When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.—Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Thompson, the infamous speed- junkie journalist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame, scrawled out that aphorism sometime during the Nixon administration.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Weird is in fashion again.
If Huntington had a weird pro, it would have to be Lauren Gray.
She’s got Lucille Ball’s humor and Audrey Hepburn’s class, Marilyn Monroe’s mania and Lady Gaga’s gaudiness—but deep down, she’s pure Appalachian, and she’ll be the first one to let you know.
Flamboyant. Dynamo. Outspoken.
A beautiful soul.
That’s how she is often described in the Huntington arts scene, where she’s already well known and appreciated as an artist.
It’s hard to describe her in terms of a person, because her style is unique.
She’s a force of fashion, a creative cyclone, a gregarious geyser, a Pompeii of performance.
She is art, living, breathing art.
One could almost accuse of her of being a serial dabbler, given her propensity to try everything.
Model. Dancer. Comedian. Actress.
“Very, very infrequently have I seen someone in this town like Lauren Gray,” said Bobby Lee Messer, a web producer and local musician.
“I grew up around here, and I’ve worked in a lot of big cities. Lauren Gray is truly one of a kind. If the right person notices her, she’ll be a star.”
Black Sheep Burritos and Brews isn’t the epicenter of performance art in the city; it’s the training grounds.
On a typical day, Marshall Students and locals alike mingle at the little hole in the wall across from campus, nibbling on trout tacos and sipping craft beers.
The menu ain’t necessarily gourmet, in terms of price, but it’s certainly different—ethnic fusion foods and French Press coffees are the fare.
During the Sunday brunch, the street tables brim with twenty-somethings nursing away Saturday night with Bloody Marys.
But in the evenings, there’s hardly a seat in the joint.
That’s primarily due to the Wednesday night open-mic comedy hour, and the Thursday evening musician jams.
Occasionally a band will play a few sets on Friday or Saturday nights, plucking away an acoustic set before the big showdown at V-Club.
Wherever she goes, Gray makes an entrance.
It’s the same when she arrives at the Black Sheep to be interviewed for this story.
When she arrived a few minutes late, she hugs a few hostesses and servers—after all, she slings drinks and dinners there part-time herself.
She’s wearing a see-through white 1950s blouse paired with a floral-printed skirt, a pair of big glasses on her nose and white half-cowboy boots on her feet.
Her hair is in its signature, “Rockabilly Bouffant,” blonde tipped with a tinge of red.
Although she might not know it, she’s a Huntington personality and fashionista by many accounts.
But she sees it differently.
“I appreciate you calling me that, but I don’t think of myself that way,” she said.
“I believe there’s fashion and there’s style. Fashion is something that comes and goes, something that people just wear. Style is who you are, it’s your voice. I like to think I have style.”
Gray’s style, “Appalachian Hipster” as she’ll refer to it, has mostly been greeted with open arms—it’s created with “love and laughter” as she explains.
But biting into a burrito, Gray explains she has heard her fair share of snide comments, some just down right rude.
“I’ve been called a drag queen, I’ve been told I shouldn’t look this way or act the way I do,” she said.
“I know one time, I went into a bar and a guy literally said ‘What in the world.’ Some people think my style is for attention, but frankly, I do it to make me happy.”
Maybe she gets it from her mother.
She would wear a blazer, heels and full makeup to watch a Marshall home game.
Growing up across the Ohio River in Proctorville, Ohio, Gray said her grandparents let her have free reign with playing dress up in vintage pieces.
While she had an awkward phase in her teenage years, her tenacity for textiles never waned.
“For me, it’s wearable art, I look at my body as a canvas,” she said.
“I mean, every day doesn’t have to be fireworks, but I’m the type to leave the house in sweatpants without makeup. It’s fine if that’s what you want to do, but that’s just not who I am.”
And if Gray’s body is a canvas, then she certainly has a lot of paints and pastels to make her art.
Gray said she had an eight-and-a-half foot long clothing rack filled with pieces. She had a hell of a time consolidating before moving to New York City.
Style is one thing, but substance is another and Gray has both.
Melissa Stillwell pays her bills working as a physical therapist at the Huntington Veteran’s Administration Center.
But her passion lays in photography. At first, it was just wedding photos and senior portraits, the typical small town photographer routine.
Now Stillwell shoots bands and acts on the Huntington music scene. She’s prefers subjects outside the norm, verging on the bizarre.
Two years ago, Stillwell said she met Gray when the latter volunteered to instruct veterans in yoga.
“She casually mentioned she had done some modeling before,” Stillwell said. “So I had to ask her do some shoots.”
It’s not the first cold-approach Gray has gotten from a photographer.
“I’ve been lucky because 99 percent of the time, they approach me,” Gray said.
“I remember the first time someone asked me if I’d be willing to do a shoot. I was a little caught off guard, because I’m definitely not a typical model, not a 6’2’’ Norwegian that weights 150 pounds. I’m a 5’6’’ Appalachian woman with thick thighs and no boobs.”
For Stillwell, Gray was perfect because she is “truly her own brand” due in part to her style, but also for her open mindedness and impact on the community.
“She’s an advocate for a lot of different groups of people, the arts and education,” she said.
“But she also teaches children ballet and adults Pilates, teaching about body positivity and how to stay healthy. She’s worked hard to have an impact on this community.”
And that passion, that free spirit translates through the camera lens, according to Stillwell.
Take for example Gray’s farewell photographs—the idea of the shoot was for her to leave town “in a puff of smoke.”
Using discount Fourth of July smoke bombs, Stillwell depicted Gray in sunhats and sequences disappearing into yellow and blue plumes.
“It was killer, because of the emotion she brought to that shoot,” Stillwell said. “She was feeling that smoke.”
The “stage” at Black Sheep is actually the front of the restaurant.
Years ago when it was a coffee shop, patrons would enter into a glass door on the corner of Hal Greer Boulevard and Third Avenue, but those days have long passed.
Now folks enter through a side door on the boulevard.
But on comedy nights, the management clears the old front of tables—the space between the “stage” and the first roll of tables is roughly six feet.
It’s 10 feet to the bar.
As the standup comedians tell their jokes, the occasional open throttle of motorcycle hauling down Third might step on their joke, a high-octane heckler of sorts.
Like a little black lamb, the comedy open mic was born shaky and cold following the death of the Funny Bone, the tri-state area’s only comedy club.
It started with a handful of Funny Bone guys and some local open mics in Southern Ohio.
The Black Sheep open mic grew into a juggernaut—comedians have filled the slots in less than a minute when the list for time is posted on their Facebook group.
The day I interview Lauren Gray at Black Sheep is actually her comedy send-off—when a comedian doesn’t opt for a roast, it’s customary he or she is given the “closer” slot, the end of the night at the open mic.
And that’s just what Lauren is tonight—a closer.
Rebecca Fitzgerald has been a Black Sheep open mic regular for 5 years, roughly six months after the show began.
Initially, Fitzgerald was a bit of an odd woman in the boy’s club scene, but no more.
Today roughly half the open mic regulars are women. During that time, Fitzgerald has carved out an over-the-top spot for herself.
When Gray appeared on the scene last year, Fitzgerald said she found in her a kindred spirit.
“I admit, I didn’t get the opportunity to sit down and hang out with Lauren like I did other comedians. But from the times we’ve chatted and from her performances, I can tell she used to be a bit of a drama nerd or choir geek like myself,” Fitzgerald said.
Actually, Gray is guilty on both counts.
She loved acting in plays in her childhood, and singing in her church’s choir.
When Gray or Fitzgerald take the stage, the show runners always have to turn down their microphones.
They honestly don’t need microphones, given how far they belt out their voices.
On Gray’s last night, she struts up to the stage with a mason jar full of brew in her hand.
The crowd has thinned because it’s nearly 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, and some folks have left because they have to work in the morning.. But it’s not too thin.
Casually setting the jar on a table, Lauren grabs the microphone and pops it off the stand—risky, considering that old microphone has a tendency to cut in and out when it’s handled.
“This is a bittersweet moment for me,” she said. “Because this is my last show, Black Sheep.”
Her set is a whirlwind of sex and booze, from giving lessons to strippers to getting pulled by the police when she isn’t wearing pants, again.
Every once in awhile, she’ll punctuate a punch line with a facial expression, either of shock or pure joy. Think Lucille Ball.
“I think that’s a good comparison for her,” Fitzgerald said. “Except, Lucille Ball needed someone to write her stuff. Lauren doesn’t. Whenever I know she’s going up, I know it’s going to be interesting.”
Gray isn’t ashamed to admit her influence, because “I Love Lucy” was one of her favorite shows to watch at her grandparent’s house.
“Lucille Ball taught me you could be funny without being ugly,” she said. “But it was more than that. She was a rebel, starring as a lead lady back in a day where that was unheard of, in a show that depicted a mixed race marriage.”
With that style, perhaps this show is “I Love Gaga.”
Her finale is very personal, hilariously personal, ending with an interpretive, evocative dance centering on her experiences with men.
“Boys are just dessert,” she said. “I have my goals, I have my dreams, and a boy is just something nice to have around. I don’t know one to complete me or any B.S. like that.”
It’s not the sort of set you see on at the Black Sheep, not because it’s crude, but because it’s so physical.
“Because she’s so physical and willing to try different things, I think her comedy’s less like a traditional set and more along the lines of a one-woman show,” Fitzgerald said.
Lady Gaga’s “The Fame” hit the world in 2008, when Gray was a junior in high school.
The synthesizer-pop driven album featured classic like “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.”
At the time, and to this day, no song off that received more international acclaim than Gaga’s high-wired, upbeat anthem “Just Dance,” featuring the rapper Akon.
Gaga later said she wrote the song during a heavy drinking, rough bump in the road, when she left behind a boyfriend, and an apartment in New York City to cut her album in Los Angeles.
Written in just 10 minutes, Gaga said it was the song that changed her life.
For Gray, Gaga isn’t just another pop star from whom to draw a few fashion tips.
Gaga, essentially the patron pop saint of weird, is an ideal not to mimic but to aspire to be, for Gray.
“She has substance to go with her style; she lives the performing arts,” Gray said. “It’s not about being pretty, it’s about being interesting and making a statement. She’s got a huge brain and heart and she uses both to get make beautiful change in this world.”
And if Gray had her way, she’d just dance.
Dance isn’t Gray’s first passion—she was into singing and acting long before she took her first class at Fourth Avenue Arts in 2007.
But when she did, she tapped into something so visceral, so physical, she found a way to tell stories that enthralled her.
Ballet, modern, jazz, it doesn’t matter.
Gray said dancing is the way she taps into her Appalachian heritage.
Her entire family, particularly her grandparents, is admittedly much more Appalachian than she is—but that doesn’t make her any less.
“I don’t sound Appalachian, I know that, and the women in my family are much better story tellers, much more silver-tongued with their dry humor,” she said.
“But dancing, for me, is a way to tell a story. Dance is so physical and the audience needs to watch you to connect, it only takes a few minutes to connect with them. I love it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, she holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in biomechanics and the other in exercise physiology.
How could such a creative soul earn degrees in such cold and scientific fields?
“If you think about it, I’m using my body as a tool when I dance, so it’s good to know how the tool works,” she said matter-of-factly.
“There’s a lot of dancers out there who blow their knees out in by their late 20s or early 30s, if not earlier because they don’t know how the tool works.”
Christopher Collins, a West Virginia ex-pat living in Colorado, recalled meeting Gray in a Marshall dance class back in 2010.
It was during one of those beginning of the course icebreaker sessions; the dance students circled up and introduced themselves to one another.
Little did Collins know, he’d found himself a friend and a dance partner.
“She’s just so flamboyant and openhearted,” Collins said. “Every time I danced with her, it was exactly what it needed to be. She is so open to new things, to new experiences and translating that into her dancing.”
When in the thick of figuring out what to bring to a number, Collins said he’d bring over a bottle of red wine to Gray’s apartment.
The two would sip from it, discuss where they were in life, their joys and their fears, and over their brainstorming, they would channel their struggles and triumphs into their dance.
“The way we were able to connect our dance with what we were going through personally just brought another layer of meaning to it,” Collins said. “It made those dances so much more meaningful; she is one person I really take in every moment with.”
Prior to heading off to New York City, Gray taught dance at the Fourth Avenue Arts Center. Not only did she teach piles and grande jetes, but it was also an opportunity to give back.
“At that studio, we never used the word fat, never talked about weight,” she said.
“We believe in embracing who we are, in building self-esteem no matter your shape or size. Just being who you are. So it’s not just the dancing there, it’s helping young girls build self-esteem.”
Gino’s Pub and Pizza Parlor is as Middle America as it gets in Huntington.
The combination pizza parlor, beer joint and arcade on Fifth Avenue is a local institution.
It’s even got the scoreboard from Marshall’s old Fairland Field in its parking lot.
Neon signs hocking wings and salads, checkered tile floors and long tables inside are a dead giveaway to its past.
Generations of families have had birthday parties and Little League Championship dinners at the restaurant.
It’s the type of place a high school junior, with that West Virginia red-license, would take his sweetheart to on a Friday night.
It’s the type of joint dad might hide on a Tuesday night to drink beer.
If the sign out front advertised a John Mellencamp cover-band, you wouldn’t bat an eye.
Frankly, the whole place gives off a “Jack and Diane vibe”—a vibe that makes it wonderful.
But the sign outside tonight reads“The Lauren Gray Project.”
It’s literally her swan song before heading to New York City, and it’s also Gray’s debut in a musical act.
Bobby Lee Messer, the web producer and local musician, approached Gray about fronting an act after he watched a few old music videos and noticed a woman that looked a bit like Gray.
“I’d been rehearsing with a singer, but I could see it just wasn’t going to work out,” Messer said. “Being a man about town, I’d seen Lauren around, so I figured what the hell, she’s a performer, can she sing too?”
And when he messaged her, Gray just happened to be singing karaoke at downtown bar.
Saying yes to any artistic pursuit, Gray latched onto the opportunity, but there was a catch.
She was leaving for New York City in less than a month.
Still they were able to get together.
So Messer rounded up a band—Mike Nemo on bass, Jerry Stallmaker on guitar, and Tim Smith on keyboard and Messer himself on drums.
A few rehearsals with Gray later, they took the stage.
While waiting for the warm act to get through their set, the two-man video team consisting of Nate Cesco and Cody Lambert, walked past.
Cesco, it turns out, agreed to shoot the performance for a future music video Messer was hoping to put together.
It was a bit ironic Cesco would be recording Gray’s farewell tour—she’s acted in a few his productions, playing linchpin supporting roles in Out of State and The River Dolphin.
Out of State is probably her deepest performance, wherein she plays the jaded, hard-drinking publisher of a down-on-his-luck Ivy League professor who gets demoted to teaching at state college buried in the Appalachian Mountains.
Cesco said after working with her on The River Dolphin, wherein she plays the deadpan psychologist of a man who believes there’s a dolphin in the Ohio River, the two knew Gray would bring her all to the production.
“We work with a lot of comedians, so they’re doing a lot of improv on the set,” he said. “She would come to open readings with the lines already memorized; you don’t find that around here.”
So when Cesco and Lambert were writing Out of State, they wound up writing the part for Lauren.
“We realized there just wasn’t anyone who could play such an outspoken, driven woman in this town like Lauren,” Cesco said. “She only took a few takes to get it down; she was literally made for this role.”
Gray, it seems, never disappoints.
“Hey, I’m glad you made it!” she said, in a cracking and hoarse voice. “I guess I’m going to singing everything like Janis Joplin tonight.”
Drinking cup after cup after cup of water, Lauren belted her way through the show, powering through her deep fried vocals.
The songs were mostly covers—Fleetwood Mac and Jerry Lee Lewis—more soulful with her crispy voice.
Sure, she couldn’t hit the high notes to Hozier’s “Take me to Church” but she definitely made up for it with Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”
Shucking back and forth on the stage, a smile across her lips, Lauren seemed at peace.
Nirvana, perhaps not unplugged, but embodied.
When she finished out the set, a little girl in a pink tutu ran over to give her a bouquet of flowers and a hug.
Whatever Gray was feeling turned into ecstasy, as she picked the little girl up for a hug and a photograph.
The next day, I saw her in the Pullman Square Starbucks.
It was ironic to have this chance meeting because we’d planned to do a debriefing over the phone about her show.
Seems the universe had other ideas.
She walked into the shop wearing a burgundy t-shirt reading “Hillbilly Hipster” won-ton shell shaped earrings, and a plaid skirt.
She only had 10 minutes to entertain my questions before she had to report to work.
“I knew I was going to blow out my vocal chords,” she said. “I hadn’t used my voice like that in 10 years, but the allergies didn’t help one bit.”
The little girl, it turned out, was a friend’s daughter. Shy around people, it was a shock when she’d run up to her in front of crowd of between 50 and 100 people.
As I listened, her philosophy became crystal clear.
Performing is never about me. It’s about the audience. It’s about the storytelling, not just for the audience, but the teller too.
“That was huge, because she is so shy, so very nervous, and she kept telling me about how much our little show impacted her,” Gray said.
“And that’s what I want to use my art for, to push people to feel better and inspire them to change their minds, to try something new.”
“When ever I think about trying to inspire somebody, I don’t think ‘what do you want to do,’ I think ‘what do you want to change?’” she added.
“When I connect with a child like that, it influences me to be stronger and more positive.”
Then she was gone.
Gone to the big city, to New York City.
But always, Lauren Gray will be an Appalachian—an adopted West Virginian, as she likes to say.
No matter where she goes from here, whether she stays in New York or heads to Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, or New Orleans, something important things won’t change.
She’ll always have the mountains in heart, the mighty Ohio River running through her veins.
Maybe she’ll be a star, maybe she won’t, but that doesn’t matter.
As long as she is performing, as long as she is giving herself to an audience, she’ll be happy.
Huntington didn’t lose an artist to the big city; it just loaned her out.
No matter where she goes, Lauren Gray knows the home is always here, where the mountains meet the river.