It has been over a year since we first sat down to chat—virtually, obvs—with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, just after the release of Netflix’s chart-topping original series (and Maitreyi’s first foray on the small screen), Never Have I Ever. This time when we both logged onto Zoom, we sat in exactly the same spots as before— she at her parents’ house in Canada, me at my dining table at home. It’s almost like nothing has changed, but, of course, it has, because along the way, Maitreyi has become another level of famous.
Since we last spoke, over 40 million households tuned in to watch season one of Never Have I Ever; Maitreyi was anointed one of Time’s 100 People of the Year; and no less an eminence than Michelle Obama recruited the Tamil-Canadian actor to join her for an inspiring online event centred on how to empower adolescent girls through education.
“It was so cool!” recounts Maitreyi. “Michelle Obama’s team reached out to mine, they wanted me to do a segment for Popsugar’s Girl Talk about ways to own your uniqueness. I thought the topic was amazing, especially in a world of social media, where we are constantly being shown photos of other people to compare ourselves to. It is super-important to love who you are and own yourself. I’d really hate for my younger female followers to feel like they need to look like someone else, and that is why I preach self-love” Maitreyi adds.
It is easy to forget that Maitreyi is just 20-years-old. Her confidence is palpable, her conversation both bantering and thought-provoking. In the past, we have watched her find her voice and use it, unapologetically, to speak about the matters she feels are important. “My parents brought me up to always stand up for what I believe in, be aware, and do your research. Be a voice and speak out about injustices,” she says.
Maitreyi’s activism doesn’t begin and end with Michelle Obama, though. When she was still in school, the actor led a student walk out with over 400 kids to protest the cuts to the arts in public education. “I posted about the protest on Instagram and I remember my friends were like, ‘Are you going to take that down because it’s a little scandalous?’. But I purposely kept it up because this is just who I am. If I see something wrong, I’m going to call it out.”
And as India battled with the COVID-19 crisis, Maitreyi used her platform to raise over `89 lakh to help the communities who had been struck down by the disease. “When I created the Never Have I Ever fundraiser for India, I didn’t get nearly as much traction on donation posts as I did on the posts of me posing in a full face of make-up and a nice top. In fact, I usually lose followers when I post about charity work,” she shrugs.
“I am like, dude, you have just got to laugh when there is a world crisis going on and people are actually unfollowing you for posting about it. But I don’t really care too much about social media. I realised early on that it isn’t going to make me happy, so I don’t engage too much with how many Likes or Followers I have. I am just grateful that there is a community that wants to see me as me. I am also very grateful for the small group of real friends that I have who still, for some reason, hang out with me,” she shares.
Canada, where Maitreyi resides, was under full lockdown, with no red carpets, fan meet-and-greets, or wrap parties. So, if not social media followers, what was the young actor’s barometer of success during peak COVID-19? “I was thinking about this. I don’t know how successful I have gotten. My day-to-day life is pretty similar. Online is a different world. It is a complete 180; I have all these followers, all these views—and people want to put me on magazine covers!” she laughs. “But it also didn’t feel real, because I could not actually see my face on bookstalls or in stores, because of lockdown, which is pretty conducive to impostor syndrome. Even the show was COVID-19 famous!”
We get it. While still living in the safety of social distancing, plus the added anonymity of a mask when venturing into the outside world, Maitreyi is yet to manage all of the intricacies of fame. But again: 40 million households. And the impact of that number isn’t lost on the 19-year-old actor, even if it was all a bit hard to comprehend while in lockdown.
Her career trajectory is, thus far, meteoric on every level: the smart choices, the clout, the near-universal lovability. But a great aid to her acting ascension has been Mindy Kaling, who is also a first-generation Indian-American, and picked Maitreyi’s audition out of the 15,000 others who tried out for Never Have I Ever’s leading lady, Devi. “Mindy is amazing. I don’t know how she manages to do so many things at once. I think she’s got clones or something,” jokes Maitreyi who has already absorbed some of Mindy’s cadences.
It’s little wonder why the duo has hit it off so well. They are both startlingly quick-witted and whip smart, but they’re also both on an undisputed mission to increase diversity and put South Asian actors on the big screen. From The Mindy Project to Champions, Mindy’s work has powerfully referenced the underserved Indian-American experience, which is what she has brought to the younger generation through the show.
It was the lockdown gift we never knew we needed, and might even have snubbed if we’d had been offered it in advance: a coming of age dramady about a first-generation Indian-American teen growing up in Southern California, navigating her high school years in, which are full of pitch-perfect teen angst. But it was Maitreyi’s Devi Vishwakumar—partly based on Mindy—who made a perfect foil to the show’s more serious themes of diversity, inclusivity, religion, friendship, grief, and mental health. She is so wonderfully different to all the other slightly geeky, stereotypical characters we see in high school comedies.
Never Have I Ever season two, which Maitreyi says is even more progressive than the first. “There’s a really interesting focus on Devi’s friendship with Fabiola and Eleanor. In high school series generally, female friendships are played out on screen as quite catty and drama-fuelled. We don’t often tell the stories of women supporting women. Devi is also definitely a little less uncomfortable with her culture in this season. It’s so relatable for those who don’t see themselves on screen. We are starting to normalise being an Indian family. There are no character plots or storylines written because someone is Indian, we’re literally just Indian. It’s cool.”
Maitreyi’s outwardly caricature-like rhetoric, where I am referred to as ‘dude’ approximately a gazillion times throughout our conversation, is endearing and excitable. Online and in real life, she gives the simultaneous impression of being someone who is enjoying the fruits of staggering success but is somehow also your totally relatable best friend. This creates another pleasing bit of symmetry with Never Have I Ever. “The biggest element of Devi’s personality that I brought to her character is the sarcasm. She’s very sassy and always has a quick witted response to everything, which is just like me. And all her on-screen mannerisms are me. Nobody’s telling me to do that.”
Naturally, for a teenager who’s suddenly found the world at her fingertips, Maitreyi is fully embracing this new, exhilarating stage of her life. She is set to star in a contemporary Pride and Prejudice adaptation, The Netherfield Girls, and has big plans to one day own her own production company. But at the moment, she’s exactly where she wants to be, “I definitely want to work on a thriller one day. That would probably be my 10-year goal. I’d also love to try my hand at cartoon and animation, and get involved in the writers’ room. For now, though, I just want to continue being part of big projects, because I wake up every day thinking ‘I have a pretty cool job’.”
[ Hair and Make-Up: Nate (@beautybynate); Photographs: Alexandra Votsis; Styling: Joyce Gereige; Production: Johana Dana ]