Karrueche Tran never had dreams of becoming an actress. Growing up, she wanted to be a hairdresser. Then a manicurist. Then a restaurant owner. Acting kind of came out of nowhere when, in 2015, Tran ended a four-year high-profile relationship with R&B singer Chris Brown and was left with millions of Instagram followers and nothing to account for. She could do sponsorship deals for a living, but how long would that last? She could venture into reality television—but that didn’t seem like her path either. “I hit a point in my life where it was weird,” Tran tells StyleCaster. “I had a platform. But there really was no substance and quality.”
It wasn’t until her manager asked if she ever considered acting that Tran found her calling. After a one-line role in a horror movie and guest spots here and there, Tran worked her way up to TNT’s “Claws,” a crime drama about five Florida manicurists who become entangled in one of the state’s biggest and most violent drug rings. But Tran’s story’s not as simple as that. As she’s proven with her eight-year climb to “Claws,” which premiered its second season on June 10, she wasn’t an overnight success—nor is she going anywhere.
Tran, the eldest of two, grew up in a multicultural household. Her father is black; her mother is Vietnamese; her stepfather is British; and her godmother, who helped raise her, is Jamaican. Tran’s racial ambiguity—she’s been mistaken for Hawaiian, Thai, Dominican, Korean, and everything in between—often led to questions about her background, prompting confusion as to what race she actually identified with. “A lot of people don’t really know what race I am just by looking at me,” Tran says. “Growing up, it was difficult identifying with either or knowing which culture I felt like I belonged to. But I truly feel like I am both. That’s what I am. I’m half and half.”
I’m petite. But I always wanted to be curvy, thick, and have a big booty and boobs because that’s what’s beautiful to a lot of men.
Raised in Los Angeles, Tran’s life was ordinary until it wasn’t. In 2010, Tran, a personal assistant and a freelance stylist at the time, met Brown on a styling job. Shortly after, they began dating and Tran’s life as she knew it was overturned. She made international headlines as Brown’s first major girlfriend since his dramatic breakup with Rihanna in 2009. For four years, Tran withstood an onslaught of bullying from both Brown’s and Rihanna’s fans, the paparazzi stalking her every move, and the tabloids digging into her personal life. The couple dated on and off until 2015 when Tran ended the relationship for good after news broke that Brown fathered a child with another woman.
Still battling Brown in the press (in 2015, Tran accused Brown of breaking into her car and smashing her window) and facing hate on social media, Tran was at a standstill, unsure what to do next. “I hate to say the word fame, but because I was in a certain situation, in a high-profile relationship, I was recognizable,” Tran says. “It was kind of like, ‘I have these followers. But what else do I have?’ I hit a point where I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’”
She received several offers to become a reality television star, but Tran wanted longevity. Then her manager suggested acting. Despite having zero acting experience, Tran went for it. She had nothing to lose. “I was like, ‘If it works, that’s awesome. If not, then at least I tried,’” Tran says.
However, the first few years weren’t easy. Though Tran’s racial ambiguity proved useful when she started acting (“It’s a cool thing to be able to portray different characters and races”), what she struggled to shake off was her reputation as a tabloid sensation and the assumption that she was selling out her millions of Instagram followers for onscreen fame. “It’s an interesting society that we live in with social media, because if you have a platform and if you have the numbers, you can kind of venture into different things: acting, designing, collaborations,” Tran says. “People saw it as, ‘Oh, you know, she’s only able to become an actress because she has numbers, so they want to use her for her numbers.’ When I started acting, a lot of people didn’t believe in me or thought that I didn’t have talent.”
When I started acting, a lot of people didn’t believe in me.
After completing a one-line role in the 2014 horror movie “The Fright Night Files” and dozens of acting classes, Tran went on to book roles in the Emmy-nominated series “The Bay” and the short-lived web drama “Vanity,” opposite Denise Richards. Despite minor success in the independent-movie scene, Tran still wasn’t comfortable calling herself an actor. “I felt ashamed and embarrassed, like people weren’t taking me seriously because I didn’t have this substantial résumé.” says Tran. “Like I didn’t qualify to call myself an actor. What I had to realize is everybody has their own story and just because I didn’t grow up in theater or on Broadway or as a child actor doesn’t mean I can’t do this.”
Tran’s big break came in 2017 when she landed the role for Virginia Loc, a millennial half-Vietnamese stripper-turned-manicurist-turned-murderess, in “Claws.” Not only was Tran attracted to Virginia’s race (“She was written as half-Vietnamese, and as you know, I’m half-Vietnamese too”), but she was also drawn to the show’s progressive take on crime dramas, which have historically been led by men. “There are shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Sopranos,’ which are all male-driven,” Tran says. “For us, it’s the females who are calling the shots. It shows that women can do it too. It’s not only a man’s world. Women can be badass. They can be emotional and strong.”
Tran credits the show’s success to the army of women who write, direct, and produce it, including actress and writer Rashida Jones. “If you’re watching a show about women, but it’s written or created or directed by men, that’s going to be an inaccurate representation of a woman’s reality,” Tran says. “Because when you’re looking through a lens of a male director, it’s through a male’s mind. They don’t really understand a woman’s position.”
It’s not only a man’s world. Women can be badass, emotional, and strong.
Though Virginia is known for her comedic relief (in season one, when a character asks if everything has to be about her, Virginia responds, “Uh, yes, girl. I’m a millennial”), Tran doesn’t take her character’s backstory as a sex worker lightly. “Virginia had to fight to survive. Her story is that unfortunately she has had to use her body. She comes from the strip club. She’s very much from that world,” Tran says. “That’s a lot of other women’s stories as well. That’s what makes Virginia and what makes this show so real and relatable. It’s because there are a lot of women, some women who I know, that have had to go through the same thing that Virginia did.”
As a member of Hollywood’s #MeToo movement (in 2017, Tran was granted a five-year restraining order against Brown after she claimed that he physically threatened her over text), Tran praises “Claws” for taking action to protect women on set (the show offers sexual harassment seminars, among other things). “It’s been such a powerful year for women. We’ve shown our strength, and we’ve shown that we can stand together and support one another,” Tran says. “We can only go up from here.”
Though she still faces hate on social media, Tran considers her platform to be a blessing. As a result of her physical insecurities, Tran launched the Instagram movement #WithLove to encourage her followers to embrace their bodies and natural beauty. “I’m petite. I’m small, and I always wanted be curvy and thick and have a big booty and big boobs. That’s because that’s the perception of what’s beautiful out there to a lot of men,” Tran says. “With social media, we have this perception that we have to be perfect and we have to look a certain way and we want to look like other people. I think it’s pretty fucked up.”
It’s been such a powerful year for women. We can only go up from here.
While Tran hasn’t overcome her insecurities completely (“I’m still in that process”), she admits that she’s no longer paying attention to societal standards of beauty. “I’ve dealt with self-esteem and self-image issues. I’ve accepted who I am with my body. It took a while for me to do that,” Tran says. “If people learn to accept who they are, that they don’t have to be perfect, that they don’t have to look a certain way, that we’re all individually different, that that is OK, I just think things would be much, much better.”