Tracee Ellis Ross was born into American royalty, as the daughter of Diana Ross. But the Golden Globes-winning star of the ABC sitcom Black-ish has impressed upon everyone who has come across her a personality so strong it could only be all her own: expressive, infectious, scary bold in her fashion choices—all in all, she’s completely irrepressible. In fact, even her legendary mother knew it right off the bat, when she decided to make her daughter’s middle name Joy: “My mom said I came out,” Ross, 44, recalls, “and it was like, ‘Joy.'” Here, in an interview with Lynn Hirschberg for W‘s annual New Royals issue, the actress, who is up for an Emmy next Sunday, September 17, reflects on the source of her unique spirit, and confirms what we all suspected—that Diana Ross is probably the greatest mom of all time.
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
The first thing I auditioned for was an Infinity commercial. And I got it! [Laughs.] Is that true, or was it Spike Lee’s Malcolm X? It’s a tossup. I’m not sure which one. I did not get Malcom X.
And were you living in New York then?
I was living in New York when I started my acting career. I had just come out of college and I was actually working in the fashion industry. I was a fashion editor—I guess a contributing editor, you would say, an intern at first at Mirabella magazine.
Oh, wow, I loved Mirabella. Were you split in your interests between doing fashion becoming an actress?
I wasn’t actually split in my interest. I have always been a lover of clothing and beauty and aesthetics and all of that. I had wanted to model when I was younger and then that kind of translated into me realizing that I was in love with images and the fashion industry. But in college I discovered acting even though I was quite shy, which I know is really hard to imagine. [Laughs.] I realized that it was a very honest form of expression for me, so I was working in the fashion industry and taking more acting classes, even though that was what I had studied at Brown. And then I just kind of jumped off the cliff into the acting world.
And so after you did the ad were you hooked? Did you get an agent and move to L.A.?
No. It was not quite that easy. I did a show that was like a MTV House of Style, but about TV. It was called The Dish, on Lifetime. Then I did my first film, Far Harbor, and it was Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Connelly and they were looking for a black Jewish girl. That was me. [Laughs.]
And then from that moment I started meeting people. I used to write thank you notes to everybody and if someone would say, “You should meet so-and-so.” I would say, “Would you mind calling them for me?” and they would set up a meeting and then I eventually moved to Los Angeles and I did an NBC movie of the week and I felt like I had, like, won the jackpot. [Laughs.]
What did you play in the movie of the week?
Uh, a rape victim.
Yes. I was a track-star rape victim. And then I got Lyricist Lounge, which was the MTV sketch comedy show and it kind of took off from there. From the moment I got the NBC movie of the week I have not stopped working.
With Black-ish, was the character written with you in mind?
Kenya Barris wrote the character of Rainbow Johnson with me in mind. But I know how this industry works and I do not take that as a yes. So I auditioned.
Did you always know from the beginning that it would be the big moment that it is? I was on the airplane the other day and I was walking up the aisle and literally every other seat was watching Black-ish.
Oh, really? Um, I don’t know. You know, I think the hope when you start every project is that it’s going to go well. [Laughs.] But you just don’t know. And the truth is if you look at the landscape of television, I mean, some of my favorite shows did not turn into, like, big hits. I don’t know—there’s a magic element. That’s one of the reasons doing television is so fun is there’s so many pieces that make it work. Whether it’s ABC really supporting our show and making sure that people knew where and when it was, or the actual incredible writing that we have. Or the chemistry with the cast… you never know if that’s going to work or not. And, by the way, there are times when you really get along with your cast and think it’s the best chemistry, but it doesn’t play onscreen.
So you never know sort of what the mix is that’s going to make something happen. But I think we had a really good feeling on this one. I think it’s telling a story that needs to be told.
Is that important to you that there actually be something about a character that says something about women being more than just attractive and not doing anything? Because on network TV—
It’s not always the case.
It’s not always the case, and often the women who play the wives are way hotter than the husbands, and don’t seem to do anything other than say, “I’ll take care of the kids while you go off and do whatever you do.”
There’s a lot of interesting things about the character that I play on Black-ish, but there’s also something that I am drawn to in the roles that I choose to inhabit. And I am interested in playing the kinds of women that I see and know in the world. I am somebody who believes that women are many things, that women are nuanced and complex. And one of the things that I think is incredibly interesting about Bow that is the thing that I’m grateful to play. It’s not just that she has a point of view, not just that she has job, not just that she’s a mom—that she’s all these things. You know, it’s how we are in life.
So early on, who was your TV crush?
Oh, I love Jason Bateman on Silver Spoons growing up. I’m not gonna lie. It was Jason Bateman.
[Laughs.] So Silver Spoons, not later on Jason Bateman.
Well, it started on Silver Spoons. I mean, I traveled with him to other shows. [Laughs.]
Did you have a cinematic crush?
I can’t think of—I don’t know. I like the men. I remember I thought Jeremy Irons was extraordinary growing up. He’s such an actor and he had so much depth and gravitas to him, I felt like there was something there.
Did you have posters? Who’d you have on your wall?
So did you borrow clothes from your mom? Because your mom must have had an archive to end all archives.
Lynn, you’re very kind to say did I borrow clothes from my mother. It sort of was more like stealing. I’m not going to lie. She would leave the house and I went in her room and looked out the window and saw her car go down the driveway, and I marched myself right into her bathroom and started taking clothes. What I liked to do is put them in my closet and live with them as if they were mine.
[Laughs.] Oh god.
And my mom walked back in the room, in the bathroom. [Laughs.] And she was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m organizing your closet for you! What are you doing?” She said, “I forgot something.” And I was like, “Oh! Can I help you find it?” [Laughter.] So, yeah, I, I was known for that. And still I call it shopping. I go to my mom’s house—my mom has the most extraordinary taste, top to bottom, whether it’s the dishes or the clothes, from t-shirts to gowns to hats to coats.
I call it shopping, and to this day whenever I go over to my mom’s I sometimes look at my brother, Evan, and I’m like, “Should we go shopping?” And I will ask if I can take something and she always says, “No.” My mom will say “no” often. She will give me anything, give us anything off of her back, but sometimes she’s like, “For god’s sakes, leave my mirror alone!” You know.
Here’s another story; this is a really good one: Leaving for college there was a rug, this beautiful Kilim rug, that I wanted that was under our breakfast table. I asked if I could take it for college and my mom was like, “No, it’s under the breakfast table. You cannot take it.” And the car was going down the driveway and my mom comes running out. I don’t know how she got it from under the table so fast, but she came running out barefoot with the rug. She was like, “Take it! Take the rug! I love you! Go off to college with the rug!” [Laughter] It’s a perfect example of my mother. That’s not the Diana Ross people know. That’s my mommy.
Does she call you and say, I liked that dress, I didn’t like that dress?
She likes everything. My mom is so supportive. I have a really good mommy. She told me I should never cut my hair, and I haven’t cut my hair since.
She has good taste and a lot of authority in her opinions.
Yes. This is something I thought about the other day that’s kind of amazing: I was raised by a woman who lived out her dreams. So she’s not living them out through me, or her children. She really gave us space and the courage to live the lives that we want to be living, and to have time to dream and conjure up the life that I wanted to be living. I could really curate or design the world I wanted to be living in. And one of the biggest things then I took from that, for myself, that my mom didn’t necessarily share with m, is the best way to design my life around me is actually to know who I am and not live according to what other people think I should be doing, but to have a curiosity that pushes up against the status quo. To say, “Does that work for me? Is that something I want?” So I got to have the example of my parent really being her full self. It’s given me a lot in my life.
You have excellent taste. Where do you think you got your taste from? Your mom?
My dad has impeccable taste, too. Um, I think I come by it honestly through my mother, but I also think living in Europe changed a lot. I think my eye works for me. It’s one of the things I get often—people say to me, “You have so much courage in the way you dress.” And I’m like, “Do I?” [Laughs.]
Well, it’s funny. I asked Tilda Swinton the same question and she was like, “For someone else this might seem like courage, but the other way—it wouldn’t interest me.”
Yeah, I mean, for me, my clothing and my home and the things that are around me, it’s really like a form of expression for me. It’s one of the ways that I wear my insides on my outsides.
Do you sing in the shower?
No. I actually do some of my best thinking in the shower. I do my best thinking in the shower, and I do some of my best meditating in the bath.
Interesting. Okay, what was your favorite birthday?
Well, the most epic birthday I had was my 18th birthday. I flew to Paris with my mom on the Concorde. Also on the plane were Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista, and I walked in the Thierry Mugler fashion show, which was the epic ’90-’91 fashion show with the butterflies, and then he had me come back the next year.
And also for my 18th birthday I met Azzedine Alaïa, stayed with him for a couple of days and was able to choose three looks top to bottom from his personal archives. Um, and I also was shot for Brazilian Vogue, so from my 18th birthday everything’s been downhill since then. [Laughs.] But no, I actually loved turning 40.
You look way younger.
I’m 44! Thank you. I think it’s all the joy inside. I don’t know what 44 looks like, but this is what I look like at 44.
[Laughs.] You spark joy.
My real middle name is Joy. My mom said I came out and it was like, “Joy”.
Yeah! My name is Tracee Joy Silberstein. Go figure.
And where’s the Ellis from?
My father’s name is Robert Ellis Silberstein, and he dropped Silberstein, we all dropped Silberstein. I really felt strongly that I wanted my father’s name in my name, because everyone knows I’m my mom’s daughter, but I’m also very much my dad’s daughter. And I wanted him, when my name hit a screen, to know that I was also part of him. And so Tracee Ellis Ross it is.
I’m so taken with this. Oh, what movie makes you cry?
Honestly I cried at Wonder Woman. I know. But it’s one of my favorite movies—one of my favorite movies of all time for style, for everything. It was just one that I watched over and over again with Sabrina, the original with Audrey Hepburn. The fashion in that movie, epic.
On her, especially.
Oh my god. The elegance of that woman. When she comes out of the train station, and they drive with all those bags and she’s in that dress. I was just like, “Come on.” I mean, it ruined me for packing forever. Because I think that everywhere I go there’s going to be someone in the car to, like, stack up my bags behind me. And that’s not the case. [Laughter.] I mean, it just doesn’t happen that way. Like, I overpack. I remember I went on this trip to London by myself and I was in this, you know, the little lifts, and I had all of these bags and I had to leave them downstairs at the front desk and unpack what I wanted and go up and down the stairs, because my bags wouldn’t even fit in my room. So there you go. [Laughter] Audrey Hepburn, look what you’ve done.
Royals 2017: Why Pharrell Williams, Winona Ryder, Tracee Ellis Ross and More Are the Role Models of Today
Winona Ryder wears Fendi dress; Angela Friedman bra; M&S Schmalberg brooch; Fogal tights; Gucci shoes. Beauty: Chantecaille.
Tilda Swinton wears Loewe jacket, shirt, and pants. Beauty: Chanel.
Hailee Steinfeld wears Valentino dress. Beauty: Maybelline.
Tracee Ellis Ross wears Vetements dress. Beauty: Lâncome.
Saoirse Ronan wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt and pants. Beauty: Nars.
Chris Hemsworth wears Boss shirt and pants; his own belt and necklace. Grooming: Hugo Boss.
Pharrell Williams wears Sacai shirt; Bulgari necklace (top); his own necklace. Grooming: Giorgio Armani.
Robert Pattinson wears Dior Homme turtleneck; Haider Ackermann pants. Grooming: Dior Homme.
James Corden wears Ann Demeulemeester shirt and hat. Grooming: Neutrogena.
Jared Leto wears Gucci jacket, shirt, and pants; M&S Schmalberg brooch; Artemas Quibble belt. Grooming: Gucci.
New Royalty: Movie Star
My first kiss was on set. It was my very first film as well. My character really liked this boy, and she didn’t know if he noticed her. In the end she got to kiss him. At that time, I was only 11 years old, and not ready to kiss a boy. I asked the director, “How long do you want me to kiss him? How many seconds?” And the director said, “Three seconds.” So while kissing, I counted in my head. Every single take I was like, One, two, three. And then: “Okay, kill, cut!” I definitely suffered for art.
Ronan wears a Louis Vuitton top, cape, and shoes; Falke tights.
Classic Royalty: Movie Star
Is there anything that scares you? I’m not easily scared, and I’m wary of being bored. I think risk-taking is a subjective thing. One person’s risk is another one’s comfort zone. And, to be honest, I’m too lazy to get easily scared. Maybe I’ve got a bit of my brain missing, but I love not knowing what I’m doing next. What about when it comes to clothes? Did you always have a fashion-forward outlook? Again, what somebody might think of as unusual is, to me, supercomfortable, inspiring, and interesting. I’ve never truly been that aware of fashion; I’m interested in style.
Swinton wears a Haider Ackermann shirt; Alexander Calder necklace from Stephen Russell, New York.
New Royalty: Renaissance Person
Where do you get your ideas? The shower is a frequent place. Actually, near any running water—whether it’s the faucet or the shower. And sometimes I get ideas on a plane because of the sound deprivation.
Do you record your ideas on your phone? I just hold on to them. The best way to remember something is if you home in on the excitement. That you don’t forget.
Is there a song that makes you cry? It’s been maybe 10 years since I heard something that made me cry. There is an old Donny Hathaway song called “Take a Love Song,” and it would make me emotional. But I think I was eating a lot of weed candy at the time, so that may have pushed me over the edge.
Whom do you consider Royal? Wes Anderson. I love what he does. Bill Murray running from a playground in Rushmore made me very happy. Anderson’s composition is amazing: his color, the music that he uses. I’m not an actor, but, in a heartbeat, I would just walk by or whatever he asked me to do in one of his films.
Williams wears a Chanel jacket and necklace; G-Star pants; Adidas Originals = Pharrell Williams shoes; his own shirt, belt, bracelets, ring, watch, and socks.
Classic Royalty: Renaissance Person
When did you start dancing? When I was 3. I loved it. I did recitals and I loved being onstage. I particularly loved the collective mind of the audience. Applause was nice, but I liked the silence of the audience better. The silence means, Oh, my! You have their rapt attention.
MacLaine wears an Akris turtleneck.
Classic Royalty: Activist
I came to New York in the ’70s to become president of Planned Parenthood. It was a time of great difficulty for the city—and for the country—but also one when women made tremendous progress toward being in control of their lives and their bodies. My position allowed me to be a spokesperson for women in the midst of the great changes that were taking place and the turmoil that occurred as a result of them. Today, 40 years later, the continuing opposition to Planned Parenthood comes from people who want to roll back the clock.
Wattleton wears a Row coat; Vhernier earrings; Verdura necklace.
New Royalty: Activist
When I was 11, my parents gave me an iPhone. I think it shaped who I am as a person because I had access to everything very, very early on. But now I’m 18 and I have gotten rid of it. I was worried about the mental-health effects it was having on me. The phone was taking over my life. I felt like I was floating away, and part of that had to do with being in a virtual world without any tangible substance. I felt like I was always refreshing Instagram instead of refreshing my life.
Stenberg wears a Prada top; Buccellati earrings.
New Royalty: Renaissance Person
To me, Paula Abdul is royalty. I just saw her live, and the whole time I was watching her, I was hitting the person next to me and saying, “Oh. My. God. Yes!” I’m late to the game, but Paula Abdul is completely amazing.
Steinfeld wears an Yves Salomon coat; Nili Lotan dress; Mahnaz Collection ring; Lynn Ban earring.
New Royalty: Renaissance Person
There were eight boys in The History Boys, and we were all at a similar point in our careers. The other seven would get incredible scripts for Spielberg movies or big HBO shows, and I would get a one-page script for the guy who drops off a TV for Hugh Grant. I remember thinking, These decisions are being made based on the way I look. I realized then and there that I needed to try and start creating stuff on my own. And I did.
Corden wears a Berluti jacket; Burberry shirt; Balenciaga scarf.
New Royalty: Society
The notion of being born into the right stratosphere no longer exists. More and more, young people want to dedicate their lives to doing something meaningful that has a positive effect on the world. That’s what is valued now—not your name or your lineage.
Bush Lauren wears a Ralph Lauren shirt; Zimmerli of Switzerland tank; Hermès scarves; Vicki Turbeville earrings; vintage bracelet from Stazia Loren, New York.
Classic Royalty: Society
You got involved with God’s Love We Deliver during the ’80s AIDS epidemic. It was a terrible time. We delivered meals to people who were sick. A lot of my friends thought I had lost my mind. There was so much fear.
How did you meet Robert Trump? At a fundraiser. We were married in 1984. But years later things changed, and, in 2007, we divorced.
Did you go to your former brother-in-law’s presidential inauguration? Yes. It was kind of an out-of-body experience. [Laughs] It’s like, Am I really here? I went to all the balls, and there was a wonderful small lunch, and Donald and Melania were there. She looked beautiful.
Is it strange to see your last name everywhere? Yes—very, very strange. I mean, forget paying with a credit card. It’s always, “Are you related?” It never ends.
Trump wears a Chloé dress; David Webb earrings.
New Royalty: Model
I always go into a zone when I’m posing for a photographer. I like to try and get into whatever character is wanted for the photos. For this shoot, I tried to be kind of vulnerable and soft because I can be quite hard with my resting bitch face. I wanted to look innocent, but mysterious. And royal. Very royal.
Aboah wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC dress; Stephen Russell earrings; Vhernier bracelets; her own rings.
Classic Royalty: Model
What is your secret skill? Fucking.
Fucking? Mm-hmmm. It’s an awfully good thing to be good at, no? And it goes on forever, guys and girls. You should remember that.
Hutton wears a Row coat.
Classic Royalty: Superhero
My first audition was for some random sort of commercial. I remember walking in and having to tell them about myself, and none of it was very interesting because I never got those jobs. My first regular acting gig was on a soap opera called Home and Away. I did that for three and a half years, and I went through every melodramatic tragedy that one can go through: plane crashes, fires, robberies, landslides. I had three different kids with three different women. And my character was 19 for three years. I never had a birthday. Never aged.
Hemsworth wears a Boss jacket, shirt, and pants; Western Spirit bolo tie; stylist’s own belt.
New Royalty: Superhero
I don’t fuck with karaoke. I tried it once, and it was the biggest disaster. The song I bombed on was “Eye of the Tiger.” It was at a wedding, in front of hundreds of people. The only line of the song that I knew was “eye of the tiger,” so I just mumbled, and it was awful. Deep shame. Now I stick to singing my own songs onstage with my band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. There are some things you just know you’re not good at.
Leto wears an Ann Demeulemeester shirt; Gucci pants; Mikimoto pearls; his own ring and necklace.
New Royalty: Television
As a boy, I was very, very sensitive. Ever the emotional young thing. In eighth grade, a drama teacher put me in a play, and I got really involved with theater. Within a year, all the kids who were making fun of me were my allies. I remember thinking, Instead of being a weird guy in the corner of the classroom, now I’m the weird guy that everyone has to pay attention to! And, like, Wow—maybe someone will kiss me!
Middleditch wears a Prada shirt; Coach 1941 pants; Artemas Quibble belt; Calvin Klein 205W39NYC boots.
Classic Royalty: Television
Since signing on to Stranger Things, I’ve become a binge-watcher of TV. My favorite show is The Americans. It’s brilliant, and Keri Russell is just mind-blowing. I watched the entire last season all at once, and I was crushed when it ended. I met Keri, and I was like, “What’s going to happen?!” I had turned into a fan-geek. But she wouldn’t tell me. Everyone in TV has to keep things a big secret—which I’m learning.
Ryder wears a Dior dress and hat.
New Royalty: Movie Star
I didn’t think I could play Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton. I was asked to audition, and I remember saying no because I didn’t want to be the one to mess it up. I was nervous because it was Dr. Dre. And now, after the film, I walk down the street and people ask, “Is that Dr. Dre?” Nobody did that before Compton. Now everybody does it.
Hawkins wears a Giorgio Armani jacket, shirt, and pants; Tom Ford shoes.
Classic Royalty: Movie Star
What was your first acting job? When I was 15 or 16, I was cast as Reese Witherspoon’s son in the film Vanity Fair. I went to the screening, and no one had informed me that I had been cut from the film. But the casting director felt so guilty that she gave me a first run at the part of Cedric in Harry Potter, which I booked. So, in the end, I was quite glad to have been cut from Vanity Fair.
How did you prepare for your role as a bank robber on the run in Good Time? I stayed in character for several days and got a job at a car wash. I wanted to change myself so that people would not be able to recognize me for the whole shoot. And it worked. We were filming in a packed subway at rush hour; I was directed by text message, and no one could tell we were making a movie. Not one person took a cell-phone picture, which would have ruined the whole thing. It was great to not be recognized.
Pattinson wears a Berluti jacket; Charvet scarf.
Classic Royalty: Television
After Everybody Loves Raymond ended, it wasn’t hard to say no to other sitcom offers. This sounds awful, but I had all the money I needed, my wife had all the money she needed, and creatively I wanted to do other things. I thought, Suddenly I have time, I have money, I have a bit of fame, and this is going to be fun. After three months, it wasn’t fun anymore. I had a kind of emotional breakdown until I started creating the next show. People ask me sometimes, “How do you keep going?” And I like to say, “I have to keep moving, or I catch up with myself.”
Romano wears a Balenciaga shirt.
New Royalty: Television
Your mom is Diana Ross. Did you ever borrow her clothes? I’m not going to lie: It was more like stealing. One time, she left the house and I saw her car go down the driveway. I marched myself into her bathroom and started taking clothes. I liked to put them in my closet and live with them as if they were mine. Just as I was loading up, my mom walked into the bathroom. She said, “What are you doing?!” I was like, “I’m organizing your closet for you!” To this day, I visit her closet and call it shopping.
Ross wears an Alexander McQueen dress; Gianvito Rossi shoes.