Karrueche Tran has every right to be angry. About the gossip sites that parlay her dating life into clicks. About the bloggers who use every one of her ’Grams as an excuse to volley her from victim to villain and back again. About the “fanemies” who make sure she knows it when they misconstrue her Tweets and comments. About everyone who wants to claim that her career, including a scene-stealing turn in the TNT dark comedy Claws, are just byproducts of her relationship status.
It’s enough doublespeak to make even Buddhist monks lose their zen. But, at least on the day we met at a photo shoot, Tran is the antithesis of angry. Tiny and peppy, she is Tinker Bell in human form, fluttering about the stark white loft space that, coincidentally, is located a few blocks away from where she was raised in the mid-city of Los Angeles.
She’ll tell me later that this special brand of positivity came from a good deal of soul searching and “conversations with God” about “why have I been presented this platform? Why I am in the light?” before deciding to “use it as an opportunity to utilize my voice in the most genuine way possible.”
Tran is casually performing arabesques against a makeup chair and going over notes for the shoot when I arrive. She stops briefly to exchange greetings before she’s off to sprinkle her magical fairy dusts of energy onto someone else.
It is infectious. By the time she settles in at the styling station, she’s gossiping with her primpers while downing takeout sushi from Sugarfish, the rapidly growing chain that is now both ubiquitous with decent mid-priced Japanese food and a must-have stop for this local girl whenever she’s back in town.
Once Tran gets in front of the camera, she turns on the glam without taking herself too seriously. Sensual poses and hair tosses may end up in the final photographs, but what the stills can’t show are the goofy moments of self-mockery or the tiny booty dips and shimmies that happen in-between shots. After the shoot, she’ll bound back over with a huge smile, beaming, “Now you can really see me.” She’s right.
Back in her street clothes, Tran wears an approachable ensemble of a heather gray sports bra and matching leggings. Her one piece of luxury is a necklace designed by her friend, George the Jeweler. The thin gold chain holds what looks like an homage to Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic Sex and the City accessory except that it spells out Virginia, the name of her alter ego on Claws. Wearing Virginia’s name around her neck is the least Tran can do. The character, a hard knock life stripper-turned-manicurist, gave her a breakout moment when Claws premiered last year. The model/actress is aware that this is in part because of how much the two seemingly have in common. Like Virginia, Tran is a domestic violence survivor (before the show, most people associated Tran with her ex singer Chris Brown, who she has since filed a restraining order against).
They are also both outsiders making their way into a new world. Whereas Virginia finds a crew and mentorship opportunities in the ladies of South Florida’s Nail Artisan of Manatee County, Tran found her own place in an industry that doesn’t always know what to do with a strikingly beautiful half-black, half-Vietnamese former soap star who knows how to sink a one-liner (Tran’s response to a pesky paparazzo who asked if her current boyfriend, football player Victor Cruz, would teach her his famous touchdown dance? A polite smirk and a simple “I want you to teach me how to salsa” before getting into her car).
But to hear Tran tell it, the most relatable thing about Virginia is simply that she “wants to be loved.”
“I think that what me and Virginia relate to is the fight to survive where you come to a point where it’s like, Oh, shit, what is happening? What am I going to do? You have to pull yourself together,” Tran says. “Virginia comes from a different world where she doesn’t have money and she’s got to do something strange for a little piece of change, you know what I’m saying? But she fought to survive.”
“Everything is all about body image; how you look and being pretty and your makeup. And it’s just too much. Girls need to know that perfection is not real.”
That’s a lot to show on screen. But according to Claws showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, Tran was the perfect person to breath life into the character.
“We literally looked at hundreds and hundreds of young woman for that part,” she recalls of the casting process. “Virginia was going to be the kind of Millennial, in-your-face beautiful woman in the salon that the other woman look back and see their youth and they see how they were in their 20s.”
Sherman Barrois says it wasn’t just that Tran was able to understand the comedic timing of the show, which can be both subtle and happen at a clip, but that her audition “broke our hearts because she brought a layer to it that wasn’t one note.”
“She turned it on its head and you got that feeling that these women are busting her out, but she still yearns for their validation,” Sherman Barrois continues. “She’s not just giving it in-your-face I’m young, I’m hot blah blah blah. She’s saying, I want what you guys have. She did it with looks and she did it with eyes.”
According to Sherman Barrois, each character was written “racially non-descript.” But the show’s multi-ethnic cast has allowed for more specific dialogue, like it or not. It may be uncomfortable for an audience member to hear Niecy Nash’s lead, Desna, call Virginia nicknames like “China Doll,” but Tran says it doesn’t bother her. “I think it goes along with the show’s comedic side,” she reasons.
After all, Tran’s experienced some of these issues herself. One of the many social media backlashes she’s received since being in the spotlight was for her use of the N word.
“Like, hello, my father’s black!,” says Tran, who identifies as both Black and Vietnamese. “Race sometimes is an interesting topic. I see it so many times where they’re like, you’re saying the N word…? It’s like I’m not Asian enough, I’m not black enough. Come on!”
“Race sometimes is an interesting topic… It’s like I’m not Asian enough, I’m not black enough. Come on!”
From the start, Tran’s life was set out to be more unique than others. Her very name is one that her Vietnamese mother and African-American father made up. Despite growing up surrounded by girls with more “traditional” forenames like Ashley, Jasmine, and Britney, Tran learned to not only embrace hers but love it because it made her a one of one. Even still, she’s able to find humor in her parents’ quirkiness in picking it out: “I don’t know what drugs they were on,” she jokes.
Tran was raised by her mother—who’s now married to her English stepdad and has since given her a brother 10 years her junior—and her Jamaican godmother. Despite not having him in the house, Tran maintained a close relationship with her father, who is now openly bisexual and currently in a relationship with a male partner.
“[My father’s sexuality] is something that I’ve known since I was younger,” she says reflectively, ruminating on how hard coming out must have been for him. “I don’t remember a particular conversation [where I realized it], but you know you’re young and you pick up on certain things. But I never judged; it was just always kind of what it was.”
This open mindedness is clearly something Tran’s carried through since childhood. Although she wishes she had learned to speak Vietnamese fluently, she says she never really saw race back then because she “was so used to having all these different cultures of race around me.”
Last year’s season finale of Claws ended with a major cliffhanger for Tran’s character. Virginia surprised herself and audiences by admitting that her hook up with Desna’s brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau) could be more than just a blip—and with an unplanned pregnancy. Because this is also a show that offers satirical side-eye on everything from the country’s opioid epidemic to rom-coms’ panderings to Anglophiles, this situation will come with its own bit of social commentary.
“Especially with abortion rights right now, I think it’s important that we’ve touched on that topic,” Tran says. “It’s great to let the younger generation, and women in general, know that it’s your choice and it’s okay.”
This is by no means the first time that Tran has used her platform to be the liberal best friend all feminists need in their lives. In addition to the expected modeling shots and candids from Coachella, her social media accounts are full of body positive affirmations and #MeToo rallying cries. Don’t like her for doing so? There’s something for you too. An Instagram post from December featuring Tran lounging on the beach chair and seemingly picking a wedgie out of her white bikini is captioned: “Where I put all negative and unwanted comments.”
“I really want to perfect my craft as an actress. Great actors make it seem so easy, but it’s a lot of work and I really just want to hone in on that first."
Tran says the criticism she’s felt from online trolls who have judged her body used to get to her; that they made her want “to be thicker and [have] bigger boobs and get a bigger booty.” Rather than let those insecurities control her perception of self, Tran learned to love herself—flaws and all.
“That’s just not realistic; that’s not what half the women on this planet have,” she says pragmatically. More importantly, she saw how these issues are affecting younger girls—some of whom might find encouragement in seeing a person like her on screen. With teens, Tran feels, “everything is all about body image; how you look and being pretty and your makeup. And it’s just too much. Girls need to know that perfection is not real.”
This is one of the reasons why Tran partnered with makeup retailer ColourPop, which worked with her on an affordable lip, eyeshadow and blush collection in 2016, and why she’ll be introducing a new line of vanity mirrors—all tools she can use to control her story and her look and show others how to do the same. She says she’d like to pursue similar forwarys into this industry if they’re not too time consuming because “I love being able to have acting as my longevity career and have these little projects in between.”
Claws is also a welcome break from the norm for Tran, who usually plays heartwarming ingénues or high school besties like in May’s The Honor List. Even though she turned 30 this year—which she celebrated in New York with a reggae-themed blowout—Tran says she’s happy to be cast as younger characters if it means it gives her more time to build up her IMDb resume.
“I don’t want to jump the gun too fast,” she says. “I really want to perfect my craft as an actress. Like, great actors make it seem so fucking easy. It’s a lot of work and I really just want to hone in on that first, make sure I have that down pat. And then, maybe in 10 years or so—or however many years—say, okay let’s get into producing and directing and writing scripts.”
This is also why Tran’s so far shied away from reality TV. She says now that she’d do it if it were “the right type of show—not like Love & Hip Hop or Basketball Wives or one of those kinds of shows” that usually involve lots of arguments and backstabbing. And if her rap battle with Taye Diggs that aired in May on TBS’ Drop the Mic is any indication, it seems like she’s too kind hearted for that world (Seriously. Watch the teaser. Tran can’t even say she has a “resting bitch face look” like she actually thinks it’s true).
Would Tran ever consider starting her own production company to find and promote more voices like hers? Right now, she says, “I’m just trying to stick to Virginia.”
And she is sticking by her; both literally and figuratively. For all the real Virginias and Virginia supporters in the world, Tran has one final message: “Accept yourself and that we all have something to offer. I might not have a crazy body, but I’m a nice person!”
Because nothing gets the haters down more than seeing you happy.
Hair by Ray Christopher, Makeup by Ari Garcia, Styling by Alexus Shefts