’ve been supportive since day one,” she explains. “I’m very grateful. If they hadn’t believed in me and moved to L.A. [halfway through high school], I wouldn’t be here.
“Never once did they say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be difficult.’ It was always, ‘If this is what
you want to do, we’ll get you training, we’ll get you an agent, we’ll fly you to New York, to L.A.’ That type of motivation, positivity, belief and support is why I’m doing this.”
Parrish also is close to sister Melissa, who lives in New Jersey where she’s a major in the Army and studying for her Ph.D.; as well as her family back home in Hawai‘i.
“I absolutely consider Hawai‘i home,” she says. “My grandparents and my whole
Chinese side of the family still live there.
“I’m usually home about two times a year (her last visit was in May). I don’t know if I would ever be able to officially move back because it would be hard to be a working actress living fully in Hawai‘i, but I definitely see myself buying a house there that I could come to whenever I want.”
On Instagram, Parrish describes herself as “a girl who’s in love with the world.” She does, however, list one pet peeve: loud chewing. “I have a really sensitive ear,” she says.
She also loves tattoos—she has 25 of them. “I got my first one when I was 18,” she remembers. “I got the Chinese symbol for the word love on my hip because I didn’t want my parents to see it. Eventually, my mom said, ‘You know I know about all your tattoos.’
“All the ones I’ve gotten were to remember something that happened to me or that helped me grow, something that hurt me and that I was able to overcome, or some type of experience that I liked. And some of them just because I thought they were beautiful. I have a lot of flower tattoos.
“I think I’m done now. To be honest, I feel a little guilty because it takes them a while to cover it when I’m on set.”
Of course, there’s one in memory of Pretty Little Liars—the letter “M” on her index finger. “When we wrapped the show, the six of us Pretty Little Liars girls went out and got the first initial of our character’s name on our ‘shhh’ finger,”