Shawn Mendes, returning to Tampa, talks anxiety, staying sane and those underwear ads

The pop heartthrob opens up to the Times before his concert Saturday at Amalie Arena.
Published July 23

Everyone’s after Shawn Mendes.

They’re tugging at the tails of his T-shirt, and pawing at any swatch of skin his clothing doesn’t cover. He’s got a couple of singles in contention for Song of the Summer, songs he’s playing each night for delirious fans on his hugest headlining tour yet. And the whole world has seen him in his undies.

Yet when asked for his biggest anxiety these days, the Canadian pop heartthrob had to think for a second.

“My little sister has a boyfriend,” Mendes said, calling during a break from tour rehearsals in Portland, Ore. “It’s so funny that that is the first thing that comes to my mind. But I have to be honest with you, and that’s the first thing that comes to my mind. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. And I’m not an overly protective brother. I just think that it’s crazy that all of a sudden, she’s old enough that she has a boyfriend. It’s crazy.”

They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Mendes himself is just 20, yet it feels like he has been around forever. His concert on Saturday at Tampa’s Amalie Arena will mark the third time he has played that building in about a year, a testament to his rapid, inevitable rise from viral teenage Vine star to one of People’s sexiest men alive. (And that was before he signed on as a spokesman for Calvin Klein underwear, setting Twitter ablaze with a set of steamy photos this spring.)

“The last five years, it’s been a big, big thing about building a career,” Mendes said. “But to be honest with you, for me, as a personal thing, I’ve been kind of just growing up and becoming a man, and that has been more on my mind than even my career. Every day, it’s figuring out how to just be a grown man. And so I think the career planning and career building has only really started, has only been coming to the forefront of my mind, in the last six months.”

One of those big coming-of-age moments came in February, when Mendes was nominated for his first Grammys, including Song of the Year for his single In My Blood. It was a departure from past teenager-in-love singles like Stitches, Treat You Better and There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back, in that it dealt in a head-on way with anxiety and depression, with “laying on the bathroom floor,” “overwhelmed and insecure,” “like the walls are caving in.”

In My Blood was a massive hit. But if it hadn’t been? If he had put that much of himself out there, and audiences didn’t respond? Is that something he might have regretted?

“With all of my heart, I’d like to say no,” he said. “But I have no idea, because that’s not the way it worked out. And I believe that if you love something, you don’t need 100,000 people to tell you it’s great. You just need a couple. And that’ll do it for you.”

To stay sane and stable, Mendes has tried to surround himself with people he entrusts and empowers in his career, “because you can’t be in control of everything all the time. You’re just going to go crazy.” He recently read The Alchemist, a 1988 novel by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho that he credits with helping him “stay consistent with my peace of mind right now. I’m in a pretty peaceful place. I feel that anxieties are just your mind trying to freak you out, and they’re not actually there for me right now.”

Take his Calvin Klein ads. Ever since they hit social media, Mendes can tell a difference in the way fans engage and look at him. Yet he’s not letting it get to his head.

“It’s exactly how you’d expect everyone to look at you when there’s a photo of you that’s gone crazy-viral on the internet with no shirt and just your underwear,” he said. “But at the same time, fitness and regimens and health and stuff is super, super important in my life. So I’m really proud of it. It was really fun to do, and it broke down a lot of barriers for me as a person.”

What comes next — beyond his 21st birthday on Aug. 8 — is still a bit of a secret. Mendes has a pair of hot singles in If I Can’t Have You and the Camila Cabello duet Señorita but is hesitant to say they represent the start of a new album era.

“To me, there’s no eras anymore,” he said. “The word ‘era,’ for music and for an artist, is kind of disappearing. It’s just all a constant flow, you know what I mean? It’s one big flow of consciousness. People can jump along for the ride or choose not to.”

For him, for now, it’s about keeping all the noise to a minimum. Trusting his instincts as a songwriter. Offering his sis a little dating advice, if she needs it. And trying to keep figuring out this whole manhood thing.

“I guess it’s as simple as following what your gut is telling you in the moment,” he said. “Which is pretty scary, but my gut has an okay track record, so I trust it by now.

“The truth is, man, you can plan and you can say that this is what people want for me, and this is what I sound the best doing. But if you don’t like it in your heart, then you might as well not release anything. Because you can have success with something you don’t like, and it doesn’t feel like you’ve gotten anywhere. But you can have five people tell you a song that you love with all of your heart is great, and it feels like you’ve obtained the entire world. For me, as long as I’m following what I genuinely like to do, I’m winning.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

Shawn Mendes

Alessia Cara opens. $25.75 and up. 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 301-2500. amaliearena.com.

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