Shawn Mendes: How a Toronto Teen Became the Superstar Next Door - Rolling Stone
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Shawn Mendes: How a Toronto Teen Became the Superstar Next Door

Inside social media phenomenon’s exciting pop rise and John Mayer-inspired future

Shawn Mendes; Feature; Rolling Stone; CamilaShawn Mendes; Feature; Rolling Stone; Camila

Shawn Mendes' "Stitches" peaked at Number Four on the Billboard Hot 100 and is still a radio staple.

Daniel DeSlover/Zuma

Before Shawn Mendes makes it onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall for his sold-out, early March performance, the 17-year-old has already performed in the ballroom twice. His afternoon began with a private show for his “Shawn Access” crowd – a group of superfans who shelled out extra money to meet him and see his more intimate early-afternoon set. He followed that with a lengthy soundcheck, running through the new graphics and takes on his old and new songs with a full band.

For a brief moment, however, the venue is empty.

Crossing through the ballroom with his team, Mendes makes his way from a backstage hallway where he’s signed guitars for the Shawn Access fans and prepares himself for his next activity of the day: a ticket giveaway. He takes a pause before exiting the venue, and when he finally does make it through the doors on West 51st Street, the mild rumble of waiting girls turns into a city-filling roar as soon as they notice their idol who spends a few minutes hugging and greeting the luckiest of the young women with passes to the show. As he re-enters the building and the doors shut behind him, the roar continues to leak through the walls. He makes his way to the backstage hallway, but not without a quick selfie in front of the empty room for MTV – taken without missing a beat.

Attention to detail is Mendes’ specialty as an adolescent who grew up and became a superstar in the social media era. Through Vine, YouTube and Twitter, he built the type of massive, grassroots fandom over many months that can take most artists several years to obtain. It’s what made his rise to Number One, with his debut album Handwritten and single “Stitches,” so apparently seamless.

“I was always [online],” Mendes says while safely tucked backstage after the mayhem he caused outside. Muffled screams can still be heard from his dressing room. “I was one of those kids who was just always on the Internet, always on YouTube, so it was easy for me to do it. It’s not work. It’s just fun.”

An easy knowledge of the web made it less difficult for Mendes to realize what works: content. “I was consistent with these six-second videos of me singing on YouTube, on Twitter, on Instagram,” he explains. “[I was] posting pictures all the time. I kinda didn’t know what I was doing, but I was doing something.”

“I would wait for him to post six-second vines every day,” 15-year-old Ronja Brox says. The Norwegian teenager remembers seeing a Vine of Mendes covering an Ed Sheeran song with his black Fender guitar on her Twitter timeline in October 2013. She became interested, watched more of his videos and, by December of that year, she had ditched her Justin Bieber fan account to dedicate one to Mendes. In March 2014, she launched @ShawnMendesNews, a Twitter with over 50,000 followers that she spends “24/7” updating with videos, voting links, photos, articles and general news on her idol. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before him. He’s quite special.”

Posting dedication also caught the attention of Andrew Gertler, who stumbled across a video of the then-15-year-old covering A Great Big World’s “Say Something” on YouTube after the former Warner Music Group employee saw the band perform their single on The Voice. Gertler, who dabbled in artist management for years until Mendes turned it into a full-time job for him, was “taken aback” and sent the clip to Ziggy Chareton, the singer’s A&R at Island Records who had interned at Atlantic with Gertler during college. The Mendes family was flown out to New York City where studio sessions revealed his level of raw, fledgling talent.

“He had written a bunch of songs on his own,” Gertler, who now runs AG Artists, says. “From the very beginning, he was set on the fact that he was going to write his own music and that he was a songwriter. When we heard some of these songs, everyone’s ears perked up. He was so naturally talented.”

As surprising as Mendes’ abilities may have been to his family and Island Records, his talent was still a fresh personal discovery, as well. In fact, he had only picked up the guitar six months before posting his first Vine. “I’m very, very amateur, which is funny because I’m not in the amateur leagues,” the singer says, punctuating it with a laugh.

Mendes grew up in Pickering, Ontario, a Toronto suburb with a population of about 100,000 people. When he’s not on the road, he still retreats to his childhood home, returning to his parents Karen and Manuel Mendes and younger sister Aaliyah. “It’s nice to come back there,” he says. “With the life I live and always moving, [Pickering] is a little suffocating at times, but it’s also the most comforting place in the world.”

Before taking up music, he played sports (hockey and soccer) and took acting lessons. “I loved entertainment and acting, performing,” he says of his earliest passion. “I just liked the stage and having the spotlight and stuff.”

He experienced high school for two years before jetting off to begin his career, and his memory of it wasn’t particularly outstanding. “I was an average student. I wasn’t any stand out. I remember when people started to know who I was and the label offers, people started to get a little weird and be weird around me. But now when I go back, people are fine.”

Gertler’s recollections of how Mendes described high school, however, were a bit bleaker. “He always tells me that early on when he was starting to sing and starting to post covers — and this was before anything happened and before anything went viral — he would go to school and people would make fun of him,” the manager explains. “But he had his core group of friends and his family who had his back.”

An obsession with watching YouTube covers led to the singer posting his own across social media, which he describes as “a habit and a fun thing to do after school in a boring town.” He became determined to pursue it, taking vocal lessons and idolizing Ed Sheeran, the template for Mendes’ songwriting and career.

“Ed Sheeran wrote his songs, so I wanted to write my own songs,” he explains. On the songwriter’s appeal, Mendes admired how he avoided being too “flashy” with his music. “He’s just like an average guy and a very approachable person. I’ve actually gotten the chance to meet him, and he’s just like a very sweet guy. He is just so normal, and that’s the best part about him.” 

Shawn Mendes; Feature; Rolling Stone

What drew Mendes to Sheeran is similar to why Mendes appeals to teens like Brox. “When we go see him at his shows, we’re not just seeing Shawn Mendes, superstar,” she says. “We’re seeing somebody that we can say that we know because he’s so open and honest with us all the time. He let us into his life and let us be a part of his journey. When we go see him, we see some of that.”

Since discovering him for herself, Brox has seen Mendes perform live five times and has met him in person 12. The first time she met him in 2015, she gave him a trophy that deemed him “Best Idol All Around the World.” Her favorite encounter, however, was a bit more personal. “Just being a fan is really hard sometimes because it’s really hard to reach him,” she says. “Him knowing me is very important to me, so I said, ‘Promise you won’t forget me when you take over the world,’ and we pinky-promised. That was very special to me.”

In person, Mendes is a charmer. He’s tall and classically handsome, with a square jaw and large brown eyes and, most strikingly, he’s earnestly polite. Mendes smiles at everyone, shaking hands and minding his manners. On stage, he brutes up a bit, cursing lightly and joking with fans – even calling them his “bros” during the intimate Shawn Access performance.

“I always thought he was a charming dude,” Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello says. She met Shawn during a 2014 tour during which both artists opened for Austin Mahone. The pair – rumored to be dating, although both have denied the claims – reconnected in 2015 when she saw him open for Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour and they released the duet, “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” that fall. Now, Cabello considers him to be one of her best friends.

“It’s so important in the music industry to have people that see and know the real side of you, and to have people where you know the real side of them because you get to this place where you only see the perfect side of everybody,” she explains. “I feel like it’s really cool that I have somebody where I can be like, ‘I feel really, really nervous about this performance,’ or, ‘I’m really stressing out about this thing that’s going on in my life right now.’ From the beginning, he has been one of the most supportive people that I know. He’s never too big or too focused on himself to give a compliment.”

Gertler says fans feel like they have this “one-to-one relationship” with Mendes. “It really does come down to him as a person,” he says of his client’s charm. “What’s amazing is that from the day that I met him as a 15-year-old to now, with the increasing success, is that what drives him as a person hasn’t changed for a second. He does a good job of surrounding himself with great people and also of keeping himself in the right mindset.”

Cabello sees her friend’s fanbase as a reflection of the artist. “Sometimes when a male artist sings with a girl, it can be a little bit scary [for the woman],” she admits, noting the controversy of her releasing a solo song while still in her girl group and negative reaction in the “Internet world,” as she describes it. “They were so, so sweet. To this day, they’ve been supportive. His fans are a reflection of him; he’s a really nice guy.”

Brox recalls a different reaction, however, citing an encounter with fans at an airport where Cabello admitted to fearing her Twitter mentions and being scared of getting booed when performing the song live. “I’ve never been that girl who freaks out over male celebrities dating female celebrities,” the 15-year-old says. “I think they help each other a lot, and I can see that. I want people to know how amazing [Camila] is.” 

Shawn Mendes; Camila Cabello; Feature; Rolling Stone

During his Radio City show, it’s clear that Mendes is deep in the second act of his career before even reaching the legal age of adulthood. The success of “Stitches,” which peaked at Number Four on the Billboard Hot 100 and is still a radio staple, moved Mendes from Vine and into the ears of people who may not have known about the teen’s rabid, Internet-based fandom. Creating a career as wide-reaching as his personality has been a goal for Mendes and his team, and reaching beyond quick Bieber comparisons that exist solely because of his Canadian teen pop status is something he’s looking to move past — and a comparison both he and the “Sorry” singer have reacted negatively to in the past. With his full band and riff-heavy vocal work, Mendes seems to be moving more into a blues-pop mold, following in the footsteps of another pop star: John Mayer.

“I think the biggest challenge has been showing the world that he’s more than a teenage artist,” Gertler says. “People are expecting a teen artist to make a certain kind of music, and Shawn wants to make great songwriter music. Even in people’s minds and perceptions, they’re like, ‘He’s a teenager so he can’t do that.'”

At Radio City, he premiered three new songs for his fans, including the passionate, R&B-tinged “Ruin” – which is already Brox’s favorite song. He spent most of March in upstate New York secluded with his team to finish his sophomore album, working with Jake Gosling, who produced the majority of Ed Sheeran’s two LPs. Mendes also reveals that he may potentially work with John Mayer, who reached out to him and gave him a guitar. “We have been talking a bit, so if I get to L.A. to write with him, that’ll be really cool.”

Much of what comes next for Mendes is about proving himself to be as great as a Sheeran or a Mayer, which he seems acutely aware of. “Even to this point, I don’t feel like I’m caught up talent-wise to my career,” he says. “There is such a hype and a big build up to me, and it’s very hard to meet those expectations. That’s been a big stress in my life. I never felt like I was good enough and, only nowadays, am I starting to feel like I deserve [all this]. I felt like there were so many talented people who should be getting what I have.”

To combat his insecurities, Mendes has been training harder. Cabello has witnessed Mendes sequestering himself to work on his instrument skills and voice, while Gertler feels like a guitar is always in the singer-songwriter’s hands.

The singer unpacks his process of dealing with being thrust into fame by admitting he has to learn “six-times faster than average.” His debut album, Handwritten, has been out for barely a year, and he already cringes at many of those songs. “To me, ‘Something Big’ is the craziest, weirdest song ever,” he says, laughing. “I’m just growing so quickly, so my songs are quickly changing on me. But it’s fine. I love them for what they are, and what they were, to me.”

With his confidence growing each day, Mendes has set his sights on his next big goal. “I have to make myself [my own] ‘Thinking Out Loud,’ and then I’ll do that,” he says with a nod to his hero. As for his next album, he believes it may already have been written. 

Krista Schlueter for Rolling Stone

Mendes’ dedication to his craft is what keeps his team so protective of him, and it’s also apparent to his fans, who he interacts with every day through Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. “He’s so full of wisdom and love and talent,” Brox says. “He’s such a hardworker and commits to everything he does with maximum passion. He’s a true musician. I’ve been doing music all my life, and he’s the one who has encouraged me to put myself out there. That really means a lot because I’ve been afraid. With how far he’s come and how much he’s succeeded in such a short time, it gives me hope.”

As a testament to the loyalty to his fans, his headlining world tour – where he’ll perform in arenas and stadiums this year – sold out in six minutes. Mendes heads to Europe in April, and he’ll return to North America in July, turning 18 years old two weeks before it wraps. Even at the top of his world, the self-aware artist is fearful of losing it all.

“Right now, I can’t be like, ‘Oh my God, I just sold out Radio City. I’m the shit. I’m so cool.’ What if next week no one knows who I am?” he says, though it would be extreme for Mendes to suddenly lose the six million Twitter followers he’s gained over the last two-and-a-half years. When he had the chance to hang out with Mayer, though, the older artist offered some important advice to his fan and potential collaborator about the importance of taking time.

“He said, ‘It’s OK to take time off. It’s OK to go through stages of highs and lows – that just teaches you and makes you grow as a person.’ That’s kind of helped me.”

Still, the same voice that tells Mendes to push harder also grounds him in realizing how fleeting fame can be. “My biggest fear is that one day, not as many people show up or, one day, not as many people favorite a tweet. Which is funny to say, but it’s true.”


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