Tracey Norman is one of America’s first African-American transgender models and an LGBTQ activist.
Who Is Tracey Norman?
Tracey "Africa" Norman (born in 1952) is one of America’s first African-American transgender models. She gained national recognition in the 1970s when she was featured on a Clairol hair coloring box. After Beverly Johnson, Norman became the second black woman to grace the cover of Vogue, and along with Geena Rocero, she became the first of two openly transgender models to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Norman is also a “mother” in the House of Africa and a Ballroom Community icon and activist who helps LGBTQ youth of color.
Tracey Norman's Age
Norman was born on December 15, 1952, although some sources claim she was born in 1951.
Casting Call for 'Vogue'
In 1975 Norman was en route to see a fashion show in New York City. Upon exiting the subway, she noticed a group of recognizable African-American models standing outside the Pierre Hotel. After they walked into the hotel, she followed from behind. In a stroke of good luck, Norman found that she had wandered into a casting call for Italian Vogue led by editor Luciano Soprani and photographer Irving Penn. Much to her surprise, the magazine booked her for a two-day photoshoot that paid $3,000. Penn bragged that he had discovered the next Beverly Johnson.
Soon after, Norman signed with Zoli Agency who also represented supermodels Pat Cleveland and Veruschka. She then secured a contract with Clairol that helped her gain national visibility when she became the face of Clairol’s hair color No. 512, Dark Auburn, in the 'Born Beautiful' hair color collection. According to Norman, her box cover was widely popular, “So they used my box for six years, because they said it was the hottest-selling box. This is what I was told.” Laverne Cox vividly recalls Norman’s face on that box. Cox told New York Magazine in 2015: “I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at that photo of her on that Clairol bottle and that caption, ‘Born Beautiful’. Yeah, we are born beautiful.”
Norman was photographed extensively for Essence magazine throughout the 1970s. All the while, few she worked with knew that she had been identified as “male” at birth. Then, in 1980 while on a holiday photo-shoot with Essence, it was made public that Norman was transgender. Unfortunately, this news was not well-received.
A little over a year later, Norman moved to Paris and signed a 6-month contract with Balenciaga but unable to find much work beyond that, she soon moved back to New York where she signed with a small agency, Grace del Marco Agency. Norman was then hired for an Ultra Sheen cosmetics ad, and although it seemed like her career was getting back on track, when the ad ran, the cultural response focused squarely on her transgender status and not the beautiful woman she was. At this point, Norman gave up modeling and moved back into her mother's house. For several years after, Norman worked at a trans burlesque peep show called Show Center in Times Square.
Activist: House of Africa Mother and Ballroom Community Icon
Norman joined the House of Africa and eventually rose to the ranks of “mother” and mentor, adding “Africa” to her name. She also became an “icon” and “legend” in the Ballroom Community (a group that functions as surrogate families for LGBTQ youth of color that compete in drag balls). In 2001, she was inducted into the Ballroom Hall of Fame along with John Moschino and Gerald Labeija. Norman is a celebrated mentor in the Ballroom Community and an inspiration for LGBTQ youth of color.
Modeling Career Revitalization
In December 2015, New York Magazine's digital fashion site "The Cut" featured a piece about Norman. Soon after, Clairol reached out to Norman, aged 63, and hired her to be the face of their 'Nice 'n Easy “Color As Real As You Are" 2016 campaign. Clairol global associate brand director Heather Carruthers stated that the company was "honored to bring back Tracey Norman as a woman who no longer has to hide her truth." The campaign focused on the "confidence that comes from embracing what makes you unique and using natural color to express yourself freely."
'Harper's Bazaar' Cover
Also in 2016, Norman and Geena Rocero became the first two openly transgender models to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
Tracey Norman: Before Her Transition
Tracy Gayle Norman was born on December 15, 1952 in Newark, New Jersey. Her parents held multiple jobs to support their family. Her father worked as a barber, a bus driver, and at a slaughterhouse while her mother found work bartending, sewing at a coat factory, and working for a Newark city council member. Norman had a difficult childhood. She struggled from a young age with her gender identity and despite her father’s best efforts to encourage her to be involved in boxing and other masculine activities, Norman never felt comfortable living as a boy.
At Clinton Place Junior High and Newark Tech High School, she was happiest being friends with girls and learned to mimic their behaviors. After she became the first high school graduate in her family, Norman told her parents she wanted to live as a woman on graduation day in 1969. Her mother said she had always known and fully supported her, but her father did not support her until years later.
After high school, Norman sought to make changes to begin living her life as a woman. At a night club in New York, Norman met a doctor who started her on under-the-table hormone injections. She bought her first dress at S. Klein, a department store in downtown Newark and her friends helped her with her make-up and her newfound feminine style. Norman was becoming the woman she had always wanted to be. She was not just “passing” as a woman, she was so gorgeous that she was turning heads all over New York City. As a trans woman of color in the 1970s, Norman feared that sex work might be amongst her only options, but the attention she received as a beautiful woman got her interested in the idea of modeling.