‘For me, when peo­ple stare, I im­me­di­ately think, they know my truth’

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - LIFE STORY -

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.

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