Right now, we’re living in what many are calling ‘the transgender revolution’. Society and media are becoming more accepting and accommodating to women and men who want to identify as the true gender they were destined to be, or gender-free, entirely.
But of course we know this was not always the case and still even today, much work needs to be done. But what many of us don’t know is during the 1970s, there was a Black transgender model achieving so much barrier-breaking success in the fashion and beauty worlds until word got out she was born and man, and shit hit the fan!
In a feature interview for New York Magazine’s The Cut, Tracey “Africa” Norman, tells her story.
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Norman always felt she was a woman and after transitioning, a chance meeting with an Italian Vogue casting director changed her life.
So, how did Norman get into fashion?
Her friends from Newark who worked in fashion always told her she was beautiful enough to model, and she would sneak into fashion shows in New York City to see how the models walked. In 1975, while on her way to a fashion show to meet a friend, she saw a group of Black models she recognized outside the Pierre Hotel. Waiting for them to go inside, she snuck in behind them through a door, into an elevator and then into a room. She made sure she was the last in line.
“After I got close enough to see what was going on through the door of the hotel room, I saw it was an interview,” Norman tells The Cut.
The following day, she gets a phone call saying she was booked for a two-day shoot for Italian Vogue and the pay was $1, 500 a day.
“My eyes popped out of my head!” she said.
Norman did not realize it at first, but the person she met during that interview was an editor from Italian Vogue, Basile designer Luciano Soprani and legendary photographer Irving Penn.
At the shoot, Norman worked alongside other Black models including Peggy Dillard, who was the second African American on the cover of Vogue, following Beverly Johnson.
From there, Norman’s career took off and she was signed to an agency called Zoli. She was being dubbed as the next Johnson, and today at the age of 63, you can see why.
There were rumors at the time about Norman not being born female but they were shot down by Penn who thought it was a “vicious rumor.”
A big moment in Norman’s career came in the mid-1970s when she was signed to a Clairol contract for the company’s new hair dye line for Black women, Born Beautiful.
They were looking for Black models to appear on their boxes. Due to an at-home perm Norman used to relax her curls, the interaction between the chemicals and the sun caused her hair to naturally lighten to a shade women were willing to pay money to achieve. Norman’s hair had reddish undertones under the commercial lights and her color was labeled as Dark Auburn, Box 512. Clairol created a color to match.
Norman’s contract was for two years with the agreement she would be paid more money if they decided to renew, which they did, twice.
“She had that commercial look,”Pat Cleveland speaking exclusively to The Cut, another barrier-breaking Black model who modeled with Norman.
“She looked like how the girl next door might wish to look. But I didn’t know Tracey was a boy. She was a professional person who was able to make things look good and sell them. I think Tracey got away with a lot because she was so good. You never would’ve known. I didn’t even know it until now. It was difficult for any Black model at that time to go commercial.”
In 1980, during a commercial shoot for Essence magazine, Norman’s career took a sad turn.
Her hair was braided and beaded in gold and she was draped in Egyptian cloth. At the time, the publications’s editor-in-chief was Susan L. Taylor, and this was Norman’s second shoot for the magazine.
While the photographer was on his third roll of film, Norman noticed an assistant to hairstylist, Andre Douglass, come onto the set. He was always asking her questions about if she knew certain people from Newark.
“For some reason it felt negative,” said Norman recalling the assistant’s presence on set. “The whole situation felt negative to me.”
Norman says the hairdresser spoke with Taylor and then Taylor stopped the shoot saying, “I think we have enough.”
Taylor untied Norman’s Egyptian cloth and looked at her through the mirror.
“That’s when I knew. The way that she looked at me through the mirror, it was different. She was looking for the person that this hairdresser told them that I was.”
The next day, Norman called her agency to see if she had any bookings or go-sees and there weren’t any.
“All I know is that my work stopped that day,” said Norman.
Norman says she was never paid for that Essence job and the pictures were never used.
In the years following, Norman lived between an apartment on the Upper West Side, her mother’s apartment in Newark and overseas in Paris and Milan where she took modeling jobs.
Eventually, she found her way getting involved in the drag-ball community and becoming the “mother” of the House of Africa teaching her “children” how to walk like professionals. She’s now become a legend in the ballroom world.
“We didn’t compete against each other,” said Norman of the other women in the ballroom community.
“There would be no men we’d compete for. It was just true love, friendship, and respect for each other. I’ve never had that with another female, so I cherish that a lot.”
Photo Credit: Peter Hapak for The Cut