As a kid growing up in the 80’s and enthralled with everything fashion, I remember her face. I remember her from the box of Clairol, as well as photos in Essence. But up until yesterday, what I didn’t know was that one of my favorite models, Tracey Norman, was paving the way.
Norman’s life began in Newark, NJ, and in an interview with The Cut, she said she always knew she was different. Even though her father tried to roughen her up when she was a little boy, her mother also knew her son was different. In a time where being transgender was something only spoken in certain ‘cliques’ and underground movements, Norman always knew she was meant to be a woman.
But what she didn’t know was that the little boy from Newark, NJ would end up modeling for the likes of Italian Vogue and Essence.
In the in-depth story on The Cut, Norman shares how for a while she went ‘undetected’ as a transgender woman, but once word got out, she was blackballed. Blackballed even by the likes of Susan Taylor, the pioneer of Essence.
A holiday-issue shoot for Essence, circa 1980. Hairdresser Andre Douglas braided Norman’s hair and beaded it in gold; they wrapped her in an Egyptian cloth. The photographer told her to imagine she was Cleopatra floating down the Nile; his assistant climbed a ladder to shower her with gold flakes. “He was clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking.” The magazine’s then-editor-in-chief, Susan Taylor, had seemed very excited. “She even mentioned, ‘The pictures are so beautiful, Tracey, this could be a cover,’” says Norman. They were on the third roll of film when Norman noticed someone else come onto the set. It was one of Andre Douglas’s assistants, the one who was always asking her questions.
The same hair people had worked on nearly all of Norman’s Essence shoots, and on every shoot this assistant would probe. Didn’t he recognize her from New Jersey? Did she know a model named Tommy Garrett who signed with Ford? “I’d say, ‘I haven’t met that person,’” says Norman. “Really, he was my best friend.” Norman thought she’d done enough to throw him off the trail of her true identity. Still, when he walked in that day, she lost her concentration. “For some reason it felt negative,” she says. “The whole situation felt negative to me.”
According to Norman, the hairdresser spoke with Taylor and then Taylor stopped the shoot, saying: “‘I think we have enough.’” The editor untied the Egyptian cloth Norman was wearing. She was kind about it. “She was asking me was I all right; she was standing behind me, looking at me in the mirror, rubbing my shoulder, complimenting me on how soft I was,” says Norman. “That’s when I knew. The way that she looked at me through the mirror, it was different. She was looking for the person that this hairdresser told them that I was.”
(Taylor did not respond to requests for comment; both Douglas and the hairdresser who spoke to Taylor are deceased.)
Taylor didn’t say anything explicit to Norman then — or ever. And it’s possible that Norman misinterpreted their interaction. But she doesn’t think so. The next day when she called her agency to find out if she had any bookings or go-sees, they said no. “All I know is that my work stopped that day.”
After being ostracized by the modeling community in the U.S., Taylor headed to Paris, where she worked with Balenciaga for a while, but once the job ended, she tried her hands at Rome, but the work wasn’t coming in.
Taylor then headed back to the U.S., thinking maybe people would have forgotten about the fact that she was a transgender woman, but she wasn’t lucky. At 63-years-old, Norman says going back to the U.S. was the worst mistake of her life.
To read more about Norman’s life, head over to The Cut.