Young Hol­ly­wood

At 20, Shawn Mendes has had a strato­spheric rise, and it couldn't have hap­pend to a nicer per­son

Variety - - Contents - STORY BY JEM ASWAD PHOTOGRAPHYS BY PEGGY SIROTA

For our third-an­nual Young Hol­ly­wood is­sue, we searched high and low — from Twit­ter to In­sta­gram to Snapchat — for the big­gest ris­ing stars in the in­dus­try. We found them in Shawn Mendes (mu­sic), Amandla Stenberg (film) and Pete David­son (TV). Th­ese three mil­len­ni­als rep­re­sent the best and the bright­est when it comes to artists who don’t com­pro­mise who they are for their craft. In the pages that fol­low, find out which one of them looks up to Jack Ni­chol­son, launched a ca­reer on Vine and said no to “Black Pan­ther” (and why). Also check out our pro­file of Lili Rein­hart, the up-and-com­ing ac­tress on The CW’S “Riverdale.” On Aug. 28, Va­ri­ety will be toast­ing our cover sub­jects at a party at Sun­set Tower in Los An­ge­les. You can fol­low along, obvs, on our so­cial-me­dia ac­counts.

“I fell on my ass in front of 80,000 peo­ple.” Shawn Mendes, singer, song­writer and 20-year-old bud­ding su­per­star, sighs and pulls out his phone. “Look at this, dude.” The spill, im­mor­tal­ized on In­sta­gram from the Fes­ti­val d’été in Que­bec last month, in­deed lives up to the des­ig­na­tion “most em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment” of his pro­fes­sional life so far. “I was ex­cited and I didn’t see how high I was jump­ing from, and Dave Grohl was on the side of the stage, watch­ing,” Mendes con­tin­ues, mor­ti­fied that the leg­endary Foo Fight­ers front­man and for­mer Nir­vana drum­mer wit­nessed the stum­ble, along with tens of thou­sands of fel­low Cana­di­ans. “It was … amaz­ing.”

If hu­mil­ity is part of Mendes’ ca­reer strat­egy, it’s work­ing. But he im­me­di­ately cues up an­other clip from the same fes­ti­val shot the fol­low­ing night. Dur­ing the Foo Fight­ers’ head­lin­ing set, Grohl tells 80,000 peo­ple: “Shawn Mendes is a bad moth­er­fucker. You know why? Be­cause he touched me.”

How­ever in­del­i­cately phrased, this quote — which Mendes says he’s re­played “about a mil­lion times; it’s the coolest thing any­one’s ever go­ing to say about me” — rep­re­sents a crown­ing mo­ment and a ma­jor step for­ward in one of the tough­est tran­si­tions an en­ter­tainer can un­der­take: the per­ilous pas­sage from teen star, par­tic­u­larly vi­ral teen star, to ca­reer artist.

The fail­ures, es­pe­cially in mu­sic, are many — which for­mer teen lu­mi­nary has train-wrecked their way into TMZ this week? — the suc­cesses are few, and the “jour­ney” is usu­ally tur­bu­lent. Justin Bieber, Brit­ney Spears, Christina Aguil­era; even the seem­ingly bul­let­proof Justin Tim­ber­lake had to bob and weave ex­plain­ing his role in Janet Jackson’s Su­per Bowl wardrobe mal­func­tion 14 years ago.

But even by those mea­sures, Mendes has reached high peaks in a frac­tion of the time — 15 bil­lion streams glob­ally, three No. 1 al­bums and three Top 10 sin­gles on the Bill­board charts, global head­lin­ing tours that have seen him sell out New York’s Madi­son Square Gar­den and Lon­don’s O2 Arena and per­form for 120,000 peo­ple at Brazil’s Rock in Rio fes­ti­val last year. He even played at Queen El­iz­a­beth’s birth­day cel­e­bra­tion in April.

His ori­gin story seems sin­gu­larly un­promis­ing in terms of longevity: He rose to in­ter­net star­dom as a 14-year- old by post­ing dozens of six-sec­ond cov­ers of songs by the likes of Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Adele on a long- de­funct so­cial-me­dia plat­form, Vine. The video for his first proper sin­gle, 2014’s iron­i­cally ti­tled “Life of the Party,” shows the fresh-faced teen walk­ing bale­fully around a house party, feel­ing like an awk­ward out­sider.

And yet four years later, his idols — Sheeran, Tay­lor Swift, John Mayer, even El­ton John — are friends and/or col­lab­o­ra­tors, and his new al­bum (which, in a clear sig­nal of re­brand­ing, is self-ti­tled even though it’s his third stu­dio LP) finds him branch­ing into rock and R&B sounds, mak­ing a force­ful play to ex­pand be­yond his ini­tial pop, teen, fe­male foun­da­tion to a global, adult au­di­ence.

“Mayer is such an in­cred­i­ble per­son to idol­ize,” Mendes says, “be­cause he had an en­tire fan base when he was young, but now he’s 40 and all those peo­ple still love him but his mu­sic has tran­scended time and gen­er­a­tions. It’s so im­pres­sive to be able to do that — to be­come some­thing dif­fer­ent with­out los­ing those peo­ple.”

El­ton John is among those fore­cast­ing a sim­i­lar ca­reer for Mendes. “For some­one so young, he is re­mark­ably ac­com­plished and pro­fes­sional,” he tells Va­ri­ety. “He has im­pressed me with his abil­ity to grow as an artist on record, and es­pe­cially live. A won­der­ful fu­ture awaits him.”

So what has Mendes done so right? Yes, he’s tal­ented; yes, he’s al­most clas­si­cally hand­some; and yes, he’s de­vel­oped un­usu­ally fast in five years. But per­haps more than that, from his ear­li­est days he showed a poise, a con­fi­dence and, not least, a fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion that sets him apart — not just as a per­former but as a savvy pub­lic fig­ure who knows how to cul­ti­vate and main­tain a fol­low­ing by cre­at­ing a con­nec­tion.

By the time Mendes’ man­ager, An­drew Gertler, dis­cov­ered him on Youtube early in 2014, the young singer had racked up nearly a mil­lion Vine fol­low­ers and around 400,000 Twit­ter fol- low­ers, all from his par­ents’ house in Pick­er­ing, On­tario. “I was im­me­di­ately im­pressed by his voice,” Gertler re­calls, “and I saw that he had ex­tremely fer­vent fans who were so pas­sion­ate and con­nected to him per­son­ally. But what struck me when I talked to him was how laser-fo­cused he was. I had a Skype call with him and his mom, and he was so in­quis­i­tive and will­ing to learn. That hu­mil­ity — ‘How do I do this?’ — told me this is a once-in-a-life­time artist, that this kid is go­ing to do any­thing in his power to be great.”

With the sup­port of his par­ents, Mendes quickly teamed up with the then-25-year- old Gertler, who brought his own net­work into ac­tion. Gertler’s friend, A&R rep Ziggy Chare­ton, was al­ready on board: Dur­ing col­lege the two had in­terned at At­lantic Records for mar­ket­ing VP Eric Wong, and by this point both Chare­ton and Wong were work­ing at Is­land Records (and are now an ex­ec­u­tive VP and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, re­spec­tively). While sev­eral la­bels ex­pressed in­ter­est in Mendes, he felt a con­nec­tion with then-is­land CEO David Massey, who over the course of his ca­reer had worked with many young artists (the Jonas Broth­ers, Good Char­lotte, Demi Lo­vato), and whose mother had man­aged teen singer Lulu. Mendes also showed more than a lit­tle shrewd­ness by play­ing a cover of Oa­sis’ hit “Won­der­wall” in his first meet­ing with Massey, who had signed the Bri­tish band to Sony in the 1990s.

“I knew in the first two min­utes that he was a star,” Massey says. “When you’ve got that kind of artist you’ve got to think in the big­gest pos­si­ble terms, and that’s what we did from day one.”

Within weeks, the 15-year- old Mendes had thrown him­self into pre­par­ing for star­dom: As he fin­ished his sopho­more year of high school, Is­land re­leased “Life of the Party,” and within min­utes the song rock­eted to No. 1 on itunes. That suc­cess paved the way for his first ma­jor tour — a sum­mer 2014 stint open­ing for teen pop singer Austin Ma­hone — dur­ing which he faced au­di­ences of thou­sands armed with just his acous­tic gui­tar. On the road, he first met his close friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Camila Ca­bello, then a mem­ber of the other warmup act, Fifth Har­mony.

“He later told me it was his first time re­ally per­form­ing on­stage, and his hands were shak­ing as he was play­ing the gui­tar,” Ca­bello tells Va­ri­ety.

Yet he quickly gained con­fi­dence, and as­sisted by key col­lab­o­ra­tors who re­main with him to­day — par­tic­u­larly song­writ­ers Teddy Geiger, Scott Harris and Ge­off War­bur­ton — his first al­bum, “Hand­writ­ten,” de­buted at No. 1 on the Bill­board 200 al­bum chart in April 2015, and fea­tured his break­through hit, “Stitches.”

Gertler con­sid­ers the next move to be a ma­jor mile­stone in Mendes’ suc­cess: sev­eral months as an open­ing act on Tay­lor Swift’s “1989” tour, cho­sen by the singer her­self. “On that first night, he was as ner­vous as I’ve ever seen him — ‘I’m open­ing for Tay­lor in front of 60,000 peo­ple a night in a sta­dium, and I’m just one kid with a gui­tar,’” Gertler re­calls. But Mendes em­braced the chal­lenge and in­tently stud­ied Swift’s set. “He watched ev­ery song, ev­ery show, imag­in­ing him­self in that place,” Gertler says. “It was like see­ing a mix­ture of a stu­dent in a class­room and some­one re­ally en­joy­ing a con­cert. It took five or six shows for those nerves to go away, but I think it made him the amaz­ing front­man he is now.”

That long view and hur­ri­cane-force de­ter­mi­na­tion have be­come hall­marks of his ca­reer. Asked why he thinks Mayer and

“I want to push my­self to my limit and play as many shows and write as many songs as I can and fly around the world 10,000 times in a year.”

Sheeran have em­braced him, he says, “I think maybe John and Ed saw some­thing in me that they had in them­selves, which is a de­sire to be great. It’s not some­thing you can ac­quire, and maybe it’s rare. I meet a lot of peo­ple who ask, ‘How do I do what you do?’ and within the first 10 min­utes, from the way they talk about mu­sic, I can see that as much as they want to want it, they don’t. It’s just some­thing you kind of have.”

Ca­bello has ex­pe­ri­enced Mendes’ com­mit­ment first­hand. “When we were on tour to­gether, I never saw him,” she says. “He would go to his tour bus and prac­tice gui­tar, then go on­stage, and then go back and prac­tice gui­tar. He’s the most ded­i­cated, driven per­son I know.”

Dar­cus Beese, who suc­ceeded Massey as Is­land’s CEO last month, says: “The first time I met Shawn, I left think­ing, ‘That’s the en­ergy of a thou­sand suns!’ He left me both ex­hausted and ex­hil­a­rated.”

Swift was the last artist Mendes would open for: He fol­lowed with his first head­lin­ing tour, which launched in March 2016 and con­tin­ued across Europe and North Amer­ica be­fore wrap­ping six months later with his first sold- out date at Madi­son Square Gar­den. He quickly fol­lowed with his sec­ond al­bum, “Il­lu­mi­nate,” which saw his lyrics and mu­sic ma­tur­ing; the en­su­ing eight-month arena tour fea­tured even more dates in Europe and Asia and his first show in South Amer­ica.

As his fol­low­ing grew ex­po­nen­tially, Mendes spent count­less hours cul­ti­vat­ing it. “Peo­ple for­get how im­por­tant ground­work is — phys­i­cally be­ing in ev­ery city, meet­ing peo­ple, like in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign,” he says, adding that the in­ter­ac­tions aren’t in­va­sive. “I’ve known noth­ing but that since I was 15, so it’s not like I was at one time very pri­vate and now I have to be open. I’ve al­ways been like that.* I don’t find it hard or dis­rup­tive, and I think I’m OK with it — un­til I’m not, any­way.”

Over the phone from Europe, Gertler says: “There are prob­a­bly 600 fans out­side the ho­tel right now, and he’ll stop and take pho­tos and meet al­most ev­ery sin­gle one, to the point where you’re like, ‘This is crazy!’ But he feels like he owes some­thing to them — ‘I’ll take a minute or 30 min­utes to make sure my fans know they’re ap­pre­ci­ated.’”

Such a ferocious pace doesn’t al­low much time for a pri­vate life, Mendes ac­knowl­edges. But he says that’s not the rea­son why he’s sin­gle. “I’m not cur­rently dat­ing any­one, but it’s not be­cause I don’t have time — I don’t know if I’d be dat­ing any­one if I was home in Pick­er­ing, ei­ther,” he says. “It hasn’t stum­bled across me, and I’m not chasing it. Of course, see­ing all those other artists and peo­ple in re­la­tion­ships, you think, ‘Maybe it would be nice; who would be great for me?’ And that’s when you re­al­ize: ‘This is wrong. Let it be. I’m not supposed to be with any­one right now.’”

In the mean­time, “I want to push my­self to my limit of what I can han­dle and play as many shows and write as many songs as I can and fly around the world 10,000 times in a year, push­ing my­self to the point where it seems crazy,” Mendes says. “Ed did that and he’s do­ing that — he’s just non­stop move­ment, and there’s some­thing so ex­cit­ing about pulling at that en­ergy.”

Asked where his drive, con­fi­dence and strong sense of self come from, Mendes pauses for a beat and replies with an an­swer that speaks to an un­ex­pected vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “In­se­cu­rity of be­ing not grounded?” he muses. “I have amaz­ing par­ents and in­cred­i­ble friends, but just as much, it comes from be­ing scared — fear of be­com­ing the one thing ev­ery­body tells you not to be.”

Mendes plays the Fes­ti­val d’été in Que­bec last month.

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