Pretty Little Liar

A born entertainer, Kaneohe native Janel Parrish got her first break as Little Cosette in Les Miserables and now has a Best TV Villain award for her role on Pretty Little Liars

Janel Parrish – and her family – knew from an early age she wanted to be in show business. Her quest is paying off with a starring role in a hit TV series


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Photographed in the Honolulu Design Center

When ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars revealed the show’s masked villain, solving a two-seasons-long mystery, it didn’t just surprise fans, it set a social media record. The episode received 645,000 tweets, and is considered to be one of social media’s most active hours for a television show last season, according to social TV analytics company Bluefin Labs. At the center of much of the buzz was Hawaii-born actress Janel Parrish, who – spoiler alert – portrays the bad girl, Mona Vanderwaal.

Her character’s foray into villainy may have come as a shock to viewers who had not followed the book series on which the show is based, but Parrish played the switch perfectly, transforming Mona from a snarky popular girl with a bit of a mean streak to a crazed mastermind with a vengeance.

In real life, the 24-year-old actress is smaller, or perhaps just less menacing, than on television – not more than 5-foot-2 and slender. Sitting in Stage Restaurant at Honolulu Design Center recently for an early lunch, Parrish, who’s half Chinese and half Caucasian, might easily pass for any other local girl. And in many ways, she is. Originally from Kaneohe, Parrish (whose middle name is Meilani) lived in the Islands until she was 14, when she and her parents decided to move to Los Angeles so she could pursue her career.

After working her way through Hollywood with a string of television guest parts and supporting roles in several films, Parrish, it seems, now stands on the verge of big-time success.

She was named a series regular on Pretty Little Liars at the beginning of its third season, which returns from its midseason break Tuesday (Jan. 8), upgraded from her previous status as a recurring guest star. And since she was revealed as the show’s psychotic villain at the end of season two, Parrish has had a chance to really show off her acting chops in the versatile role. For her performance, Parrish won the title of Choice TV Villain – her first award – at the Teen Choice Awards in July.

Upon her return to L.A., Parrish was set to begin shooting a new film, The Concerto, in which she will star as an aspiring singer-songwriter. It’s her first big lead in a movie. The Concerto is a girl-meets-boy romance with a twist – namely that the boy (Jackson Rathbone of Twilight) is actually the ghost of a musician who died years ago, and she’s the only one who can see him.

Parrish was back in town to film an episode of Hawaii Five-0 as a guest star just one week after Pretty Little Liars wrapped production of its third season. She’ll play a chemistry student who may or may not be guilty of a murder in an episode that airs Jan. 14 on CBS. She’s a fan of Five-0: “A lot of the reason why is the scenery. When we’re back in L.A., we miss Hawaii, so we like to watch it.”

But the trip wasn’t all work. It also was a return to the place that she still calls home, even after spending the last 10 years – the majority of her adolescence and all of her young adulthood – in L.A. Her parents, Mark and Joanne, and her older sister, Melissa, joined her, marking the first time in the last decade that the whole family was together in the Islands.

“We stayed with my grandparents, and we went all over the place,” Parrish says. “We went hiking. I ate all my favorite local foods. We went to the beach and took a drive around the island.”

By the time she’s enjoying a blackened ahi salad at Stage (“Fresh Hawaiian fish is so good.”), she’d been here about a week. Today, she’s wearing her long, ombre hair – which gradually fades top-to-bottom from black to blond – in tiny, neat curls with the sides pinned back while the rest hangs midway down her back. She’s donned a casual green dress that highlights her striking light-brown eyes. She’s perfectly put together, but in a breezy, effortless way.

At this point, the family vacation portion is coming to an end. Earlier that morning, Parrish had rehearsal for Five-0, and most of the rest of her time here would be spent on set.

“I love being busy,” she says. “All I want to do is work, so it’s great.”

While Parrish now is on the edge of success, it all began on the edge of a staircase in her childhood home in Kaneohe. Mark recalls that he and Joanne first realized their daughter had a penchant for performing when 4-year-old Parrish would serenade the family, pretending the staircase was a stage, decked out in dress-up clothes and a red toy microphone in hand.

“We knew she was a little ham, in other words,” says Mark, who sits across from his daughter at lunch. (Joanne joins the group later.) “The interesting thing was that they were songs that she made up.”