Tracey “Africa” Norman may not be a household name like Iman or Beverly Johnson, but she quietly broke barriers as the first black transgender model. In the mid-1970s, the Newark native was plucked from obscurity and signed to a top modeling agency. She got exclusive contracts with Avon skin care and Clairol’s Born Beautiful hair color line and influenced everyday female beauty without women even realizing it.
NY Mag has the fascinating story of Tracey’s rise at a time when being a commercial black model (let alone being transgender!) was extremely challenging. Now 63 years old, back then she lived a double life, fending off rumors that she was born a man among photographers and editors. “Duct tape becomes a girl’s best friend,” she says, about how she hid her body for modeling. “I had to do other things, yes. I’d like to keep some things private.” Society was far less accepting than it is today. “Police officers would question some of the girls, or they knew that some of the girls were transgender and they’d arrest them,” says Norman. “I was very fortunate that I never was arrested, that I was never accosted by the police.”
Clairol made Tracey a household face. She modeled for Born Beautiful, a dye line for women of color, and was cast as Dark Auburn, Box 512. She was so popular that they kept her face on the box for years. “So they used my box for six years, because they said it was the hottest-selling box,” she says. “This is what I was told.”
Laverne Cox, of Orange Is the New Black, learned about Tracey just five years ago. “I was just enthralled, first of all, that there was this black model in the ’70s who got a hair contract, who had cosmetic deals,” says Cox. “That’s just a really big deal, for any black model, and then for her to be trans is beyond amazing. I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at that photo of her on that Clairol bottle and that caption, ‘Born Beautiful.’ Yeah, we are born beautiful.”