Debby Ryan starred on the spin-off TV series of Disney's The Suite Life of Zach and Cody and even though I'm a decade older than their target viewership, I more than enjoyed the concept: Two witty youngsters living in a four star hotel (they were basically the modern, male equivalent of Eloise). When that show turned into a pleasure cruise (literally, the spinoff took place at sea), Ryan joined the cast to play the adventurous Bailey Pickett on The Suite Life On Deck, which surpassed the ratings of other popular shows like Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place. Since the successful show wrapped in 2011, she's been the star of the TV series Jessie, writing songs for Jonas Brother approved artists, and recording her own music. Ryan will be the first to say—and we'll back her on this—she's all grown up and like many other Disney stars turned stars, on to bigger things. Even if you're not already a huge Bailey Pickett or Jessie fan, you'll be inspired by Ryan who has the right attitude towards pretty much everything.
We've noticed that your style has gotten edgier. Tell us about your look.
I like to tell a story through both fashion and music. I like to pretend that I can pick my clothes out the night before, but I always end up picking them out based on who I want to be that day. Sometimes I dress like I'm in an action film. My friends make fun of me because I end up looking like Lara Croft when I'm wearing vintage combat boots and a beanie. The first step to becoming who you want to be is presenting yourself that way. I never want to be in the same outfit that I've worn before. People I work with always say, "I never see you wear the same thing twice. Everyday you're a different person." I'm big on staple pieces mixed with punchy pieces that you can dress up several different ways. There will be days that I'll wake up and put on a beautiful right-off-the runway skirt with a shirt that I got from a vintage store and studded myself. I like DIY and customizing my stuff because I never want to wear the same thing as someone else.
What's your songwriting process?
I'm great at writing emotional lyrics, but ballads are hard for me. As an actress I'm used to tapping into very raw and vulnerable emotions that aren't my own. That's a very safe way of feeling. Being heartbroken as someone else is a safer, which is why acting can be both cowardly and brave at the same time. Being candid with your own heart can be harder and I don't like looking vulnerable. It's easier for me to write those lyrics for other people. If i were to write it for another artist it would be easy. The song I'm most proud of was written for an artist named Olivia (she's signed to Jonas Management). It was humbling for me to be recognized for my lyrics. At the end of the day you can write an amazing song, but if the artist has no connection to it and it's not coming from a place where she's been—no one else is going to believe it if she doesn't believe it.
How do you find that connection to the artist?
It's about listening. The way they sit…do they put their feet up on the chair or are they closed off? I'll notice if a person's been burned before or if they're putting on a brave face. I pay attention to the way that they respond to things. There's a lot you can learn from people based on how they introduce themselves and how they walk into a room. It's all about questions. Whenever something happens I'll ask them, "how do you feel about this?"
What about writing lyrics for yourself?
The first song that I wrote was "Open Eyes" from the movie 16 Wishes. I saw a rough cut of it and realized that there was music during the really emotional climax of the story where everything is going wrong and getting worse--when you play a character you develop a friendship with them—so i wrote a song about it. My best friend's mom was battling breast cancer and I realized that the song I was writing about carrying on was for them. The lyrics said that everything would be OK for them and that they'd overcome it. That was three years ago and I still get people coming up to me and saying that song changed my life. It shouldn't just be, "hey, I'm a pop star listen to me sing!" I always knew that. When my character sang on The Suite Life, that was me singing as a character. I always knew that I didn't want to put on a sparkly tutu and capitalize on that. You're then lying to people by letting them think that's really who you are. That's not respectable. I would rather never sing another note than have that be my music career.
You've mentioned more than once that you change things up ever day, but it seems like you really know who you are. How do you explain that?
That's interesting! I knew at a young age—at my core—what I stand for. I was always very aware of watching people make decisions that they thought were good. Then I watched everything fall apart because they rushed into something that didn't work out without a plan. Life is so intricate that you will never know everything and you will never be prepared for everything. So you need to know exactly who you are and can take that with you into every situation. You can listen to a bran new song everyday or have a bran new meal everyday—I believe in that. But the only way you can continue to evolve and not lose yourself is by knowing exactly who you are. Everything else just allows you to shape yourself.
What else do you want people to know about you?
I use the word grow extensively. I really like rock n'roll and sparkly things. I have not worn pink nail polish in five years. I can do the splits. I speak German. I'm all about growing and learning as much as possible and I'm excited to share that with the world as continue to figure that out. This is just the beginning on all fronts. I don't do anything to be shocking, but it's one of my favorite by-products of who I am.