‘I love getting wiser and having more experience’: Tracee Ellis Ross. Photograph: Campbell Addy/The Observer
Whether it’s sharing a platfom with Oprah or sending herself up on Instagram, the actor and activist always keeps it real
“She’s not surviving too well. I’ve just had to have a conversation with her and told her, ‘I’m soooo sorry.’” Tracee Ellis Ross is sitting across from me, via a screen, lamenting the dire state of her shrub. “I talk to my plants all the time,” she chuckles. This warm, full-throated sound, something of a trademark, will pepper much of our conversation. Ellis Ross’s hair is slicked into a dancer’s bun, her signature bright lips, which pop against the white of her blouse and deep green walls, mimic the hue of the fuchsia peonies blooming on her side table. “Flowers are magical to me,” she says. “I always have to have them in the house.” She has just returned home to sunny LA after a stint in Vancouver, shooting an indie film.
Most people became familiar with Ellis Ross as Dr Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, the matriarch in Black-ish, the multi-award-winning sitcom about an upper-class Black family trying to retain their cultural identity while navigating white spaces. Famed for deftly weaving laughter between nuanced conversations around everything from the use of the N-word to police brutality against Black people in America, Black-ish is widely celebrated as a cultural touchstone. It has featured cameos from Michelle Obama and Zendaya, and ended its run in April. While Ellis Ross admits to shedding tears “a lot”, she’s not solemn about Black-ish wrapping. Rather, she says, “I feel so much joy and pride. You know, it’s the second eight-year-long show that I’ve been a part of and to be able to say a proper goodbye and let something end with the value and the reverence that it deserves felt really special”.
This new chapter of her career coincides with a landmark birthday: Ellis Ross turns 50 in October. (“My dream would be to buy a piece of art that will be a marker of this point in my life. And I would like a Faith Ringgold… I mean I don’t even know if I can afford that….”) I ask her how she feels about getting older in an industry obsessed with youth. “Oh my goodness, yes they are obsessed,” she agrees. “And it is especially aimed at women. But you know, I’ve always been excited about getting older. I love getting wiser and having more experience. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have vulnerabilities and discomforts around my age, but trying to pretend or hide the things that I feel insecure or uncomfortable about doesn’t make them any less comfortable, you know?” “Also,” she says, “it’s actually a real honour to get older. Not everybody has that honour, with everything going on in this country, with all of the violence and the children that don’t get to live that long…”
Reach out and touch: Tracee Ellis Ross with her mother, Diana Ross. Photograph: Media Punch/Alamy
We are speaking shortly after the horrific school shooting at Uvalde in Texas, where a teen gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. “I don’t have any words. I haven’t stopped crying this week. It’s unbearable, utterly unbearable and it feels infuriating,” she says. The recent incident has meant that the debate around gun ownership is, once again, at the heart of both public and private discourse in the US. Ellis Ross herself shared a post on her social media honouring each victim of the shooting, providing details on how to support the families, while also encouraging everyone to join the fight to end gun violence.
Openly addressing hot-button issues – whether on social justice, politics or feminism – is not something Ellis Ross shies away from. In 2020, she hosted the second day of the Democratic National Convention where she called for the US “to be driven by people who understand that our democracy is based on the value of each and every one of us being treated with dignity and respect,” a thinly disguised swipe at Trump. In 2017, when she won the Best Actress Golden Globe for Black-ish, she was the first Black woman to win that category in 33 years (the last was Debbie Allen for Fame). Her acceptance speech famously addressed the elephant in the room. “This is for all the women, women of colour, and colourful people whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy and valid and important.”
Today, five years on, Ellis Ross pauses for a very long time, mulling over how much progress has been made in an industry still routinely criticised for being “oh so white”. Finally, she says, matter-of-factly, “Well, it’s a tough one. I mean, I was very honoured and it was wonderful to win, but I don’t know if that’s something we need to use as the example. It was over 30 years since a Black woman had even been nominated in that category. Nom-ina-ted,” she says, drawing out her words for emphasis. “I heard a friend recently say, ‘It’s not enough to celebrate the first.’ It’s embarrassing, you know? Because it’s not for a lack of talent existing, it’s not for lack of stories. It’s simply an industry that is still not telling our stories in a way that matches the reality of our humanity. I don’t… I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “I think it’s changing, but we’re still not at a place of equity and equality of storytelling. When I won the Golden Globe my speech was very specific. I always choose to speak about the narrative that is not out there. Everywhere I look, Black women are the leads in their lives. So why is there a gap here? There are many that are also so worthy of this [success]. So let’s talk about that and not that I am some special thing that has evolved out of nowhere.”
Telling her story: Tracee Ellis Ross speaks to Oprah about being free and single. Photograph: Omar Vega/Getty Images
Though her success – and public recognition – has come relatively later in life, Ellis Ross has always existed in the limelight. Her mother is the legendary singer Diana Ross, her father, the influential music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein. Dalton, the prestigious Manhattan school she attended, is where Gloria Vanderbilt, Ralph Lauren and Robert Redford sent their children. (“I went to school with people whose parents are the fabric of American culture,” she has said previously.) Later on, while studying fashion at Brown University, another elite institution, she auditioned for a role in Spike Lee’s seminal film, Malcolm X. She didn’t get the role. It did, however, leave her with a taste for performance. So she switched her BA to theatre arts and consequently, while working on fashion magazines Mirabelle and New York, she began auditioning. It was an experience she recalls as “disappointing and painful. I kept getting rejected.” A few bit parts eventually led to a role in 2000, playing Joan Clayton in Girlfriends – a sitcom following the relationships and careers of four Black women in LA. It was a hit with Black audiences in America, but flew under the mainstream radar. “When Girlfriends ended (in 2008),” she previously told the Atlantic, “I thought the pearly gates of Hollywood were going to open. They did not.” It took six years before she landed the role of Bow in Black-ish.
Ellis Ross has always said that advocating for yourself as a woman, “takes a lot of courage” and that, as a Black woman, it is “a form of resistance”. One can’t help but think of this personal advocacy in light of the question she is asked in every single interview she gives: why is she still unmarried and childless? It is a societal expectation she addressed at Glamour’s 2017 Women of the Year Summit. Her speech went viral. Years later, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, a Black woman whose childfree, unmarried status has also long invited public scrutiny, Ellis Ross said, “I was taught, like many of us [women], to dream of my wedding and not of my life. So I spent many years dreaming of my wedding and waiting to be ‘chosen’. And in the world we live in it is easy for me to feel undermined in all my accomplishments, because I’m not married or a mother. But here’s the thing, I’m the chooser. I can choose to be married if I want to but, in the meantime, I am choicefully, happily, gloriously single.” She doesn’t mind constantly being asked about it because, she says, “It’s an opportunity to change the narrative and expand the story of what we can be as women.”
For all her work as an activist – she’s also a co-founder of the Times Up movement that fights discrimination, sexual harassment and the assault of women in Hollywood – anyone who follows Ellis Ross on Instagram will be privy to her multifaceted personality. She is lauded for her style: in 1991, she walked the Paris runway with her mother for Thierry Mugler’s “Butterfly” show; she is an ex-fashion editor; her best friend is Samira Nasr, editor-in-chief of US Harper’s Bazaar… But she’s also become something of an unofficial master of high jinks and tomfoolery and her Instagram posts keep her 11m followers in stitches. There’s a recurring appearance from her alter ego “Madame Hiver” – the life coach who “sometimes drinks too much” or throwbacks like the one where Ellis Ross, adorned in a printed catsuit, delivers an impressive lip-syncing performance to Nicki Minaj’s tongue-twisting Super Bass (it makes very funny and addictive watching). And then there’s the plethora of videos where she appears on screen, up close sans polish and makeup.
Sitcom star: Tracee Ellis Ross as Dr Rainbow ‘Bow’ Johnson, the matriarch in Black-ish. Photograph: Richard Cartwright/ABC/Getty Images
In a world – and a social-media platform – where a flawlessly curated reality is de rigueur, this level of transparency is unusual. “I have struggled with perfectionism,” she admits, “and now I shun it. I want to be in a relationship with myself as I am. I don’t want to be fighting with an image that I put out that I can’t keep up with. I’ve posted pictures of me in my pyjamas and my hair everywhere, my glasses… I just feel like it’s part of the whole picture. I did not ‘wake up like this,’” she says, “That whole Beyoncé song… it was very, very, uh, challenging for me,” she says, bursting into laughter.
That “hair everywhere” references Ellis Ross’s bounty of coils, which takes centre stage in so many of her posts. The actor is the founder of PATTERN, a bestselling US hair care range that targets curly, coily and tight hair textures and will launch in the UK this month. As she delves into the genesis of the brand, Ellis Ross’s speech is excitable and expedited. “As a child, I just had wild and free Tracee hair, which I was fine with. But then when you hit high school you start interacting with the patriarchy,” she says. “And then there was also the media’s idea of what ‘beautiful’ is… all these commercials of ‘bouncing and behaving’ hair, ‘easy, breezy beautiful’ hair… I was seeing all these versions of what is considered beautiful everywhere and thought, ‘How do I get my hair to do that?” This, she says, led to experimentation: “I even put beer in my hair.” And she recalls spending a lot of money trying to find the right products. “At one point, when I came home from high school, my mom opened up my bedroom door and was like, ‘Listen here, it’s enough with the hair products! I don’t know what’s going on. There’s shampoo and conditioner in the shower. There is a brush in there. That’s what you got. If you want anything more than that, you have to get yourself a good job or, one day, maybe you’ll get yourself a great husband. I don’t know what to tell you, but enough!’” She laughs. “And so I got myself a great job and I got myself a hair company.” Of course the story is all the more amusing because of who Ross’s mother is. ‘‘I created the company because the more I looked around, I realised I was not the only one. There was a vast community of people who were being underserved”.
Glittering prizes: Tracee Ellis Ross with her Golden Globe. Photograph: George Pimentel/WireImage
Ellis Ross makes clear that being a well-known actor, with a famous mother, didn’t pave a smooth path. It took 10 years to get PATTERN to market. “There were so many different kinds of ‘nos’,” she says. “There is a major blind spot in the industry, because there’s no data to support the power of this demographic and this consumer. It is a blind spot of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, all of those things. There seems to be a misconception that Black hair care is a niche market – it’s not. The industry did not understand the importance of the power and the money on the table with this vast community of people.”
Ellis Ross is in a good place right now. She is launching PATTERN in the UK, while simultaneously working on Jodie, a spin-off inspired by the 90s animated series, Daria – she is the voice of the main character as well as an executive producer. There is Hair Tales, a six-part series exploring Black women through hair, which she is producing with Michaela Angela Davis and Oprah Winfrey. And a podcast which, she says, “tells the stories of people who make up the promise of America”. Somewhere in between her work schedule she plans to travel to Europe – she speaks fluent French – . She spent part of her high school years in France and Switzerland. Her 50th birthday celebrations in October are still up in the air, yet the date draws ever nearer – “I keep thinking about it and I can’t figure out what I want to do.” But for now, she says, smiling widely, leaning forward, “I’m in the process of dreaming new dreams.”