Ashley Benson doesn’t try to hide anything. The 24-year-old actress grew up knowing she couldn’t get away with it anyway. Benson’s grandfather, who was a sheriff in her hometown of Anaheim, Calif., once locked her father in jail for stealing a stick of gum. “My dad tells me that story all the time,” says Benson. “Anytime I get pulled over, I feel like I’m going to jail.” In fact, Ashley grew up so straitlaced, the worst trouble she got into as a teenager was getting caught lying to her mom about her whereabouts on a Friday night. Little did she know that growing up under a microscope would prepare her for the biggest challenge of her life: starring as one of the eponymous fetching fabulists on ABC Family’s teen phenomenon and social media juggernaut Pretty Little Liars.
PLL follows a group of girlfriends under attack from a mysterious cyberbully named “A,” who threatens to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. The cast has become this generation’s Spice Girls. There’s the brainy one, Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), the sporty one, Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), the artsy one, Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), and last but not least, Benson’s Hanna Marin, the unrepentant shopaholic of the group, who also provides much of the show’s comic relief.
But the show and its fans ain’t no joke. Since debuting in 2010, PLL has become the most tweeted about series in history. Its season-four finale last March brought in a record-setting 1.9 million tweets. “Ashley and the rest of the cast recently went to New York for a press tour,” says I. Marlene King, creator of PLL. “When we got off at the airport, there were paparazzi and fans waiting in the baggage claim. It was like watching the Beatles arrive.”
The attention isn’t entirely new to Benson, who spent her teenage years on the set of Days of Our Lives. But Benson is not a captive of her show’s popularity. She broke from the Disney mold last year, starring alongside Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, and James Franco as hardcore party girl Britt in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. “Ashley made that choice to do something very edgy to really explore that side of herself and kills the screen with her presence,” says King. “Ashley will become a big movie star.”
Despite the fact that she’s got fans with Instagram handles like “My_World_Is_Ash_Benzo,” and fans who leave comments like, “You’re my life!” on a photo of her home office, Benson swears by her normalcy. Then again, “normal” is a relative concept. For Ashley Benson, that means a life of dodging crazed fans, Internet rumors, and possible escaped convicts.