Tracee Ellis Ross on her extraordinary childhood and first lead role


Tracee Ellis Ross wears a shirt dress, pants and skirt by Christopher John Rogers, earrings by Katkim and shoes by Wandler. Photographed by Olivia Malone for Porter. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via NET-A-PORTER.COM.

Actor, director and executive producer Tracee Ellis Ross talks to NET-A-PORTER’s digital title, PORTER, about feeling reflective during the current situation, her first leading role on the big screen, being happily single, and how her mother’s style impacted her: “Clothing, hair and makeup were not part of the male gaze for my mom. She owned her sensuality and her sexuality in a way I found very empowering because it wasn’t about ‘look at me,’ it was about, ‘this is me’.”

Ross, 47, grew up in Los Angeles with her two sisters, two brothers, and mother, the legendary soul singer Diana Ross. Did she have any idea how famous her mother was? “You couldn’t not know. There was no way around that.”

Ross was also aware of how unique her childhood was: “There were certain moments [my mother] couldn’t be involved in, like taking me school shopping because it was distracting. And yeah, I was at the White House multiple times as a child, Andy Warhol painted me, and Michael Jackson was a friend of the family. But I was aware of how unique and extraordinary it was; it wasn’t something I took for granted.”

Far from living in her mother’s shadow, Ross has spent the last 20 years proudly carving her own high-flying path. But, she confesses, she’s always felt like something was missing. Out early this summer is upcoming comedy film The High Note, in which Ross plays a fictional larger-than-life pop diva, Grace Davis – it is Ross’s first leading role on the big screen: “It’s been my biggest dream and my most daunting fear to sing. But when you have a mother who is epic in that way, somehow secretly inside, you think, ‘that’s not the thing to do, pick something else’.”

While Ross has no regrets about the career she did pursue (“I’ve done quite a good job with the other path. It’s been working!”), she had been on the lookout for a project that would exercise her secret talent for some time. This joyful Devil Wears Prada of the Hollywood music industry, co-starring Dakota Johnson and Ice Cube, is the ideal showcase: “Nobody knew if I could sing or not. […] This was life changing for me. To face one of your biggest fears and to face it in such a public way.”

Tracee Ellis Ross wears top Christopher John Rogers, skirt Loewe, ear pin Katkim and shoes A.W.A.K.E Mode. Photographed by Oliva Malone for Porter. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via NET-A-PORTER.COM.

Ross has long been passionate about the way unmarried women without children are represented in popular culture: “It’s one of the reasons I feel so strongly about telling the stories that I tell. I wish I had known there were other choices, not just about how I could be living, but how I could feel about the way my life was. I was raised by society to dream of my wedding, but I wish I had been dreaming of my life. There are so many ways to curate happiness, find love and create a family and we don’t talk about them. It creates so much shame and judgement.”

Ross gives an example: “I had some big celebrity guy go, [shakes head and taps watch on wrist] ‘you better get on it.’ And that was when I was in my thirties!”

Ross muses about people’s misinterpretations about being happily single: “People misinterpret being happily single as not wanting to be in a relationship. Of course, I want to be in a relationship but what am I going to do? Spend all the time that I’m not [in one] moping around? No. I’m going to live my life to the fullest and I’m going to be happy right here, where I am.”

Next on her agenda in 2020 is executive producing and providing the voice in a spin-off of cult MTV animated series Daria, about the character’s friend Jodie: “It’s a metaphor for what’s happening right now to take the sidekick black girl and allow her to move into the lead position to tell her story,” says Ross.

It was in September 2019 that Ross realised her 10-year dream of launching haircare, “to meet the un-met needs of the curly, coily and tight-textured community. Women have been relegated to a small amount of real estate and, culturally, the beauty world is one of the spaces where we have been able to express ourselves fully and connect with each other.”

“For black and brown women, that space is even smaller, so as a result it has become more than just a beauty thing, it’s a space for community. I thought I was alone in looking for self-esteem and not understanding that my physical appearance did not match up with what the world was saying was beautiful.”

In the midst of the current pandemic, Ross is reflective and is counting her blessings: “I hate that it has taken a pandemic and so much pain and loss and fear to get me, and all of us, connected back to our humanity in this way. As much as my heart is heavy, I’m doing my best to stay focused on the silver lining that exists.”

Finding new joys at home, Ross is partaking in recipe swapping with her friends: “I have a text thread with my closest girlfriends in NYC and recipes are flying all over the place.”

Adapting her life motto to suit her current headspace, Ross ponders: “My motto before the pandemic was, ‘work hard, work smart’, and now I think my intention is, ‘be easy, be gentle, be joyful’.”

For PORTER’s shoot, shot just before the lockdown in LA, Ross was photographed by Olivia Malone and styled by Solange Franklin wearing bold and bright dresses from Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Balenciaga and more. All items can be purchased straight from the shoot via the NET-A-PORTER app, available on Android as well as iPhone and iPad, and through net-a-porter.com.

Ellis Ross wears dress Christopher Kane, ring Katkim and ring Saskia Diez. Photographed by Oliva Malone for Porter. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via NET-A-PORTER.COM.

Interview highlights:

Tracee Ellis Ross on how her mother’s style impacted her: “Clothing, hair and makeup were not part of the male gaze for my mom. She owned her sensuality and her sexuality in a way I found very empowering because it wasn’t about ‘look at me,’ it was about, ‘this is me’.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on how she was aware of how famous her mother, Diana Ross, was: “You couldn’t not know. There was no way around that.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on how unique her childhood was: “There were certain moments she couldn’t be involved in, like taking me school shopping because it was distracting. And yeah, I was at the White House multiple times as a child, Andy Warhol painted me, and Michael Jackson was a friend of the family. But I was aware of how unique and extraordinary it was; it wasn’t something I took for granted.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on her first leading role on the big screen, playing larger-than-life pop diva, Grace Davis in comedy film The High Note:  “It’s been my biggest dream and my most daunting fear to sing. But when you have a mother who is epic in that way, somehow secretly inside, you think, ‘that’s not the thing to do, pick something else’.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on how nobody knew if she could sing before taking on the role of Grace Davis in comedy film The High Note: “Nobody knew if I could sing or not.…This was life changing for me. To face one of your biggest fears and to face it in such a public way.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on having no regrets about the career she pursued: “I’ve done quite a good job with the other path. It’s been working!”

Tracee Ellis Ross on being passionate about the way unmarried women without children are represented in popular culture: “It’s one of the reasons I feel so strongly about telling the stories that I tell. I wish I had known there were other choices, not just about how I could be living, but how I could feel about the way my life was. I was raised by society to dream of my wedding, but I wish I had been dreaming of my life. There are so many ways to curate happiness, find love and create a family and we don’t talk about them. It creates so much shame and judgement.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on being told ‘to get on with it’ and settle down to start a family: “I had some big celebrity guy go, [shakes head and taps watch on wrist] ‘you better get on it.’ And that was when I was in my thirties!”

Tracee Ellis Ross on people’s misinterpretations about being happily single: “People misinterpret being happily single as not wanting to be in a relationship. Of course, I want to be in a relationship but what am I going to do? Spend all the time that I’m not [in one] moping around? No. I’m going to live my life to the fullest and I’m going to be happy right here, where I am.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on producing and providing the voice in a spin-off of cult MTV animated series Daria, about Daria’s friend Jodie: “it’s a metaphor for what’s happening right now to take the sidekick black girl and allow her to move into the lead position to tell her story.

Tracee Ellis Ross on realizing her 10-year dream of launching a haircare line: “to meet the un-met needs of the curly, coily and tight-textured community. Women have been relegated to a small amount of real estate and, culturally, the beauty world is one of the spaces where we have been able to express ourselves fully and connect with each other.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on how her brand has created a community: “For black and brown women, that space is even smaller, so as a result it has become more than just a beauty thing, it’s a space for community. I thought I was alone in looking for self-esteem and not understanding that my physical appearance did not match up with what the world was saying was beautiful.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on how in the midst of the current situation she is reflective and is counting her blessings: I hate that it has taken a pandemic and so much pain and loss and fear to get me, and all of us, connected back to our humanity in this way. As much as my heart is heavy, I’m doing my best to stay focused on the silver lining that exists.”

Tracee Ellis Ross on finding new joys at home, and partaking in recipe swapping with her friends: “I have a text thread with my closest girlfriends in NYC and recipes are flying all over the place”

Tracee Ellis Ross on adapting her life motto to suit her current headspace: “My motto before the pandemic was, ‘work hard, work smart’, and now I think my intention is, ‘be easy, be gentle, be joyful’.”

To see the full interview, head to PORTER or download the NET-A-PORTER app for iPhone, iPad and Android

In this Story: #style / fashion