Photographs by Mario Sorrenti, Styled by George Cortina; Hair by Recine for Rodin; Makeup by Kanako Takase for Shiseido at Streeters; Manicures by Lisa Jachno for Chanel at Aim Artists.
Earlier this month, Tracee Ellis Ross shared a video on Instagram—not a groundbreaking action necessarily, especially since many of our favorite celebrities have upped their social media usage in quarantine. But her message broke the so-called fourth wall. In her typical slapstick way, she let the leaf of her house plant flop around near her face. Using a faux-husky voice, she said, "I want to share something that's been helpful—it's not what you expect." Then, on a dime, she shifted, her voice normal again: "How are you guys doing, seriously? How are your hearts? I know my heart feels really heavy." For me, this clip epitomized the singular way Ross has balanced humor—something we need desperately right now—and genuine outreach to her audience during the coronavirus pandemic, and made it into something of a salve for uneasiness. She is equal parts comedienne and activist.
When she got on the phone from her home in Los Angeles—where she's currently working on five film and TV projects, along with her hair-care brand Pattern—our conversation went the same way. She'd dive into a goofy joke, and the next minute, deliver a credo on patience, humanity, and life itself that sounded straight from the pages of an Eckhart Tolle book. Her careful consideration and real interest in people calmed me down a bit—something I haven't felt in a while. Needless to say, she took on a persona her followers bestowed upon her, and went full Aunt Tracee.
In this interview, Ross discusses her approach to social media during a crisis, the importance of her group text (it's called "Keanu Forever"), and why listening to David Sedaris audio books helps her sleep at night.
Where are you right now?
I’m in L.A., at home, like most of us. I haven’t been out of the house since March 12, I don’t think. Last week was a doozy. It was like, okay, wait a minute, is this still happening? This is still going on now? I feel like it’s the least amount of sacrifice considering what so many others are showing up to do to keep us all afloat. Being uncomfortable is a privilege when there’s so much real pain and loss going on.
I just keep reminding myself that staying home is for a higher good. If I think of it as me being of service to people that are faced in a more immediate and direct way with danger, it relieves the pressure of feeling bad that you’re feeling bad. My friend Kerby Jean Raymond reminded me of that when we were catching up on the phone last night. He always thinks about more than himself, it seems. It’s really easy to forget the helpful things, and that’s why I like to swim in a currency of good stuff, and good reminders. He was so helpful in reminding me of that: You’re being of service, and you can take the self out of it.
I also think there’s a lot to be said for allowing yourself compassion—there’s some space to give yourself on the feelings. This is a collective experience that none of us have ever been in before. Our physical well-being and our health is the overarching theme right now. But at the same time, there’s also a mental well-being that all of us are navigating that is part of the whole experience. That is no joke.
How have you been keeping up with friends and family?
I’ve done a lot more luxuriating on the phone and FaceTiming. It’s been supportive to the experience. My core group of girlfriends are all in New York, and I don’t see them all the time. I’ve cooked dinner with them and talked to them more often than normal. It’s been really helpful. I’ve had dinner with Romy [Soleimani] and cooked dinner with my friend Monica, and we have a really fabulous text thread. I would have to ask them if it’s appropriate to tell you the name of our thread because it’s so good. You know what, I’m gonna breach our privacy. They’re probably gonna get so mad! Our thread is called “Keanu Forever.” It happened ages ago, because I rode in an elevator with Keanu during last year’s Met Ball. It was literally just Keanu and me in an elevator. It was such a short elevator ride. I thought so much was gonna happen. Like a proposal.
At the very least.
And so I went on our thread afterward, and was telling the story. I don’t know which of us changed the thread to “Keanu Forever.” It just stuck and it’s hilarious. I have another thread called “Cabo Bitches.”
Those have been the most helpful: the friendships that I’ve had continue to bolster me, and that love and connection has been so fulfilling. The group calls with my family make me cry. I have a very close relationship with my family and I don’t just mean my mom and her kids—we do those regularly, and with all the grandkids—but also with my aunts and cousins and uncles, and my mom and all of her siblings, and all of the cousins I grew up with. It is so special. I not only love my family, I really like them.
And they’re incredibly smart, one of my first cousins is a doctor, and she is in Detroit. Her specialty is OBGYN, but like most doctors with specialties right now, they’re leaning into just COVID 19. My cousin Stephen's wife, Gina, is also a doctor with a specialty in OBGYN and something that I can’t pronounce, she’s in Atlanta, in a hospital there. My cousin Alaina is a civil rights attorney. And the three of them are actually the ones I did a post on, my two cousins that are doctors and my aunt who’s a doctor as well. They all helped me put together the post that I wrote about how this is disproportionately affecting the African American community in terms of mortality rate.
What has been top of mind these days?
That pain is not something that you compare. For some people, boredom and discomfort does fall into other categories, where it really is more than boredom and it’s more than discomfort. It’s a real mental anguish. So I have deep compassion for all this, because I feel like there’s such collective trauma we’re all making sense of with no roadmap. None of us have experienced anything like this before. It’s hard to wrap your mind around and your heart around. It’s like a sci-fi movie. And it doesn’t seem like anyone has any answers. That in and of itself is difficult. The unknown is always difficult, but we have the illusion of some sort of plan. And now, there’s not even an illusion of a plan. We’re just figuring it out as we go. It’s just like, Okay, my god! Who’s the parent here?!
With that in mind, how do you go about figuring out what you want to share on social media?
I’ll be honest, I have not been on social media as much as I am when I’m working. When I’m working, social media is such an easy place to kind of scroll through, because of the pace we work at. And I can never really dive into a book or e-mails, or other work because I’ve got lines swirling around in my head. I’ve been going on to look at my DMs, to post, and I kind of swipe around a little bit, but I haven’t been intensely connected through social media.
When I do post, I try really hard to research my information and to go to people that are experts and actually know what they’re talking about, to give that information credibility and share accurate information. Share joyful information, share a loving, connected, honest, accurate information. Because I find that there’s a lot that—it could be true, but we don’t really know, because it hasn’t been researched.
It’s interesting to me that you’re saying you’re staying off of social media, because it feels like you’re giving people an inside look at your life—which you’ve always done, but in a way, it seems really personal right now.
It’s funny, because it’s hard for me: I’ve picked particular places in my home that I’m comfortable sharing. It’s not that I’m a private person, I just have a real sense of what sacred means. And I honor those things with great care. Those things that are sacred to me are not for public consumption—however, I have grown to be somebody who enjoys sharing how I hold myself emotionally. And now, some of those things have been really fun to share. I really loved sharing the socks on my hand. People were writing me: “You know, you can buy gloves for that.” I’m like, I know! But I got socks! So why I gotta buy the gloves? I get it, I know I can. But, like, I got the socks. So we’re good, right? These seem to work just fine. They’re like a mitten, with no thumbs!
I don’t know if you know how many articles were spawned from that Instagram post. There are three pages worth of Google results.
Are you serious?
Yes, people are like, “Check out this life hack that Tracee Ellis Ross does for her hands!”
People were like, “I don’t know if you know what’s in Bag Balm.” I was like, no, I don’t know what’s in Bag Balm! Am I in trouble? What’s happening? You can use whatever you want, it’s the socks! That’s the key, the socks, people!
Do you know how much people use your likeness in photos and videos as memes? Like that video of you with the Ulta bag is so widely used as a reaction meme.
That kills me. That shit is hilarious. And I get it, because I do think that to a certain extent, I move like a cartoon character, and I feel things in very big ways and I’m an animated, gesture-filled human being. My personality is probably perfect for memes.
One thing I really love about your approach to social media is that you’re able to have this, at times, comedic approach while you’re talking to your followers, but also maintaining a sensitive message. I’m wondering how you’re able to balance that.
Someone asked me the other day: “Do you think there’s a place for comedy in this?” I don’t even know if comedy’s the right word. There’s always a place for laughter. There’s always a space for joy. I think that is a revolutionary act, in all honesty. It’s a choice that’s about perspective and how you look at things. I think I am truly being very mindful—I really am just very aware of all of the different responses and experiences that people are having. I think social media’s old use does not match where we’re at. The crassness of some of the humor at other people’s expense, all of those kinds of things, the glimpse into extravagance and all that, just doesn’t match where we’re at. We do have to be extremely mindful of everybody’s vulnerabilities and sensitivities right now, and the fact that everybody’s nervous systems are a little bit shot.
I don’t know about you, but most everyone I know has gotten a nice big, basket or tunnel of fear just sitting there, waiting, and it takes everything in my power to keep turning my attention somewhere else and to a different narrative. One that’s like, What can my hands actually do? What do I actually have control over in my world and in my mind? What am I going to eat today? Who can I call to check in on someone else, particularly when I need to be checked in on and nobody seems to be checking in on me in that moment? How can I take that feeling and turn it around toward somebody else and find a connection there?
Today, it seems the biggest joys I get are deciding what I’m gonna make to eat, how I’m gonna prepare it for myself, so that when I sit down to eat it, it actually looks beautiful. I have found that my mindful practice of being present with what I’m doing when I’m doing it, knowing where my hands and my feet are, has been extremely helpful. Allowing myself to let my heart feel the heartbreak and anguish that so many are feeling and not try and push those feelings away but give them space, but not let them be the full story, because that will make anyone go down a rabbit hole. I know we’ve done a lot of thanking of the first responders and all of those that are doing essential jobs that are keeping us all afloat. But i also feel a real call to continue to remember that although this virus is invisible for the majority of us, for the first responders and the healthcare workers, it is not invisible.
We need people. And I think part of what all of us have been navigating in our own private ways is how do you find comfort for yourself? Where do you go when you are frightened? Without a hug, without the distraction of making a plan to go to dinner, without the ability to hear an impulse inside you and know all of the ways that we used to answer those impulses, What do you do in this? And how do we want to envision what it will be after? What are we making sense of, while still honoring the human experience and the reality of what that is? And it really does highlight the compassion that all of us should have always been dialed up on, surrounding so many different parts of how our society treats people and responds to people.
How did the transition to working from home go?
It was a little bumpy for me, 'cuz I’m not going to lie, I am not the most technically savvy human being. When it comes to Zoom, and Blue Jay, and all these other things, I’m like, I don’t fucking know what I’m doing. I thrive in isolation, and I am a person who plays an extrovert in my job, but I’m really a bit of an introvert. And I will also admit that I don’t spend a lot of time at home. When I started quarantining, I was like, why the fuck is this Internet—my mom told me I should stop using so many curse words, so hold on—why for goodness sake—there we go—is this Internet so slow? I finally got on the phone with the right people at my Internet provider; and that man was so kind. We checked my Internet speed, and he said, “Yeah, that’s very slow, ma’am. I don’t think your equipment is up to date. It’s from 2010.” I was like “Oh! Goodness me.” So the beginning of transitioning to online work was not easy.
But now, I am great. I do all the Blue Jays and Zooms and FaceTimes. Keeping up with the work has actually been very encouraging. It gives me something to look forward to. It’s given me an opportunity to continue to use my mind; I have more time to think creatively right now, I have more courage to think creatively. One of the things I had to remind myself, which has also reminded friends of mine, is momentum and the course that we are on, the energetic journey of what we were all doing in our lives—if that is a path you enjoyed and were happy about, whether that was you in college and getting a degree, or you on the path to getting married, got halted and shifted during this time, remember that has not stopped. It’s just changing. Because there was a real sense of grief and disappointment, that of course you have to temper, because it is not the grief of loss of a human, of somebody you love, but of a way of living, or dreams. They’re not gone, there’s just a transition in how those things are going to happen.
I read an article in which you said you’ve been listening to David Sedaris audiobooks. Are there any other titles you’ve been loving?
David Sedaris is wonderful for going to sleep, because I kid you not, I go to sleep laughing. And for some reason, during this pandemic, falling asleep has been very difficult for me. I get tired, and usually cannot get myself to fall asleep until about 1:30 a.m. It seems that is when I am most acutely aware of the collective sadness and trauma that’s happening, and it’s really hard for me to settle my heart and my mind. So David Sedaris has been really wonderful in the evenings. It distracts you in the right way. I can turn off the lights, and just allow that to be what I’m hearing, instead of my thoughts.
I usually read multiple books at a time, so I’m still in process with Untamed by Glennon Doyle. I started by listening to that as an audio book, but my sister suggested I switch to the actual book, because she said there are so many pearls in it I'd want to underline, highlight, and earmark. I also have not finished The H-Spot by Jill Filipovic—it’s really worthy and it’s been fantastic. I just finished The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer, which I enjoyed, and Less by Andrew Sean Grier, which I loved. I am a huge Ann Patchett fan. For anybody who hasn’t read Bel Canto, it is a must-read. I have read every single one of her books. An all-time favorite is The Bluest Eye, which is actually read by Toni Morrison and Ruby Dee. It is like going to the theater; there’s music, it is literally like going to see a Broadway play, but you get to use your imagination.
What music are you listening to in quarantine?
Okay, I’ll be honest: Yo-yo Ma (laughs). He gets me every time—lovely for a Sunday afternoon. There’s a great new Frank Ocean song. And I was a huge Fiona Apple gal growing up, and Fiona Apple’s new album is wonderful. There’s a song called “Heavy Balloons” that shatters me open. I’m always a fan of Drake, and Rihanna. I've gone back to the favorites—I have a Bill Withers essentials album, and that’ll get you through any cleaning experience, I can tell you right now. Bill Withers will take you through the bathroom. You will make it through the toilet with “Lovely Day” going. You will forget what you’re doing, and you will absolutely make it to the other side, no problem.