Film / TVRaceSex & Gender
afropunk interview: miss lawrence
September 26, 2018
Photos by Leo Marshall
The enigmatic Miss Lawrence has worked his way into the public sphere through ingenuity, overflowing talent and unwavering originality. Starting out in the beauty industry, the former hair stylist built a name for himself, having tended to the manes of the likes of Ciara, Serena Williams, and Angela Basset. Miss Lawrence’s styling success opened doors to what is turning out to be the breakout star’s true calling – acting.
While hair work may have kicked off Miss Lawrence’s TV career, Lee Daniels gave it full stride by asking Lawrence to be on the second season of Empire. Now Miss Lawrence steals the show as the recurring character,= “Miss Bruce” on Lee’s Star, firmly placing himself as an actor to watch, as we bask in this shift towards a television space with LGBTQ+ representation.
Miss Lawrence spoke to AFROPUNK about his upbringing and the journey that brought the actor from his days as musical theatre kid and hairstylist in high school, to working with Lee Daniels and voguing in front of President Obama inside the White House.
You grew up on the South side of Atlanta. How was it growing up gay in the South?
Being in the South period, especially in Atlanta, which was the home of our leader Martin Luther King Jr. was quite special. So growing up gay and Black on the South side of Atlanta was challenging because I could not find any images of people that resembled me. But, all in all, I was able to push through, so I hold Atlanta and the Southside quite dear.
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you are a gay man who is gender-non-conforming, and that a lot of bigotry stems from ignorance. So in the spirit of creating a world free of that ignorance, what does gender-non-conformity means for you?
Being a gay, gender-non-conforming man means that I’ve never bought into what society thinks a man should look like or act like—or what a woman should look like and act like. I’m a person who is very in-tune with my masculine side and my feminine side. I embrace both and I walk with both. It’s been very important that I display that at every opportunity on a public platform and in my every day walk.
When was “Miss Lawrence” born?
Miss Lawrence was birthed from the beauty industry. I started at 15 years old and the industry gave me the freedom of self-exploration. That is where I realized exactly who I was: where I saw all of my feminine traits and how they crossed paths with my masculine traits. A lot of people think that Miss Lawrence is this character that came from television or a certain popularity status, but it was something that was inside of me. Kind of an homage to black women’s culture, for me.
So I hear that you did musical theatre in high school and beyond, and that you’re vocally trained. Did you ever see yourself being on shows like Empire and Star when you were pursuing performance as a youth?
Not at all. When I was younger, and I was in musical theatre and performing arts in high school and a little bit thereafter, I don’t think I thought about what that could end up being. I was a part of that culture and I embraced it because it felt really good and I really enjoyed it. But I did shy away from it early because I didn’t feel the same embrace that some of my peers were getting so I shied away from and that’s when I got into the beauty industry. Because I mastered and honored the beauty industry the way that I did, it has lead me full circle back to the arts.
You have hosted numerous panels and talks around LGBTQ issues. What is your hope for the community and its relations with other communities?
What I would like to see moving forward in bridging the gap across communities, whether it’s the racial divide or the gender divide or the gay and straight divide, is that the gap is bridged. Not only should we continue to see each other – and when I say “see” each other, I mean embrace and love on one another – but there should also be a balance in equal employment opportunities. What I’ve experienced is that we are slowly but surely becoming more visible and getting more opportunities but let’s also extend the value towards the diverse talent that is being showcased.
I heard a story about you decked out in a gold kimono, gold heels, and red lips, voguing in front of President Obama. Please describe that moment.
I got invited to Obama’s farewell party, which was hosted by BET. When I got the invitation to go, I was like “OMG, what am I going to wear” and I thought about it and I said, “you know, I’m gonna go and do what I’ve always done. I’m just going to be me, which is always fab honey.” I knew I wanted to make sure that I present the best of myself because I am going to our house. I’m going to our house that was built by us and I wanted to feel like I’m literally going home. There is this incredible, respectable father figure that runs this house and, lo and behold, I’m there dancing, having a great time and voguing a little bit–the little bit that I can do—and I look up and people are screaming and going crazy and I didn’t know why. One of my friends told me to turn around and President Obama was behind me dancing, and in that moment, it was so surreal and very dreamy. I felt like he gave a whole new perspective on what the blueprint looks like for brotherly love and a real leader who believes in equality and loving your brother and sister.
You’ve said in an interview “It took me a long time to repair my relationship with straight black men”. What do you mean by that?
There was a lot of work I had to do on myself because I didn’t understand for a long time why I wasn’t embraced the way I thought I should be by heterosexual men and particularly, black men. And it’s not just me, but gay men period weren’t being accepted. The more work I did on myself and the more I researched and dug deeper into where we are, where we come from and where a lot of our false teachings came from, it opened me up and I became a little more vigilant in making sure that I knew better so I don’t hold it against my straight brothers and sisters. Going back to that moment that I had with Barack Obama; it confirmed that I was spiritually and emotionally headed in the right direction.
Lee Daniels asked you to be on Empire. What was that experience like?
I still can’t describe that feeling. It was so surreal. The opportunity to be there with him directing me, working alongside him and Gabourey Sidibe and Jussie Smollett for the first time… It was very surreal. The only thing that I knew when I was preparing to go to Chicago to film that when I walked on set was “this is your shot. You have to nail it. You have to kill it.” And I tried to keep that same mentality every time I walked on set. Even today, I still say “this is your shot. Don’t fuck it up”.
Okay, so moving on to Star. Tell us about the moment you found out that you got Miss Bruce?
Well, I knew that I already had the role. I was told it was in the cards for me. I think I just had to let Lee Daniels know that he made the right decision. I think that was more of what my audition was about. Once I learned who Miss Bruce was and I really “digested” the character that they were trying to get across, I had to make sure that I didn’t judge the character; I had to sit still and try to visually see, who this character was. I put together, on my own, an idea of what I think this character looked like and that’s how showed up to the audition. I put on black lip liner with black eyebrows and a bomber Adidas jacket with skinny jeans that were kind of ripped up. I had the whole ghetto-ratchet girl thing going with gold tooth and Lee loved it. We just refined the whole thing that I did when we met with the costume designers on set.
What or who inspired the formation of the character.
People that I had seen in my own community growing up. I’ve seen people like Miss Bruce. I’ve seen hairstyles like the ones Miss Bruce wears. The first person that I ever worked for as an assistant in the beauty industry had a gold tooth.
You sang with the Queen Latifah as Carlotta on Star and bodied it! What was that like?
Again, that was another moment in the sun for me. Just the fact that I’m allowed to do a song with a living legend like Queen Latifah. Also, the song that we did, “Gooder Than A Mother”, the hook I was singing was actually a sample from Little Richard’s song “Get Down”. A lot of people don’t know that. That right there was special to me because Little Richard was gender-non-conforming. Lee Daniels is genius in that way and I think that was all a part of the plan. In Season 2, I was also able to cover Diana Ross’ song “The Boss” which I loved! I love all of Miss Bruce’s music performances on the show and we have some good ones coming up this season.
Why is there no character on TV like Miss Bruce?
I don’t know why that is. I have not personally seen any characters that are as outspoken or real or gutter like Miss Bruce, who also happens to be gender-non-conforming, Black and gay. I do have to pay homage to the late, great Sylvester: I am so enamored with his talent and the contributions that he gave to music and entertainment. Also, I love Big Freedia. I am very inspired by Big Freedia. I’m also inspired by community, Period. But Big Freedia is doing some stuff that I think is so good.
Why didn’t you think TV was an option for you?
Because I had never seen anyone like me on television. I never thought of it being an option.
When are we getting the music? You keep teasing it!
I’ve been trying to work on stuff by myself on the side but scheduling. It’s just a matter of making sure that I’m working with the right collaborators – making sure that the music is right. I go by the mantra “You got one shot. Don’t fuck it up” so I just want to make sure that whatever I put out feels right and is soul satisfying. That way, when I do it, whether it goes big or not, I know It came from a genuine place and I gave it my all. That to me is winning.
What you are doing in the industry is truly amazing. As the person who has come this far, what do you have to say to teenage you?
To my teenage self and the youth that is coming up behind me, “Always walk and march to the beat of your own drum. Don’t apologize for who you are and always give it 110% of yourself. Honor your gifts because that is what makes rooms for you.”
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