Whiskey with a West Virginian was born out of an idea to connect with my fellow mountaineers. I have an urge to discuss how we as a community can make our state better, as well as get back to my journalism roots a bit. These are not formal interviews, but rather fun opportunities to connect, have a drink, and collaborate on how we can be a stronger state. This interview is a part of that series, which you can read of here.
Appalachian native Lauren Gray walked into Jockey Club the way she says all women should — “like you own the fucking building.” She wore a low-cut, black jumpsuit situation with worn brown cowboy boots. The bar was fairly empty when we met up, but she is the type of person who instantly fills a room — with laughter, with jokes, and with hair. Her rose-gold bouffant defied gravity and her warmth sparked out like fireworks.
I met Lauren through social media first, and then once we knew each other a little better, we started saying hi at Starbucks or the V-Club or wherever. She is one of the most charismatic, genuinely hilarious people I have ever met, so I knew when I started this project, I had to have her on board. Over the course of our interview, no less than seven people walked by that Lauren greeted with open arms.
We had some whiskey, discussed life and the future of West Virginia, and laughed our asses off. Well, at least I did.
I get it, I dress like a Dollar General Lady Gaga.
Mountain Gypsy: I love your rasp, because I have a rasp.
Lauren Gray: I’m full Janis Joplin right now. I’m a conch shell away from being the Little Mermaid.
MG: Tell me your profession. I know you have like fourteen.
LG: Primarily, I work at 4th Avenue Arts and I’m a Pilates instructor and dance instructor there, specifically for the Mini Movers, but I’m also going to be teaching the Galipolis Satellite Dance Program—that the 4th Avenue Arts does as an outreach program at Galipolis—at the French Art Colony. So I teach a lot of dance, which has been phenomenal. I also take dance there.
And then I do the Big River Dance Festival. I teach Pilates and I teach dance, but I also get to do a lot of community outreach and a lot of festivals, and get a lot of connections while working at festivals. It’s really, really fun. I love it.
And then I’m at Marshall for biomechanics. The program is amazing. It’s all about the functionality of the body, which is my concern. I love health sciences. I love the human body and what it’s capable of ,and people not knowing their potential. That’s what biomechanics is, it’s the physics behind how you move and why. That’s really what Pilates and dance are about, too. The studio I work at, they don’t want you to be a prima ballerina and blow out your knees by 24. It’s about making lifelong dancers. That’s really their motto. They want people to be healthy. We don’t start girls on point shoes whenever their bones aren’t finished developing. They have to work very hard to move up slowly.
The instructors and my bosses, yes, they’re dancers of course, but they have about 75 percent of the same education as I do for my exercise science and biomechanics degree. They had to take kinesiology. They had to take nutrition. They had to take anatomy, and learn all of that coupled with their dance education. So they’re very focused on wellness and health of the body as well, but incorporating the arts into that, and getting to combine the sciences and arts is just my favorite thing in the world. I’m like “Ahh I’m home!”
MG: So are you from here originally?
LG: I’m from Proctorville, Ohio. But I go ahead and say here, because I mean, come on. It’s right there.
MG: So you consider yourself a West Virginian?
LG: Yes, I do.
For a long time, I was guilty of being one of those people who would say “I can’t wait to leave here. My life won’t start until I leave here.” And slowly I started to surround myself with people who are not only positive, but motivated positive people. People who went out like I did, found things they loved, but instead of just staying there and just being in that cycle of “Oh we’re all here in this little group, this little community, doing things we love and feeding off each other,” they took it and brought it back here and said “Look at this thing I love.” All of these people who are going out and traveling or learning new things and just constantly saying “I love my community so much, I can’t wait to share this new thing I’m doing with them.”
I just surround myself with really crazy, lovely, positive, motivated, smart, outside the box people, who also are Appalachian, love apple butter, love their state, and they just want to foster everything they love here in this community. That has changed my perspective so much, and has made me love where I’m from so much more.
MG: That’s so special, because I really feel like that’s what we need here.
LG: In the past few years, it’s really been a huge change. People ask me about what we’re doing. Like, there are art festivals going on at the West Edge. There is a place for the arts here. I just think people sometimes don’t know all the cool things that are going on all the time. There’s so much talent here. The 505 House, they hold workshops there. For free. There was a kombucha workshop, a how to make sauerkraut workshop. I did a free Pinup Pilates workshop there. They hold blacksmithing workshops out in the back yard. Just for people who are interested and gives the community a safe place to come and learn a new thing.
I want my first impression to be a punch followed with a kiss.
MG: So you’re really into vintage. What made you fall in love with vintage in the first place?
LG: I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents. My grandma on my dad’s side always played Barbara Streisand. I’d walk in, and my grandpa would be watching a documentary on Judy Garland. There were always cool, old pieces around the house, whether it was my cousin’s old 80’s prom dress, or my grandma’s costume jewelry, which was my big thing. She would open up her boxes for church, and I would literally put on scuba gear and dive in. I blame my tackiness on her. God love her, she would just be like “just do it.”
Then my other grandma, my mom’s mom, she literally to the day she died, even when she was in the hospital, she’d have my mom come in and curl her hair. One of my last memories of her is walking around in a beautiful watercolor mumu, hair done, nails and toenails both beautifully painted coral, and jewelry on, even though her heart was failing. She was the one when I was little who really introduced me to Marilyn Monroe, and my sister, Katie, really gravitated toward Audrey Hepburn, and we would watch movies in [my grandma’s] basement. I really don’t know why that’s what stuck with me, but I love the fun and elegance and silhouettes.
I remember whenever Austin Powers came out — These Boots Were Made For Walking — I was like, what is going on, this song is great. My mom and my sister Ashley bought me Nancy Sinatra’s Greatest Hits, and it came with all these original photos of her, and I was like, this is what a woman looks like. This is what a woman should look like, this confident, beautiful, hourglass silhouette. I was like, this is what I want to be. This very Lana Del Ray, lackadaisical, too cool for everyone attitude, that’s what Nancy Sinatra had and I just loved it. I still have this picture of a photoshoot with my sister Ashley in my mom’s house, in my sister Katie’s majorette boots and a 60’s dress, and a little heart on my face, and I’m 8 years old and pouting on the stairs to the best of my ability.
So, I think it’s a combination of hanging out with my grandmas way, way, way too much, and just thinking this is what beauty is. This is glamour. It’s not just cute, it’s not just pretty, this is “here I am.” The drama of all of it, and the care taken in the clothing and the care taken to do the hair and makeup like that, but still behind that to be a confident woman who can back it all up. I want my first impression to be a punch followed with a kiss. I want it to be like “Whoa! Sh…..Shit. That was intense.” And I’m like “You’re welcome.”
MG: That is such a perfect way to be.
LG: That’s how women would enter a movie scene. It wouldn’t be in a fucking t-shirt and yoga pants. It was like, “Look at me.”
My mom’s mom died working on her 9th master’s degree. She was an intelligent woman who was 4’10’’, just little and glamorous, but you saw her and she was glamorous, and she had all this intelligence and wit and fire to back it up.
That’s what I want. I don’t want to just be cute. I want my first impression to be like fireworks. And I feel like women used to do that, they took so much care in not just looking cute. I want this to express me and my first impression when you see me across the room, you get a little taste of who I am. I love that. I feel like vintage did that for me.
Red lips and heels will never fail you.
MG: You’re inspiring me to be more glamorous. I feel like as women we need to be more confident and walk into a room and not be afraid. So what do you think women can do to be more confident?
LG: One thing I always say is “Shoulders back, chin up.” First of all, physiologically, that is the most confident pose. Within two minutes, there’s a measurable significant difference in the testosterone in your system that’s released. You feel confident, your body and posture react physically to those internal hormones. But that system works two ways. If you hold a confident posture, you can release those hormones for yourself. You trigger the opposite direction, so I tell people “Dude, posture.” You walk into a room like you own the fucking building. Even if you feel like shit. Also, on days you feel like shit, dress even better. Throw on red lipstick, if [my] hair is in a skank bun, I throw a brooch in it. Even if I’m in a little t-shirt and my yoga pants, it may be a skank day, but I’ll probably throw on some slingback heels. Now I’m going to walk with confidence, because I have no choice but to strut in heels.
So a lot of it is just being obnoxious. Just own your tacky. I always keep a backup red lipstick and earrings in my purse, because you never know when you’re going to get swanky. I just love feeling good in my own skin. I hate when people say “I can never pull that off.” For me, I don’t look at outfits as what I can and can’t pull off, I look at what I want to do. How can I play with this? How do I want this to look on me? How can I make this mine? I love who I am, I wouldn’t trade anything about myself.
When people are shit-talking themselves at Pilates, I’ll tell them, “you wouldn’t talk to your best friend like that, why are you talking to yourself that way?” I want confidence to radiate out. How can you not feel good when you look in the mirror and you have a sick up-do and some red lips? Red lips and heels will never fail you. It’s just owning the space you’re in and being present in it, whatever that means to you, and if that incorporates glam, cool.
Just own your tacky.
MG: Who would you say is your most inspiring fashion icon?
LG: Oh, god. Lucille Ball. Lady Gaga. Elizabeth Taylor. A little sprinkle of Kesha. I like Katharine Hepburn. She was one of the first to be like “Yeah, you want to call me a lesbian and say I’m androgynous. Fine, I’m going to contour my cheekbones more and then wear more trousers.” And Lauren Bacall.
I think a lot of times femininity gets associated with just being soft, and docile. I just love these strong women. Like, Lucille Ball didn’t take shit. She was goofy and funny and married a younger playboy who was not white. She was a rebel of her time, but she got away with it, because she didn’t alienate people. She constantly was this overwhelmingly smart, beautiful, comforting presence. You didn’t feel like she was doing this to cause a ruckus. And Lady Gaga – yes her most recent years have been really glam – but she’s always been glam. I always joke for my look my hair has to be on point, and my nails have to be on point, because they are the only two ladylike things about me. And if you look at Lady Gaga – even in her most ratchet flipping off the camera state – those heels are not scuffed, they are polished, and they are banging on keys somehow in time with her hands. Those nails are on fleek, her roots are perfect, and that eyeliner is very rarely smudged.
There’s always this sweet balance in these women between comedy, humor, intelligence and style. You look at them and you get an immediate idea of who they are. That’s what I love about all of them. Elizabeth Taylor was unabashedly herself. My style is like Elizabeth Taylor meets Kesha – it’s still all the diamonds but they all look trashy and fake. They’re all the same size jewels but they’re all from the Dollar Store. When I first did stand-up, I was like “Yes, my glasses are real, and I get it, I dress like a Dollar General Lady Gaga.” That’s just kinda my aesthetic. That’s what I’m going for.
They wouldn’t have that grit that you love without being from this area.
MG: What is your favorite thing about living in Huntington?
LG: I want to say the people. It’s not just like people I know. When I hear people say “I love my family, I just hate this area,” I just think they wouldn’t be who they are if they weren’t from here. They wouldn’t have that grit that you love without being from this area. So if you love those people, they are who they are because they grew up in this state. You have to love where they’re from to love them. That’s a big part of why I love this area and the people in it.
We’ve had these rivers for years, and these traditions for years, and it’s this cool crazy balance.
It’s this attitude of “Yeah, I’m from West Virginia. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
I was listening to this Appalachian poet on NPR, and I know that sounds really yuppy-hippy, but just hear me out.
Our state was founded on people believing in what was right and fighting for it. There were slaves that came to the state and people said if you can make it to the mountains, not only will we help you, we’ll hide you here, cause ain’t no way they’ll find you here. [The podcast] was talking about tap dancing arising from Irish dance and African dance. We wouldn’t have that without these mountains and hills, to combine these cultures that wouldn’t’ have met any other way. What a unique place. We were founded on people who just believed it was right, and had this quiet confidence. It’s a founded pride of our culture of what it was and what it’s becoming and the combination of that.
MG: What’s something you feel like we should do better in West Virginia?
LG: As much as we talk about our mountains and our environment, we’re shitting all over it. What we have done to our water is insane. The fact that people are so lackadaisical about it blows my mind.
The Ohio River used to be knee-deep, crystal clear with waterfalls. It was renowned for its beauty. We’ve ruined it and then we approve fracking. Our water has carcinogens in it that are measured every few hours by the EPA. If you go to the EPA’s website and look up the Ohio River, the tests they do to measure some of these microorganisms and carcinogens are off the charts. They show as immeasurable. They are literally off of a readable chart of that equipment, because it is so high. There are known carcinogens and things that actually kill us in our water. Not to mention the estrogen in our water is not being filtered out. The Britta can’t take it out, our fridges can’t take it out, it’s just there. Which again is leading to disease and ovarian cancer. I get really upset about what were doing. It’s a slap in the face.
I want people to know there’s something underneath the bouffant.
MG: How do you live authentically?
LG: My hardest thing is, I think in my mouth. It’s really hard for me to not be myself. I’m essentially a walking dad joke with a great rack. The only reason I get along with anybody is I think I try to be nice and accepting, but sometimes I can be a total dick. I generally try to be really welcoming, because I genuinely love people and you never know what you can learn from them.
I made the choice to surround myself with people who are very supportive and motivate me, and who have their own thing going on that they’re confident about. Instead of looking at people with jealousy, I look and say “how can I do that?” Seeing people who are unabashedly themselves inspires me to be myself. Surrounding myself with people who are very confident inspired me to be more myself instead of looking down on myself. I can work really hard and be really confident and have the smarts to back it up. I want people to know there’s something underneath the bouffant — I want people to ask “what’s it full of?” Secrets and sin and brains and smarts and ideas.
Surround yourself with ridiculous, amazing people and just see what happens.
You can follow Lauren’s fashion adventures and dance career on Instagram @voguinginvintage.
All photographs courtesy of Melissa Stilwell Photography.