ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
There are many ways one can describe Tracee Ellis Ross—ambassador of joyful mantras, buoyant curls, and intoxicating laughs—but “shrinking violet” isn’t one of them. Her mission across all her endeavors, she says, is “to tell the stories of women owning their space and living in their skin.” But Ross is at a moment in her decades-long career where she’s poised to make her voice heard—quite literally—in its rawest, clearest, and glitziest form yet.
After eight seasons on the UPN–then–The CW sitcom Girlfriends and six (and counting) as Dr. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish, Ross takes on her first big-screen starring role in The High Note (which is available at home on demand on May 29). In the film, directed by Late Night’s Nisha Ganatra and made by a largely female crew, Ross plays Grace Davis, a pop superstar navigating the uncertainty of middle-aged fame. For Ross, the role offered a chance to fulfill a secret lifelong dream: singing professionally. Growing up with Diana Ross for a mom, that may have seemed like an obvious career choice, but, she says, “I kept telling myself, ‘Your job is not to have the best voice in the world.” Now, though, she’s ready to embrace the opportunity: “At 47, if I’m going to start singing, my job is to tell the truth through my voice.”
Truth-telling has become a common theme for Ross, whose recent projects have included delivering a TED Talk on the power of female fury; narrating and executive producing Mixed-ish, a Black-ish prequel about growing up mixed-race in the 1980s; and founding Pattern, a haircare line for curly and coily textures. Her open-book persona has also landed her nearly 8 million followers on Instagram, where she can often be seen interacting with her on-screen family (say, getting locked into a Scrabble Go showdown with Black-ish costar Yara Shahidi) and her real one (including her mom). Ross gave Hemispheres a call mid-mani to spill on her career triumphs, the joys of being her own CEO, and her everyday high notes.
Hi Tracee! How are you?
I’m good! I’m finishing up a manicure.
I do a neutral. It kind of looks like coffee with milk. It’s a café au lait with a dose of dulce de leche flavor.
Well, let’s start with congratulations on the new movie. After 20 years in sitcoms, this is your first big film role. What drew you to playing Grace Davis?
What intrigued me most was that there was something she was holding back about herself. I really identified with that fear of letting your true self come forward. So many women get trapped into being who we think we’re supposed to be—who the world wants us to be—instead of who we actually are. I just thought that was a really relatable, identifiable story, even though it was from this very famous woman.
Was there anything scary about the role?
The thing that scared me was also the thing that drew me to it: the fact that I had to sing. Most people don’t know that my first dream as a kid was to be a singer. I grew up watching my mom, and the idea of being a woman singing on a stage in a sparkly dress was the epitome of living out my fantasy.
Were you worried people might compare Grace and your mom?
No, because it was clearly not written with my mother in mind, and I didn’t play it with my mother in mind. Of course, people can’t help it. My mom’s Diana Ross, and I’m singing in the movie. I mean, duh! I can appreciate people wanting to connect the character with my mom. I honestly dove into the parts of me that were so similar.
Inventing a pop-star persona seems like it’d be fun.
It was fun, but it was terrifying. There was a technical aspect to it that I found exciting. It got a little ridiculous: “I can’t eat any dairy. I’m a sin-gah now. I’m on vocal rest today. I’m so sorry, do you have any warm tea with honey and lemon please?” The preparation brought me naturally to who this character was. But there was a real desire on my part to make this believable. This woman has been doing this forever, and I have not. How do I act as if I’m at ease onstage when Tracee is nervous? It was fun for me to talk to my body and be like, “Listen, I know you’re scared, but we have to tell ourselves this is home, that I’m actually more comfortable on a stage with a microphone than not.” The truth is I took to it like a fish to water.
Could you ever see yourself starting a band or recording an album?
First of all, let’s get through the movie coming out and people other than me and the people in the film hearing me sing! Continuing with singing might be a fun avenue to open for myself—I wouldn’t say no to that. We were specifically choosing music that told the story of this woman, so if I started diving into that world as Tracee, it would be a different adventure.
Speaking of new adventures, what made you take the leap in founding Pattern?
Pattern was such a longtime dream for a reason: It didn’t exist. The market is slowly getting more populated with products specifically for curly and textured hair, but it’s not the norm, and it hasn’t been for the 10 years that I’d wanted to make these products. To see people have choices is really gratifying for me.
Is getting feedback as a CEO different than getting feedback as an actress?
In one sense, it’s exactly the same, because the mission of Pattern is the same as the mission in my career: It’s empowering people to celebrate who they are, to discover who they are, and then to support who they are. That thread runs through all of my work and who I am as a person. The difference is that Pattern is the first thing I’ve done that is completely mine. One of the beauties of television and film is that it’s a collaborative art. But this was really a singular dream of mine. And the fact that I own the company is a very special thing. Historically, women—but even more specifically black and brown women—have not had a stake in what we create. It’s been kind of extraordinary for me to know I can shift that.
You’re an executive producer and narrator on Mixed-ish. What does it mean for you to have a platform to tell those stories?
I find it incredibly gratifying to be able to be part of creating narratives and telling stories that are otherwise not given space to be told. The experience of being mixed in heritage, culture, tradition, and identity is a story that is often not told, or it’s lumped into one category or another—you have to choose one or the other. In this story, she gets to own all pieces. It’s been really nice to unpack a story like that and give it voice in a way that we just don’t see.
You’ve become a public speaker, including giving a TED Talk in 2018. Was this something you always wanted to pursue?
It was always something I wanted to do, but I was not good at it. I would have serious panic attacks. In 2007, the Obama team reached out to me to be a celebrity surrogate, and I was like, “I’ve never had anything to do with politics. I wouldn’t know how to do it.” When I first started with the campaign, there were like 13 stops a day. I would be up so late writing these speeches, stressing myself out, crying. At first, I would read off the paper. The words were from my heart, but it was not good. If I was in that audience, I wouldn’t have been like, “This lady should go and do some speeches!” But I had a pivotal moment. One of Obama’s staffers took the paper from me, and he was like, ‘Girl, you’ve got to let go of the paper, and you just gotta talk. Whatever happens, you gotta speak from your heart.” It was a terrible moment, but it was the turning point for me.
At that moment, I launched into trusting myself. I would figure out what I wanted to talk about, get the words down, and then I wouldn’t even look at the paper. Some things got said, some didn’t. The  Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon was the first speech that started this new wave, where I started connecting what I was chomping on personally in my life into a speech. The truth is, I’ve been that kind of person forever. There’s always something I’m journaling about, that I’m talking to everybody about. The key is having time for your mind to wander and ponder. I need a lot of quiet and space around me so that my mind and my heart can meet and start dancing.
You told Oprah that you’re big on list-making. What’s one little thing and one big thing on your to-do list?
Let’s look! Stand by. Let’s see … “Watch The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” There’s an accounting meeting that I’ve been trying to set up since the beginning of the year [laughs]. “Hang out with Solange”—we keep trying to get together for a drink. I keep a list called The Big To-Dos. Those are the big projects that are happening in my life. You can’t address everything in a day, but you can look back and make sure you’re touching on all of them. I like to keep a big-to-dos list, a daily list, a to-schedule list, a to-watch list, a to-read list. So The Garden of Finzi, hang with Solange, and an accounting meeting. Oh, and a mammogram. It’s a good mix.
BY THE NUMBERS
Years between her 2017 Golden Globe win for Black-ish and her mother’s for Lady Sings the Blues in 1973
Curl varieties that her Pattern haircare line caters to: tight textures, coily, and curly
Episodes of Girlfriends, which was the longest-running live-action sitcom on the air at the time its run ended in 2008
Her current Instagram following
NAACP Image Award nominations, including 9 wins
Age at which she was photographed by Andy Warhol
Kanye West music videos in which she has appeared