Lawrence Washington, a.k.a. Miss Lawrence, usually turns heads in Atlanta, but at a restaurant in New York's trendy Meatpacking District, he almost blends in. The hairstylist turned reality star turned actor wears a midwaist blazer and a white short-sleeve shirt with matching scarf, all paired with a wide-leg blue pant. The shoes, something of a Miss Lawrence calling card, are a wedge heel sticking out ever so slightly, while a Louis Vuitton bag hangs on his arm. Few notice him walk into the lunch crowd, but Lawrence says that hasn't always been the case.
"There have been times when I've entered a room and people didn't really know what to make of me," he says, "but I don't let that stop me from being me."
Lawrence first found fame as the high-heeled hairdresser and confidante to Sheree Whitfield on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, one of Bravo's most enduring reality hits. Lawrence used that opportunity to open a salon in the trendy Buckhead neighborhood (with clients like Ciara and Serena Williams), release music, provide fashion advice on another Bravo show, Fashion Queens, and snag an appearance on the Fox soap Empire. His biggest IMDB credit came last year when he was cast on Fox's Star, a drama about an Atlanta girl group. Lawrence plays Miss Bruce, a hairstylist and best friend (sound familiar?) to Queen Latifah's character. Like Miss Bruce, Miss Lawrence identifies as gender-nonconforming.
When he was growing up in Atlanta, Lawrence says, he (the pronoun Lawrence prefers) knew early on that he didn't fit societal norms of masculinity or femininity. His discomfort became acute in his late teens when he toured Europe as part of a musical group.
"At 15, I started as an intern in a hair salon, and by 18, after being in Europe and dressed in those tuxedos and Stacy Adams shoes, I just knew that wasn't who I was, it didn't feel natural, so I deeply embedded myself in the beauty industry and the salon to really experience self-exploration," he says. "That's where Miss Lawrence was birthed."
Lawrence's presentation doesn't just make certain straight people uncomfortable -- some gay and bi folks also have a hard time with his straddling of gender norms. Lawrence sees himself following in the tradition of stars like Grace Jones, Little Richard, Prince, and Andre 3000; proud gender-nonconformers who play (or played) by their own rules.
"When people look at me they are instantly conflicted -- they are drawn to me but they can't really figure me out," he says. "[Gender-nonconformers] don't adhere to what society deems as the performance of a gender, and being gender-nonconformist does not mean that you are gay, it doesn't mean that you're straight, you just move and live on your own terms."
As he prepares to shoot Star's second season, Lawrence expresses gratitude for those who've given him opportunities and never asked him to be anything he's not.
"Real Housewives of Atlanta opened so many doors for me," he says. "I have to thank Andy Cohen -- who I call my founding TV father -- because gave me an even greater platform in offering me Fashion Queens, and that garnered the attention of Lee Daniels [creator of Empire and Star].
"Now everything feels full circle; that I am able to go back into the arts, singing and acting but this time it's on my own terms ... I've been gay a long time and that doesn't define who I am, and neither should me being gender-nonconforming."
Lawrence hopes to see his character's gender identity further explored in Star's second season.
"My prayer and hope and mission through the work I want to continue to do is that we dismantle this idea that because I don't look like you or I don't dress like your husband or that I don't look like your mother that I'm different," Lawrence says. "Let's stop thinking on the surface."
KELSEY MINOR is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and freelance reporter with The Advocate. You can follow him on Twitter @theKELSEYminor.