Today’s featured model is perfect to share for Black History Month, but that’s really just an excuse to share a really cool model whose story began in the 1970s:
Tracey Africa Norman
When I first heard about Tracey I wanted to share her story with you because I thought she was an inspiring figure of history. Little did I know, as I started to look further into her story, I found that Tracey’s career is having a second act as we speak! You’ve heard the title “Model of the Moment”. Well Tracey is a model who makes her own moment.
When Tracey “Africa” Norman began her modeling career in the 1970s, she had many barriers to overcome. As a black woman in fashion, she was publicly blazing trails, and was able to enjoy the success of a small group of black models such as Pat Cleveland & Peggy Dillard who were opening doors for others. She was even marketed by her agency as a “younger Beverly Johnson”. As a transgender woman, however, she was in uncharted territory. And at the time, it seemed crucial to her safety and success, that no one find out who she really was, so she really was on her own.
With cheekbones that could cut glass and a sort of proto-Tyra fierceness, Tracey left her life story up to no one but herself.
Two great modeling (life) tips from Tracey:
- Study your craft:
Before she became a model, a makeup artist friend told Tracey how to get in to fashion shows by saying she was a student at FIT. They let students in to stand in the back and there Tracey would be, studying the models’ walks and movements.
2. Make your own luck:
On her way to one of these fashion shows at the Pierre Hotel, Tracey noticed a group of black models she knew from the pages of magazines about to go in. She followed them, onto an elevator, and into a room that turned out to be an audition of a life time. Legendary photographer Irving Penn was there, and though she didn’t have an agency to give the name of, Tracey walked out of the audition having booked a shoot with Italian Vogue for $1500/day.
Modeling Career, Part 1
She hid her secret for years and modeled successfully for Essence Magazine, Avon, and for Clairol on their #1 selling hair color shade, which was actually Tracey’s natural color.
Tracey got to work with the 2nd black model ever to be on the cover of Vogue, Peggy Dillard, in this shoot by Irving Penn.
Tragically, after a stylist at a shoot in the early 80’s outed her, the people in America no longer wanted to work with her once they knew she was trans. Though she found work in Paris, when she returned, it turned out that the people around her still weren’t ready to accept the truth.
If you stop the story here, it would turn out Tracey had been right in trying to conceal her identity. To be shunned by the industry you loved leaves a lasting scar, though she found her niche in New York training her own legion of protégés at drag balls how to walk like a proper runway model.
Tracey’s story in the modeling world would have been amazing even if it had ended there. Actually, that’s where I thought it ended when I first wanted to share her story on Model of the Month because I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of this legend, this person who shunned all the rules and went directly for what she wanted, earlier. She was brave enough, to march herself into a random audition for Vogue, for Irving Penn, of all people, and get the job people dream of. I think taking this approach in life will get anyone far.
But the coolest twist to the tale, is that after Tracey’s story came out in 2015 in The Cut, Clairol booked her as the face of the new Nice N’ Easy campaign, where she was actually able to share her story:
Here Tracey is a beautiful woman making a hair color commercial, but you can see the pain that flashes on her face when she describes the day her “truth was revealed” and how her modeling work dried up quickly after that day. The look is very real. Very honest – she is, after all, opening up to Clairol, who she worked for as a face on a Born Beautiful hair color box in the 1970s. She’s taking the chance by shooting this campaign in the very industry that broke her heart the first time.
Taking chances is clearly what has gotten Tracey this far in life, and I think this moment catches her in action. She is a great example of a real person, who has gambled, and lost even her entire career for a while. But she kept playing and kept walking in doors and that relentlessness & enjoyment of life shows in her face which, despite having lived so much, still has the glow of a model of the moment.
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