Talks black feminism, her return to TV and why she loves her curves (including her booty).
THE LOVE BELOW
Tracee Ellis Ross, star of ABC’s new comedy Black-ish, gets candid about owning your 40s, the power of being a woman and why she loves her big booty.
By Jacinta Howard • Photography by Drexina Nelson
Merriam Webster defines “power” as the ability or right to control people or things. Tracee Ellis Ross? Well, her definition is far more… poetic.
“The words that come to mind with ‘power’ are grace, trust, collaboration, empowerment and clarity of vision,” says the 41-year-old actress. “I think the evolution of that for me has really been about the collaborative part of it, and as I’ve gotten older, the clarity of vision has gotten clearer.”
Yep, she’s poetic all right, but she’s also down to earth and funny. You remember her days as Joan on the now-syndicated Girlfriends. She has a similar sense of humor in real life—she’s self-deprecating in a way that makes you relate to her, honest in a way that makes you wish she was in your clique of friends.
Ross’s relatable persona has kept her working regularly, and her newest sitcom, ABC’s Black-ish, where she stars as Rainbow Johnson alongside Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, gives her the chance to put her talent and humor on display for prime time again. The show is a lighthearted, funny study on post-Obama race relations, exploring what it really means to be black in our current cultural climate. In the pilot episode, the eldest son starts referring to himself as “Andy” instead of “Andre,” tries out for field hockey and wants to have a bar mitzvah for his thirteenth birthday. Meanwhile, Anderson’s character, Andre Johnson, struggles at work when he’s named the senior vice president of the company’s urban division—which he believes to be a slight since he’s one of the few black employees there.
As usual, Ross has natural chemistry with her castmates, namely Anderson, and brings a likeability to the show that few actresses are capable of producing. In one particular scene, Anderson teases her about “not really being black” because she’s biracial.
“Tell that to my hair and my ass,” she instantly quips with her signature smirk.
Ross says she also enjoyed that line because it enabled discussion about a very real subject.
“I think one of the things that I like about the script is that although everything in there is not necessarily my point of view, it’s exploring racial identity and cultural identity in a way that offers up a dialogue for all of us,” she says. “What is blackness? What is being black? Who defines that and do we need to define that? I don’t have the answers to all of those questions, but I think these are the conversations we’re all still having.”
With the increase in black leads and significant characters on television this season, from Halle Berry to Viola Davis, these are questions that are likely to be explored on a more regular basis. Being in the forefront of those discussions through her show is powerful in its own right. Ross isn’t looking to change the world with Black-ish, she just hopes it sparks discussion.
“The beauty of the show is that it’s just a family comedy, but it has another layer to it,” she explains. “I don’t know what I necessarily want people to think or talk about after watching it, but for me in general with cultural identity, racial identity and feminist identity, dialogue is important. People communicating in a light and open way about issues that have a lot of depth and weight to them is a great thing.”
She’s no stranger to discussion. The daughter of iconic singer and actress Diana Ross, Ross admits that while she grew up with extraordinary opportunity, her mom was exactly that—a real mom. She took Ross and her siblings to school, she shopped at the grocery store, she did normal things that instilled a sense of character into her charismatic daughter that she carries with her today. Her favorite part of her life? Being human.
“I really like it,” she laughs. “I like the hard parts about it and I like the good parts about it. I have a unique and exciting legacy from my mother, so I had a lot of opportunity and extraordinary experiences, but from the example of my mother, there’s another part of it which is your life… your family, going to the market, picking up the sh-t from your dog, being responsible and accountable and dependable in the relationships with the people that you love. Showing up for your friends when they need you and having those genuine moments that actually heal my soul.”
Yep, turns out beneath the funny girl, there’s pieces of Iyanla Vanzant. In all seriousness, Ross’s thoughts on feminism, community, society and culture have become as much a part of her persona as her affinity for style. She’s hosted BET’s Black Girls Rock for three years running. In June, she appeared on Aspire TV’s talk show, Exhale, discussing feminism and what it means to be a black woman today.
Another favorite topic of discussion? Her booty. Google “Tracee Ellis Ross” and one of the first links that pops up is a slideshow detailing 10 instances where she looked “gloriously thick.” All jokes aside, earlier this year, Ross decided to take her butt, er, matters into her own hands and hopped on Instagram with a compilation of pictures from previous shoots that proudly showed off her curves. Ross, who has never even taken a selfie, says the decision actually came from a place of empowerment. After being mortified at one especially popular picture of her that kept popping up (a candid snapped backstage at her friend Kanye West’s concert), she decided enough was enough.
“When I saw that picture for the first time, I was like, ‘I hope I never see this picture again!’” she remembers, laughing. “And then years later it kept popping up and every time I saw it, my stomach would turn. I said, ‘I need to stop letting this bother me!’ I need to be empowered by it instead of undermined by it.”
She recognizes the issues society has with the oversexualization of the female body, particularly with black women, and she’s glad she’s able to lend her voice to the discussion.
“In general, the booty pics don’t thrill me, mostly because we obviously are in a culture where the objectifying of women is at an all-time high, to a certain extent, and the oversexualization of black women in our society is something that a lot of us are dialoging about and how you balance that. I personally do not believe the answer is not to be sexual. Sexuality is part of who I am as a person—I’m a woman. And how you define the space around that is a very personal, intimate journey.”
Besides, she’s happy with her curves.
“I’m proud of my body—I work very hard to keep my body at 41 years old, because my booty could drop,” she deadpans. “Gravity is not a joke.”
Ross, who was previously romantically linked to music executive (and Akon’s brother) Bu Thiam, is wise enough in her forties to know that she doesn’t know everything about how to make relationships work.
“We all find our way with that stuff,” she says, brushing off any questions about relationship advice. “Any one rule [as it pertains to romantic relationships] that people think works everywhere is just not true. In general, with everything, it’s an intimate discovery of trusting yourself and allowing yourself the room to have curiosity about life and self.”
She says she’s still learning.
“The twenties had their vibe and the thirties had their vibe, the forties have a vibe,” she shrugs. “I think the twenties was a lot of learning. I kind of knew who I was but I was afraid to be that person. The thirties was a lot of being that person but not as much comfort with it, although as the thirties progressed, I was finding more comfort. The forties have been good so far.” Knowing yourself? Now that’s power.