It was way back in 1975 when Clairol Nice ‘n Easy launched a new hair color, No 512, aimed at black women, and on the box they featured Tracey Norman, one of the first black supermodels and the second black woman, after Beverly Johnson, to appear on the cover of Vogue.
Clairol’s No 512 became a huge seller and Tracey Norman’s career was off and running. But Tracey had a secret and in 1980, on another photo shoot, that secret was revealed: Tracey Norman was a trans woman, and so, without anyone knowing, for a while, she was also the first black transgender model.
Today there are several trans models working steadily — Andreja Pejić, Carmen Carrera, Lea T and Hari Nef — but forty years ago I don’t think many people knew a trans person, or even knew what trans meant. In those days, holding her secret close, Tracey Morgan would utter a little prayer every single day:
“Please don’t let this be the day.”
That day came in 1980 and in a flash her career was over … until now. This year, at age sixty-three, Tracey Norman is back, once again modeling for Clairol as the face of its new “Color As Real As You Are” campaign. In that ad, Tracey says:
“Back in the 70s it was a different world for transgender women … I had to hide my truth. … It’s good to be back and it’s really good to be me.”
Her truth; she’s a black woman, a trans woman, a woman in her sixties, and she’s a cover-girl once again.
Tracey Norman says that even as a child she knew her body didn’t match her gender and the day she graduated high school, she finally shared that truth with her mother; as often happens, Tracey’s mother says she always knew, too.
Tracey started taking hormones — thanks to a doctor working under the table for the trans community — and soon became the girl she’d always known she was meant to be; she was also getting noticed for her beauty and slowly came around to the idea of modeling.
In 1975, she saw several black models on a New York street and followed them, sure they were going to a photo shoot. But those other girls were going to a casting and soon Tracey found herself facing designer Luciano Soprani, photographer Irving Penn, and an editor for Italian Vogue. The next day she got the call; she was set for a two-day photo shoot that paid $3,000, and Irving Penn began boasting that he had discovered the next Beverly Johnson.
Tracey’s ride ended in 1980, on a photo shoot for Essence magazine; a hair assistant who had always seemed a little too interested in Tracey’s life, came onto the set and spoke to the magazine’s editor, Susan Taylor. The shoot was over; as was her career. Tracey is certain that the hair assistant had discovered her secret but Taylor says that wasn’t true:
“No one could have outed her to me. I always suspected she was genetically male. I accepted her as she presented herself, as an exquisitely beautiful black woman.”
Still, the secret was out, and Tracey Norman was suddenly out of a job. She soon moved to Paris and worked low-profile jobs before returning to New York and a smaller agency. She was hired for an Ultra Sheen cosmetics ad, but when the ad came out people began talking about “the girl who’d been a boy” and she was done; again.
Tracey moved back home to live with her mother, and she began working at Show Center, a Times Square peep show featuring trans women; she also became a “legend” in the ballroom community — in which different “houses” compete against each other in drag balls; she soon became “mother” in the House of Africa and in 2001, she was inducted into the ballroom house of fame.
That was Tracey’s life and she was fine with it; she was herself and that was probably all that mattered, But late last year New York Magazine ran a cover story on her and life changed for her again; after all those years of being “invisible” to the world of modeling, Tracey finally realized that she had made history and that her story deserved to be told; and that’s when Clairol came calling again.
So, she’s come back to modeling, as a black woman, a trans woman of color, and a woman of a certain age, and none of it makes a difference any more.
“I’m hoping people will take away from this that I am human and I was presented with this great opportunity to better my life. Unfortunately, because of people’s prejudices I was not able to do it.”
But she is doing it now. And looking fabulous, too.
This is trans; this is Tracey Norman.