Tracee Ellis Ross seldom sits still. And when she’s particularly excited—which is more often than not—her large eyes dance, her sinewy arms swoop about like untethered kites, and her wide smile beams brighter than a billboard in Times Square. She’s the living embodiment of the phrase “Go big or go home.” And though she looks nothing like a certain iconic redhead, I’m so struck by her emotiveness and physicality during our conversation that I suggest she should’ve been cast as Lucille Ball in the upcoming Aaron Sorkin biopic. “Do you know how many people would be upset if a Black woman played Lucille Ball?” Ross exclaims. “But I want to so badly. Do you know who else I wanted to play? I wanted to play Miss Hannigan in Annie. Oh my God. It was my dream!” Ross throws her hands in the air and bursts into song: “Little girls, little girls...” She feels a deep connection to legendary comediennes like Ball, Carol Burnett (the OG Miss Hannigan), and Lily Tomlin. “My mom used to let me stay up late to watch Carol Burnett,” Ross says. “And, no, none of these women are Black or looked like me, but I saw myself in them.” I wonder, when did she first realize she was funny? “I still don’t think I’m funny,” she confesses. “Stand-up comedians are funny. What do I call myself? I have a real sense of freedom. I express through my body, and nothing embarrasses me. So I can be ridiculous.”
Being ridiculous has been good business for Ross. This afternoon, she’s tucked away in her Los Angeles home’s signature blue room—a tranquil indigo-walled space that her 10.2 million Instagram followers will immediately recognize—discussing how hectic her life has been for the past few weeks. “I’ve been in a growth curve around CEO stuff,” she says of her role at two-year-old hair-care company Pattern Beauty, which she also founded. “And then I’ve got to get up at 5 a.m. and go to work [as an actress] and be pretty. Wooo, I want to go to bed. Oh my God, I just want to wear my glasses for the day.”
At 48, Ross continues to break new ground career-wise. She had her first leading film role in last year’s The High Note, a dramedy about an aging pop star fighting to remain relevant. Also in 2020, she signed a multiyear, multiplatform production deal with ABC that gives her equity in the work she helps create. Filming for her celebrated series on the network, Black-ish, resumed in mid-August, and when she’s not starring as matriarch Dr. Rainbow Johnson or executive producing the show’s hit spin-off Mixed-ish, she’s running Pattern. The brand, dedicated to curly, coily, and tight textures, took more than 10 years, loads of product development, and plenty of noes to get off the ground. One beauty-industry executive, Ross recalls, not only made her cry but also questioned why anyone would buy hair-care products from an actress. Nevertheless, she persisted, landing investors who understood her vision while retaining creative control and majority ownership of her company. Rather than acting as a celebrity spokesperson, she’s fully leaned into her role as head of the enterprise. “As a CEO, it’s a lot of this,” she says, pointing to her temple, “but I have to remind myself to stay connected to my heart and my gut.”
She’s determined to lead with a focus on compassion, empathy, and joy. No dictatorial diva antics will be occurring in her C-suite. “I don’t know many people who thrive when they’re yelled at,” Ross says. “I shop the most when I feel good. I’m not sure why we have a marketing system that is based on shaming people. I don’t get it. When I feel small, I don’t want to do shit.”
Ross is bringing that ethos to Ulta Beauty (where Pattern launched exclusively, to much fanfare, in 2019). In February, she was named the company’s diversity and inclusion adviser. Mary Dillon, the CEO of Ulta at press time, tapped Ross to help the company with BIPOC brand development and supplier and leadership diversity. “She’s going to bring passion, experience, and perspective to this work,” says Dillon. “She’s going to give us counsel and inspiration, and she’ll also help to drive accountability.” Ross sums up her reasons for taking on the additional role with two succinct sentences: “Because I want the world to be a better place. And I want Black people to feel really good walking into a retail space.”
Being in Ross’s presence (even over Zoom) feels good. Within the first six minutes of our conversation, I’ve told her about my COVID weight gain, my complicated relationship with my butt, and my raging Snickers addiction. She listens empathetically, taking it all in. Ross admits that she, too, has put on a few pandemic pounds. “That’s why I’m eating radishes right now,” she says, snacking on hummus and veggies. “I want to be eating chocolate.” During a recent meditation session, the memory of a friend who had struggled with losing her post-baby weight came to Ross. She recalled that her friend, in an effort to make peace with her new figure, wrote a thank-you letter to her body for all it had done for her. This prompted Ross to take stock of the collective trauma we’ve all endured in this unprecedented era and address her own “pointed and rude inner dialogue” about weight. “We’ve seen things and witnessed things with our eyes and our hearts that are unfathomable,” Ross says. “So many hard edges in the world that perhaps the softness of our bodies is actually worthy of a thank-you. Perhaps our bodies are wiser than we are and are doing all of the work that we cannot do in these moments to allow a gentleness and a softness and a cushion around our heart and our most delicate and soft spaces.”
Allergic to sound bites, Ross prefers to speak in the type of long, thoughtful soliloquies that make her catnip for the TED Talk and Oprah Super Soul Sunday crowds. During our winding conversation, we discuss everything from her love life to her love of Lay’s potato chips, but we inevitably and repeatedly return to the evolution of her relationship with her hair and how it functions as a metaphor for her self-acceptance journey. Ross spent her formative years wrestling with her untamed curls, attempting to “beat my hair into submission,” she says. Weekly salon trips and chemical straighteners were par for the course. To combat frizz, she says, “my mom would wake up on Wednesday morning with the hot comb on the stove and try and get my edges straight.” The image of her megastar mother, Diana Ross, one of history’s most glamorous women, hovering at a stove with a hot comb in hand tickles me. I’m also sadly reminded that more than a few of the beauty rituals in our community have been inextricably linked to pain. Ross believes a great deal of that pain comes from Black people being forced to “fit into a standard that does not have space for us.” She quotes poet Audre Lorde (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation and is an act of political warfare”), then makes her own powerful declaration: “Learning to love my hair in a world that doesn’t mirror that celebration has been a form of both resistance and the claiming of my identity, my selfhood, my legacy, my ancestral lines, the history that I come from.”
With age has come enviable self-assurance, but it's been hard-won for Ross. When I ask about her early days on the audition circuit, she drops her head into her hands. “I was so scared,” she shares in a childlike semiwhisper. Her tone grows sober as she recounts the constant rejection she faced in her early 20s. An agent dumped her. A well-known manager wouldn't take her on as a client. Her inability to show up in the room as her authentic self was her greatest hindrance, she now realizes. “I was so uncomfortable in my own skin,” she reveals. “I was so busy trying to be who I thought everybody else wanted me to be, and there was no space for me. I had wreaked havoc on my soul, and it was torturous.”
She traces the roots of her inner turmoil to her unique childhood. Yes, growing up the daughter of a music icon came with all sorts of amazing perks: ritzy boarding schools in Switzerland, holidays in Paris, personal Andy Warhol portraits. Ross says her A-list mother was a committed, hands-on presence. “My mom put us to bed and woke us up and was there for dinner, never left for longer than a week,” she says. “She recorded after she put us to bed.” Despite this, Tracee, the second of Diana’s five children, struggled with having to share her with the world. “I was scared of the bigness of that life that was around me. Even with the safety of my siblings and my mom, there was a lot happening. A sense of having to be a particular way because everyone was always watching.”
Samira Nasr, Ross’s best friend of nearly three decades and editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, says that a gilded upbringing didn’t mean opportunities were automatically handed to the actress. “The assumption is, ‘Oh, you’re the daughter of someone famous. It must’ve flung open all the doors for you.’ It certainly brought a level of curiosity, but I think when she walked through the doors, people were like, ‘Now what?’ And she really had to figure out who she wanted to be as a performer and what she wanted to say.”
Fashion has long been Ross’s preferred language. She credits her mother with introducing her to the transformative power of fashion and says that playing dress-up in her mom’s splendid closets enabled her to hone her personal style. Ross’s own closet is as covetable as you would expect, says Nasr. “It’s impeccable,” she gushes. “Impeccable. You’ll never meet a person who can fold a more perfect sweater or T-shirt in your life. Everything has a place. It’s actually a great closet to steal from because you can see everything.”
“I have always had a lot of courage, joy, whimsy, and bold confidence when it comes to fashion,” says Ross, who modeled and worked as a stylist and fashion editor in New York City in the ’90s. “It’s been a part of my identity since I was in...Hold on one second.” Ross is on the move again. This time, she’s gone to retrieve a framed black-and-white photo of herself as a toddler. Baby Tracee is fully naked, clutching a stuffed animal and sporting her mother’s heels. “This has been going down for a long time,” says Ross, grinning mischievously. “A tush and a smile, that’s all it takes.”
But Ross isn’t immune to insecurity about her sartorial choices. She even admits that she’s prone to brief flashes of dread when she debuts an exceptionally daring look on the red carpet. The fuchsia Valentino Haute Couture duvet gown she wore to the 2018 Emmys, for example, turned heads and cemented her status as a contemporary style darling, and yet, for a moment, Ross second-guessed the choice. “I loved it,” she says, “and then 10 minutes into the carpet I was like, Oh, my God, everyone’s laughing at me.” They weren’t, of course, and a good friend she’d brought as a date calmed her nerves. But Ross says, “I don’t miss the frenzy of the red carpet. I don’t miss the panic of the red carpet. But I miss beautiful clothes. I miss that form of creative expression for me. I miss glamour.”
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Ross wasn’t a red-carpet favorite and couldn’t get booked on a single late-night talk show. The television landscape of the early 2000s was significantly more segregated, with shows like Friends, NBC’s juggernaut, drawing largely white viewers and Girlfriends, which ran for eight seasons on the CW and UPN networks, drawing a predominantly Black audience. Ross shone as neurotic attorney Joan Clayton, but being the lead on a “Black show” meant very little acknowledgment from mainstream gatekeepers. “I was told by the Jay Leno talent person for The Tonight Show, ‘We love Tracee. Call us when she gets something.’ And in my head, I was like, Get what? What do I need to get? Do I need to make my hair straighter? It was very hard at the time to not personalize that, to know that it was a societal thing, not a me thing.”
The abrupt cancellation of Girlfriends during the 2007–2008 writers’ strike hit Ross hard. “It just disappeared,” she says sadly. “Eight years of our life was just over. There was no wrap party; there was no nothing. No ‘bye.’ We’re just gone.” She assumed that she’d be inundated with work or at least that a stack of scripts would be waiting at her door. Neither happened. In fact, Black-ish didn’t arrive until six years later. It was worth the wait. The series has earned her a Golden Globe win, four Emmy nominations, and—after more than 20 years in the business—the crossover success that once proved so elusive.
It’s also garnered her a giant megaphone, and in recent years the outspoken Ross has used her considerable platform to rail against racism and antiquated ideas about women needing a marriage and a baby carriage to be worthy. She’s childless, contentedly single, and proud of it.
“I feel the sexiest I’ve ever felt; it’s going to waste in the pandemic,” she jokingly laments before bursting into a suggestive body roll. Because of her unconventional upbringing, I ask if she once longed for amore traditional life—the picket fence, the husband, 2.5 kids. “Well, how could you not? Our society spoon-feeds it to you. I used to put myself to sleep dreaming of my wedding,” she says. “And I would still love all of that, but what am I going to do, just sit around waiting? Shut up. I’ve got so many things to do.”
Ross knows she’s at her best when she’s at her busiest, so she’s considering adding even more to her packed roster. Stand-up comedy and a music album could both be on the horizon, she shares. “It gets me all wild and scared, but right now I want to dive into the singing from Tracee,” she says. “That’s uncharted territory. I did it as a character [in The High Note]. Now I’m like, What if I tried that?” What if? “I chewed on ground glass to make it through the discomfort of not knowing how to share myself with the world,” she says. “And so taking a risk to try something new, I know it’s not going to shatter who I am. Now it’s like a hit. It’s like, ‘Ow, that was really uncomfortable. I’m going to take a nap. I’m going to cry for a couple of days, and I will be back.’” She’s clutching her side as if she’s been grazed by a bullet and pretending to limp off to her bedroom. It’s hysterical and classic Ross. “At this age, a mistake can be processed as a mistake, not ‘I’m a mistake.’ This is the beauty of it. I’m 48 years old, and there’s so much more to try.”
This article originally appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Marie Claire.
Photographer: Christine Hahn | Fashion Editor: Shiona Turini | Hair: Nai'vasha for The Wall Group | Makeup: Lisa Storey for Pat McGrath Labs | Manicure: Maho Tanaka | Production: Zach Crawford for Crawford & Co Productions