After being discovered by famed photographer Irving Penn at a casting for Italian Vogue, Tracey "Africa" Norman's modeling career skyrocketed. In 1975, Norman memorably appeared on the front of a box of Clairol hair dye sold in drug stores across the U.S. That color, Dark Auburn, Box 512, became one of Clairol's bestselling hair colors and Norman's image was used on the box for six years along with the words, "Born Beautiful."
In the middle of this formidable rise, Norman was on set of a shoot for Essence magazine when she was outed. "And that's the day my career ended," she says. "Because the next day I called my agency and there was nothing."
Now, Norman is celebrated as an early trailblazer. Her story, often cited by Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, is told and retold by those in the LGBTQ+ community with the same reverence reserved for that of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.
On this week's episode of LGBTQ&A, Norman talks about seeing the "Born Beautiful" Clairol box for the first time, how being outed affected her relationship with the Black and LGBTQ+ communities, and why she wants to see the fashion world embrace more women of color.
"I'm not seeing anyone of color do the things that I have done and sign contracts. It's only been my white counterpart who are working, who are doing the shows, who are on the covers of major magazines."
Jeffrey Masters: Are you surprised by how well known your story is and has become?
Tracey "Africa" Norman: Yeah, from the very beginning. I've been shocked about it and the interest that has grown wanting to know my story. In the beginning, it's been overwhelming, but I'm kind of... not getting used to it, but it still surprises me.
JM: How do you think about the impact that you've had and why it matters so much?
TAN: I think because of a lot of the girls like me are now in front of the cameras, on television and writing, singing and modeling, and they've all congratulated me by being the first. But to be clear, I never identified with transgender, the term. I've always identified as being a woman.
I understand the reasons why they are advertising that they're transgender. In my generation, I couldn’t.
JM: Are you saying that in the '70s you weren’t able to identify as trans or that you don't now?
TAN: Yeah, I still don't identify as trans. I've always identified as being a woman.
It was New York mag and the London Times and Marie Claire that put the word trans and attached it to my name. I understood the publicity for it and the interest that it drummed up, but I made that very clear in every interview that I never identified as trans.
I don't have a problem with people using it. I'm just saying that personally, I've never identified with the word trans or being trans. I guess, because of the time difference. And I didn't grow up around gay people. I only had women around me. I watched how they talked, conversed with each other, how they walked, how they sat. I was just enthralled with the femininity of a woman and that's what I wanted to be.
JM: When you were outed professionally, did that also transfer over to you being out in your personal life?
TAN: Not per se, because my mother was always there. I've been her oldest daughter since I was born. She always knew that she had a special child. In fact, in conversation, she would stop and periodically tell me that. Her words would be, "Tracey, you were born before your time."
And all of those years, I never understood what that meant until I was reached out for my story. And when Clairol signed me to another three-year contract, then I realized what my mother meant by that.
JM: There were relatively few Black women working as mainstream models back then. Were you often the only Black woman in these spaces?
Tracey: When I went up for certain jobs, no. When there was a call for Black models, then all of those girls would show up. And I'd wind up getting the job.
When I was discovered by Mr. Irving Penn, he called Zoli Management and told Zoli that he had a young Beverly Johnson standing in front of him. And that's how they promoted me. It was an honor, but in my head, my world was still turning. This was all new to me. I knew nothing about the professional side of the fashion business. I didn't realize even at the time, when I met Mr. Penn, how legendary his legendary status was. I didn't even know that the person interviewing me was the editor for Italian Vogue. When I entered the room, I just entered the room, not knowing what was going to happen.
JM: A few years later, you were on a box of Clairol hair dye in stores across the country. Under your picture, it says "Born Beautiful." What was your reaction when you first saw that?
TAN: One day, my mom and I went into the drug store to pick up our beauty items, bath items, etc. And I just happened to walk down the aisle. I didn't know when the box was going to be released. I didn't have any idea when that was happening. And there I was. I just... my mother was in another aisle and I went searching for her, and grabbed her and said, "Mommy, mommy, you've got to come look, look, look." Yeah, it was an incredible moment for the both of us. She was really proud. I was proud and overwhelmed with joy. And she was proud and overwhelmed for her baby. And so we bought a couple of boxes.
JM: Do you still have them?
TAN: I don't have the original one because during that transition after I got outed, I held onto my apartment as long as I could with savings that I had. Me and my dog had to pack up and leave and go back to my mom's house. Then going out on my own... I guess, when you're sleeping on everybody's sofa, you don't have a place of your own. They considered it homeless.
JM: Hearing your story about being outed, I always wondered what happened next. How did you support yourself?
TAN: Well, I didn’t. My mother supported me. She supported me until a girlfriend of mine... her name was Sherry and she was a beautiful, exotic, tall female with cat eyes and reddish-blonde hair, an African-American girl. She said that she was going to Paris for work and did I want to come?
I was like, "Yeah," but then I needed a passport. So my mother gave me my sister's birth certificate to get a passport, because I certainly couldn't use mine. With that, we both went out to the airport and got a standby ticket on TWA. We had to go out there every night around midnight to see if anybody canceled. We had to go out there at 12 midnight every night for three nights and finally people had canceled and we were able to get on a flight. Those are one-way tickets, mind you, with no funds to get back. And between the two of us, we may have had a $100 or $150 between the two of us.
TAN: We were young. And when you're young, you have no fear. There's no way in the world I would do that today. But a lot of things that you do when you young, you would not do today. So you have no fear. It's an adventure. We found a hotel room and tried to get some work.
JM: Back then, without the internet, did your story follow you overseas?
TAN: It could have, had I done the circuit working for major designers, but I didn't have an agent. And I lucked out and got a job working in the House of Balenciaga, being a showroom model for about six months for the winter collection. So it was about five girls. I was the only Black girl. The others were French white girls.
JM: Soon after you were outed, Caroline Cossey, another model was outed as being transgender. That was in 1981. Do you remember seeing that?
Tracey: I don't remember seeing that, but later on it was brought to my attention, yes. But not at the time.
JM: In Caroline's example, she continued to work. I was wondering if that gave you hope that the same could be true for you.
Tracey: No, but there's a difference in skin color. It's like today, I'm not seeing anyone of color do the things that I have done and sign contracts. It's only been my white counterparts who are working, who are doing the shows, who are on the covers of major magazines.
JM: Your story was defined in the public's mind around this traumatic thing for a long time. Has it been difficult to be best known for that?
TAN: I have learned over the years that anybody of color who is a trailblazer — and I fall into that category — are the ones that pay the price for other people to benefit from, or to continue the fight.
I started realizing that after Martin Luther King. They assassinated him. He was a trailblazer. There are other people that were trailblazers in the art who were blacklisted, like Nina Simone, that were trailblazers in their craft and got destroyed because of their skin color and their beliefs.
But they were all trailblazers and they left a door for somebody to follow through.
JM: The person who outed you was a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Did that add to the hurt?
TAN: Yes. First of all, you need to understand in the 70s and in the African American community, Black gay men did not appreciate the talent and the beauty that women like me possessed. There was a stigma against us that we were either all on drugs or working as prostitutes. So there was a level that they kept us at, which was on the bottom.
It was just so weird how it all happened. I got booked and I'm on a set shooting in front of the camera and he comes in. He had to call Essence because he wasn't booked to be there. There was no hairdresser on the job because they had box braided my hair and beaded every single braid. So he had to call Essence magazine to find out where Susan Taylor, the editor, was shooting. He came on the set, that's how determined they were. And that's the day my career ended. Because the next day I called my agency and there was nothing.
JM: Because he was gay, did that shape your relationship with the queer community?
TAN: Yeah. Well, it was both. It was the Black community, also. Susan Taylor was part of the Black community. I was no longer beautiful to her. She kept telling me how beautiful I was and helping my career would go a long way. But suddenly I'm no longer beautiful and no longer worthy of being in front of the camera.
So the Black community outed me and also the gay community outed me and it forced me to be alone.
JM: Do you still feel like that today?
TAN: Yeah. I don't trust. It's hard for me to trust. Throughout my life I've never felt as though I fitted in, in any particular group of friends. For some odd reason, I just never felt that I fitted in. So I had the tendency to become a loner. I have a tendency to just stay away.
JM: Does that feeling add to part of the reason why you don't use the label transgender?
TAN: No, it's just something that was inside of me. I say it's a part of my DNA. I identified with women because I didn't grow up around the gay community for someone to teach me. So with that, my speech, the way I conduct myself in public situations, I never learned the gay slang as far as being trans or gay or what category people want to put you in, whatever box people want to put you in. I just didn't fit.
JM: I was planning on calling you an elder in the trans community when we release this interview, but I don't want to label you as trans if you don't use that word. Is it OK to say more broadly that you're part of the LGBTQ+ community?
TAN: That would be fine. I mean, look, I know the interest of being a part of the community, and how the new terminology is set up. I don't have a problem with that.
JM: I don't want to assign a label to you that you don't use or like.
TAN: It's fine. I'm used to it now.
JM: I called you an elder in the community. How does it feel to be considered that?
TAN: Oh, come on now. I'm 68 years old. I'm proud to have lived this long and still being relevant. It amazes me that people were still having a conversation about Tracey Africa. It really does, it just amazes me.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Alok Vaid-Menon, Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.