Behind once-in-a-lifetime talent Jennifer Lawrence stands a singular, tough-as-nails mother and family who nurtured a gift that none of them went asking for. The Lawrences didn’t catch lightning in a bottle: they cultivated the perfect storm at a summer camp.
Karen Lawrence jumped the fence. Not figuratively, but literally. In Christian Dior heels and a Zac Posen cocktail dress.
The rest of the photo crew who were following her around the family’s Camp Hi Ho—all younger and dressed in far more practical footwear—assessed the situation and walked sheepishly to the gate. Like another female Lawrence we all know, Karen Lawrence is fierce.
This standout moment occurred during the fashion shoot that Karen, mother of Jennifer and founder of Camp Hi Ho, agreed to do in order to promote The Hunger Games Exhibition and The Jennifer Lawrence Foundation Gala, both at the Frazier History Museum this summer.
And it might provide insight into the formidable character of a woman who has found herself in a position that few mothers have found themselves in before: mother of a global phenomenon.
It only takes a few minutes in a room or space (she prefers to be outdoors) with Karen to realize, first, that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and, secondly, that if anyone could navigate this bizarre pressure-cooker-slash-fishbowl of an existence for the entire Lawrence family, she can.
But when we discuss it days later in the family’s comfortable and serene marble-clad kitchen, she is upfront about the cost of unexpected fame. “I think what people don’t understand is that no one planned for this to happen,” she says. “Had I known the future, I would have really dug my heels in. Because I dug my heels in anyway. I don’t necessarily want my little girl to be in Hollywood. It wasn’t my master plan for her.”
The story of how it all began is becoming local—if not global—legend. After one modeling session revealed poise and ability beyond her years, a confident and determined fourteen-year-old Jennifer begged her parents to take her to New York City for a few meetings. Resistance was met with gentle pressure from local Heyman Talent agent Chris Kaufman and a full court press from Jennifer. Eventually, when Jennifer asked for nothing but a New York trip for Christmas, the Lawrences succumbed and turned it into a spring break trip for the family. “We thought, ‘What are the chances?’ I mean, literally, what are the chances of this happening,” asks Karen. “My goal was to support her and allow her to feel supported by her parents and family… so she could say she tried.”
That trip, which began with two appointments—with NEXT and with top children talent’s agency CESD–quickly snowballed into a series of meetings that set the tone for what would soon be the family’s new normal. “I was reading a magazine and they came in the waiting room and took her back,” Karen says about a meeting they had landed with Wilhelmina, a modeling and talent agency. “One person came to get her and four came back to get me. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what did she say?’ Because at school, you know, I’d come in and they’d say, ‘This is what she is doing.’ She was never bad. She was just outrageous. And nobody really knew what to do with her. So, my first thought was, ‘Oh dear.’ And they said, ‘You’re going to need to come sit down. And, again, I’m thinking, ‘What did she do?’ And these were the exact words… She’s sitting there. I’m sitting there. And they say, ‘We have never seen this kind of talent out of a fourteen-year-old ever. Ever. Ever.’”
“And I’m in New York and I’m going, ‘Right. What do you want from me? What do you want from her?’” What Wilhelmina wanted was Jennifer. They wanted the family to move to New York. They wanted to launch a new talent they saw destined for meteoric success. And they wanted the Lawrences to amiably go along for the ride.
Except that they weren’t ready. “So, we get in the elevator and our friend, Donna, is waiting downstairs and we get down there and she asks, ‘So, how did it go?’ Well, we’re fighting. Jen’s crying because I told her, ‘Jen, they are lying. Do you really think that you’re the most talented fourteen-year-old they have ever seen? Come on. This is ridiculous. And she’s crying, ‘You said, Mom.’ And… honestly, I’m in shock. I’ve just been told I have the most talented fourteen-year-old anybody has ever seen. This is New York City so I’m thinking of course they must be lying, because do you know how many talented kids have come through here? And, now they want me to move here? This is a lot for me to process in nine floors.”
During the same trip (Karen confesses that the exact chronology gets a little muddled as it would after years of juggling sudden stratospheric fame, family and a family business), Jennifer’s meeting at NEXT was met with the quintessential New York compliment–screams of disbelief (“Shut up! Are you kidding me!”) and she was photographed on the street by talent scout Daniel Peddle who offered to cast her in an H&M shoot—an offer which Karen would have accepted but Jennifer rejected because she wanted to act, not model. (“I was okay with that because it gave us something to do while we were there,” says Karen. “I wanted my daughter to be productive.” Peddle is the one who actually connected them with Wilhelmina.) All the while, Karen was fending off frantic calls from IMG, Next, CESD and practically anyone else who had laid eyes on Jen. It all still seemed like an experience she could write off as That Spring Break Trip Where We Gave Jen a Shot… until they got back to their hotel and found that CESD had messengered over a script for an audition. “They weren’t going to take no for an answer,” says Karen.
So, the new plan became that they would let her “try it” for a summer. And in a family experience that could easily be written into any sitcom plot, Karen and Gary Lawrence and sons took Manhattan. Only they had never done this before. They thought they had secured a sublet from a New York University student only to discover her naked roommate showering in the kitchen when they opened the front door. (Yes, there was a shower in the kitchen. It’s New York.) They marched downstairs and started calling hotels but it was Memorial Day, so there were none. A kind tenant and Google executive took pity on them and got them into an employee room at the Marriott, where they stayed until they found a new place. At some point, another failed apartment sublet resulted in a madcap drive for Gary in the back of a strange couple’s car, “I rode around New York City in the back seat of a total stranger,” Gary says as he passes through the kitchen in search of a blender. “We were in Chinatown and I think we went to a bank and I had to sign something. I just remember being scared to death.”
Eventually, they found a one-bedroom place with a futon in the living room in a safe neighborhood where they would settle Jennifer and Blaine who was going to take the first week with her in the city. “I had to run Camp Hi Ho, so the plan was for each of us [her parents and college-aged brothers] to take two weeks. Blaine would go first, then Ben, then Gary, then me,” says Karen.
The new place still had its share of urban drawbacks. “Jen called one night and said, ‘Mom, there’s a rat who poked his head out of the stove who’s the size of Shadow [the family cat],” says Karen. “I say this because you know how we live and this is how badly that child wanted to do what she was doing. She didn’t care. I mean, we were so grossed out. The fact is that she would have lived on the streets to get this opportunity. That is how strong her desire was.”
While Karen was up there for her week, Jen booked something. “And I’m going, shoot, she’s going to have to go to school up here,” says Karen. While the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts with its waiting list of children of connected New Yorkers asked her to attend, she enrolled in the Children’s Professional School for that Fall because of their flexibility.
At this point, Karen hatched an ingenious plan to improve their living circumstances. “I had determined that it would cost four to five thousand a month to get a place we could live in and I couldn’t spend that,” she says. So, she secured a pristine furnished apartment on 58th and Central Park South and then went about looking for a roommate by screening the potential renters that the landlord would send in to their month-to-month place. “I’d say, you’re willing to pay three thousand for this apartment, how would you like a couple of roommates in a much nicer place?” That resulted in a roommate arrangement with a Michigan lawyer and family man that lasted for years.
The New York/Louisville existence was taking a toll on the family though. Karen was living with Jennifer during Hi Ho off season and everyone was flying back and forth. At some point, Gary flew up and the thinking was that the Lawrence parents were going to do an intervention. “We were going to sit down with her agents and say, ‘Look, this is too much. Our kids are in Louisville, our life is in Louisville and we didn’t sign up for this,” says Karen. “Gary just said, ‘This is ridiculous. At a certain point, we are the parents and they have to stop telling us what to do.’”
That was their plan and they were a united front. And then, fate intervened instead. The Lawrences paid for a lesson with fabled acting coach Flo Greenberg who called them after her first session with Jen and said, “Please don’t send your child for lessons with me. I’ll just ruin her. I can’t teach what she knows. If she has an audition, I’ll tweak it, but, please, no lessons for her.”
And then, Jen got an audition. So, the Lawrences booked a session with Greenberg and, that evening, they’re getting coffee and still discussing their planned intervention when they get a call from Jen. “We’re having a cup of coffee and twenty minutes later, the phone rings and it’s Jen and she says, ‘Flo says to bring her a cup of coffee’” Karen says. “We’re paying for an hour, so I’m thinking that we’re getting ripped off. So, we go back with three cups of coffee and Jen is in the bedroom and Flo says, ‘You two, sit down.’ She is this beautiful woman with coiffed white hair. Her penthouse apartment overlooks Tavern on the Green which is all lit up with those little white lights and she has a white baby grand piano with pictures of her students who include Richard Gere and Kirsten Dunst. And here we are with this beautiful woman in these beautiful surroundings and it was what we needed and I think she knew it. And she looked at us and said, ‘Your daughter has a God-given talent that should not be kept from the world.’ Those were her exact words. She looked us in the eye. And we looked at each other... and there was a certain peace because we decided that we could do this together.”
That moment of magic is the one that Karen credits with instilling in her the strength to follow her parenting mantra, “Raise up your child in the way they should go.”
So, they did.
Rental homes in Los Angeles, television and movie roles came quickly over the next few years. And then there were Oscars and a Dior contract and selling Gary’s contracting business and selling Camp Hi Ho to middle son, Blaine. And there was the formation of the Jennifer Lawrence Foundation to support causes often involving children.
Through this amazing ride, the Lawrence family has continued to persevere and even thrive as a unit. Oldest son, Ben’s wife, Meredith, is the Executive Director of The Jennifer Lawrence Foundation and, with Karen, reads all of Jen’s fan mail. Blaine has taken over the camp. Gary frequently puts his contractor skills to work on the property and grows his own blackberries at the camp garden.
The family embodies the spirit of Hi Ho—a place where kids play in mud and follow their own path and are encouraged but not hovered over by staffers. “We didn’t grow up going to some prestigious camp,” says Blaine. “We grew up fishing and swimming and riding horses and jumping into the water. Some things about Hi Ho have changed. We have a new location and we’re bigger and more organized but the constant has been kids having fun. It was never about making money. It was always about doing what you loved.” Like Karen, Blaine rarely sits still. During our shoot, he was zipping around the camp on tractors and various farm vehicles, catering to a visiting school’s needs while being constantly at our beck and call. It’s a work ethic he comes by naturally.
When asked for her thoughts on parenting, Karen has this to say, “There’s a mistake I actually see far too many people make. And it’s not believing that there is a way to do it all. Hey, I worked. I never didn’t work. And I went to every baseball game. I just didn’t play very much. I knew my play time would come. My time to get my nails done and go to lunch with friends would come. But while they were little, I thought, right now, this crazy juggling act is what I want to do because I want to give it everything I have. And if you’re there for your children and you’re there for their games and there when they need you and you make them the priority, you’re not going to have to raise them for the rest of their lives. You’ve done your job.”