While carving her own path in Hollywood, wowing the fashion world, and never resting on name or looks, Tracee Ellis Ross has put in thousands of hours of work to achieve her success. Giving, grateful, funny, and focused, she’s in high demand for she can do it all. Ross demonstrates her versatility with two new feature films dropping this winter: American Fiction (with Jeffrey Wright) and Candy Cane Lane (with Eddie Murphy). Now we rewind 25 years and start this story at the inception of both FLAUNT and Ross’ career…
But of course, before a deeper dive, this particular instance asks a noteworthy question: What is it like to be ‘born famous?’ Ross knows first-hand. Her parents are the legendary musician Diana Ross and music producer Robert Ellis Silberstein. It might be assumed that for Ross, show-business success was a given. But that’s not quite the way it worked, and the thousands of hours will attest. While interviewing the actor, I found her unaffected and straightforward. This is despite—or as she explains—because of the way she was raised.
Thank you so much for giving time to FLAUNT for a cover story for our 25th-anniversary issue. I’m going to start there. Because 25 years takes us back to 1998, which also brings us back to the beginning of your career as an actor. So, let’s jump into the late 1990s when this magazine first hit Los Angeles newsstands. What was Tracee Ellis Ross doing in 1998? You would have been 25 or 26 years old.
Mm hmm... Let me think. I had just moved to LA. God, it’s funny to go back that far! I was living in a really cute apartment in this building on Sycamore called the Il Borghese. I had not yet been cast in Girlfriends. Around that time I was on The Lyricist’s Lounge Show, which was a hip-hop sketch comedy show on MTV. So I had this lovely apartment, and that was the year I made my holiday video, which I shot right there in my yellow kitchen.
With a VHS camera?
No, it was a Hi8 camcorder. I set it up, and then I did of all these different characters wishing Happy Holidays. Some of them are online, some of them I still do. ‘Madame Hiver’ is a character I still do and have performed as, ‘Caliope Champignon’ was not in there, ‘Broadway Girl’—there were a couple of really fun ones. And I went and edited it, and I sent out 52 VHS tapes... And that launched the beginning of my career into comedy in a real way.
So what were your hopes and dreams when you were making that tape back in 1998, what were you wanting? What was the aim here?
I’ll be honest with you, I wanted everything that I’ve gotten. Career-wise, my two idols growing up were Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. I always thought that the Carol Burnett, the sketch comedy would come second, but The Lyricist’s Lounge Show came first and the ‘Lucille Ball’ of it. I really think I got to live out a version of that in Girlfriends. Looking back, it seems fastish, but in the process, it did not.
There were so many deep valleys, so many difficult moments, so, so many [times] when I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know that I’ll ever get hired again.’ You know, I remember someone saying to me, ‘Some of the best careers are 10 years long,’ and when Girlfriends went eight years, I was like, ‘That might have been the peak.’ But when I won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for Black-ish, my manager looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got to dream new dreams.’ And I really didn’t even know what that meant. Because it’s so funny, you know, when you work so hard and so long towards the things that you want... I mean, I’m 51 years old now. Although I like to think of myself as, [with this, Ross puts on a dramatic diva voice] ‘sexy and timeless forever.’
And you have been since October 1972. Happy belated birthday by the way. What is aging? I don’t believe in it. I like having been alive for longer, I like knowing more stuff. I agree with you, and I have loved getting older.
This is one of my favorite stories I tell people. So when I was growing up, I used to see women had this thing under their eyes, and I didn’t know what it was called, and I coveted it. I thought it was extraordinary and I could only get it when I leaned down. In my 20s, I was like, ‘One day, maybe I’ll get those things that make you look like a woman.’ And now they call them ‘bags,’ but they just look like life to me. I love telling people my age. I think it’s an honor. Not everybody gets to get older, and I love it, and I’ve always loved it. But I don’t know, looking back, I don’t know what I thought it would be like here at 50, 51, but it’s so good. There are a lot of weird things about it, sometimes you’re kind of like, ‘That’s bizarre!’ but mostly it’s kind of delicious.
Let’s go back a little bit further. You obviously grew up in Hollywood, around Hollywood.
Not really. I was born in Los Angeles. I went to The Center for Early Education. We lived here and then we moved to New York around 1978 when my mom was doing The Wiz. So from kindergarten, I was a New Yorker. I went to the Dalton School in New York, kindergarten through seventh grade. Those were my really formative years, so I really do consider myself a New Yorker. My mom, of course, has led a very public life, but she is such a private person, and such a home person. She’s a mom before she’s ‘Diana Ross.’ My childhood was very anchored in real family life. My mom was home, my mom came and woke me up for school. And what I will say is it looked the way it did for my friends. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, my mom had a unique job, but I wasn’t this crazy person standing out in my school because of that, or was in a situation where my life was so different from everyone else. There were certain unique things, but my mom woke us up for school in the morning. We would sit down and have dinner together. She would record when we were asleep at night. She never left for longer than a week. All of those kinds of things were very much a part of who I was. It wasn’t like my mom was a partier or there were lots of celebrities around. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Jackson was around. Marvin Gaye called the house all the time. Cher and my dad and my mom and Michael played doubles tennis. Andy Warhol photographed me. You know what I mean?
All of that stuff was just a part of my life. But at the same time, the feelings and the experiences and the way my mother created home life for us was very ‘normal.’ And then I moved to Europe in eighth grade. I went to The American School of Paris and then Le Rosey in Switzerland. And I became a child of the world versus solely ‘American.’ And I will say that this is where a lot of my style and my other interests grew from.
I mean, I was always interested in clothes and beautiful things from a young age with my mom. And then when I moved to Europe, that kind of sealed the deal, it was like, ‘Fashion, do you take me to be your lawfully wedded wife?’ And I said, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ And then, you know, from my 18th birthday, I walked in the Thierry Mugler fashion show, and then I was asked to go back the next year, and that was the butterfly show.
You undertook a Theater degree at Brown University—you must have been drawn towards being vibrant yourself.
Well, the thing was, I was very shy. I remember when I did a talent show in high school, I really shied away from doing that—I had a big personality, but I didn’t like to make people laugh. It was hard to do the other thing. By the time I got to Brown, though, I did fall in love with it. And I’ll be honest, it was mostly because of my teachers. There were two teachers in the theater department, one in particular was Lowry Marshall, who recently passed away. These were classes that I had chosen, and yeah, a spark got lit. I remember the first time, where Lowry Marshall gave us a ‘pick a line’ exercise in the acting class. All of us had the same line which was, ‘There’s a man on the roof and he’s going to jump.’ It’s already kind of dramatic, but you had to say it three different ways. So it didn’t have to be dramatic, it could have delivered as an exciting thing, or in any other way. And I realized that all of the parts of me, my imagination, my fears, my regrets, the things I didn’t like about myself, anything, all of it could be used to be an actor. And that was the spark that got lit, and I haven’t really turned back.
When you landed the lead in Girlfriends, a regular series starring role, was there a part of you that thought, ‘Okay, I’ve made it.”
I’ll tell you, I thought I had made it when I did my first Gap ad with my mom and they paid me $750, and I literally was like, ‘I am stinking rich.’ I was like... ‘I do not need you anymore, Mom. I got this. I’m out. I’m gonna be a model now.’
Later I look it up: The black and white campaign was shot in the 90s by master photographer Herb Ritts. Intertwined and sporting intense stares at the camera, mother and daughter pose wearing the era’s staple: a white tank top and jeans.
Girlfriends was on air between 2000 and 2008—the Los Angeles-set sitcom saw you playing ‘Joan Carol Clayton’ alongside three other women who support each through the ups and downs of being young, female and Black in today’s world.
When I booked Girlfriends I definitely thought I had like, won the lotto. It was such a great role. I loved the material. I loved playing Joan Carol Clayton. She was neurotic, she had a lot ‘less faith’ than I had. The experience of doing it was not easy. There was a lot of stuff that we went through as a cast. But I grew up and became a woman on Girlfriends. I became a seasoned comedic actress on Girlfriends. The thing is, I can’t say that it ‘launched’ my career, because I’ll be honest, television was way more segregated then. And I don’t know that it had the impact that I thought it was going to have.
When Girlfriends finished, I thought the pearly gates of Hollywood were going to open for me—and they did not. I thought scripts were going to be lined up at my door. They were not. And then there was a bit of a barren time. That was when I leaned into my character work and started delving into the question of ‘Who do I want to be in this life?’ I had grown up, I had the opportunity to become a woman during Girlfriends, and then I got to live as that woman when Girlfriends finished.
And then—I would like to say, ‘Oh, then Black-ish came along,’ but I’m sure it wasn’t like that. Rather, ‘How did you make that happen for you?’
I love the way you said that—‘Oh, then this came along’—I think that would be the myth, right? No, I had to make it happen. Let me tell you as a Black actress in Hollywood at that time, things weren’t that easy at all. So basically, there are a couple of things. The Black-ish creator Kenya Barris also wrote on Girlfriends. He and I were friendly, and he would often send me his pilots. He called me or texted me, and said, ‘I’ve written a new show, and I wrote a role for you.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ And that is because I have had experiences in Hollywood where literally, in a character breakdown, it says ‘Tracee Ellis Ross type,’ and they will not see me. They don’t want me to audition. They didn’t want the actual me.
I’ve also auditioned for roles where, you know, you leave the room, and they tell you it’s yours. They tell you you’re incredible. They tell you all those things right to your face, and in the end, it is not yours. So I was jaded enough to know, to just react with, ‘Okay, sounds good.’ Meanwhile, my managers at the time never submitted me for that role. I kept saying, ‘He says it’s written for me. Are you sure?’ Finally, I got feedback from them which was like, ‘We don’t think this is something you should go out for.’ So there was all that happening.
Eventually, I auditioned. And people are like, ‘Oh, did they just offer you the part?’ I was like, ‘No—I auditioned. I went in.’ But even after the audition, Anthony said he went out and told the other people waiting, ‘You all can go home, she got the role.’ I still did not believe it. I was like, ‘Until there’s a piece of paper that
I get to sign, I don’t believe you.’ And my theory on auditioning, because when people are like, ‘Why do you audition?’ I say, ‘Because I will either make a new fan or get the role.’
So with Black-ish, then, I finally got the role. I was nervous to, all of a sudden, shift to being ‘a mother’ on television. I know what it is to be a Black actress in Hollywood, and I also know what it is to be an actress in Hollywood. I was like, is this going to put me in a position where I can no longer be seen as the sexy ingénue? Can I no longer be seen as anything else ever again?’ So on that point, I had reservations. And yet I kept showing up, and I kept speaking up, and also while I was on the show to make sure that Bow was so much more than just the wife. I am very strong about using my voice, making sure that I can always stand behind the roles that I play and the material that I do. And Girlfriends was a fantastic eight years. Black-ish was also eight years. That’s 16 years of my life.
Black-ish ran from 2014 to 2022 for 176 episodes. Eight years is a long time in anyone’s life, almost a full decade. As Dr. Rainbow Johnson, you really raised a family on TV, but you also raised consciousness in normal television audiences. That this is a family, this doesn’t have to be a caricature, doesn’t have to be a sermon every episode. It’s a fun show about growing up, people existing in this country, and just exploring who they are.
For me, most importantly, what I loved was that Bow was more than just ‘wife wallpaper.’ She wasn’t just a sitcom wife, she had her own point of view, she had opinions, she did more than just react to her husband. And that was really important to me and something that I pushed for and advocated for on a regular basis.
Black-ish the series had its own children, with spinoffs Mixed-ish and Grown-ish. This period also sees you becoming a director and producer. And I’m sure very much involved a lot in the writing as well.
I mean, I was definitely breaking stories; I was a co-writer on an episode about perimenopause on Black-ish. I was not on Grown-ish at all, I wasn’t a producer or anything on there. I created Mixed-ish with Kenya Barris and Peter Saji. And I did direct on Black-ish. It launched and began my journey as a producer. I now have a production company through ABC Signature that is wonderful. I have a lot of projects in development, and I love producing. It’s very similar to being a CEO and a founder and business builder. A lot of the same properties come into play, putting teams together, keeping focused on a vision, creative problem-solving, staying focused, also in the use of narrative. Directing is really fun, but right now I’m more focused on producing, acting, and being a CEO.
I want to hear about you wearing the CEO hat, but a little more on Black-ish. Taking the role and becoming a TV mother with a family, raising some kids on TV also entailed mentoring these young people in their journey as actors and actresses. You’ve watched these young people grow up on screen in front of you, and now they’re all very successful.
It’s kind of extraordinary. You know, I don’t have children of my own. I have lots of god babies and nieces and nephews. But my TV kids really hold a very special place in my heart. It’s also really interesting working with kids. Not for the reason that people always talk about, but because I personally am such a ‘Mama Bear.’ I felt incredibly protective of them. They all had wonderful parents, which I think is what made them wonderful kids, and they were so talented from such a young age. But I have this very protective thing about them. I would always say to their parents, things like my investment is in them as people, not them as ‘actors.’ So I’m always looking out for things that I don’t think are appropriate because of how old they are, or whatever. That just because they’re actors, they shouldn’t be exposed to certain things. I went to Tyler, the Creator’s festival recently, and I ran into Marsai [Martin] and Yara [Shahidi] and they’re both so big and gorgeous and just grown up. I’ve known them for so long now. Eight years in a kid’s life is a long time and now it’s been 10, we’ve been done with the show for two years.
And beyond the Mama Bear nature, you’ve assumed, you’re a businesswoman who does it all—Pattern Beauty is your company?
Yes. It’s been really fun. It was a dream of mine. It took 10 years to get off the ground, and now it’s a thriving business. We are in over 10 retailers, in the UK as well as the US. We’re at Ulta, Sephora, Target, Macy’s. We excel in exceeding the needs of the curly, coily and tight-textured community. We’ve gone from 10 SKUs to 50 SKUs. We launched a blow dryer recently. It takes up a lot of time, but it’s really interesting, productive time. And it’s a challenging growth space for me that I really love.
Your name is ‘Tracee Joy,’ and your production company is ‘Joy Mill Entertainment.’ There I think of let’s say, a flour mill or a water mill—instead, you’re a joy mill that’s churning, churning out joy.
So I was born ‘Tracee Joy Silberstein,’ and, ‘Joy’ was because, as my mom said, I came out as joyful, and that is my natural temperament. When I joined SAG, there was already a ‘Tracee Ross,’ and I wanted to have my dad’s name in it as well, which is Robert Ellis Silberstein, and because we had all stopped using Silberstein, that’s how I became ‘Tracee Ellis Ross.’ Also I think joy, is one of my main guiding forces. And so my production company is ‘Joy Mill Entertainment.’
And so the question is, Tracee, what brings you joy today?
What brings me joy today? Okay. Trees bring me a ton of joy. I am a big tree person. I spent some time watching one of the trees in my yard today. My nieces and nephews bring me a lot of joy. I have a lot of them, and they are spectacular. My friends bring me a ton of joy. I have really extraordinary friendships, and they bring me a lot of joy. One of my best friends is on a Safari in South Africa right now and she’s sending pictures of it all that are really sending me, they’re stunning. A good meal, like a six o’clock meal brings me a lot of joy—an early supper brings me a ton of joy. And my bed—my bed is my special place. Also, I would add baths. I love a bath so much.
What can I say? Agree on everything there. So with the festive season fast approaching, that brings us to your new movie, Candy Cane Lane, [Amazon Studios] where you star with Eddie Murphy, and the film follows a sort of sunny Californian ‘12 Days of Christmas’ format.
Candy Cane Lane is a Christmas movie, yes. Eddie Murphy and myself play a married couple, Chris and Carol Carver. There’s a crazy elf, and a lot of wonderful animation interlacing with our live-action. And, you know, comedy ensues. I don’t know if you know what a Candy Cane Lane is, but I did not know that Candy Cane Lanes are a real thing until doing this movie. So, there are streets in almost every state in this country and where they go totally overboard on Christmas, decorating their house with Christmas lights et cetera.
And now, you can also talk about another recently completed film, American Fiction, directed by Cord Jefferson. I saw the preview and it was really compelling. It seems to be a serious film that deals with themes and issues very pertinent to today’s world. Can you tell me a bit about his project and what it’s about?
So, American Fiction is the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison played by Jeffrey Wright. He is an author and a professor, and the film follows his journey in facing the establishment and how it profits off of the stereotypes Black people.
It sounds multi-layered and very complex.
Okay, first of all, it’s a comedy. It’s not that complex, but it is very ‘meta.’ It is a story within a story within a story. This is the story of a man, who comes from a complex family—I play his sister Lisa. Our father passed away years before, and he and my older brother, played by Sterling K. Brown, left where we grew up, and sort of left me holding the pieces of his family there with their mother. A series of events occurs that forces him to face this past, and also who he is in the world as a writer.
The film is based on a book, Erasure by writer Percival Everett. The plot details the way in which a writer shifts his style dramatically to play up to certain stereotypes of ‘Black writing’ and then finds this ‘successfully backfires’ on him. In bringing that to the screen, did you read the book, or not, so as not to be skewed in your interpretation of the script?
I did not read the book first so that I could actually just come at it from the perspective of Cord and what he wrote and what he wanted from the characters. I have a tendency to want to start fresh with material like this. I was actually glad that I hadn’t read the book before getting the script, because I think I would already have had ideas in my head. This was so I could just start fresh.
So, tell me a bit about working with Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, The French Dispatch, Basquiat) who is an incredible actor.
That was one of the reasons that I wanted to do the movie. I’m also friends with Cord Jefferson, the director, and I love supporting first-time directors. Especially because I’ve been a first-time director, and one of the things that I love about a first-time director is there’s a freshness to the way they navigate things. He’s also so smart and just has a really interesting way of looking at the world. And so it was really an exciting thing for me to work with him. And then the Jeffrey Wright of it is kind of like, you just kind of can’t say no. He and I had a ball. I have to tell you, I did not think that I was going to have Jeffrey Wright laughing, but he did not stop laughing. We had a really good time. We shot in Boston.
I had to smoke for the role. I tried to get Cord to take that out, and he would not; because of a certain thing that happens in the film, he was adamant that I had to smoke. And then when I saw the final edit, I was like, ‘Cord! After all that smoking I did, you never even have me smoking in one shot, you never see a cigarette in my mouth.’ What was really compelling to me was not only working with Jeffrey Wright, but also that this woman was an abortion doctor at Planned Parenthood. That in and of itself was enough for me to say ‘Yes’ to the role. And then you add in Jeffrey Wright, Cord, a great script, and I think the movie is fantastic.
That’s beautiful. Do you have any more fun things that you’d like to do soon? What does the future hold?
One of my missions in life is to join the chorus of people who are helping to make the world a more just, equitable place, where everyone can be free and safe to be themselves, and I have a particular eye towards Black women and girls. So I will continue to do that. I use a lot of my projects and my business as a platform to extend that mission and actively be of service, but I have so many more dreams. It was not hard to dream new dreams when my manager said that to me, there’s a lot more to do with my beauty company. And as a business builder and a business owner, it’s been really fun to be in that position and really challenging in the right way.
One of the key things for me in that area is dispelling the myth that Black hair care is a niche market. I disagree and I think the data proves that that is not true. There are also so many more roles that I would love to play of the nuanced, complicated, wonderful, deep, fun, joyful and wounded women that live in me that I would love to share on a big or small screen. I’d love to do an action film one day. Hopefully we can do that before my knees give out. I would love to do like a drop kick and knock somebody out with a punch. You know what I mean?
I would love to see that. I would love to see you bring your favorite action film to life. ‘Action slash superhero.’
I could see being a superhero. I’ll be honest, I could also happily be Bond. James Bond. I don’t know why we haven’t thought that 007 doesn’t change to being a woman now. I don’t understand why we’re still trying to cast men in that role. And I feel like I would be a great 007. Why do they keep listing all these men? I’m like, ‘Do you know how many women would be great 007s?’ I could make a list of five women—and I would put myself on it.
Absolutely. Is there anything else you’d like to say to FLAUNT Magazine on its 25th birthday?
This was a lovely conversation, and I am wishing FLAUNT a Happy 25. Thank you so much.
And with that, the sensational, inspirational, fabulous-haired, Ross goes to spread joy. Catch her being unstoppable, effervescent and ebullient in both Candy Cane Lane and American Fiction. And if you are a lucky enough to be on her 2023 Holiday Card list, have a look in your cupboards to see if you can find one of her 52 cassettes from her early days in Tinseltown. A souvenir of the first step on her journey to the top and a reminder of the talent that won through.
Photographed by Fabien Montique
Styled by Jordan Boothe
Written by Hannah Bhuiya
Flaunt Film: Kelley Grade
Photo Assistant: Philip Skoczkowski
First Styling Assistant: Heidi Cannon
Production Assistant: Stephani Jacobson
Lighting Assistant: Leo Amaral
Location: Blanc Studios NY