Janet Mock, Tracey "Africa" Norman Talk Breaking Barriers, Being a "Heroine for Brown Trans Girls"
The 'Pose' writer-director-producer and her longtime idol, the pioneering trans model, open up at their first meeting about championing diverse talent: "I never thought I'd have an impact on anyone's life, let alone someone like Janet," says Norman.
Go ahead, meet your heroes. For THR's inaugural Empowerment in Entertainment issue, four Hollywood pairs got together to share how far courage, mentoring and a lot of leadership can ripple in an industry built on relationships. Some of the duos know each other well, like The Chi creator Lena Waithe and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Waithe once worked as an assistant to the Love & Basketball director) and writer-actor Ryan O'Connell and The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, who teamed to create the Netflix series Special. Others were reuniting after many years: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D actress Ming-Na Wen always looked up to Flower Drum Song star Nancy Kwan, and then finally worked with her on ER 18 years ago. And one pair was meeting for the first time for THR's photo shoot: Pose director Janet Mock, who found inspiration in trans supermodel Tracey “Africa” Norman as she went through her own transition. Through their intimate and complex connections, these four pairs reveal how every innovator is shaped and guided by another who came before.
"Finally!" exclaims Janet Mock with a flourish, as she walks over to Tracey "Africa" Norman and embraces her in a warm hug at New York's Ophelia Lounge. "I've known about Tracey for a really long time," says Mock, 36. "But spending time with her today? She doesn't disappoint." Longtime fashion runway fixture Norman — who in the mid-'70s became the first black trans woman to be featured on a Clairol hair color box — occupied Mock's mind as a fabled figure during her teen years in Hawaii. "During my own transition, I had heard about a model in New York who was trans, so Tracey was always this enigma — but also a heroine for brown trans girls."
These days, Mock is the one breaking barriers. The New York Times best-selling author has used her public platform — including her position as a writer, producer and director on the groundbreaking FX series Pose — to champion trans talent. In 2018, she made history as the first trans woman of color to helm an episode of TV — a lifelong dream that she says came true partly because of the "sacrifices" made by women like Norman.
"I never thought I'd have an impact on anyone's life, let alone someone like Janet," says Norman. "Sure, I was a pioneer, but my life was about blending in. Janet's all about standing out and telling her story. It's because of her and my other trans sisters that I feel confident to sit here and speak with you today."
After being discovered by photographer Irving Penn more than 40 years ago, Norman worked steadily following her first job — for Italian Vogue. But, after whispers about her gender identity grew within the fashion community, her bookings came to a halt. "I woke up one morning and there was no testing for me, no go-sees, nothing," she recounts. "Everything stopped overnight."
Years later, she reinvented herself as a queen of Manhattan's ballroom scene — a narrative that Mock says is laced throughout the second season of Pose (premiering June 11). "Her beauty and grace, as well as her audacity to create spaces where other people felt safe and seen, is definitely reflected in the show," says Mock. Now, in her third act, Norman has reclaimed her modeling career and is booked to capacity at 66 — a comeback Mock considers well deserving of the Hollywood treatment. "You never know," she says. "Maybe one day I can write and direct the Tracey 'Africa' Norman story."
A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.