I want to preface this by saying I might not appear to have a lot in common with Tracee Ellis Ross. I do not star in a hit TV show. I do not have 4 million Instagram followers. I was most definitely not raised by a music icon. But I’m not married and I don’t have kids, and that is something Ross and I share. So when I heard her speak at Glamour’s Women of the Year Summit—where she denounced the cultural pressure on women to couple up and trot out some tots—I felt like she spoke to my soul.
“It’s really interesting to be a woman and to get to 45 and not be married and not have kids,” Ross told the audience. Even though she’s killing it in many ways—“I’m a good friend, a solid daughter, a hard worker, my credit is good, I take out the garbage before it gets smelly, I recycle, and I won a Golden Globe!”—she is still judged on the marriage and kid counts. Well-meaning people remind Ross that it’s “never too late” for her life to have, quote, meaning: “As if all that I have done and who I am doesn’t matter.” In her confusion about these expectations, she took to her journal, where she had an epiphany: “I wrote down, ‘My life is mine….’ Those words stopped me in my tracks and honestly brought so many tears to my eyes.” And the realization opened a door for her to sort out what her life could look like if she had full ownership of it. “I’m going to pay attention to the reality of my life and the audacity of my dreams instead of the expectation I was raised with,” Ross said on stage. Amen, I thought. The idea that we, as women, are whole and complete as ourselves, not in relation to anyone else, is something we all want acknowledged by society in 2018.
And that message is at the heart of Ross’s work. When she’s not blessing us with seminal speeches, she’s playing a fully cooked human, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, on ABC’s I. Sure, Bow’s got a husband and kids, but those are just two parts of her life: She’s also an anesthesiologist, an activist, a sexual being, a Beyoncé fan, and more. “What’s so interesting to me about Bow is her selfhood,” Ross recently said when accepting an award from Women in Film. “Not just her motherhood, her jobhood, or her wifehood, but that she is a self with all of those parts.”
Ross herself is a woman with many parts: She is an actress, an advocate, a fashion designer, a beauty disruptor, a political opiner—and a doctor. Seriously. She is Dr. Tracee Ellis Ross, thanks to an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Brown University. And she’s teaching us all to get to know ourselves, to own our dreams and desires, to celebrate our individual paths, and to make space for people to follow their own paths too. Dr. Ross, everyone.
GLAMOUR: In 2017, you became the first black woman in more than 30 years to win the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy and you got an Emmy nod. You just got nominated for a 2018 NAACP Image Award. What do those wins and nods mean to you?
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: There’s the personal gratification: I have dreamt of moments like these since I was a little girl, accepting my Oscar in the mirror. So it’s a dream come true. Oh my God, I made it. Pinch me. But what has been way more impactful for me is the larger meaning…. When another woman or another woman of color has a win, I feel like it’s my win. I feel like it’s a ceiling breaking open. And so the nominations, even the win, really feels like it’s not mine. It’s like something becomes more possible.
GLAMOUR: Let’s talk about Black-ish: There’s so much to Bow as a character, and that’s still rare for a sitcom wife.
TER: It is, and Black-ish is told through [Bow’s husband] Dre’s eyes, so it is very traditional in that sense. But I am not wife wallpaper in his world. The tendency, in the old paradigm of how you look at a sitcom wife, is to say, “Isn’t it incredible that she’s also a doctor?” And it’s like, No, what’s incredible about her is that she’s a doctor, wife, mother, person—at any given point she can be any of those things. She’s very fully-formed.
And I am constantly asking questions of the writers: Why? Why am I doing—I coined it as lady chores—why is it that I am making lunches, and Dre is not making lunches? Why am I carrying laundry? Can I not come out of the laundry room, and come in from work? Can I have a wine glass instead of be stirring soup? The writers—we have almost 50 percent female writers—they are so attuned to Bow. There is no one consciously attempting to give me lady chores, but sometimes [it happens] unconsciously. Anthony [Anderson, who plays Dre] will be like, “Let’s switch; let me take a lady chore.” I would say that eight out of 10 times, it gets changed. Sometimes it doesn’t work for the story…and you know what? I have no problem [then]. I do laundry, I wash dishes, I make food as a human being.
GLAMOUR: That’s true. As long as that’s not the only thing you see Bow do. How does it feel to play a character whose lived experience is so different from your own? She is married with five kids!
TER: It is fun, and sometimes it feels like it steals certain experiences from me. I’ve never been pregnant. As I said in my Women of the Year Summit speech, “It’s really interesting to be a woman and to get to 45, and not be married and not have kids. Especially when you have just pushed out your fifth kid on TV.” And to have spent an entire season pregnant! …On the other hand, it feels very natural: I am very mothering. Whether I end up having children or not, I will always be a very mothering person.
GLAMOUR: You recently hosted the American Music Awards, where your mom received the Lifetime Achievement Award. I loved seeing her perform on that stage at 73. What was that like for you?
TER: The Diana Ross we all know kind of doesn’t hold a candle to the mom that I have, in her extraordinary ability to love. What was most impactful about that moment to me was that my mother was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for her career, and the most important thing to my mom was to have her entire family onstage with her. My mom had my nieces and nephews—her grandchildren—dancing around her. Whenever we go see her show, that’s what happens. That’s the way I grew up, dancing onstage while my mom was singing. Just like walking on the stage and tapping her on the butt, and like, “Mom, Mom.” My mom holds her family and a career and nourishes both things.
GLAMOUR: That’s amazing. Your mom was raised in Detroit. She has said she came from a poor family. Meanwhile, as a kid, you were dancing onstage with her in front of fans. Those sound like different childhoods. What did she do when you were young to help ground you and connect you to her own experience?
TER: First of all, my mom is very close to her family, and so we were too. My mom is one of six. We used to spend most of my Christmases in my grandmother’s house in Detroit with all of my cousins. I don’t think my mom needed to make a concerted effort to, for example, “ground her children.” I think my mom’s moral compass and sense of priority—that family is first—and her gift has given her family the opportunity to have the life that we’ve had.
My mom always used to make funny jokes, which were not that funny to me, like, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. No, no, no, I made this money for me. I will pay for a roof over your head, your doctor’s appointments, food. Other than that? You guys need to figure that out for yourself.” [I remember], one of her best lines of my childhood—I have always been attempting to make friends with my hair, and I went through this phase where I tried every hair product in the world. My mom said to me, “Listen to me: You either need to get yourself an incredibly good job, or”—and by the way, this is generational, but she did put job first—“or a very wealthy husband to pay for your hair products alone, because they are going to break the bank. Call it quits on the hair products. I can’t deal with it.”
GLAMOUR: That’s hilarious. Did your mom ever try to dissuade you from going into modeling and then show business?
“The key is you ask yourself:
What do I need right now?”
TER: No, she actually helped me do all of those things. My mom was in my first meeting with Wilhelmina, the modeling agency. She set it up. I did the Thierry Mugler fashion show because of her. Thierry Mugler had asked her to do it, and she said the only way I’ll do it is if you let my daughter walk too. So my mom never dissuaded it; although I will say, she was very big on saying things like, “You sure you don’t want to be a doctor?” Her sister is a world-renowned doctor: Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, the first black female dean of a medical school. So we had all of those options open to us. But what I saw in my mother was a woman with a platform, who had agency in her life. I walked toward that.
GLAMOUR: You mentioned before that she also taught you a lot about love. What in particular did she teach you?
TER: My mother has a deep heart for her children that I almost don’t understand.… I have these memories, like I said, my mom is onstage doing her job, and as a kid, I would wander in during shows, like, “Hey, Mom.” And she was not like, “Get off the stage! Get out of my moment!” She’s like, “What’s up?” I have never heard my mom say, “Not now—I don’t have time.” Even now, in the middle of the night, my mom will answer the telephone. It’s incredible to know you are loved in a way that somebody is there for you.
That’s something that I have used in my relationships with friends. My friends know: My home phone ringer doesn’t turn off. You need me in the middle of the night? I am your girl. I will bring you to the hospital. I will call you if you are frightened.
GLAMOUR: I want to ask about your Glamour speech. You talked about finding love outside of traditional romantic relationships, one place being friendships. At my close friend’s wedding, she said something like, “I’m so glad that I finally have someone to share my life with.” Obviously, I was happy she found this wonderful human, but in that moment, I also thought, Excuse me, I’ve been sharing your life with you for a decade! Why is there this lingering idea that there’s a higher sense of love that comes only in romantic partnerships? That drives me nuts!
TER: Well, it does drive me nuts. I will say—listen—I do not want to make out with my best friend, nor do I want them to spoon me naked. So that is a simple and clear distinction. However, I will tell you that my best friend, for example, is very clear, with her husband—that I’m in the relationship too. There is a clear distinction between [our roles though]. She had a conversation with her husband recently, and she said to him, “Listen to me, Tracee is not available right now, so you’re going to have to take on a different role and listen to what I’m saying to you. Don’t try and fix what I’m saying; don’t try and give me an answer. I need to share.” And she shared some details that usually would have gone to me. Different people have different roles in our lives. One of the ways of cultivating my own selfhood is that I get to lean into different people.
GLAMOUR: In your speech you said you’ve had to be your own support. What does it look like to support yourself in dark moments?
TER: The key is you ask yourself, What do I need right now? I’ve cultivated a relationship with myself where I know I have choices…. I have a toolbox of ways I can find support; journaling is helpful, or meditation.
And I have had to really make friends with loneliness. And know the difference between choice-ful solitude and lonely. [I find comfort in] being able to name it, to say I’m feeling lonely, then to have a tribe of people I feel safe enough with to share: This is how I feel.
I don’t have the luxury of not going to work when I don’t feel up to it. Most people don’t. On those days, I acknowledge I am feeling f-cking crappy, and I’m not at my best, and I still want to or need to keep walking forward. I have to do some of my best work on my worst days. I have to look pretty even when I don’t feel pretty. There’s a way to hold both things.
GLAMOUR: In your speech you imagined a world where women own their sexuality. How were you raised to think about yours?
TER: My mom is a sexy woman—that is part of her persona—and that is a delicious thing that has never felt scary to me. Recently I learned this wonderful term, sex-positive, and that is the way I feel. [For me] the answer to the objectification of women and black women in our culture is not to shut down my sexuality but to own it as something that is mine.
GLAMOUR: One response to #MeToo that’s bugged me is men saying: Can you even compliment a woman anymore? Can you hug a female colleague anymore? What would you say to those guys?
TER: [This] is connected wholeheartedly to consent. It can be as simple as asking, May I hug you? I ask my therapist that before I leave the office—I say, “May I hug you?” Ask the question: “Is it OK for me to hug you? Is it OK for me to ask that?” That’s all you have to do. And then, if somebody is even offended by the question, then the response is “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” End of story.
TER: Yes, it is so simple. Of course people want to be complimented, but you want to be complimented in a way that respects who you are—maybe you don’t want to be complimented on your clothing. You have that right to say to your coworker, “That’s not a thing that I enjoy.” “Oh, no problem. I won’t do that anymore.” It is all about respect and giving people a choice about how we are touching and talking about their body. Historically, women have not had ownership of our own bodies. And it is enough. It is enough. You do not get to touch my body or comment on my body as you please. Period.
GLAMOUR: So your life is yours. Where do you see it taking you?
TER: I have to take some time to dream some new dreams. I feel like there’s a treasure hunt in front of me. A treasure hunt that is speckled with and seeded by a deep-rooted wild freedom.
Emily Mahaney is the features director at Glamour.