Pity the person who
tries to put Tracee Ellis Ross in a box. Granted, the 45-year-old actress might seem easy enough to peg at first glance—with words like funny and fashionable bubbling to mind. But scratch beneath the surface and it quickly becomes apparent there is far more than meets the eye.
Here are some of the things you may already know about her, starting with her very famous last name. She is, indeed, the daughter of music royalty, the second oldest of Diana Ross’ five children, and her father is former music business manager Robert Ellis Silberstein. She has logged more than a decade on popular sitcoms, first as the star of UPN’s Girlfriends and now on ABC’s hit Black-ish, where she has spent the past three years playing Rainbow “Bow” Johnson—a role that has garnered her two Emmy nominations and a 2017 Golden Globe win. She loves fashion and isn’t afraid to take risks with it. She has a magically chameleon-like face that’s capable of being twisted up into expressions that are both goofy and beautiful, often simultaneously. Oh, and she probably has the best tresses on TV.
All of that is true, of course. It’s also only part of it. Take, for example, the sacrifices she makes to do what she loves. For the eight months of the year that the Los Angeles-based series is in production, her alarm clock typically goes off at around 5:30am. If her call time allows for it, she squeezes in a workout en route to the soundstage, where she’ll then spend the next 13 to 14 hours. During her brief breaks—30 minutes for lunch, the occasional pause here and there—she squeezes in everything else.
Even when the actress isn’t on camera, she still considers herself on the clock. “During the season, I don’t drink. I don’t see my friends. I have to let go of my social life. I use every spare moment to work or take care of myself.” Still, Ross is quick to acknowledge that she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a dream—so much good stuff in my life comes from what I’m doing.”
Ross is feeling especially fortunate these days. “The fact that I’m on my second long-running show is an absolute blessing,” she says. “On top of that, our show is really good—it’s not just some sitcom about, ‘Oh, no, the pot roast has fallen on the floor!’”
That’s for sure. Black-ish has developed a well-earned reputation for deftly mixing lighthearted fare with thought-provoking social commentary, as filtered through the eyes of the upper-middle-class Johnson clan. (Bow is a doctor; her husband Dre, played by Anthony Anderson, is a successful ad executive.) Like Ross herself, Bow is half-white. The series has touched on the conflicted feelings that her character had during childhood about being mixed race.
On the current fourth season, Bow and Dre are adjusting to the addition of a fifth child to their brood, opening up a discourse about postpartum depression—among other weighty matters. “We’re sparking dialogue about gender and inclusiveness and humanity,” says Ross. “I think it’s incredibly important that within the Johnson family, there can be differing ideas and opinions—and those ideas may change from the beginning to the end of an episode. We’re all growing.”
Perhaps Ross’ choice of career should come as no surprise, given her roots. When she was born in 1972, her mother—two years out from The Supremes—was at the height of her chart-topping superstardom. As a child, “I was very aware of the fact that my mom’s job was extraordinary,” says Ross. “When you leave your mom’s work and people are banging on your car, or she’s standing onstage in a stadium filled with hundreds of thousands of people, it’s pretty clear.”
After divorcing Silberstein in 1977, Diana relocated the family from L.A. to New York City and later got remarried to shipping magnate Arne Naess Jr. in 1985. Although the limelight was never far away, Ross says her mom was determined to create a sense of normalcy and stability for her kids. “She never left us for more than a week—and if she was gone, we were in constant contact with her over the phone,” says Ross. “When she was home, she would record after we had gone to sleep.”
Ross attended the prestigious The Dalton School in Manhattan, where being raised by a legend wasn’t exactly an oddity. “I went to school with Ralph Lauren’s and Robert Redford’s kids—people whose parents are part of the fabric of American culture,” she says. “So, as kids, that was taken off the table, and we got to be children.”
Upon graduating from Brown University, Ross pursued modeling jobs and had stints as a fashion editor at New York and Mirabella magazines. Then a fellow Brown grad asked her to appear in his indie movie, Far Harbor—along with then-unknowns Jennifer Connelly and Marcia Gay Harden—and the die was cast. “It’s not like I had been a child actor,” says Ross. “I hadn’t been doing ‘show biz-y’ things, so, for me, going into the industry was more about choosing a creative path rather than ‘going into show business’ because that’s not the way my mom had navigated it either,” she says.
In case you’re wondering, the parallels between her own modus operandi and her mother’s are not lost on Ross. “I saw a work ethic in her that I utilize now,” she says. “I know how to handle myself and take responsibility. I know to be on time and show up.” Diva behavior—of the negative sort—was and always is a no-no. “If I’m going on a trip, I pack my own bag, just like my mom used to,” says Ross. “The kinds of things that you see happening on reality shows has never been the reality of my life.”
Ross’ inherited code of conduct further extends to how she compartmentalizes her personal and professional spheres. “I was raised during a time when there was a clear delineation between private and public,” she says. “I had a sense of what was sacred and what was for sharing.” Case in point: Ross’ romantic status. Google it, and the results have her ranging from single to secretly married—and you’d be hard-pressed to find Ross weighing in to demystify.
That doesn’t keep people from speculating about her situation anyway—and as with other women in the same boat, Ross’ decision to forgo the conventional marriage-and-kids route seems to be met with head-scratching confusion. “It doesn’t come from nowhere,” says Ross. “There is a long-standing tradition of women being told that we have a duty to get married and have a child and be of service to our man. In general, I push up against all cultural norms in that I believe in equality and the idea that I get to actually choose the life that I want.”
While she has stayed mostly mum in the past about her suitors, Ross insists she has no hard-and-fast rule about avoiding that subject in perpetuity. But then again, why invite trouble? “To a certain extent, if you put that stuff out there, then people get to comment,” she says. “Romantic relationships are challenging enough without other people having opinions about them.”
Fair enough. At least when it comes to the secrets that truly count—like how to get that aforementioned great hair—she’s an open book. Ross is more than happy to talk tresses and trade styling tips, and has even posted instructional videos online to share with her avid fan base. “For years, I was attempting to beat it into submission and get it to look like what I thought it should look like, which is silky, soft and flowy,” says the creative. “Then I got to a point when I was like, ‘What if I let God do my hair?’ The more I allowed it to do what it does naturally, the more I was able to do with it myself. There’s been a very big learning curve.” Like the rest of Ross, it’s all about managing the different layers.
Hair by Marcia Hamilton at Vision Nation Artists using Shea Moisture
Makeup by Stephen Sollitto at TMG LA using Charlotte Tilbury
Shot on location at the Fitzpatrick-Leland House, designed by Austrian-born architect Rudolph Michael Schindler in 1936. Built into the slope of Laurel Canyon in L.A., the house offers expansive views of the Hollywood Hills. Acquired by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in 2007, the house is a true modern architectural gem.