There’s a great profile of pioneering Black trans model Tracey “Africa” Norman in the latest issue of New York magazine. The most amazing part of the story is that it’s been over 35 years since Norman’s heyday, in which she appeared on Clairol boxes and modeled for storied French label Balenciaga.
Back in the mid-seventies, Tracy Gayle Norman lived in Newark, New Jersey and snuck into fashion shows by pretending to be a student at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. She got into modeling as a means of avoiding sex work, commonly the only career path available to trans women of color. Norman got her big break by sneaking into a model call, which ended up being for Vogue Italia. She got the job — a $1,500 per day shoot — and was signed by a top agency and picked up for print work in magazines like Essence and for cosmetics companies including Avon and Clairol.
Norman was the face of Clairol No. 512, Dark Auburn. Ironically, Norman never dyed her hair. Clairol photographed her naturally and then concocted a formula to match the photos. Norman’s face remained on the box for six years.
No one knew that Norman was trans. She avoided parties and refused to get too personally close with industry photographers. According to Norman, she always knew that she would be found out one day. It was just a question of when. That day came in 1980.
While Norman doing a holiday shoot for Essence, a hairdresser’s assistant came on set to have a word with legendary magazine editor Susan Taylor. Moments later the shoot was over. “She was asking me was I all right,” Norman says about Taylor, who seemed kind at the time.
“She was standing behind me, looking at me in the mirror, rubbing my shoulder, complimenting me on how soft I was,” says Norman. “That’s when I knew. The way that she looked at me through the mirror, it was different. She was looking for the person that this hairdresser told them that I was.”
Norman’s big modeling career in the United States ended that day. She was never paid for the Essence shoot. Later she went to Paris, where briefly she worked as a house model for Balenciaga. Later, she returned to New York and became a fixture on the ballroom scene. Her old friend Tommy Garrett explains:
Her own personal trademark move was to walk out in just jeans and a T-shirt. When she reached the judges, she would pull out a white handkerchief from her back pocket. “And then she’d wipe it across her face and show the handkerchief to the judges [to show that she had no makeup on] and the place would go crazy.”
When Laverne Cox, an out trans woman, appeared on the cover of Essence last year, she says she was thinking of Norman:
I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m doing a cover shoot for Essence and this is the magazine that 40 years ago fired a trans woman when they found out she was trans.’” She chokes up. “It just means a lot to me that history can be rewritten.”
Here are nine more images of Norman over the years, from her early days as Tracy Gayle Norman through her ballroom days as Tracey Africa and into a 2013 cover for Black LGBT magazine Swerv.