One of Tracee Ellis Ross’s earliest memories is toddling through her mother’s closet, aged two, wearing nothing but a pair of designer heels. It’s turned into a life-long habit: she still ‘steals’ items from that closet. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, if your mother were Diana Ross and her closet was overflowing with vintage show-stoppers?
“My mom will say, ‘You can’t take that!’ Or, ‘You’re not going to be able to fit into that.’ And I’m like, ‘Watch me try!’” Ross cackles, as we sit in her manager’s office in a slick Beverly Hills high-rise, just weeks before LA went into lockdown due to the pandemic. “My mom was a beanpole; like, the size of my leg, but I figure out how to fit into stuff – alter it!”
Ross talks about her mother with the ease of someone who, far from living in the legendary soul singer’s shadow, has spent the past 20 years proudly carving her own high-flying path. Starting out as a teenage model and, later, a fashion editor, 47-year-old Ross – dressed chicly in a black vinyl trench and high-waisted jeans, with a pop of pink lipstick – went on to become an actor, director and executive producer, as well as CEO of her own beauty company, Pattern.
Framed artwork on the walls around us from Black-ish (the US sitcom that earned Ross a Golden Globe award in 2017) and the 2019 spin-off Mixed-ish (which she co-created and executive produces) serve as powerful reminders of her distinguished career. But, she confesses, she’s always felt like something was missing. The release of comedy film The High Note later this year will see that ambition realized.
“My mom will say, ‘You can’t take that!’ Or, ‘You’re not going to be able to fit into that.’ And I’m like, ‘Watch me try!’”
“It’s been my biggest dream and my most daunting fear to sing,” reveals Ross, who plays a fictional, larger-than-life pop diva, Grace Davis, in her first leading role on the big screen. “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,” she laughs. “It’s been working!”), she had been on the lookout for a project that would exercise her secret talent for some time. And 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,” explains Ross. “My publicist called my other publicist and was like, ‘But who is singing?’ And she was like, ‘Tracee – she’s been in the studio for months…’ This was life-changing for me. To face one of your biggest fears and to face it in such a public way.”
Ross is no stranger to feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Aside from singing, she describes her 2018 Ted Talk, ‘A woman’s fury holds lifetimes of wisdom’, as the scariest thing she’s ever done. “This woman said to me, ‘You’re not nervous, you do this all the time,’ and I said, ‘No, you have to understand – I always get scared.’ The difference is I have a tried and true relationship with fear. Fear is someone I hang with on a regular basis.”
“I have a tried and true relationship with fear. Fear is someone I hang with on a regular basis”
She was also terrified at American Glamour’s Women of the Year Summit in 2017 where, in a speech that promptly went viral, she addressed people’s response to her as a woman over 45 who is not married and is without children, coming to the powerful realization that “my life is mine”. “My concern was that, in the context of everything happening in the world, it was frivolous,” she admits of the subject. “But then I realized there was a lot of identification with that sentiment. We are told that our lives are not ours. We are taught and cultured in that way.”
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.”
Case in point: “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!” she recalls. “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.”
“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…”
A large part of The High Note’s appeal was working with an all-female team. The film is directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night), produced by Alexandra Loewy (Working Title films) and written by Flora Greeson. Why is it so important to have women behind the scenes as well as in leading roles? “It’s the reason we want our tables to be filled with so many different voices and we want our storytelling to come through the lens of so many different points of view, cultures and experiences – because you get a fuller picture of what humanity looks like,” Ross says.
“We are all very strong, opinionated, clear-minded, hard-working women who cared a lot and invested a lot in what we were doing,” she continues of the atmosphere on set. “I’m mindful of not saying what it’s like working with women because it’s like saying what it’s like working with men or why you don’t want to work with women. What I know is that it was a great experience and I was really grateful.”
“We want our storytelling to come through the lens of so many different points of view, cultures and experiences – you get a fuller picture of what humanity looks like”
Next on her agenda in 2020 is executive producing and providing the voice in a spin-off of cult MTV animated series Daria, about her 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”), and unveiling more products from her hair company, Pattern. It was in September 2019 that Ross realized 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,” she explains. “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.”
Fashion has played an equally important role in Ross’s life. It’s only now that she’s able to articulate the powerful impact watching her mother transform into “different versions of herself” had on her. “Clothing, hair and makeup were not part of the male gaze for my mom,” says Ross. “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’.”
“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”
Growing up in Los Angeles with her two sisters – and two brothers who came along after her mother divorced music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein and married the late shipping magnate Arne Næss Jr. – did Ross have any idea how famous her mother was? “You couldn’t not know. There was no way around that,” she says.
“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.”
When we speak on the phone a couple of months later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Ross is reflective. She’s in the LA home she doesn’t usually get to spend much time at 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,” she says. “As much as my heart is heavy, I’m doing my best to stay focused on the silver lining that exists.”
“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”
Like many of us, that means rediscovering her love of cooking (“I have a text thread with my closest girlfriends in NYC and recipes are flying all over the place”), embracing Zoom meetings (“I didn’t even realize I had slow internet because I’m never home, so I’ve had to get a new router!”) and doing virtual workouts with A-list fitness guru Tracy Anderson.
She’s also been finding new joys at home. “There’s an owl in my neighborhood who I’ve only ever seen once, and I’m often not awake to hear,” Ross explains. “Now, when I hear him at night, I open my windows and take a bath. It’s magical.”
“My motto before the pandemic was, ‘work hard, work smart’, and now I think my intention is, ‘be easy, be gentle, be joyful’.”
The High Note will be available to watch online from May 29