The First Black Trans Model Had Her Face On A Box of Clairol
New York magazine|December 14-27, 2015

No one knew her secret. Until they did.

Jada Yuan, photos by Peter Hapak

Tracey “Africa” Norman always knew that the question wasn’t whether she’d be found out, but how long she could go undetected. ¶ To be black and from Newark in the late 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 who broke the color barrier on international runways or on the covers of Vogue. But she was riding that wave. It was more than she could have ever hoped for when she was a kid growing up in New Jersey. Back when she was a boy who knew that, inside, he was a girl. 

Today, trans models like Lea T. and Andreja Pejic are the faces of Redken and Make Up Forever, and Caitlyn Jenner has been celebrated on the cover of Vanity Fair. Trans acceptance makes it easy to lose sight of how dangerous it was 40 years ago—and still can be now—for women like Norman just to walk down the street. Fear of harassment from both civilians and police was constant. To live one’s life openly as a trans person, let alone 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. One morning in the late ’70s, not long into her transition, she followed a group of black women into a casting at the Pierre hotel. She had no idea she was interviewing with photographer Irving Penn and Basile designer Luciano Soprani. They called and offered her $1,500 a day, for two days’ work—more money than she’d ever seen. Peggy Dillard, a well-known model who was also on that shoot, said she “had an instinct” about Norman’s secret. 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.”

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