Even at the height of the lockdown in Los Angeles, you could find Tracee Ellis Ross in statement lipstick. Mostly fire-engine red — MAC’s Ruby Woo (Buy It, $19, maccosmetics.com) lined with a cherry lip pencil is her signature go-to — sometimes orange or hot pink, always matte. And if she was feeling particularly restless, she’d throw on a shimmering gold bodysuit.
“Within this pandemic, people asked me, ‘Why do it?’ I was like, ‘Because it makes me happy,’” says Tracee. The award-winning actor is indeed an unapologetic apostle of pursuing joy — as well as living proof of its magnetic, transformational effect.
It’s early August at the time of this interview, and Tracee, her hair tied up chicly in a scarf, is powering through the waning days of working from home. In two weeks, she will be back on the set of Black-ish, her lauded comedy series centered on the Johnsons, an upper-middle class Black family in an upscale L.A. suburb. ABC pledged to speed the series into its fall time slot to take on topics like the pandemic, voting rights, and Black Lives Matter. Tracee is ready — comforted even — to get back in the ring as Bow Johnson, M.D., mom of five.
“The show acts as a bridge between life and entertainment and allows a digestible version that can enter into people’s hearts,” she says. Her perspective comes from years on both sides of the flat screen, or tube as it was called in the '80s when she was growing up, with few actors of color in sight. “I think of how important television has been in shaping my own identity, in shaping what I saw as possible. I could take a piece of Wonder Woman, a piece of the Bionic Woman, see Cagney and Lacey fighting crime and Lucille Ball being both glamorous and funny,” says Tracee, 48. “When I think about Bow Johnson, the handful of other projects that I’m executive producing, and even Pattern [her labor-of-love hair-care line], I use the opportunity to consider: How can I continue to expand anyone’s understanding of who they could be?”
Another question she is pondering is how the work-life balance will settle into the post-pause world. “Before COVID, we were all living unsustainable schedules,” she says. “I used to park my car, walk through my kitchen, go upstairs, and get ready for bed, and then I’d start the whole thing over the next day. I hope a bit of the humanity we found can remain within what we go back to.”
Some things have changed for Tracee during quarantine. For one, her meditation room has been converted into a workout area where, three times a week, she’s doing virtual sessions of the Tracy Anderson method. (Related: Tracee Ellis Ross Narrated Her Home Workout Struggles In a Hilariously Relatable Video)
“What I’ve realized during this pandemic is that my entire home is my meditation space,” she says. Look anywhere, and every touch is an ode to happiness. In one spot is a brass bowl from her best friend filled with crystals, many heart shaped. In the vintage and ceramic vases she’s been collecting over the years are the fresh flowers she arranges each week. “I’m looking at a little chubby jade pig that I got when I went to Thailand with my mom,” she says. (Mom, of course, is the superstar Diana Ross.) “These are all things that bring me joy.”
A little over a month from this moment, she’ll be glammed out for the Emmys, albeit in her living room — another thing that provides her great pleasure. “I am not going to allow the pandemic to take that from me,” says Tracee, whose incredible knack for style was learned early in her mom’s wondrous closets. This is her fourth nomination for her role in Black-ish, and if she wins, she’ll be the first woman of color to do so as a lead actress in a TV comedy series in 39 years. “I keep thinking, Well, what does that mean? Are they going to show up at my door with an award?”
This mystery was still up in the air at press time. No matter — Tracee has plenty of insights to share on living what she calls the juicy life, even when the world grinds to a halt. Between bites of baked sweet potato slathered with peanut butter (“a really yummy combo”), she fills us in.
“People can be in wonderful relationships but can’t actually reap the joy of that connection. Because you can have all the good stuff, but if you don’t know how to be with it, it doesn’t matter. I realize that I hold the idea of wholeness with great reverence and respect because my goal is to have an experience with myself that is whole.
I am happily single, though that doesn’t mean I am not open to and don’t want a relationship. But in my wonderful and robust experience of being single, I have learned to have a productive relationship with loneliness and an intensely juicy relationship with my joyful solitude — I really enjoy my company. For example, one of the things I loved to do pre-pandemic is put on something cute and go for dinner and have a beautiful meal and a glass of wine. Well, can’t do that. But you know what? I can do that at home. I make a beautiful plate. I set it out and have a glorious meal. I make my bed every morning. One of the things that’s been lovely to discover is how I care for myself and how I actively love myself. And I believe that love is an action: You get back what you put in.” (Related: How to Date Yourself During Quarantine – or Honestly Anytime)
“I try to stay away from sugar, dairy, and gluten, but otherwise I eat pretty much everything. I make most of my food, and I am the queen of the salad. I make all different variations. Last night, I made this chicken and celery salad with a tahini, wasabi, and wine dressing from the New York Times Cooking app. I used the wasabi from a sushi order, and someone gave me some tahini in a gift basket that I had never opened. I added a little bit of garlic and lime and brown sugar, because it’s all I had. It’s ridiculous how good it is. During this pandemic, I have become very good friends with celery now that I’ve made all these things with it. It’s been really fun to experiment.”
“I have consistently been doing Tracy Anderson for many years. What I love is that it keeps me interested. It allows for a deep connection within my body where the workout is more about how it feels — beautiful and sexy and strong while I’m doing it. I work out mostly for that strength. When I’m strong, I can make it through so much. It allows my mind and my heart to go in all different directions because I don’t have to worry about my stamina.”
“Clothing has been an integral part of my identity since I was young. There are pictures of me dressing up in my mom’s clothes. I was a stylist and a fashion editor [before acting]. And for a while, clothing became my armor. It was a way that I protected myself and created a barrier between me and the way people might misinterpret me. Or it was something I used in response to people’s reaction about race and thinking less of me. I would present my importance through my clothing. And then as my own identity started to blossom and I gained a more confident relationship with myself, clothing became a form of creative expression. And it brings me immense joy — immense joy.”
“I love moisture masks. I’ve been known to do up to three or four a day. Why not? Sometimes I will come to work wearing a hydration mask from SkinCeuticals (Buy It, $55, dermstore.com). I do not wear foundation if I’m not working. I don’t even wear a lot of it when I am working. I like to see my freckles. I like to see my skin. When I’m on set after lunch, I will often completely cleanse my face. For me, it’s the freshness that I respond to. I usually take my makeup off before I leave work, and sometimes I will drive myself home wearing a mask.
I care for my body the same way. I usually spray my body down with a hydration mist that was meant for your face. And then, when my skin is still a little damp, I put on two natural lotions, one from Shikai (Buy It, $22, amazon.com) and one from Kiss My Face (Buy It, $10, amazon.com). I combine them. If I want an extra layer, I use body oil on top of that.”
“For the first season of Girlfriends [her breakout TV series in the aughts], I did my own hair because it was very hard for me to trust anyone — so many people had damaged and ruined it. Then I slowly started to collaborate with the hair people.
All these years later, to take my personal desires — products I needed and wanted — and manifest them into my hair-care brand, Pattern, has been beyond fulfilling. To realize that it wasn’t just for me — there’s a vast community of many kinds of people we have categorized as curly, coily, and tight textures, and they also had unmet needs. I’m just so grateful to be sharing our beauty and celebrating that.”
“I used to spend so much time trying to be perfect, to get it perfect. But that’s not realistic. Bad feelings come up. There was an element of risk to try something different — to try on the idea of: What if the universe is conspiring for good? Not necessarily mine, but what if I don’t have the full picture here? What if this is all OK? And that was the start of a turning point. If you keep putting good stuff in your cup, eventually it overflows. And you’ll be like, ‘Oh, I need a new container.’”
Photographed by Micaiah Carter. Styling by Alexandra Mandelkorn / The Only Agency. Hair by Araxi Lindsey. Makeup by Tracey Levy /Forward Artists for Armani Beauty. Manicure by Maho Tanaka. Set Styling by Bette Adams / MHS ARTISTS.