Tracee Ellis Ross is a multi-hyphenate: actor, model, singer, television host, activist, beauty entrepreneur and producer. At 49, with a recent Tiffany & Co. ambassadorship and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Emmy-nominated, Golden Globe-winning Black-ish star has never felt better. But Ellis Ross’ self-assurance and sense of ease—not to mention a fearless style that’s all her own—were hard won on her journey toward self-acceptance.

How are you so cool? We’ve seen you experiment with different looks, but when did you discover your individual style?

“I’ve been in love with clothes since I was a little girl. There’s a photo of me wearing my mom’s heels when I was three years old. I loved playing in her closet; I wore everything. I loved the idea of becoming someone else. Dressing up has always been how I express my creativity. For a while, especially in high school and during my teenage years, clothing was like my armour, a way to protect myself. If my outfit was good, I felt that I could conquer the entire world. Later, in my 20s and 30s, when I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin, fashion became one of the most important means of my self-expression. I loved fashion and dressing well. Moreover, clothing—whether it’s a T-shirt with some text on it or an incredible suit—can be a statement about who you are.”

Coat (Kwaidan Editions), tights (Wolford), shoes (Gianvito Rossi) and jewellery (Tiffany & Co.)

You’re not afraid of wearing anything. Have you always had this confidence?

“I think it’s easy because I don’t try to dress for anyone other than myself. Feeling good is what’s most important to me. You can end up in a difficult situation if you dress for others, living your life with others’ opinions in mind. I was a stylist. I worked in the fashion industry for many years, and I always dressed myself until I found someone who meshed with me.”

You work quite a bit with stylist Karla Welch; I imagine it’s a lot of fun to collaborate. How do you decide which looks and designers to wear?

“We message each other a lot—or, rather, I message her all the time. Just last night, I texted her to say that I was very excited for today’s play date. When I see fashion shows, I send her my favourite looks, although we usually like the same ones. Working together is quite easy; it just flows. We search for things that we both like, things that look and feel good. We have similar tastes and share various old-school references that helped shape our style when we were growing up—we play with all of this. It’s a collaboration. Obviously, I have a particular taste. But Karla’s specialty is knowing what’s going on; she knows everyone, so she brings things, and we play with dressing me up. ‘Do I take off the clothes now?’ is all I ask her. I’m very clear about which designers I like, as well as my shopping habits. I often keep the pieces, and I have a beautiful closet.”

I love that you say that the two of you play. I think this shows in what you wear, a lot of which most people wouldn’t dare to try.

“Literally, this is what we do, and we get very excited about it. Karla and I are not afraid of size or using lots of fabric. A lot of the things I wear on the red carpet are oversized. I like to wear the clothes rather than have the clothes wear me, and I know when something feels good.”

Bodysuit (Miu Miu), boots (Paris Texas), lingerie (Commando), tights (Wolford) and jewellery (Tiffany & Co.)

We see this in your photos and editorials and on your Instagram. When do you feel most like yourself?

“I feel best with my glasses and [comfy] pants on at home, when I’m barefaced, when I’m with my family and friends, when I’m relaxed. But I also love dressing up. I prefer photo shoots to the red carpet. On the red carpet, there’s a strange energy around you. It’s too much. When you’re done, everything—even your feet—hurts. Photo shoots are heaven—I love taking photos. That being said, Karla had the amazing idea of doing a sexier photo shoot [for this feature]. We
don’t do this often because we love clothes. I can easily wear layer upon layer, hiding every inch of skin. Here, we opted for body-con looks.”

This speaks to how comfortable you are with yourself. It’s no secret that you work out, you take care of yourself and you’re not scared of showing off your body. I love that you’re so open with this, especially what you share on social media—it’s very honest.

“One of the reasons that I share so much on social media is that I recently turned 49. At this age, self-care, self-love, joy and drinking plenty of water are what keep your body strong. I love posting about this because it gives you the full picture of who I am. I’m not always the perfect Tracee on the red carpet. That’s not how I wake up. Various other things are needed for that.”

You’re very interested in reinforcing the message of inclusion through the clothes you wear. Where does this come from?

“I’m very intentional with using my voice, my platform and my body to advocate for equality, inclusion, safety and justice. There are numerous ways to do this—for example, wearing and supporting Black designers, wearing certain pieces, like the ‘Vote’ T-shirt I wore at the American Music Awards, or with the things I post. But sometimes clothes are just clothes—they’re functional—and this is something we highlighted during the pandemic.”

Dress, shoes and gloves (Marc Jacobs) and tights (Wolford)

I love that you use the word “advocate” because I believe that fashion can be revolutionary in that sense. I believe that it can genuinely be used to send a message. Like you said, a t-shirt can be a powerful statement.

“I agree. If you think about the past, another thing was hair. Think of Angela Davis’ Afro—it was a form of resistance and a celebration of her own history and heritage. We can do the same to reflect on our identity, sense of self or individuality.”

On that note—you experiment a lot with your hair and makeup.

“My hair is my best accessory. [The more] I’ve matured, the more I’ve wanted it to look big. I like to wear it up because now there are many ways to wear it like that. When it comes to hair, different styles evoke history and certain traditions, and I love playing with that. I have a hair-care brand (Pattern by Tracee Ellis Ross), which makes it even more fun because I can do whatever I want with my hair as a form of expression. When it comes to makeup, I really don’t wear a lot. I focus more on caring for and hydrating my skin. I do many facials. I hate removing mascara. I do it roughly five times a week since I have to wear mascara for work. However, in my personal life, if I go out for dinner, I don’t wear any makeup; I just wear a nice lipstick. Now, with masks, I don’t even wear lipstick as much.”

You recently joined Tiffany & Co. as an ambassador. What role does jewellery play in your looks?

“I love every Tiffany & Co. piece I’ve worn. Since I was little, I’ve liked Elsa Peretti’s Kidney Bean in yellow gold. I begged and begged for it until my mom gifted it to me. I still have Elsa Peretti’s golden heart. I love wearing big earrings. In my latest photo shoots and red carpets, the jewellery has been gorgeous. I really don’t wear a lot, but Tiffany’s pieces are different. They’re timeless and have an architectural touch, which I love. The diamonds, for example, are giant but easy to wear. There’s a photo from a shoot in which I’m wearing the golden bone cuffs and a hat—I love that photo.”

And this year, you’ve gotten your own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“Thanks to my team! They told me, ‘We have something incredible to tell you,’ and I couldn’t believe it! I even called my mother, and she said, ‘Now you’re a part of history, and no one can erase you.’ It’s very exciting.”

Blazer (Hacker Project x Balenciaga) and jewellery (Tiffany & Co.)

I’m at a very good point, and I enjoy being at this age. I’m comfortable in my own body. I have created a life that works for me, that looks like me, that feels like me, and I know myself. It took me many years to become who I am now, and it feels good.

You’ve accomplished so much. Are you enjoying this moment of your life?

“Yes, I’m at a very good point, and I enjoy being at this age. I’m comfortable in my own body. I have created a life that works for me, that looks like me, that feels like me, and I know myself. It took me many years to become who I am now, and it feels good. In my 20s, I didn’t know who I was. I tried being what other people wanted me to be. Now, it feels good being able to appreciate where I’m at currently. I believe that things get better.”

What have you learned from your mother, Diana Ross, and what did you get from her?

“I’m very close with my mom and with my family in general. I love them, and I love seeing them. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time for me to tell you everything that I’ve learned from my mother. The lessons are endless, but the most important is her immense ability to love and always be there for her children. We’re both very hard-working women. Both as a mother and in her work life, she has always been unbelievably professional. I’ve learned from this, and so have my siblings—we’re all very responsible! And what did I get from her? A lot of her clothes!”

Emily Soto

Find the full story in the April 2022 issue of ELLE Canada — out on newsstands and on Apple News+ March 14. You can also subscribe for the latest in fashion, beauty and culture.