To 31-year-old Karrueche Tran’s estimation, it took “five-plus years” to break away from Hollywood’s perception of her as just another pretty face. Back then, it wasn’t her undeniable talent and meme-able one-liners that fascinated the industry, but the numerous gossip headlines that constantly associated her with now-ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. She, like too many other actresses, had been defined through an unforgiving male gaze and effectively cast aside. It wasn’t until Claws, on which she plays stripper-turned-manicurist-turned-badass bitch Virginia Loc, that she was finally able to reclaim her agency as a character who is outspoken, unapologetic, fabulous and can shoot a Glock just as expertly as any man—and in 5-inch stilettos, no less.

It’s safe to say that Tran is having a long-deserved moment, which she doesn’t take for granted. “It feels good to hold this power because there were many times when I wanted to give up,” she tells Playboy. “It took a long time for me [to get to this place where I could] go into a room with producers and directors and the head of this company and that company, who look me in the face and take me seriously.”

Now that she has everyone’s attention, Tran is eager to use her platform to advocate for women’s issues including reproductive rights, which are once again in peril in the U.S. Last season, TNT’s subversive crime dramedy featured an episode where Virginia and her boyfriend, Dean (Harold Perrineau), proudly crossed together through a crowd of angry protesters at Planned Parenthood so that she could get an abortion. “Women should be able to do what we want with our bodies,” the actress says. “This was just another day in Virginia’s world where it’s like, OK, this is what’s happening. I’m going to take care of it, and that’s that. She had her man by her side as well. What’s crazy is that episode came out last year, and it could have literally aired right this second because it’s so relevant.”

Being able to make an impact through her work is important for Tran, who as Virginia is also helping humanize stories about sex workers. Though stripping is in Virginia’s past, it informs her character without stereotyping her. “It shows how she fights to survive,” Tran explains. “She wasn’t a sex worker because she wanted to be. It was what she had to do to take care of herself. It’s also beautiful that Dean accepted her for who she is—all her pain and everything she’s gone through. A lot of people might feel embarrassed about the fact that she came from a strip club, but stripping should be normalized. This is real life, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”

What’s special about Claws, where Virginia’s nail squad—played by Niecy Nash, Carrie Preston, Judy Reyes and Jenn Lyon—are often seen giving or receiving oral sex and getting banged on a countertop, is that it shows women from various backgrounds, ages, body types, queer identities and races as sexual beings. “Usually, it’s the men who are allowed to desire sex and be sexual,” Tran says. “But we’re showing women in power and having sex when we want it and not being ashamed, because we don’t live in a man’s world. Like the male characters on other TV shows, we’re committing crimes and killing people and having sex—and we’re still layered and complicated and beautiful.”

Because so much of the show is about being a female boss and these characters demanding every dollar they’re due—even when it means getting involved in shady business with even shadier dealers—it’s empowered Tran to be more uncompromising about her own worth in Hollywood, especially as gender and racial pay gaps remain significant. “I’ve become sterner about saying no and trusting my heart,” she says. “Being on a show like Claws makes me feel like if these characters can do it, then I can, too. I wasn’t like that before. I was very shy and afraid to use my voice because of what others would think or say.”

Usually, it’s the men who are allowed to desire sex and be sexual. But we’re showing women in power and having sex when we want it and not being ashamed.

Now that she is no longer defined by other people’s perceptions of her, Tran can focus on her own happiness, bettering herself and, most of all, having fun. She enjoys working out and getting facials, but she also loves a lavish getaway. In fact, right before this interview, she had just returned from a European vacation where she indulged in the finest cuisines. “I was in Florence and Milan and Paris, and I think I ate pasta and cheese every single day,” she laughs.

As 127K Instagram followers can attest, Tran is not afraid to show off a wilder side on @TheQueenVirginia page, where she can live vicariously through her playful onscreen persona—flashing hundred-dollar bills, jeweled thongs and more. “I don’t know what made me start the page,” she says. “I think I just wanted to have fun with this character and engage people. I love having that alter ego.”

But the character and the actress aren’t completely different. Like Virginia, Tran has had to claw her way out of the margins to gain the level of respect that she has now. And their independence, complexities and inner beauty have been even more apparent as we’ve learned more about them. Since taking a bullet for Desna (Nash) in last season’s cliffhanger finale, season three finds a recovering Virginia with a bedazzled eye patch and a mystifying clairvoyance. “It’s really Virginia waking up, realizing who she is and what she loves,” Tran explains. “She’s [leaning] more into her power.”

The same is true for Tran, who—even though she’s on a hit TV show and holding her own alongside some of the best character actresses on TV—still takes acting classes to hone her talent. “I haven’t this year yet because I’ve been all over the place,” she admits. “But I do work with my acting coach when I need to do self-tape auditions. It’s like practice for an athlete. LeBron James doesn’t stop working out because he’s who he is. It’s important to me to stay on top of my craft so that I could be a big, big star.”