If you were thinking about asking Miss Lawrence for career advice, don't. There's nothing the immensely talented celebrity hair stylist-turned reality television star-turned celebrated actor can tell you to help you advance your own professional life, because the Miss Lawrence (AKA Lawrence Washington) roller coaster — which has taken him to stratospheric heights in entertainment — is not one you can replicate. Miss Lawrence is entirely one of a kind.
The gender non-conforming Atlanta-native has parlayed an incredibly successful hair salon into a recurring role on The Real Housewives of Atlanta — immediately winning over audiences with his charm and unwavering commitment to his authentic self. Soon, other opportunities came knocking. He scored a spot of the hit Fox show Empire, and then Lee Daniels' Star, which sees him play the uncompromising force-of-nature, Miss Bruce. As the series shimmies into its second season, we sat down with Miss Lawrence to talk making moves, the power of the LGBTQ community and his infinite star power.
While you're a hugely successful hair stylist, it's clear you were always meant for show business. I'm curious as to why, then, did you pursue beauty instead?
Honestly, I think I experienced a lot of psychological dismemberment with my passion because of societal norms — dealing with what is accepted and what is not accepted of a young black man me growing up gay in the south. I've always been kind of flamboyant and fashion flexible and back in the day that wasn't the norm. It was hard for me to find a place in the performing arts world. I also have always had a keen interest in women and their beauty. As a feminist I think it is very important that women are always together and they are firm. I think that's sort of where I found my passion in the beauty industry. I think it serves its purpose because in the beauty industry, being able to go to a salon every day and interact with so many different people allows you a space to be free. It's a very freeing space.
And women just tend to be more accepting in general.
Absolutely and that's the reason why I have so much loyalty to women. Women were the first group of people who accepted what I was. Starting with my mother and my sister.
How was that?
It was good. Growing up I remember in high school when I would play around in makeup. I wasn't good at it so I would always look crazy. I remember my mother would always wonder why I had on makeup. From their I started experimenting with my fashions. I loved ostentatious pieces. I loved pieces that were whimsical and that wasn't normal. It started there.
Did that make you a target as a teen?
I was a target. I've been teased and I can't say that I was ever really bullied but I know what bullying looks like. I've always been tough. I don't have the whole bullying experience. I also don't have the experience of being ostracized from my family. I've been blessed in that way. I could feel that it was uncomfortable for them because they would question it. I in turn ostracized myself from my family. I wanted to let them breath and I felt like no matter how much I explained who I was, you wouldn't get it. I grew up with both of my parents in the house hold and they were working class. They adapted those normalcies that the American dream is for you to go to college and become a doctor, lawyer, play sports.
I remember my parents tried to make me play football, I played football one season when I was younger which was so funny. The only thing that excited me was looking at the boys on the football team, honey. Being in the locker room with the boys was exciting to me. I was a boy scout and that shit didn't work out. They tried all those things and they were of that era. They didn't want me to be a hair stylist. Back in the day they thought that hair stylists weren't respected but I did it anyway. It has been a divine part of my process. I've became one of the most successful hair stylists in Atlanta. From doing that, it led me into television and to where I am now.
Did you always have that career in entertainment in the back of your mind?
I never like saying that I'm a celebrity hairstylist. I think people have put that out there. I've done some celebrities but I've just always thought of myself as a celebrated hair stylist. Especially in my city I've had an extensive clientele of corporate professionals. That's where I found who Miss Lawrence was. I didn't really have a plan and I didn't know that this was a part of my process. I knew that it was always a passion. I knew that I would everyday wake up singing something. I knew that I would create monologues in my head and things of that nature. I never had formal training in acting or anything. I've trained vocally but other than that? No. It's been quite pleasuring to see how things would come full circle. What I attribute that to is I've always stayed on my own course and it's worked.
How has Atlanta changed? Has it opened up?
Oh it's opened up a lot. Atlanta is one of the leading populated gay cities in the country actually. Now it's nothing like it was before. It's just second nature. I think now what my mission is while I have this platform, I want to aid in getting rid of the dirt representation of gender fluid and gender non-conforming people like myself.
But you choose male pronouns?
I do. I'm a man but I go by Miss. Lawrence. When I say gender non-conforming I mean what society deems that a man should look like or act like. Being gender fluid and gender non-conforming is not a gay thing or a straight thing. I like to use a CeeLo Green as an example or Andre 3000, all of these different people who live to the beat of their own drum. They present everyday on their own terms. That is what being non-conforming is and I think that it catches more attention and raises more questions when you are gender fluid and you're gay. They try to categorize you and marginalize you in that space. That's one of my goals and it's why I'm thankful that I get to play Miss Bruce on Star to have more of those conversations.
You now are the CeeLo Green and Andre 3000 to the next generation.
Right, and before me there was Sylvester and years and years ago, Little Richard. Then in the underground/ballroom world you have Kevin Ambiance. I'm the mother of a house and my name is Mother Balenciaga. Ballroom has played an integral part in my approach to the world. When I say that I don't have that story of being ostracized, it's because I found protection and I found a sense of togetherness and family who understands me in ballroom culture or in gay families. Ballroom is one of those things. It's magical. I'm excited that it's becoming more and more apart of pop culture. These kids have been kept underground for so long and people have extracted from the culture without giving reference. They use it for their own glorious gains.
You've said in the past that women often borrow from the gay community without credit.
Some women yes.
Ironically, many black women say gay men appropriate their culture.
Here's the difference. What exactly is extracting from women's culture? Even if you do there's nothing wrong with extracting from women's culture. I do it obviously, but am also a feminist and I am a part of the feminist movement. I make sure that I take care of women. I've done it for twenty years. So when I say borrow or extract from the culture I mean a lot of reality stars love the catch phrases, "Yes honey, serve, shade," but when it comes time to stand on the front lines and when we need people to raise their voices, those people were silent. You have people who are advocates for the community like a Lady Gaga, like a Bevy Smith, like a Beyonce Knowles. All of these people who not only extract or appreciate the culture, it just becomes more apart of who they are.
They know who we are. It's not just about the kiki of it. It's not just the fun but they appreciate it and they stand by us. I can only speak for myself but any time theirs a social justice issue like when there were things going on around police brutality and young black men, if I have to go stand and march then I'm going to do that. I believe in togetherness and I do believe that we are one, but we don't always receive that in return. The fact that so many of my sisters who are trans women are murdered on a regular, and rarely do we hear a lot of people raising their voices.
It's shocking to hear that people would purposely remain silent.
We're progressing, but it's still there.
On the other hand, I worry that a lot of companies are riding the wave of diversity. Now it's become cool to be 'woke.'
You're right. Some companies will do it because it's the new politically correct thing to do. But are you genuine about it? I think it's a trend in some cases but not all. I think it's becoming a trend where companies are saying that they have to include gay representation because they might get called out for not doing it.
You've described yourself in the past as being the token gay for entertainment purposes. I can't even imagine how frustrating that must be.
It's unfair. That's one reason why I left The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Did you realize going into it that was your role?
Going into it I was just being me. I was asked to be a part of someone's storyline as their hairstylist and that is what I did in regular life so I said sure. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Then once I started to see in seasons to come the culture vultures, I saw things that I didn't like and that I didn't think was a good representation of who I was and the community that I stand for. Bravo was great to me and I don't hold Bravo accountable for that. It was just in the atmosphere. There's nothing else I can add to this and there's nothing else it could do for me. I'm never going to hold a peach, I'm never going to be a housewife. It's great because Andy Cohen, I call him one of my television fathers, called me for Fashion Queens. From Fashion Queens which was a great show and very successful, it caught the attention of Lee Daniels who saw past just the personality part of who I was. He saw my talent for the arts and he wanted to hear me sing. He wanted to see what I could do and from there I was offered Empire. After that Lee offered me Star. Like I said everything serves its purpose. What's key is knowing when to walk away and knowing when it's time to close the door.
Was it a relief to be out and shed your own personality? I mean, you don't have to be Miss Lawrence in this space.
I love it. The insecurities that Miss Lawrence has about Miss Lawrence, I get to leave these outside the door when I turn into Miss Bruce. Miss Bruce doesn't care about anything. Any personal insecurities that Miss Lawrence may have Miss Bruce doesn't. I get to reveal all of that through Miss Bruce which is so cool. I love all of it.
How was that process? Did you audition?
When I did Empire I did not have to audition. Lee called me and told me that he had a spot for me on Empire season two, episode one, and he said told me that he wanted me to sing. From their it went so well and got rave reviews that they brought me back for another episode. The thing was they had to cut some of that episode out because it ran a little over. Then Lee called me and said that he was working on a new project and he had a role in mind for me. Lee said, "Yeah, but I have to make you audition because it's a permanent role and its Fox so they are going to make you audition."
Once he told me the idea of the character, I had to go back and it made me realize that I know what that character looks like. I know what that kind of ratchet, no holds barred, unpolished, queen in Atlanta looks like. I haven't always been the girl up in labels and living in a lovely place. I knew how to mentally go back and picture these people I've crossed paths with in my life. I knew how to create this formula of what Miss Bruce was or what Miss Bruce looked like. When I went to my audition, I went as that. Lee loved it and that was what it was. Miss Bruce doesn't know about MAC Cosmetics or La Mer face cream. To watch the character come into fruition is great. The character has received great receptions.
Is this a gateway to Hollywood?
Well honey I'm in the film industry. I'm a regular on a show. I understand what you're saying though. Hopefully movies can come about, I would love to do some movies. I would also love to have the opportunity to play a straight person so that I can show my skills.
Is that what every actor does? It seems like actors want to play someone who is completely opposite from who they are.
I would love to challenge myself in that way because I know that I would kill it. I want to see what happens. This is it. This is my new life.
What's the fame been like?
It's hard. I just don't expect the fame and I don't care. I just want to do my work and I'm enjoying it. I want to do my work, I want to get my money that I make for it, and I want to continue to live like I've been living for the last however many years. I have a good life. I've always been a hard worker and made a way for myself. With the other stuff it's great. I like that people appreciate me. I want everything that comes with Hollywood on the positive side, but being addicted to it? No. I want to be addicted to my work.
Do you feel any pressure having to represent the community?
It's a lot of pressure. I get pressure on both ends. Their's this whole thing in the community even with masculine vs. feminine. I deal with that a lot because I have had countless comments made via social media. People would say "That's not who we are, that's not what black gay males are." So you deal with that type of stuff.
Do you let it get to you or do you ignore it?
After understanding what it is, it's a huge level of ignorance. They don't understand who we are and we don't understand who they are. So I'm never bothered by it. Everyone's experience is different and everyone is not willing to take the risk that you take. Are you willing to march to the beat of your own drum in front of anybody and not conform? I'll walk up in a church as I am. I don't care. Are you willing to do that? That is what's important.
Image courtesy of BFA