With Andreja Pejic, Carmen Carrera, and Lea T all appearing in high-fashion runway shows, and booking influential editorial gigs, transgender models are now widely-accepted in the mainstream fashion industry.
But that certainly wasn’t the case when Tracey ‘Africa’ Norman, the first black transgender model, came onto the scene in the 1970s.
Now 63, the New Jersey native recently reflected on her successful career – which included magazine spreads, an exclusive contract for Avon skin care, and a contract for Clairol hair dye – in an interview with New York Magazine, sharing the fear, struggles, and eventual disappointment when she was finally found out.
Tracey said she always felt like she was a girl, even while growing up as a boy in Newark, New Jersey.
‘It just seemed like I was living in the wrong body. I always felt female,’ she said.
But the conflicted teen didn’t have the courage to tell her mother how she felt until she graduated from high school in 1969. Luckily, her mom was accepting, telling Tracey that she always knew. Her dad, on the other hand, was mostly out of her life by then, and even when she was a kid he hadn’t been thrilled with how ‘effeminate’ she was.
It just seemed like I was living in the wrong body. I always felt female
Even when she was able to admit who she was and what she wanted, transitioning was’t quite as straightforward as it is becoming today. She couldn’t just walk into a doctor’s office and ask for estrogen.
In fact, she first started taking hormones after a lucky accident. She ran into an old classmate from from junior high, who had by then also transitioned from a young boy to a woman. She revealed to Tracey that she could get hormone therapy by taking birth control pills and skipping the placebo week.
Soon after that, Tracey started going to clubs frequented by trans people, and that’s where she learned about a doctor who sold hormone shots under-the-table. Those hormones helped her breasts grow to a B-cup, and she started to lose weight, too.
By a year after she graduated, Tracey felt secure enough that she could go out as a woman in public, knowing she’d ‘pass’. And she couldn’t just ‘pass’ as a woman, but as an exceptionally beautiful one. Her friends all told her she could model, and Tracey took to the idea.
A make-up artist friend taught her how to sneak into fashion shows by pretending to be an FIT student, and she’d slip in and stand in the back to study the models.
Around 1975, she was attending one of these shows at the Pierre Hotel in New York City when she saw a group of models she recognized. She trailed behind them into the hotel, pretending she belonged there, and ended up following them into a modeling audition.
It wasn’t until after she booked the $3,000 two-day gig – a shoot for Italian Vogue – that she found out that she had tried out for legendary fashion photographer Irving Penn, Basile designer Luciano Soprani, and an editor from the magazine.
Then the shoot itself went so well that Irving Penn himself called a modeling agency, Zoli, on her behalf and recommended her. Tracey was signed, and quickly starting working on shoots for catalogs and Essence magazine.
By the mid-70s, she’d booked a gig with Clairol. They created a shade – Dark Auburn, Box 512 – modeled after her real hair and sold it for six years. At the time, they told her it was their ‘hottest-selling box’.
She knew how careful she had to be, though. She didn’t fraternize too much outside of work, and used duct tape to help disguise her body, since she’d frequently have to change in front of other people. She had other tricks, too, that she won’t reveal.
Still, she had some close calls when she feared she’d be found out. On one shoot for Essense, a make-up artist pulled her aside to tell her he knew her secret, though he seemed nice enough about it. Indeed, he only told the shoot’s photographer, Anthony Barboza, who shook it off.
‘It was fine with me,’ Anthony recalled. ‘I’m just doing the job and Tracey was a good model. I remember she had great cheekbones and she looked good in the wigs. It didn’t make any difference to me and I didn’t say it to anyone; I was just surprised because I didn’t notice at all.’
But not everyone had that attitude, and one day, her secret got out. She was doing another shoot for Essence in the early 1980s when it happened, while she was working with the same hair people she always did and shooting for the magazine.
Unfortunately, however, one of the hairdresser’s assistants had grown suspicious. He seemed to always be poking around and asking questions when Tracey worked, but this time, the meddlesome man spoke to the hairdresser, who in turn spoke to the editor-in-chief.
The photoshoot was cut short. No one treated her poorly or made reference to what they’d learned, but the pictures never appeared in the magazine – and she never got paid, either.
After that, work dried up. At first, her agency insisted it was because her ‘hips were still too big’. But even after Tracey slimmed down from a size six to a size four, gigs still weren’t coming.
After some time, one of Tracey’s friends in the industry broke the bad news – word was out that she was trans, and it had spread around to anyone who might have hired her. Not only could she no longer get work, but she faced backlash, too, like from other black models who felt resentful that Tracey had earned jobs over them.