“I’m a very average dude,” declares Shawn Mendes, the global sensation with over 23 million Instagram followers, a string of platinum records, around 2 billion Vevo views, and the ability to sell out venues like Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes. “I promise you, I’m the most average man ever.”
It’s a statement sure to be disputed by the fans who’ve taken both his albums to number one. But in a world where artists routinely appear as fully-formed, even predictable, superstars, Mendes’s transformation from the gangly 15-year-old who found fame through his Vine clips to the slightly less gangly 19-year-old winding down after today’s V shoot is reassuringly accessible. We chat about things like food (he’s fond of a curry) and his favorite music (his playlist for the shoot combined new names like BØRNS and Julia Michaels with some of his idols like Kings of Leon and Jimi Hendrix).
“More than anything, I hear, ‘Don’t change, Shawn,’” he notes when asked about his rise to the pop A-list. “But that’s so silly. You take someone who’s going to high school in a suburban school in Canada, fly him to New York City to do a photo shoot, play at Madison Square Garden and go on tour with Taylor Swift, make a bunch of money, go on TV, and have people asking for photos wherever he goes. Why would he not change? Changing isn’t bad!”
One recent transformation has been the beefed-up, more sophisticated sound of Mendes’s current single, “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” which he promoted via a global tour while recording his forthcoming third album. Despite his busy schedule, he also found the time to become the face—or wrist—of the Emporio Armani EA Connected smartwatch. Since being given a watch by his manager on his 18th birthday, Mendes has come to be unusually choosy about what goes on his wrist: “I didn’t wear a watch at all before I was 18, now I can’t picture my self-image without one,” he explains. “I feel like this watch was the moment in my life when I grew up. It came in phases: I’d start to wear boots instead of Vans, I got a ring, I got a watch. Now I feel like every time I put one of those things on, I’m putting myself together.” He pauses. “Does that make sense? Is that weird to say that?”
There’s something endearingly awkward about Shawn Mendes. He says he still brings his guitar to photo shoots from time to time, almost like a security blanket, and he only learned to relax on stage thanks to advice from Taylor Swift when the two toured together in 2015. “She told me not to be afraid to go out on stage,” Mendes recalls, “because everyone in the stadium came to have fun. This is not a judging contest, this is a concert.”
Mendes grins, explaining to me that, despite Swift’s advice, the fans don’t necessarily lap up everything that’s on offer: “People need to give [my fans] a little bit more credit. If something’s not good, oh, they let me know.” In 2015, Time named Mendes one of the most influential teens on the planet, an accolade that seems to sit uneasily with him today. Is there pressure to use that influence wisely? “Yes and no,” he ponders. “I didn’t go into this to become that. I think it’s not about what you say; it’s about what you don’t say. During crazy times, I just hold back. People are so quick to jump on something or rip it apart. There’s so much negativity on social media, I don’t want to add to that.”
To those who didn’t quite get it, Vine seemed like the depressing, super-compressed conclusion to Warhol’s prediction that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In fact, as Shawn Mendes and countless others proved, it was actually a breeding ground for people talented enough to find ways to negotiate and celebrate the challenge of the six-second format. Vine did eventually epitomize the transience of modern culture, however, when it simply decided one day to close up shop. Almost overnight, Vine celebrities with millions of followers became socially bankrupt. By that point, Mendes had already made the leap to more conventional superstardom, but the disappearance of the app that made him famous still strikes a chord today.
“Any of this could be gone tomorrow,” he acknowledges as our time together draws to an end. “That’s why you’ve got to make the most of it today. People say to me, ‘What are you going to be doing in five years?’ The thing is, I don’t care! It’s what I’m doing today that matters.”