‘Claws’ Star Karrueche Tran on Leaving ‘Dark Times’ Behind for Hollywood

The model and actress famous for her turbulent on-off relationship with Chris Brown is proving she’s more than just tabloid fodder—and has inspired other survivors along the way.

Long before Karrueche Tran walks into the room, I can hear her heels coming down the hallway. I’m sitting in a huge, near-empty room in The Williamsburg Hotel, surrounded by bottles of fancy mineral water. Tran flew in this morning from New Orleans, where she’s living and shooting her new TNT series, Claws. As soon as she sits down, she starts breathlessly recounting her day at Northside Festival, where she recorded a Modern Love podcast with The New York Times. After this interview, she’ll be flying straight back to NOLA.

Tran talks quickly, gesticulating for emphasis. It’s an effective way to command a room, especially when you’re wearing—as Tran is—glossy acrylic fingernails, covered in swooping designs and dotted with rhinestones. Tran usually goes for more subtlety than her on-screen alter ego, but today, she’s as decorated as her acrylics. The tiny 29-year-old model turned actress is decked out in a lace-up black body-con dress, and dripping in rings, chokers, and ear cuffs. It’s a look that she describes as “a little much” compared to her everyday style, but one that’s fitting for her Claws character Virginia, a stripper turned South Florida manicurist.

Claws, a campy show about living, loving, working, and occasionally committing felonies in a West Florida nail salon, has been described as “Steel Magnolias meets Breaking Bad.” Tran’s character, Virginia, is a platform-heel wearing, lollipop-sucking former stripper whose two jobs on the show appear to be doing nails and starting drama. When Tran first encountered Virginia, she was on the lookout for roles that didn’t just reduce her to a sex object or a piece of arm candy.

“I was on the journey of growing as an actress, and I’d done a few things. I’d done movies and shows, but a lot of what I’d done had been like the girlfriend, the wife, the hot girl,” Tran explains. “Which is cool! But Virginia is such a character. And I’m able to have so much fun, I’m able to create her from the way that I dress, my nails, the way I talk, the way I move my hands, my hairstyle. And now that we’re almost at the end of shooting our last two episodes, I’ve just really tapped into her and who she is. And I’m really invested—like, ‘No, Virginia wouldn’t wear that, she’s gotta have more booty out’ or ‘She wouldn’t say something like that’ or ‘She needs a purse.’ I just really am protective of her as a character, because I really enjoy creating her.”

In addition to her curated Virginia Instagram, Tran prepared for her biggest role yet by immersing herself in Atlanta strip-club culture. And while a giggly Tran is quick to offer that she’s been to strip clubs before, “This was more… for research.”

“Every day, day to night, I was in the strip club,” she recalls. “And I watched the girls. I watched them dance, I watched the way they moved, the way they talked, the way they looked at men and talked to other people, the way they interacted with each other. Because Virginia’s old stomping grounds is the strip club—so a lot of who she is comes from that.”

What Tran brought with her from Atlanta to New Orleans was a notion of “survival of the fittest.” She explains, “They’re hungry. Some of them have kids or families or a sick grandmother they have to take care of, so they have this strong, not even a desire, but this attitude to survive. They gotta do what it takes, make that money, pay the bills, feed the baby, you know? Virginia doesn’t have kids or anything like that, but I just took away from that aspect of like, her drive and what type of person she is. And that’s something she learned from the strip club. Like, ‘OK, if I have to get next to him to make some more money, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do what it takes.’”

Virginia’s single-minded drive is a far cry from Tran’s own career trajectory. Despite growing up in Los Angeles, Tran never aspired to the A-list—in fact, she describes her younger self as shy and relatively aimless. After working as a personal shopper and a personal assistant, Tran’s modeling career began to pick up, and she graduated from local gigs in L.A. to getting signed by Wilhelmina Models. After booking a few small acting roles, she started to believe she could actually make a go of it. “One day I just hit a point where I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life, with my career?’” She says. “I have all of these little things going on, but what am I going to really do? And for me, I saw longevity in acting.” Tran loved modeling, she says, but was fed up with the industry’s superficiality. “It’s very just, ‘I’m pretty’ or ‘I look like this,’” she explains.

After Tran’s tumultuous relationship with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown made her a tabloid mainstay—the narrative that surrounded their relationship unfolded thusly: Boy meets girl, boy reunites with Rihanna, boy goes back to girl, girl dumps boy when she learns about his baby mama—doors kept opening. “I lived in L.A., and the possibility out there is endless,” Tran remembers. “I could’ve done reality TV! It was offered to me plenty of times. But that just wasn’t where my heart was. If I wanted quick fame or quick money I could’ve taken that route, but it just wasn’t settling right with me. I wanted something with substance, and something with longevity, something that’s real. Reality TV—I’m not trying to dog it, everybody has their own thing, you know—but I didn’t see it for me. And as a young woman, you have to be responsible and you have to really think about these things. Because if you don’t, nothing’s going to happen for you.”

Ultimately, acting felt like the most rewarding opportunity. “You have to pull emotion out of you,” she says of the job. “I’ve had scenes where I had to cry, and by the time I’ve cried for the 20th time, I’m exhausted. And I never experienced that before as an actress, just being so drained from emotion. But it’s real. And it’s my job to bring that out and to deliver.” Tran describes acing her Claws audition as the “greatest, best feeling ever.”

“I booked it myself!” she grins. “They didn’t care about followers or any of that stuff, it was me as an actor, going into casting and booking this role.” Still, she’s upfront about her relative inexperience, adding that, “Acting is not easy at all, you know, and I knew that there was going to be a lot of work that I was going to have to put into it. And from those first small roles to now when I’ve progressed so much in my career, I took classes, I worked on my craft to perfect it.”

As one of the younger and least experienced cast members on the set of Claws, Tran is still learning on the job. She describes her female co-stars as her “sisters” and “mothers,” joking, “They understand me as a working actress, they know I’m the newest one to this, so they treat me as a baby… It’s very supportive, it’s a great environment to work in. Lately we’ve been having so much fun on set, goofing around and just enjoying one another. And it’s a great feeling. And Niecy [Nash], Carrie [Preston], all of them, they’re seasoned. They’ve done so many great things. They’ve won Emmys and awards. So to be alongside them is just like, whoa. It makes me want to work harder and it inspires me.”

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Acting gig aside, Tran already has what some would consider a full-time job—she’s a social-media influencer. Over the past few years, between her on-and-off again relationship with Brown and her TV, movie, and magazine appearances, Tran has gained quite a following. When I ask Tran how it feels to have over six million Instagram followers, she politely but forcefully clarifies that, “I think it’s 6.8 right now.” An attentive PR rep listening in nearby chimes in, “6.9.”

“Shoot,” Tran laughs, “By the time Sunday hits, maybe it’ll shoot up, I don’t know.” Tran’s account is a mixture of modeling shots, inspirational quotes, Claws promotional material, and the social-media category of content most conventionally known as the thirst trap—exercise videos, bikini pics, and sultry mirror selfies. Tran’s lusted-over content has made her something of a Helen of Troy for the internet age; the face that launched a thousand DMs and an aborted boxing match between Brown and Soulja Boy. But despite the number of verified accounts that regularly comment on her posts—not to mention her millions of non-famous followers—Tran tries her hardest not to obsess over social media.

“I always say I have a love-hate relationship with social media,” Tran offers. “It’s amazing, it helps us, it advances us, we can do things like promote Claws. But then there’s also this dark side where people become too invested in it. Like so into their phones—who said what, and who’s posting this—it’s kind of scary. Sometimes I try to back away and just put the phone down, come back to reality where we really are… Because I don’t want to be too self-absorbed, and worrying. ‘Ah, I just get these likes’—that’s stupid!”

Like any other dedicated Instagrammer, Tran has experience with the way social media can heighten insecurities. “You know, we all have our flaws,” she sighs. “But I feel like with social media, it’s so much worse, because it gives access to pick out every little thing… I thought about getting my boobs done at one point, but then I was like, ‘Why? Why am I going to alter something that God’s created?’ If this is what he wants, he wants me to have small boobs, then hey, I’m gonna have small boobs. And then it’s also like, 10 years down the line, what are they gonna look like? You don’t know what you’re putting into your body!”

Plus, as Tran stresses on multiple occasions, she has her fans to think of—predominantly young women who look to her for inspiration. “For me, it’s important to do the right things, to say the right things,” she emphasizes. “I don’t post everything that I want to, because I’m like, ‘Nah, a girl out there might take it the wrong way.’ And that’s another thing with social media, it’s catching on to the younger generation, and these girls are so consumed with what they’re wearing, their looks, their bodies... So I’m trying to stay the natural way, and show girls that it’s OK to love yourself as you are, you don’t need to change, you don’t need to have whatever it is that these other girls have. Be yourself, embrace yourself, and cherish that.”

Tran is more than just a source of self-love and body positivity—she’s also a role model for survivors. Earlier this year, Tran successfully filed a restraining order against her ex. At the time, Tran alleged that Brown “told a few people that he was going to kill me.” In a statement to the judge, Tran said that Brown swore to his friends that if he couldn’t have her, then no one else could. She also claimed that several years ago the star “punched me in my stomach twice” and “pushed me down the stairs.”

Tran is well aware that her private tribulations have become fodder for public conversations, for better and for worse. “The dark times that I’ve had, people have seen that,” she says. “I get emails, DMs sometimes from women who are just like, ‘Thank you for being positive, and strong’—‘Thank you for being you, and for standing up for yourself.’ It’s a great feeling to know that people can relate and understand and appreciate it… There is a light at the end of that tunnel. If I can relay that message to people, then that’s all I care about.”

Tran pauses before letting out a giggle. “I mean, that’s life! We all think that it’s going to be perfect, that this or this is going to happen, we’re going to get married, we’re going to have kids, a dog—no! Life is fucking like this,” she says, gesturing up and down and waving her rhinestone acrylics. “And I’m proof of that! And now that I’m growing and progressing and becoming a woman—my own woman—people are noticing that.”

And with that, Tran is back up on her heels, running off to catch her flight.