One month after wrapping up the iconic Canadian television extravaganza — the role she had starred in since the age of 16 — Ottawa-native Melinda Shankar, 23, chatted with us about her current projects and plans.
We caught up at the Thompson Toronto Hotel, and discussed her current venture as a professional image consultant, her hopes to impart the tricks of the trade from eight years on film and TV sets, and her award-winning work as lead in YTV’s How to Be Indie.
LIANA SHLIEN: This summer saw the series finale of Degrassi after 14 seasons, or 36 years. Can you put into words what it was like to be part of such a groundbreaking Canadian television show?
MELINDA SHANKAR: When I started the experience, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It could have been one episode, Alli could have been there for a season. And then, all of a sudden, eight years later, she’s still part of this Degrassi world.
Thinking of it on a greater scale, [Degrassi] almost seems like an institution in the entertainment industry. The show goes through so many lessons and difficult issues in a realistic way, and I am so proud to have been a part of it. From my eight years, I feel like I’m prepared for anything.
So what is your new focus now?
My new focus for my acting career would definitely be an action role, sci-fi, anything of that nature. For the majority of my career, I’ve played the girlfriend or high school girl. For variety’s sake, it’s really important to show your range and how versatile you are. I’ve gone back to training with different coaches and back to school to freshen up the tools.
As far as my daily life, it’s a new experience to be in control of my own schedule. When I started working at 16, having just moved out of home from Ottawa in the middle of Grade 10, there wasn’t much to prepare me. Developing Melinda versus developing a character is very important for the big picture.
I’m also able to develop Miss Conception, which is my image consulting agency that I balance with acting. Using my social platform to give back and promote confidence, self-esteem and personal development is also part of my acting journey.
How was Miss Conception created?
I have always been obsessed with make-up, styling, hair and essentially being a “girly-girl”. I have been doing competitive dance since I was three years old, so I’ve always been around costumes and make-up. With acting, you choose everything from the hairstyle down to the nail colour based on the character, so I’m used to considering factors of personality, age, style, mood or tone. Within that, I realized it’s hard to dress for one specific standard or social norm that society’s setting; everyone’s different.
It’s hard to know what works with your body type or skin tone. You have to know what works for you as an individual. I want to stress the importance of individuality and self-development to youth in today’s society as they transition to their adult phases and career paths. I wrote a workshop on what I wish I knew while on set. I have taught confidence workshops for the Ottawa International Film Festival and pageants in Toronto, including one while being a judge on Miss Teenage Canada. Growing up in front of the camera, I know how important it is to be confident regardless of what you look like.
You are always in the public eye. What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
That I am just a “girly-girl”. I have a stronger side that I don’t think was ever focused on, just because everyone met me at 16 when I was playing a character.
Most don’t know that I started martial arts at age three. I was teaching 30-year-old men at 13. I am only legally allowed to fight boys if I were to compete … girls cry! (giggles)
This past year has been about separating my character, that everyone knows, from Melinda — who everyone thinks they know.
Do you have a guiding piece of advice that helps you style yourself and others?
Focus on what makes you unique instead of what makes you like everyone else. For example, when going to an audition, how do you stand out in a world where everyone is trying to be the same? Once you understand what your strengths are, develop those versus the latest trends.
In an industry where not much is in your control, the least you can control is what you want in yourself. Know your personal worth. In the end, what you think of yourself is what matters the most.
How has your style evolved and how has it been influenced from being on TV and film?
I have always dressed older for my age just because I was taking items from my sister’s closet. (laughs) I’ve always had “an old soul” in terms of my fashion. I naturally gravitated towards blazers and heels.
Over the years, it’s developed while I was not allowed to express my creativity within my wardrobe, being confined to a character. When I graduated from Degrassi, I wore all black every single day just to be a neutral slate and differentiate from my character who wore bright, bold colours and prints.
From here on, I feel greater freedom to create other styles I want to do. With social media and everyone thinking that wearing less is more, I find that covering up more and having a mystery is a new step. I’m going back to basics to express my actions and goals.
How would you describe your style?
My style has ranged. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve pre-planned different phases for each age. This summer, for example, was Sporty Spice just because I wanted to show my martial arts’ side.
For fall, my personal trends are greys, beiges, deep reds, burnt orange. With Miss Conception, I don’t necessarily have a look-good, feel-good mentality, but I dress myself according to my mood. I couldn’t imagine following trends just because they were in.
Who are some of your favourite designers?
Being so small, it has been very difficult to find anything that fits. Half the time, I am in work-out clothes. I’ll wear anything from H&M to Greta Constantine, my favourite Canadian designer duo.
Where do you tend to shop the most?
In New York, at the boutiques in Soho; there is such a wide variety there. New Yorkers are not afraid to be edgy. I’m always going there back and forth.
What are your “cannot live without” products?
Mascara in moderation is a big necessity to open up my eyes. When I was younger, I thought more was better and I’d go to sleep with lipstick.
What about an accessory you can’t leave the house without?
I go for dainty accessories. I have an obsession with crystals. In Paris, just after finishing Degrassi, I treated myself to a black Swarovski watch as a “good job” present to myself. A statement watch is a personal power piece.
Film and charity work often go hand-in-hand. What are some of the important causes you have been involved in?
With Degrassi, we worked with Free the Children. Since 2008, we have gone to Ecuador, Haiti and Ghana. While helping to build a school in Haiti, I saw how we influenced the kids that we met on a human level. It was the biggest blessing to see that side of the real world, stay grounded, and realize what makes you successful is how your treat people, your approach and your energy level.
I hosted the first American We Day in Seattle, there were like 20,000 kids and now they have Michelle Obama taking over. My Degrassi cast is so close-knit and we see each other every day even though we’re off-set.
Do you plan on staying in Toronto?
After this eight-year journey in Toronto, I am never fully done, but I would love to try out other cities and bring Miss Conception to New York. Degrassi’s biggest fan base is in New York. I almost got charged with inciting a riot in Times Square because one of my cast members tweeted we were at the red steps and all these kids flooded the street! We ran into Planet Hollywood, but they kept chasing us and trashing the store … that was a big learning curve for me!
FAJO would like to thank Thompson Toronto for providing the location for this photoshoot. The Thompson Toronto, the chain’s first international addition, opened in summer 2010 in the diverse and artistically propelled King West Village. The definition of modern luxury with an edgy sophistication and cultural savvy, the property was designed by Studio Gaia. The hotel features 102 ultra-sleek guest rooms with dark hardwood flooring, contrasting accents in lush orange and cool white, and trademark floor-to-ceiling windows. Amongst its neighbourhood’s hotspots, Thompson is home to renowned places, such as the Thompson Diner and the Thompson Rooftop Lounge – the premier rooftop lounge in the city, with breathtaking 360-degree city and lake-views. It also houses Colette Grand Café – a Parisian-style dining experience, with dining room and bakery menu options. The hotel has been consistently a TIFF hotspot, attracting A-listers such as Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Bill Murray.