‘For me, when people stare, I immediately think, they know my truth’
One morning in the mid-70s, Tracey Norman travelled from her home in New Jersey to midtown Manhattan. She stepped out of the subway on the corner of Central Park and stared at the Pierre hotel – a notorious hangout for ambassadors, sheikhs and squillionaires. ‘I saw a gang of models that I recognised from magazines,’ she says. One set of models was leaving the hotel as another mob of tall, slender 20-somethings loitered outside. ‘I hurried across the street and ushered myself into the hotel with them.’
Tracey was not a model at that time, though she seemed to possess the necessary attributes. The modelling Z card she later used listed her model characteristics in intrusive detail: ‘Height: 1.75cm. Eyes: Dark brown. Size: 12-14. Bust: 34. Waist: 27. Hips: 37. Shoes: 8½.’
What the Z card did not mention, and nor would she, was that Tracey had only recently become a woman. She had transitioned into Tracey when she nished high school. ‘I started slowly,’ she says. ‘Then I got really into it. At 19, I found a doctor who was giving hormone treatments.’
Before that, this Jersey girl had been a plump, shy and slightly e eminate Jersey boy. As the hormone shots kicked in she began to lose weight. Without the layers of fat there was someone who looked a lot like a fashion model. At the time of her transition, black female models were nally appearing on the covers of mainstream fashion magazines. Beverly Johnson made the cover of American Vogue in 1974. But was anyone ready for a black transgender model?
Today, in the era of Caitlyn Jenner, Andreja Pejic and Laverne Cox from Orange Is the New Black, transgender men and women are coming out into mainstream culture. But back in the 70s, walking through the industrial town of Newark was a risk. It was still possible that Tracey could be arrested for wearing women’s clothes. She feared running into people who might recognise her.
Launching herself as a model meant undressing in crowded backstage rooms. It meant subjecting herself to scrutiny by men and women who had made a living from judging how a woman ought to look. But she needed the money, and there did not seem to be many career options for transgender women from New Jersey. ‘Being raised in Newark, I saw hairdressers and I saw sex workers,’ she says.
A friend and make-up artist, Al Grundy, thought she ought to go to a few fashion shows to see how it was done. ‘If Donna Karan was doing a show, he told me where it was and how to get in,’ Tracey says. She would say she was a fashion student and they’d let her stand against the wall, watching the models prowling a strip of carpet. She would later practise these walks when she got home to her mother’s at in New Jersey.
Intelligence from Al indicated that there was a show at the Pierre and so Tracey made her way to New York and followed the models inside. ‘They went into a suite, but there were too many of them, so some girls lined up outside. I was the last one in line.’
One by one the models disappeared into the room and came out again. At last, she was called. ‘It was a beautiful big suite,’ she says. Inside, seated on armchairs, was an American photographer, an Italian designer and various Italian editors and publishers. They stared at her. ‘For me, when people stare, I immediately think, they know my truth,’ she says.
The publishing people were from Italian Vogue. The snapper was Irving Penn, the celebrated photographer. ‘He started talking to me,’ says Tracey. ‘He said, “Do you model? Do you have any pictures?” I had a small picture of myself and he took it. He told me to write my phone number and my name on the back. The next day they called and said that I was booked for a two-day shoot for Italian Vogue, and I would be making $1 500 (about R21 000) a day.’
Irving thought he had found a new star. ‘He was going on and on about me,’ Tracey says. ‘He said that I reminded him of Beverly Johnson.’ But at least one person knew Tracey’s secret. ‘There we were in Irving Penn’s studio,’ says model Peggy Dillard. ‘I thought, this is a boy.’ She was looking at Tracey’s wrists and ankles and she watched her when they had to get undressed. Peggy kept quiet about it. She watched Irving and his assistants making much of Tracey. ‘They were thrilled,’ she says. ‘They were like, “This is the next Beverly Johnson.” I thought, OK. I don’t know whether Irving is aware or not.’
Irving was not. He went out of his way to help her. ‘He said, “Tracey, if you lose weight you can make a lot of money”,’ she says. ‘Mr Penn was on the phone and he had his assistants on the phone looking for an agency for me.’
He arranged an appointment for her with bookers at Zoli Management, who hired her immediately. Her career took o and she was own all over the world to shoot for catalogues and department stores. Clairol made her a model for their Born Beautiful range of hair colours: there she is on the side of the box, shade 512, Dark Auburn.
Was she ever able to relax? She shakes her head. The higher she climbed, the more nervous she became about the fall she knew must be coming.
‘As I was getting more and more work, I would be thinking, When is this going to happen? When is my truth going to be revealed?’ she says. ‘Every day before I left the house on a gosee, I would just say a prayer. I would always say, Please Lord, in the name of Jesus, please don’t let this be the day.’
Tracey was born in Newark in 1952, the rst of two children. ‘My hair is curly and wavy because my African-American mother is mixed with American Indian and white German,’ she says.