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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”