How Karrueche Tran found her groove in an ever-changing Hollywood

The model/actress made AAPI history with her Daytime Emmy win, and she’s just getting started.

Kevin Gonzalez
ByKillian Wright-Jackson
Originally Published: 

Karrueche Tran could best be described as a cultural entrepreneur. Much like the greats before her — modeling pioneers such as Ophelia DeVore and Helen Williams — Tran’s breathtaking luminosity reflects a new wave of Black women uninterested in labels or limitations.

Since 2011, Tran has enterprised her likeness, carving herself into beauty’s apartheid cabals and leveraging her sizable audience into precious commodity. She’s booked a bevy of ads with powerhouse companies like Viacom and ColorPOP and launched jewelry lines and ready-to-wear collabs. Last year, during global pause, Tran’s portrayal of The Bay’s Vivian Johnson-Garret garnered acclaim. Calling into the award show over Zoom, “in complete shock and disbelief,” Tran made history as the first Asian-Pacific-American to win a Daytime Emmy. Still, despite amassing widespread visibility and offering a counterweight to the constraints of Hollywood’s enfeebled imagination, Tran’s journey has not been yellow-bricked.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I would win. I kept downplaying my nomination, thinking there was no way. There were so many great actresses nominated, so many performances with incredible skill,” Tran admits, speaking with Mic via Zoom. She’s very conscious of the fact that her entrance into Hollywood differs from others: She wasn’t a child star, she wasn’t born into a Hollywood family, and she didn’t go to school for acting. “...It’s hard to compete with actors who have been honing their craft for decades. When I first started in this industry, I was embarrassed and ashamed to even say I wanted to explore acting. I felt I didn’t have the right to call myself an actor.”

While the path of any actor is hardly prescriptive, it’s common knowledge that the route of success for women in show business requires unswerving self-belief. Tired of the constant rejections and typecast roles, Tran considered giving up. After a meeting with an agent who suggested she “focus more on modeling,” Tran heard a “voice inside” that said don’t quit.

“Winning the Emmy was symbolic of personal acceptance,” she continues. “I had to accept myself for who I was, for my journey, however unique, and marry the fact that as long as I strive to do all the work — to focus, to study, to be great, to keep my heart kind — then I can’t fail. Immediately I told myself, ‘All right now bitch; it’s time to step it up!’ That moment marked my new beginning.”

Tran’s new beginning arrives amidst seismic reckoning. As the old-world entertainment model is being forced to grapple with the consequences of human cruelty, cheapened creativity, and irreverent politics, left and right “prestige” film factories have been reduced to ash. With megastudios like Warner Bros, Sony, and Lionsgate reconfigured by new owners and streaming tech giants like Amazon upstarting new rules, the 110-year history of Hollywood is being reshaped. How do we reconcile with the grandeur of artistic cinema and embrace a world of numerically-driven streaming? How do we regard the present past and this encroaching Golden Age?

“You know,” Tran says, voice bristling with fervor, “early on I was getting booked simply based on the numbers, and I hated that. I know I represent an interesting pocket: on one hand, I know what it’s like to be considered an ‘influencer,’ and I also know what it's like to work as an actor. A lot of brands are focused only on the numbers and not every actor knows how to navigate both worlds. There’s a transition happening and I think it’s only going to expand.”

Tran’s starring role as Virginia Loc on TNT’s Claws shows her distinction. Portraying a manicurist-dancer fighting for her future, Claws, which returns for its fourth and final season on December 19, has been a ratings juggernaut. Acting alongside veterans like Niecey Nash, Jenn Lyon, and Judy Reyes, Tran has used the opportunity to “study and improve” her craft. The series has helped elevate the brand amid shifts to digital platforms and dwindling live viewership. Expressing her gratitude for TNT taking a chance on her, she familiarized herself with set life and learned how to build a character. Throughout filming, Tran — who was adamant about staying in character — would write journal entries as Virginia and make playlists to keep herself “grounded in Virginia’s inner-world.” Similarly to her recent role as Eden in BET’s drama Games People Play, she relished the opportunity to showcase her range. “With Eden I was able to tap into a more mature level, to tap into being a boss bitch,” Tran says. “Eden owns her space, but she’s also very human and it was important to stay tethered to her world.”

Much of Tran’s success can be attributed to the work she does off-screen, too. Tran has used the past two years to listen and learn from her emotions. Through breathwork, exercise, and stillness, she says, she’s become in tune with what her “body is feeling” and “listening to what it has to say.”

Kevin Gonzalez

As simple as this sounds, the work is ever-demanding. “I have to take it day by day, because otherwise I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster. I’ve had to pause from social media,” she says. “Just yesterday, I could feel the tension and anxiety from the deaths of Virgil and the murder of Jackie Evant. I had to just get off. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m managing…it’s hard when you think about the state of the world, the people who are hurting, the lives continually lost, the fear. I just try to be grateful for everything, everyday, every hour, and keep hope as close as I can.”

Tran’s never-say-die attitude reveals a heart of gold and spine of steel. Next up, she’s releasing a collaboration with heritage brand Coach, followed by a restock of Kae by Karrueche. She’s also working on a skincare line, but she assures me it will be done with “authentic passion and discernment” and not as a quick money-grab.

As the world teems in possibility, Tran’s influence is destined to last.