Diana Ross’ actress daughter dishes on diva mom
LOS ANGELES—One look at Tracee Ellis Ross and you instantly know she’s the daughter of Diana Ross. She has her mom’s mass of frizzy hair, cheekbones and big, soulful eyes. And the pop superstar’s easy laugh.
“I look so much like my mom. There’s nothing you could do—it is what it is,” the “Black-ish” actress chuckled on this morning at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Tracee also inherited Diana’s fashion style. “Today, I am wearing a Rachel Comey jumpsuit. I’m sorry you haven’t been able to see these gorgeous Louboutin shoes!” she exclaimed. And with that, she put up her feet on the table to playfully show off her studded, red-soled Louboutins.
Tracee, 44, has been able to step out of the huge shadow of her superstar mom, 72. In ABC’s comedy series, “Black-ish,” she plays Dr. Rainbow Johnson opposite Anthony Anderson. In this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards, Tracee earned a best actress in a comedy series nod, the first for an African-American woman in that category in three decades.
Starting as a model in her teens, Tracee later worked as a contributing fashion editor at the New York magazine and Mirabella. Branching into TV, Tracee racked up credits, including playing Joan Clayton in the UPN/CW series, “Girlfriends,” and hosting Lifetime’s “The Dish.”
Born in LA, Tracee’s dad is Robert Ellis Silberstein, a Jewish-American music executive who was married to Diana from 1971 to 1977. Trace has a sister, Chudney, from this union. Robert chose to raise Rhonda, Diana’s daughter (from her earlier relationship to Motown founder Berry Gordy), as his own daughter.
When Diana married European shipping magnate Arne Naess, Tracee and her siblings lived and studied in Switzerland. She has two half-brothers from Diana’s marriage to Arne (who died in 2004)—Ross and Evan, a singer-actor.
Tracee graduated with a theater degree from Brown University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree last year.
Excerpts from our talk:
Let’s start with the obvious question—what’s it like being Diana Ross’ daughter? It’s pretty great (laughs). It’s been an amazing experience for me, especially culminating on being in a show like this, where I get to bring so much of my experience of playing a woman who’s mixed and comes from a different background than her husband.
I was raised in Europe, and bringing that experience to this character is part of what’s interesting about this show. We’re two people who seem to have the same point of view, and yet we don’t. In every episode, we explore that difference.
So, being my mom’s child and being of mixed heritage—my father is white, and my mother is black—and to bring the power I was raised with, to know that I have a full life as a woman, you aren’t just the wife cooking in the kitchen.
I was raised seeing a woman (Diana) really live her own life, go out there, become something and raise children—all at the same time. We deal with race, culture, identity, gender, and what it means to be a woman and a wife these days.
Did you have some trepidation about also getting in entertainment? No. Maybe if I sang (laughs), I would have had trepidation. I just consciously went in a different direction. I do sing, and I’ve always wanted to do that, as well.
There is a little bit (of me singing) on YouTube, but that isn’t what I do. It just came naturally, like I’m a performer at heart. Honestly, growing up, I was kicked out of class for that a lot (laughs). It was a problem in school. Now, I make a living out of it.
What do you miss about those days living in Switzerland? I miss the (clean) air. Switzerland is one of my most favorite places in the world. I’m a mountain girl because of my time in Switzerland. I went to school there when I was 13. It was just for a year and a half, but those were important, formative years. I felt like it really made me a child of the world.
What was it like to grow up with a mom who’s known for her fashion sense and spectacular show costumes? I will tell you—I have stolen it all. I take the clothes! Glamour is something that I love, but mostly in the way that it is a true expression of self. For my mother, she expresses herself in that way.
What was it like? Here’s one great story: She was leaving for a tour, and she had pulled out of the driveway. I had already gotten into the closet and was throwing things over to my closet. I took her clothes so that I could imagine them as mine.
But she had forgotten something and came back. She was standing in the bathroom (laughs). I was like, “I wanted to clean your closet for you. I was going to organize it.” I was like, oopsie!
I’m so much more than my clothes, but it’s one of the ways that I express myself. A fun part of what I do is, I get to put on beautiful clothes, be on red carpets, and go to great events.
With my mom and her style, I think it was one of the ways that enabled people to receive a black woman in this industry. She made history with it and changed the way we see a woman of color in this industry.
I don’t know if that was conscious or unconscious. That would be a question for her. It was also the time that she grew up in. I don’t take that lightly in terms of how we present ourselves and what that means. And I am still stealing her clothes!
What are your earliest memories of your mom? There are so many. My mom is at her most glamorous first thing in the morning, when she has no makeup on and she’s waking us up. She’s the most beautiful with her hair pulled back and nothing on her face. She’s beautiful, inside and out.
She woke us up every morning. We had dinner every night, and she never left for more than a week. These were important to her. We traveled a lot with her.
My mom taught me about work ethic. Because of her career, that gave me the opportunity to travel the world, go to the schools that I went to, and have the education that I had. More than that, [she taught me] to be a woman with dreams and [made me realize] that I could go after them if I worked hard enough.
Even when I was young, I realized that other kids didn’t have other people banging on their limo and following them home (laughs). Because of who my mother is—and she’s a mother before she is Diana Ross—a balance was created in my life that gave me the opportunity to go after a life that is truly mine.
Also, when I was growing up, being the child of somebody wasn’t what it is now. It didn’t open doors. It was actually the opposite. In my generation, there were children of very famous people who changed their last names, so that people didn’t know them as “those children.” I look so much like my mom. It informs so much of who I am, mostly because it gives me the space to discover who I am.
With your mother’s several relationships, you have four half-brothers and two stepsisters. How did you deal with all of that? Honestly, anyone that my mom loves, I love. I was excited when we got more siblings (laughs). I love my siblings, so I was like, yay, more! We’re all close.
Where is “Black-ish” going this season, with the pregnancy and the family? We had some fun stuff already. We dealt with God and the election. We went to Disney World.
Usually, a comedy is not the place where the topics that your show tackles. How do you guys walk that tightrope? Sometimes, I think about it. Like, if you describe some of the topics that our show has covered in the past couple of years, you think, wait, is that a comedy? Our writers are incredible. They walk that line. It has to do with the fact that it is a character-driven comedy about a family.
The issues and topics that come in—we aren’t making fun of those things. We’re actually coming from the point of view of the show’s characters. We don’t make fun of race or police brutality, but because of the characters, you get to bounce up against that thing. That’s what ends up being funny. The writers found a fine line between those things.
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