Tracey Gayle Norman (1951 - ) model

Original version: April 2014

Tracy Norman was raised in Newark, New Jersey. Father thought that his child was too effeminate and made a desultory attempt at teaching boxing. He moved out when Tracy was 6; the mother worked multiple jobs to support her two children.

The first in her family to graduate high school, Tracy, on the same day, told her mother that she was a woman, and was accepted. A few months later. Tracy met a old-school friend who had started transition. She answered questions and gave Tracy some birth-control pills.

In trans clubs, Third World and Up the Down Stairs, she was told of a doctor who prescribed to trans women, and soon she was not just being taken as female, but was being noted for her beauty. This was at the same time as Lottie and Crystal LaBeija founded the House of Labeija with a ball at the Up the Down Stairs.

A friend of Tracy who helped her with make-up, worked in the fashion industry and knew where fashion shows were being held. He taught her what to say at the door, that she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which let her stand in the back row. Thus she attended a modeling event at the Pierre Hotel in New York in 1975. She noticed a group of black models and followed them in, making sure that she was the last person.  There she was discovered by renowned photographer Irving Penn and booked for Vogue Italia a few days later.

One of the other models, Peggy Dillard, was nice to her, while the others shunned the newcomer. Dillard revealed many years later that, as she had spent years DJ-ing at a gay disco, and had friends who had transitioned, she was able to read the newcomer. Tracy was paid $3,000 – more than she had ever had before. Penn referred her to an agency, Zoli. Some weeks later, Penn received a phone call from Condé Nast magazine, passing on the rumor that Norman was not born female. Penn dismissed it out of hand as ridiculous. A make-up artist approached her during a break and said that he knew what was going on with her. He also said ‘Don’t worry, I think you’re beautiful. Just be natural.’ He also told the photographer Anthony Barboza, who replied that if that were the case, the magazine must know. Apparently it went no further and Tracy was rehired by the same magazine six months later.

Tracy was similar in appearance to the rising black model Beverly Johnson, and quickly was featured in major advertising campaigns, Ultra Sheen and Avon Cosmetics. Clairol put her face on their dark-auburn hair dye no 512, launched that year.

Essense Magazine booked her again for several sessions in 1980. During the last session, the hair dresser's assistant, who was from the same part of New Jersey and had been asking around trying to figure out who Tracy was, spoke to the editor, Susan Taylor, who stopped the shoot. Nobody said anything. However Tracy was never paid for the last shoot, and the pictures were never used. Work in New York dried up. There was a rumor that Taylor threatened to sue Zoli, the agency for false advertising, but the agency did not know either. Eventually a friend confirmed that her secret had gone around quickly, but still no-one said so directly.

By 1982, Tracy had given up her apartment, and moved back in with her mother. A friend was already working in Paris, and another suggested that they go there. Tracy used her sister’s birth certificate to get a passport. In Paris the three friends shared hotel rooms. One day Tracy got a phone call for another model, who had returned to New York. She was offered the gig, but delayed it for two weeks while she slimmed down to a French size 6. This led to a six-month contract with Balenciaga.

The UltraSheen ad
Next she tried Milan, but work was slow there too. She returned to Newark in 1984, and signed with the Grace del Marco Agency. However after a few months she was featured in an Ultra Sheen cosmetics ad, and then she was remembered.  Again work dried up even though this was the year that openly trans model Teri Toye was being feted, and trans model Lauren Foster regained her career after being outed a few years earlier.

One thing went right. Tracey dated a straight male office worker from Long Island. He did not mind when she told him that she was trans, and they had a three-year relationship.

Tracy found work in shoe retailing, but again word got out and people came to stare through the window. She then took work at Show Center, a burlesque peep show in Times Square that featured trans women, but behind glass so that the customers could not touch. She was able to earn over $1,000 a day there, and stayed three years. This led to her involvement in the voguing balls, first as an observer, and then as a member of the House of Africa. She used her modelling experience and trained her team to walk like professionals, rather than the flamboyant style that the other houses affected. Her personal trademark was to walk in just jeans and t-shirt. She would take a white handkerchief and wipe her face in front of the judges to show that she was wearing no make-up – and the was met by applause. She became mother to the house, and was elected to the Ballroom Hall of Fame in 2001.

In the 1990s Tracey had encountered her father who was driving a bus that she was on. “I was like, ‘Daddy, it’s me.’ He was shocked to see me.” Later he was diagnosed with cancer, and she visited him in hospital. “He saw that I have done something very exciting with my life. I think he was proud of me at that point. He was more accepting.”

Later Tracey worked again in shoe retailing – for the up-market Peter Fox Shoes, and for a while was a manager.
Tracey in 2016

In December 2015, New York Magazine/The Cut ran a cover story reminding readers that Tracey, now 63, was the first black trans model. This led to Clairol welcoming her back as the face of its new “Color As Real As You Are” campaign.
  • Meekaprodigy. "Paris Is Burning Tea (Harlem Ballroom Scene)" Lipstick Alley, 03-26-
  • "Tracy Africa" The Luna show#100.
  • Jada Yuan & Aaron Wong. "The First Black Trans Model had her Face on a Box of Clairol". New York Magazine/The Cut, 14 December, 2015. Online.
  • Carly Stern. "The 'first black transgender model' reveals how her high-flying fashion career, posing for the likes of Vogue and Clairol, crumbled after her gender identity was exposed". Daily Mail, 17 Dec 2015. Online
  • Jada Yuan. "Susan Taylor Says She Wouldn’t Have Outed Tracey Africa". New York Magazine/The Cut, Dec 27, 2015. Online.
  • Jada Yuan. "Tracey Africa Norman Is Back As the Face of Clairol".  The Cut, August 2016. Online.
  • Hermione Hoby. "How Tracey Norman, America’s first black trans model, returned to the limelight". The Guardian, 21 Aug 2016. Online.
  • Yada Yuan. "Trans Models Will Cover Harper’s Bazaar for the First Time". New York Magazine/The Cut, Sept 19, 2016. Online.
  • Elspeth H Brown. Work! A Queer History of Modeling. Duke University Press, 2019: 2-4, 13, 263-5, 267, 270-2. 
Tracy or Tracey? She changed the spelling in the early 1990s.

After the December 2015 article in New York Magazine/The Cut, JadaYuan, the author, was finally able to get feedback from Susan Taylor, the editor at Essense who had supervised Tracey’s last shoot in 1980. Not surprisingly Taylor remembers things differently: “I always suspected she was genetically male. I accepted her as she presented herself, as an exquisitely beautiful black woman. Now, this is 40 years later, but I think someone that she went to school with in Newark told me that they knew her as a boy. I think.” … “And we sought to hire her into the ‘80s and she was not available. I just learned that a few days ago.”