Tracey “Africa” Norman always knew that the question wasn’t if she’d be found out, but how long she could go undetected.
To be black and from Newark in the mid-1970s and get plucked from a model casting call for Italian Vogue by Irving Penn — it was the kind of success story that was unheard of, especially for someone like her. She was signed by a top agency, photographed multiple times for the pages of Essence magazine. She landed an exclusive contract for Avon skin care, and another for Clairol’s Born Beautiful hair color boxes: No. 512, Dark Auburn, please. She went to Paris and became a house model in the Balenciaga showroom, wearing couture and walking the runway twice a day. Norman was never as big as Iman, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, or the other models of color breaking barriers on international runways or on the cover of Vogue. But she was riding that wave. It was more than she could have ever hoped for when she was a kid in New Jersey. Back when she was a boy who knew that, inside, he was a girl.
Norman still turns heads — passersby, shop clerks, waiters at the diner where we have lunch. At 63, she is strikingly beautiful, with buttery deep-brown skin that reads decades younger, and straight black hair that hangs to her ribs. That regal posture, those strong cheekbones demand attention, even as she hides her slender frame under a long black skirt and a navy shearling-lined peacoat that I later learn is from H&M. She’s open and warm but seems nervous. “It’s not easy for me to talk,” she says. She’s practiced so long the art of being both beautiful and invisible, of letting people look at her but not really see her. It’s how she managed to build a career in an industry where her job was to be gazed upon, in an era when the truth would mean certain, and possibly violent, persecution.
We’re living in a time when trans models like Lea T and Andreja Pejic have been the faces of Redken and Make Up For Ever, and Caitlyn Jenner has been celebrated on the cover of Vanity Fair. This kind of cultural acceptance makes it easy to lose sight of how dangerous it was 40 years ago — and still can be today — for women like Norman to just walk down a street. Fear of harassment from both police and civilians was constant. To live one’s life openly as a transgender woman, let alone one as a black trans woman, simply wasn’t done. The only option, really, was to “pass” in straight society.
But Norman wanted to do more than pass — she wanted to excel in the most scrutinized realm of femininity. Friends from back home in Newark who worked in fashion had been telling her for a long time that she was beautiful enough to model. It would be a better alternative than what she thought might be her only option to make a living: “I was trying to not become a sex worker,” she says. She’d just started to see her body change and her breasts grow from hormone injections. “I was thick,” says Norman. “Well, I was fat, but I say thick.” Her friends taught her how to do her makeup, how to dress for her new figure, how to present.
A makeup artist friend, Al Grundy, worked in the office of a company that dressed models backstage and always knew where fashion shows were being held in the city, which in those days were at the labels’ showrooms: Halston, Bill Blass. He taught Norman what to say at the door, how to become invisible. “I would just tell them that I was a student at FIT and they would let you in, but you couldn’t sit. You had to stand in the back row and it was really tight,” says Norman. “I would go to see how models walk, because I was still in training.”
One morning in, she believes, 1975, Norman was on her way to see a fashion show that Grundy had told her about at the Pierre Hotel. When she stepped out of the subway, she noticed a group of black models she recognized from magazines standing on the corner outside the hotel. She waited for them to go inside, and then slipped in behind them. Through the door, into an elevator. “My mind just kept saying, ‘Follow them,’” she says. Off the elevator, into the next room. Norman made sure she was the last person in line.
“After I got close enough to see what was going on through the door of the hotel room, I saw it was an interview,” she says. Near the end of the day, her turn finally came and she stepped up to the desk, where they asked for her name, phone number, and agency (which she didn’t have). The next day she got a phone call saying she’d been booked for a two-day shoot for Italian Vogue and the pay was $1,500 a day, more money than she’d ever seen. “My eyes popped out of my head!” says Norman. “I couldn’t wait to call my mom.” She didn’t realize until then that the people she’d met at the desk had been an editor from Italian Vogue, Basile designer Luciano Soprani, and photographer Irving Penn.
She remembers that Penn gave her a lot of encouragement and direction. “He told me to look straight ahead. I’d look straight ahead,” she says. “He told me to turn my face three-quarters. I turned my face three-quarters. He told me to smile with my eyes and I was confused about that so I would just smile” — Norman demonstrates, and laughs. “Then he told me that my eyes were too big. I looked like a deer in headlights, so he told me to close my eyes and open them.”
At the end of the second day, Penn congratulated Norman and wished her well on her new career. “And I kind of tilted my head like, ‘Huh?’” she says. “And he said , ‘Well, we’re going to call an agency. They’re going to put you on a diet and if you get on that diet and lose weight you can make a lot of money.’” A week later she was at the office of Zoli, a boutique and rather eccentric agency run by a Hungarian-born designer named Zoltan “Zoli” Rendessy whose client roster included Pat Cleveland and Veruschka. With Penn’s endorsement, they signed her immediately and began sending her on go-sees, billing her as a younger version of Beverly Johnson, never mind that Norman was only two months younger.
Peggy Dillard’s kindness to Norman, in retrospect, was perhaps a product of her being more sensitive to the cues than others in the room. Dillard had spent much of her youth DJ-ing at her brother’s gay disco in New York, and had friends who’d transitioned, “so I noticed with Tracey’s hands and ankles some things that were characteristic to men. It didn’t bother me. I thought she was beautiful.” When Norman went behind a screen to change rather than undressing with the rest of the girls, “that became a confirmation to me that my instincts were on target.”
Dillard didn’t tell anyone else about what she’d noticed. “It was really hilarious to watch Irving Penn calling people like crazy, which you never saw him do. He was on the phone the whole shoot, telling people, ‘I’ve discovered the next Beverly Johnson!’ I just kind of watched and thought, He doesn’t know that this is a boy!”
Penn’s assistant on that shoot, the now-well-known fashion photographer George Chinsee, who just happened to be with Dillard when I called, adds that a few weeks or months later, Penn got a call from Alexander Liberman, editorial director at Condé Nast, about rumors that Norman was not born female. Chinsee, who overheard the conversation, says Penn was livid. “He just thought it was ridiculous that they’d even think that Tracey was not a woman,” he says. “He said, ‘Oh, this is a vicious rumor!’”
Tracey’s “being effeminate,” she says, was a regular source of strife between her parents. Her mother was accepting; her father thought he could change her. “He tried everything he could. He bought me boxing gloves and was trying to teach me how to box. Kept hitting me on one side of my head.” Not long after that fight when she was 6, her parents separated and her father moved out. Her mother worked multiple jobs to support Tracey and her sister, Zakia: sewing at a coat factory, bartending, and then finally working as a secretary for a city councilmember. Her father worked odd jobs, too, as a barber, and then at a slaughterhouse for cows and sheep. After junior high, Tracey says her father was never much in her life.
She ran into him when she was in her 40s, boarding a bus from Newark to Penn Station that her father happened to be driving. “I recognized him as my father; he did not recognize me,” says Norman. “I was like, ‘Daddy, it’s me.’ He was shocked to see me.” Years later, when her father was diagnosed with cancer and Norman started visiting him in the hospital, he came around. “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.”
Norman says that as far back as she can remember, “it just seemed like I was living in the wrong body. I always felt female.” All her friends in school were female and kept her relatively protected from bullying: “For whatever reason, my karma did not attract violence. Name-calling sometimes.” She would closely observe their behavior. “I would watch how they sit, listen to how they talk, how they communicate with each other. I would see how they walk. I would see how my mom would live her life and how she would move through the world.”