There is a strange noise coming from Tracee Ellis Ross’s Los Angeles garden. Hang on, she says, looking away from her computer screen to the window with an alarmed expression. “I’m just going to go check that out. Stand by!”
If this were a horror movie, then the stylish woman disappearing into the distance would never come back. But it isn’t a horror movie, it’s a Zoom interview, and Ross, a Golden Globe-winning actor best known for her role in the US sitcom Black-ish, is talking to me from the sunny living room of her home. Or at least she was; right now, I’m staring at a fiddle-leaf fig tree and a comfortable-looking couch.
In a youth-obsessed Hollywood, many women find their careers decline with age, but at 47, Ross appears to be just hitting her stride. The actor, activist and entrepreneur has been in the public eye since her 20s, but started getting serious attention only in her early 40s, with Black-ish. Now on its sixth season, the show centres on an upper-middle-class African American family, living in a largely white LA neighbourhood, and stars Ross as the matriarch, anaesthetist Rainbow “Bow” Johnson. Its unapologetic handling of race-related issues has turned the comedy into something of a cultural phenomenon. Barack and Michelle Obama are fans; Donald Trump, who tweeted that the show was racism at the highest level, is not.
A few minutes after vanishing, Ross slides back in front of her computer and gives the all clear. There is no emergency except, you know, the one we’re all living through. At the time of speaking, LA has been under lockdown for almost a month and, like the rest of us, Ross is still struggling to get to grips with it. “I think we’re all dealing with these waves of emotion where everything seems fine. And then it hits you. It’s like the fear is just waiting right there.” She gestures towards the window.In Black-ish season six this year. Photograph: Raymond Liu/ABC via Getty Images
The fear has not infiltrated her wardrobe. Ross’s hair is styled into two Princess Leia-like space buns and she’s wearing a floral, Georgia O’Keeffe-esque top. Even through the awkward interface of a Zoom call, her signature mix of goofiness and glamour comes through – a willingness to poke fun at herself that is a large part of her on-screen appeal. As Black-ish creator Kenya Barris once put it, Ross “can do expressions and physical movement that take a joke from a five to a 10”.
But if Ross seems down to earth, her childhood was anything but. Her mother is Diana Ross, and her father, Robert Ellis Silberstein, is a successful music executive, who managed the likes of Ronnie Wood and Meat Loaf. As a child, she attended an elite school in Manhattan, and did a stint at the type of Swiss boarding school where a typical gym class means a skiing lesson. She did a photoshoot with Andy Warhol when she was 11, and modelled in her teens. How, I ask, did she avoid turning into a brat?
“I’ve always been taught that you work for the things you want,” Ross says. “My mom always joked: ‘I’m not leaving you guys any of this money. I made this money for me! I’ll make sure there’s a roof over your head. You can have health insurance and food. But other than that…’ I mean, I had a job in high school. I worked as a salesperson at Ralph Lauren. My mom was like, ‘If you want to keep buying those clothes, you’re going to have to figure out how to pay for them.’ There was a commitment on her part to a normalcy that I have taken into my adult life.”With her mother and sisters Rhonda (left) and Chudney (centre) in 1976. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
Ross speaks fondly of her family, to whom she is extremely close. Her parents split when she was five but remained on good terms, and the childhood she shared with her siblings (four of whom were Diana Ross’s children, and three of whom were step-siblings from Ross’s second marriage) sounds happy and wholesome.
Being the child of somebody famous might unlock the door, but the people on the other side have their arms crossed
“My mom always put us in bed, then she’d go to the recording studio while we were sleeping. She’d sit with us for dinner and she never left for more than a week.” Ross remembers her mother getting the kids to help her make the beds, and she remains a pro at hospital corners. Actually, she says, she still has some of those sheets. “I nicked them out of the closet at home and Mom doesn’t know I have them. They remind me of my childhood.”
But being her mother’s daughter didn’t necessarily help when it came to work. “When I was starting in my career, being the child of somebody famous was not what it is today,” Ross says. “It might unlock the door, but the people sitting on the other side have their arms crossed and are asking: ‘OK, is she as good as her mom?’”
She got her first big break as a comic on MTV’s The Lyricist Lounge Show in 2000. The same year, she landed a lead role on the sitcom Girlfriends, which ran for eight seasons, making it the longest-running live-action network sitcom at the time; but its predominantly black cast meant it was always pigeonholed as a “black show”.In Girlfriends in 2002. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy
“The landscape of television was not the same as it is now,” Ross says. “It was still very segregated. We go through waves in this country, around celebrating black narratives: the early 2000s were not that time.” Despite the size of Girlfriends’ audience, she didn’t get invited on to the late-night TV shows, or the award shows, or the high-profile industry events. “It wasn’t a matter of how many eyeballs were watching the show,” she says. “It was a matter of which eyeballs were watching.”
Then, in 2014, Black-ish came along and “everything started to happen”. In 2017 she won a Golden Globe for her role, making her the first black woman to pick up the award since 1983 (when Debbie Allen won for Fame). Her proud family had already taken out a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter to congratulate her on the nomination.
Ross says one of the things that drew her to Black-ish was the way it disrupted conventional narratives. There is a warmth and respect between Bow and her on-screen husband, Andre “Dre” Johnson, that isn’t always evident in sitcoms. “Often the comedy of married couples on television is about how they roll their eyes at each other, how they frustrate each other,” she says. “I’ve never enjoyed that.With her NAACP award for Black-ish last year. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
“There’s a lot that poked holes in the status quo, particularly as a woman of colour,” she continues. “While the story is told through the eyes of the man, I’m not just the wife. I’m not just a doctor. I’m not just a mom. I’m all of those things. And my point of view is not seen in relation to Dre’s – it’s based in my experience and my life.”
Sometimes, Ross says, Bow’s autonomy was “naturally written into the script” and sometimes she pushed for it. “I’m very conscious about not perpetuating stereotypes,” she explains. “In a scene, if they have written that I’m doing ‘lady-chores’ such as the cooking, I’m like: why? It’s not pivotal to the story. Let Dre do the chopping and I’ll stand here at my computer, or drink a glass of wine, or hold a book. I speak up and I drive them crazy sometimes. But in the context of being a black woman on television, I am very aware of what that imagery says and the stereotypes it perpetuates. My interest is in offering other expressions, other examples, other imagery.”
Some of that “other imagery” is the experience of being mixed race, which we don’t always see on mainstream TV. “I had never, ever played that in my career,” Ross says. “Even though [being half black and half Jewish], that’s what I live.” While her character is clearly mixed race, Black-ish didn’t meaningfully explore that facet of Bow’s identity. “It ended up being relegated to this space of jokes,” Ross says. “As a mixed person, you’re constantly being bombarded by questions such as, ‘Are you this, or are you that?’ which is the least interesting part of being mixed…” She trails off for a second, losing her thread. “You know when you haven’t been talking a lot?” she says. “It’s like you lose access to words.”
She makes a wide-mouthed, silly face and recovers from Quarantine Voice™ enough to explain how this particular frustration led her to co-create Mixed-ish, a prequel to Black-ish that debuted on ABC last year. While Bow’s heritage was a comic sidenote in Black-ish, Mixed-ish centres it: Ross narrates the story of Bow’s childhood, as the daughter of a black mother and white father growing up in 80s America. But there were mixed reviews, with some critics deeming the show’s politics too simplistic, and it’s not clear whether it will be back for a second season.‘As a mixed person, you’re constantly being bombarded by questions: are you this, or are you that?’ Photograph: Amar Daved/Art Partner
Meanwhile, there is one thing Ross has not yet turned her hand to in a long and varied career. She has modelled, given a TED talk (on the power of women’s fury) and signed up as an ambassador for Time’s Up. She has appeared in music videos for Drake and Kanye West, a former neighbour. She runs her own company, Pattern, a successful haircare line for people with naturally curly hair. But there is one thing she has spent her entire life petrified of doing: becoming a singer. “I have wanted to sing since I was a kid,” she tells me. “But it was something I buried, because it was too scary a dream.” There was, after all, a lot to live up to.
At 47, to go into a studio and discover I had a voice: that was life-changing