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The sky is turning dusky over the Soho House in West Hollywood, and Tracee Ellis Ross, nestled into a sofa on the roof garden, gazes out at the downtown skyline and then in toward a beefy blond man she calls “the best of the lumber-jacky thing,” insisting that he is not her type and then insisting that she has no type. The violet hour is Ross’s favorite time of day — to pour herself a glass of wine, to take a bath, and to do the “wandering and pondering” that her increasingly busy schedule has turned into a luxury. Her alarm went off at 4 this morning, as usual; Ross is in the midst of shooting a fifth season of Black-ish (premiering on ABC this month), and meanwhile projects are piling up at her feet, which on most days are steeply stilettoed but today are clad in winking orthopedic Gucci trainers. Ross has been a working actress for two decades, her career bubbling away gently for much of that time, but all of a sudden she is that rarest of Hollywood birds, ascendant after 40.
“In the last few years, things I thought were off the table happened,” says Ross, wearing a long chartreuse dress swirling with flowers. Her attention is suddenly diverted by the arrival of a plate of cheese — an unaccustomed indulgence, at the taste of which her eyes close and her face tilts upward in a sort of caricature of rapture.
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In 2017 Ross was invited to the Golden Globes for the first time and ended up with a best actress award for her work as Dr. Rainbow (“Bow”) Johnson, anesthesiologist, mother of five, and moral core of Black-ish. Ross was 44 when she took home the trophy — exactly 44 years after her mother, Diana Ross, won hers for Lady Sings the Blues. It all seemed to be happening at once: She found herself becoming a fixture on the late-night talk shows, a breathlessly followed style icon (for evidence, look no further than the fashion master class she gave as host of the 2017 American Music Awards), and an eloquent and outspoken voice for the Time’s Up movement. Ross wasn’t new. She had been the star of Girlfriends, a sitcom that ran for eight seasons starting in 2000. But that was cable. “My team was always being told [by the talk-show producers], ‘We love Tracee. Call us when she gets something.’”
In person, Ross’s intrinsic glamour — giant, flickering eyes, precipitous cheekbones — is softened by her tendency toward slapstick. She is glad to wax philosophic as long as there’s room at the end for a joke. She slips in and out of impersonations, from whiny teenage girl to English aristo à la Old Hollywood. We are catching her, Ross observes, at a proud moment in her own life and at a bleak one for the nation. She has spent some time lately considering the connection between the two. “On the one hand this feels like the country’s dark night of the soul,” she says. “If the U.S.A. were in a 12- step program, it would need a really big moral inventory. But one of the things that’s been special about this time is that there’s a space for one’s own unique experience in a way that there wasn’t always. The life promised by fairy tales and movies is not relevant in the same way — the white picket fence, blah, blah, blah — and there are more people telling stories that have different colors and flavors to them. Pose is on TV, and it is so good! This September the magazines were covered with black women. And with Black-ish, for us to be representing an American family is kind of major. When you can look at a story that is not in any way your story but see all the ways you identify, that’s art doing its job.”
Black-ish has found success by approaching substantive issues with humor. Through the evolving story of the Johnson family, the show has explored topics ranging from gun control to postpartum depression, the N-word to police misconduct. “We’re using comedy to discuss some real shit,” says Ross. “I think it’s stuff that all of us are chomping on or wondering how other people are dealing with. I would say that 70 percent of the people who come up to me on the street are 11-year-old white boys who are obsessed with our show. Where in their 11 years would the unpacking of the historical context of the N-word come up? I think that’s great.”
Ross describes the character of Bow as a “lean-back woman”: someone who does not have to jump into every minor drama in her household, instead allowing things to unfold as they will, her feelings about them always inscribed on her emotive face. Ross notes that Bow’s unpanicky deliberateness parallels her own in midlife. But unlike her character, she is not married and has no children. These are facts for which she is held to account almost daily. “It’s sort of fascinating to be 45 and single and childless,” she says. “Happily single, I should add. Not at home crying about it” — which she pantomimes with an outsize pout and the blotting of imaginary tears. “These are very big and very personal questions that aren’t anyone’s business but that somehow, like the right to choose, become fodder for public conversation. Some of the ability to reflect on what I really want comes from pushing up against a society that shames me for not having the expected trappings. I’m very pleased with my existence these days. Have I had to learn to make friends with loneliness? Yes. I think if I were in a relationship, it would be the same.”
In fact, “choiceful solitude,” as she calls it, is one of Ross’s favorite things. She reads. She tends to her lemon trees. When she feels antsy, she plays dress-up in her closet, sometimes inventing characters along the way. Though she has many friends, she travels mainly by herself. Ross talks for a living, and silence feels like a warm bath. Her wit and gregariousness — inherited from her father, Robert Ellis Silberstein, a Los Angeles music executive — belie the fact that she has never been a party girl. “To get me out of the house is not so easy,” she says. “I lose my social ability after 9 o’clock. My friends joke about it: You could be on a dance floor with me and we are going” — here she throws her hands in the air, swivels her head, and offers a high-pitched whoop — “and you turn around and I’m gone.”
Ross grew up primarily in New York, with extended European sojourns. Despite Diana Ross’s enormous fame, she was a present and doting parent to her five children; to this day, Diana and Tracee (her second eldest) maintain an extremely close relationship. “It’s funny,” Ross says. “I think reality television has warped people’s sense of what having money or fame looks like behind the scenes. I have always had a lot of abundance. I was very well educated because of my mother’s gift” — at elite prep schools in New York; at Le Rosey, the Swiss alma mater of the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, and royals; and at Brown University. “I feel very aware of that privilege. There were beautiful things everywhere, but there was a sense of taking care of and cherishing beauty. And also of not taking things too seriously. You could be climbing all over my mom’s head while she’d be sitting in an interview, putting your handprints on everything.”
And yet it could not always have been easy being the daughter of one of the world’s most famous people at the height of her fame — a topic Ross plans to explore in a memoir she is working on. “It’s a lot,” she says. “It’s not navigable without a parent who is choosing you over everyone else. I grew up the way Blue Ivy [Carter, Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s daughter] is growing up — although at least there wasn’t social media.” Ross inherited her mother’s — and father’s — love of fashion. (Consider the fact that for her 18th birthday, she flew the Concorde to Paris, stayed in Azzedine Alaïa’s apartment, and got to choose three outfits from his archives.) She worked briefly as a fashion editor after college before dabbling in modeling. Then she started auditioning. But to this day, one of her favorite activities is visiting the racks of clothing in her mother’s storage unit.
“It’s like going to a museum,” Ross says. “I’ll sound like a crazy person, but when I hold some of her extraordinary original beaded stage clothes, there is a particular Diana Ross smell, a mom smell, a certain perfume that I just love. And sometimes, when you open the garment bags and there’s makeup or sweat or other evidence of the clothes being worn — I find it really extraordinary. It’s an artifact. You’re seeing the fullness of a life that existed in that snapshot of a moment. That’s what clothing has always meant to me, and also probably why I became an actor. As a kid I saw my mom as the lady in the sparkly dress on the stage who sang, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the language to articulate that what I was seeing was a woman in her full glory being in connection with this gift she was given, being glamorous and sexy but not in a way that’s ‘Look at me.’ We live in a ‘Look at me’ culture. I was raised to view sexy as being at the height of your … self. Clothing was one of the ways you could wear your inside on your outside.”
Ross owes her reputation as one of the red carpet’s more daring and singular dressers in part to her collaboration with stylist Karla Welch, who stepped into the breach when Ross became too busy to stay on top of the collections. (Welch also styled her for this shoot just after the couture collections in Paris.) They are roughly the same age, reared on the original ’90s supermodels. In her spare time, Ross remains a passionate shopper, though these days that means stacks of boxes from MatchesFashion, the London online retailer. She insists that she never internalized the pressure to look good. “The glamour I learned from my mother is easy, no-pressure glamour,” she explains. “And there’s a lot of joy in that.” As her own fame has grown, though, Ross has taken pains to make sure her fans appreciate the effort behind the image, as her Instagram feed, with its mix of magazine covers and makeup-less Monday-morning shots, makes clear.
“The ‘I woke up like this’ thing? Bullshit!” she says. “Black-ish is in HD, darling! There’s no Vaseline on the lenses. At 18 I might have woken up like this. At 45 I fucking work for it. I love potato chips more than anything in the world, and so I work out hard. I put masks on my face. I take care of myself. And, by the way, to me self-care does not mean going to the spa. It’s learning to say no. It’s knowing yourself so you can make choices that are an expression of you. That’s self-care.”
And so is speaking out on the issues that are important to you. In April Ross gave a TED Talk about another topic that she feels is healthy and vital: the wisdom of fury, an emotion that first stirred in her around the time of the 2016 presidential election. “It was a feeling that I didn’t have a lot of experience with, that was a little bit beyond anger,” she explains. “It wasn’t frustration. It didn’t have the frenetic quality of rage. The name that landed was ‘fury.’ And I started to notice that I was hearing ‘furious’ from a lot of people, a lot of women. As women, we’re told we’re not supposed to be angry. So what do you do when you’re pushing up against that fiery feeling? In the context of #MeToo and Time’s Up, of fighting against sexual harassment and for equal pay, what is the constructive way to be furious? We’re in an age when it’s easy to quickly vilify, and in some cases that is absolutely appropriate. But I think the fury has a lot of wisdom in it if one can sit with it in the right way.”
It’s always been the case that where fury simmers, comedy soars. And as much as Ross likes to get people to stop and think, there’s nothing she loves more than to make them laugh. “I’m a silly gal,” she says. “Some of my best material happens in therapy. And lately, my therapist has been on the floor.”
This article originally appeared in InStyle.