‘I Thought the Pearly Gates of Hollywood Were Going to Open’
Tracee Ellis Ross’s career once depended on a man in Italy picking up the phone. It was 2000, and the then-27-year-old actor desperately wanted to accept an offer to star in the UPN sitcom Girlfriends. The role of neurotic, perpetually single lawyer Joan Clayton was Ross’s dream job: Until then, she had mostly appeared in little-seen indie films and TV movies. So the chance to lead a comedy-series ensemble could help her establish the identity she’d been craving since she was little, growing up as the daughter of the legendary singer Diana Ross. She felt she could earn the unconditional adoration that her mother received from her own fans. She could quiet the scrutiny of the skeptics who doubted her talent. She could pay her own health insurance.
Ross pictured herself on a boat—not a canoe or a kayak, but some massive vessel, an ocean liner, perhaps—beating back the turbulence and tides of instability inherent to a career in Hollywood. With Girlfriends, she could be its captain. But because she was a cast member on an MTV variety show, she had to be released from her contract with Viacom. UPN gave her 48 hours to lock down the gig, and the Viacom executive who could sign off on her departure was in Europe, ostensibly unreachable.
And so, Ross explained to me earlier this month over Zoom, she became “literally frozen with fear” in bed for two days. Reenacting the scene for me, she sprawled across the sofa in her Los Angeles home; clamped her arms to her sides, rigid as a plank; widened her already-wide eyes; and gritted her teeth into an exaggerated grimace. “I just kept laying there because I was so anxious,” she said. “My future is hanging in the balance while this man is on vacation!”
Fast-forward decades later, and it’s hard to imagine the Ross of 2020 ever being paralyzed or lying in wait. At 47, the actor seems to rarely sit still; in fact, given her natural exuberance, she avoids coffee and chocolate entirely. In a talk with Oprah in February, she kicked off her shoes midway through in excitement. Amid California’s lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, she has launched the second phase of her hair-care line, Pattern Beauty, and promoted her first leading film role, in The High Note. On Instagram, she advocates for Black artists and Black causes—while also dancing, taking selfies, and meme-ing herself regularly to the delight of her 9 million followers. She likes to toy with accents, act out anecdotes, and especially indulge in her two alter egos, both of whom she has memorialized in her home with framed photos. Every now and then, she celebrates her onscreen counterparts by posting clips from Black-ish and Girlfriends.
So, yes, the Viacom executive came through. From there, Ross set sail onto eight seasons of Girlfriends, six seasons and counting of Black-ish, one Golden Globe, a viral speech at the Glamour Women of the Year summit in 2017, and a TED Talk in 2018. This year, she scored her fourth Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and emceed the second night of the Democratic National Convention. Next month, along with a collection of other shows starring Black casts, the complete series of Girlfriends will hit Netflix to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its premiere, paving the way for a new generation of fans, just as the original show paved the way for Ross’s current stardom.
Except that’s not exactly how it happened. Girlfriends, Ross explained, flew under the radar—the mainstream radar, to be clear. The show never aired a series finale; it never even had a wrap party. In interviews during its run, Ross fielded questions about its “low profile” despite the series’ longevity. When Ross landed Black-ish, a department head mistook her for an ingenue. “He was like, ‘You’re new on the scene, you’re fresh faced, but you’re so good; you’re experienced!’” she recalled, lowering her voice to play his part. “I was like, ‘Oh no, no, no, I’ve been doing this forever.’”
Hollywood’s disregard while Girlfriends aired was “a rude awakening in terms of the segregation of the industry,” Ross told me. “I don’t think I realized how differentiated it was, that even our show was considered a ‘Black show.’” She thought that being the lead of a sitcom with a catchy theme song, consistent ratings, and a harmless premise—that of four, well, girlfriends navigating life and relationships in L.A.—would be enough for mainstream exposure. Created by Mara Brock Akil and produced by the Frasier star Kelsey Grammer, the series grew to become the third-highest-rated program among African American households by its second season, averaging about 4 million viewers. (That’s far behind the most popular sitcom at the time—Friends, which attracted nearly 25 million pairs of eyeballs—but competitive with shows such as Reba, Family Guy, and Dawson’s Creek.) The numbers also surged in the sixth season, after UPN investigated the ratings and found that Nielsen, the agency tracking viewership data, had been undercounting Black women (A Nielsen representative denied the charge). And yet, while Girlfriends was on the air, Ross didn’t get a single invitation to appear on a late-night talk show, a staple of the press tour for most sitcom stars.
“Even if we reached out, the answer was no,” Ross said. “The response was, ‘We love Tracee. Call us when she gets something.’” She paused, took a deep breath, and looked directly into the camera. “Get what?” she said, laughing. “Can you tell me what kind of thing? Is it something I can get at a store? Can you send it in a package?!” Ross even studied the shows and tracked who got invited in the hopes of figuring out the formula. “I was like, Okay, so this person does feel like the right person, but his show has a smaller viewership than ours, so I’m not sure I understand,” she said. “So I was like, Hmm, what’s happening here?” Even now, she can only guess at the answer.
Whatever that something was, Ross got it in 2014, when she began starring on Black-ish. Those elusive late-night invitations arrived. Award shows wanted her to host. She landed covers of major white magazines. In 2016, she was nominated for her first Emmy.
The attention boggled Ross’s mind: As the star of Girlfriends, she couldn’t get face time on any of these conventional outlets or score any of these accolades. But skip a few years and suddenly people are interested in what she has to say? It’s not like she got funnier; she’d been a seasoned comedic actor on Girlfriends. She didn’t suddenly have new stories to tell the Jimmys; she’d been armed with anecdotes about her mother and her childhood encounters with famous figures such as Prince and Andy Warhol all along. It wasn’t as if Black-ish wasn’t a “Black” show; it features an all-Black cast, just like Girlfriends, and it spawned spin-offs, just like Girlfriends. And its roles weren’t dramatically different: Girlfriends’ Joan acted like the matriarch of the friend group, priding herself on her ability to hold them together. Black-ish’s Dr. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson balances out her husband’s wackier impulses. Ross instills both characters with warmth, humor, and her signature energy.
But maybe it was a matter of the shows’ platforms: Black-ish aired on ABC, one of the big four legacy networks, whereas Girlfriends had to weather a network switch from UPN to The CW after Season 6. Maybe it was the premise: A show about four women may have alienated male audiences, and lacked the generational appeal of a show about a family.
Or maybe, Ross posited, it came down to the framing—the systems “that determine and tell us what is valid, what is mainstream, what is worthy, and what isn’t.” She cited Kimberlé Crenshaw, the law professor and critical-race-theory scholar who coined the term intersectionality, as she explained the differences in the lenses through which Girlfriends and Black-ish were viewed. “For some reason, the entertainment industry has created this delineation”—she paused to outline a box with her hands—“that mirrors or matches a lot of the systemic oppression and racism and patriarchy that exists … I wonder if in the time from Girlfriends to Black-ish, if some of the frames got dismantled, and some got made, that allowed an understanding of the equal importance of all different kinds of stories.”
In other words, representation isn’t the same as legitimization. When Girlfriends aired, shows featuring Black casts were categorized as “Black,” a label that was perceived as less serious, less substantive. (The show was often called the “‘urban’ version of Sex and the City”—a descriptor that, when I reminded Ross of it, made her put her head in her hands.) By the time Black-ish arrived in 2014, a new vocabulary for talking about representation had, too, thanks in part to the president being a Black man. “All of a sudden, with the Obamas in office, the Americanness of a Black family becomes a given, because our president is Black,” Ross said. “Maybe the frame changes. People can hold the fact that a Black family is an American family, as important.” Audiences began to build a framework to talk about a show with a Black cast, about Black characters, in a way that didn’t focus solely on their Black identity and therefore box them out of the mainstream conversation—a conversation that continues today when it comes to recognition and how Hollywood assigns value.
Still, during the six years between Girlfriends’ end and Black-ish’s beginning, Ross found herself adrift. Offers didn’t come her way; scripts didn’t cross her desk. “When Girlfriends ended, I thought the pearly gates of Hollywood were going to open,” she said. “They did not.” She changed course, auditioning for whatever became available, including for a correspondent role on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. (“I am still proud of that audition,” she told me, beaming.) She started planning for Pattern Beauty, and began building a personal website. Most significantly, she shed her self-imposed limitations, little things she did to make herself fit the mold she thought she needed to fit—like smiling in a way that hid her top lip, or singing in a joking manner. Humor was her defense mechanism, a way to help her avoid sincere comparisons to her mother, but during that time she began taking herself seriously. “I sort of unapologetically became myself,” she said. “I was like, Look, if twisting myself into weird spaces is not going to get me parts, then I might as well enjoy being me while I work through this process.”
That instinct, combined with her growing recognition, has led Ross to challenge other, more public narratives about herself: In her Glamour Women of the Year speech, she talked about embracing being unmarried and without children, directly confronting headlines that compared her relationship status with her role on Black-ish as a mother of five. When she got her first Emmy nod, she expressed both her excitement at being the first Black woman in 30 years to be feted in her category and her disappointment at how long that drought lasted. “Why is it 20-whatever and we are still talking about firsts and ‘30 years between’ things?” she asked. “What’s the breakdown, and how do we fix that? And why is the question only asked of the people of color, and why is the question not asked of the people who are apparently the gatekeepers who are always here in these rooms?”
It wasn’t easy—it still isn’t—to work on defining that “something” late-night show bookers once said she needed. The oppressive frames have not all been dismantled. She’s invited to talk shows now, but she still has to correct Ellen DeGeneres when the host mistakes the Black Girls Rock! awards show for the BET Awards. Dozens of series feature all-Black casts, but critics continue to box them in by questioning the authenticity of their portrayals of Black experiences, or expecting them to be more “provocative” on the subject of race. Black-ish has received 19 Emmy nominations, but has yet to win a single trophy.
So Ross refuses to pay close attention anymore to what opens those pearly gates, to what such signifiers mean about her worth. “It’s delightful to be acknowledged for your work. It is not validating,” she said of her latest Emmy nomination. “If I look for validation from those aspects of a career, I would be ruined.” Growing up, her mother had encouraged her to assess her achievements on her own. “[She’d ask,] ‘Did you do your best today?’” Ross recalled. “Not ‘Did you get a good grade?’ but ‘Did you do your best? How do you feel about it, Tracee?’” These questions taught invaluable lessons, Ross explained, on “how to navigate a life through how it feels to you as opposed to how it looks to everyone else.”
That said, she’d love a trophy, if only because it’d be great to stand on that stage and get a chance to thank the people she needs to thank, to say what she wants to say. “Let me be clear: I would really like to win!” she said, leaning into the camera, grinning mischievously. “You get to use that platform and all of those eyeballs to shine a light in areas that normally don’t get shined.”
The truth is, when that light lands on her, Ross sometimes still gets scared—a type of fear where “nothing anyone could say to me could talk me out of what I was afraid of,” she said. It happened to her outside of the sound booth before recording songs for The High Note. It happened when she stepped on stage to deliver her TED Talk, when she realized the crowd wasn’t looking to be entertained, but informed. Comedy and clothing, she quipped, make up her armor.
That armor has kept her afloat in a career of ebbs and flows. Black entertainment, Ross explained, gets celebrated in waves. “[Shows such as Girlfriends] disappeared,” she pointed out, but amid cultural nostalgia, the rise of streaming, and a national reckoning over race, they’re back—and they stand a chance at being considered classics. “I feel like Netflix picking up all of these shows from the last wave, 20 years ago, and now joining them into the chorus of what’s here now,” Ross said, “perhaps will allow a little more context and a better frame for the experiences, and how they’ve been told on television, and the validity and the importance of [Black entertainment].”
She promised she’ll be bingeing Girlfriends when it arrives on Netflix on September 11. But in the meantime, Ross is busy filming Season 7 of Black-ish; the comedy resumed production this week. She is also executive producing three projects, and has more plans for her hair-care line to work on. And so Ross is no longer picturing herself merely captaining a ship; she’s steering that ship as it rides a growing wave. “The life that I’m living right now pretty much matches what my fantasy would be,” she conceded, chuckling. “It’s a life that is really full.” After all, she’s no longer waiting for anyone to answer the phone.