Some time ago, in a Who What Wearedit meeting, long before the days of working from home, we sat down IRL to brainstorm how to cover Women’s History Month. More specifically, we pondered how to share the stories of transgender women—how their identity impacts their relationship with both the month and fashion. And while the month has passed and the world has changed since then, what hasn’t changed is the importance of speaking to the issues trans women face. It wasn’t until I attended the Embrace Ambition Summit a few weeks after that meeting and spotted Angelica Ross in a two-tone silk wrap Tory Burch dress onstage that I knew how this idea could come to fruition.
Ross’s whole career has been about advocating for trans women on-screen, in tech, and in fashion. So after I walked away that day, I knew it was necessary to share stories like hers not just for one month of the year but all the time, for all of the women finding their place in the world no matter what gender they were assigned at birth. Keep reading to hear from Ross on everything from starring in Pose to founding a nonprofit and, of course, her approach to style.
Getty for Tory Burch Foundation
I was blown away hearing your story at the Embrace Ambition summit, but for those who aren’t familiar with how you became an actress, can you share a little bit of your story? What drew you to acting?
I’ve been acting ever since I was a kid. I think at first, it was the costumes, makeup, and role-playing. Even in class when we were reading a book, I loved getting the parts with a lot of reading. I would practice my articulation and comprehension in real time, which became useful in auditions that were complete cold readings.
You’ve starred both in American Horror Story and Pose. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience on those shows?
For both experiences, I went in with my eyes and ears wide open. Ryan Murphy hires a lot of talented people in front of and behind the camera, so my default position was to learn as much as I could from as many people as I could. On the set of Pose, I took notes often from Billy Porter and also challenged him to a fierce tennis match in some of our scenes where the banter back and forth was pure improv magic between us. Most of the time, when I’m not on camera, I can still be found on set watching at a monitor, sitting near the directors and producers, and watching them work. I found the same level of expertise on the set of American Horror Story. I learned so much from Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd, and Cody Fern, who I spent most of my time filming scenes with.
Why is it important for younger generations to see transgender women in media?
I was terrified of who I was. Everything I learned and everything I saw about queer and trans people was negative. The message was clear that living life openly as a gay or trans person was choosing death. However, the representation of trans folks in the media in the past few years has given young trans people enough hope and inspiration to know that choosing themselves is literally how you “get ya life darling.”
Getty for Tory Burch Foundation
You’ve not only starred in shows and campaigns, but you also founded TransTech Social Enterprises. Can you tell us a little about why you felt the need to start this organization?
I worked for a nonprofit in 2012 and was tasked with developing an employment program to address the specific needs of trans people and trans people of color who were facing homelessness, incarceration histories, and newly diagnosed with HIV. I quickly found that I was being tokenized and asked to be the face of a program that was underserving and underestimating the trans community by saying that teaching tech skills was over the head of the population we served. I eventually quit that job to start TransTech because I believe that no matter your ability, technology can be a catalyst for change in your career and your life.
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images
Some trans women are not afforded the privilege of passing in society, and they often struggle with dressing for their body types. Can you tell us your perspective on this?
What we now know as trans women is that we are not trying to “pass”; we are just trying to survive with our lives and our dignity intact. We get caught up in the same struggles that every woman faces, trying to fit our bodies into a box it was never meant to fit into. Instead, we learn to highlight our best features and contour for the gods.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that is transphobic, and many trans women struggle with passing that directly impacts how they’re treated. For our cisgender sisters, what advice, if any, would you give to be true allies to trans women?
Many women don’t realize how we’ve internalized misogyny and the patriarchy. We uphold these toxic norms by comparing and qualifying our womanhood so that we feel like we too “pass.” Our cis sisters can learn the term “cis-assuming privilege” and further the discussion on what harmful assumptions we make about ourselves and other women that hinder our progress in the movement for equal rights for all women.
Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Tell us a little about how your campaign with Louis Vuitton Pre-Fall 2020 came to be. And why is a campaign like that important, in your opinion?
My publicist emailed to let me know that Louis Vuitton was interested in me participating in their next campaign alongside Emma Roberts, Cody Fern, and Billie Lourd from the American Horror Story: 1984 cast. I was super excited because from the start I felt like I was being included because of my body of work, not for my trans body. And I immediately had the sense that I was walking into a brand that had a history of inclusion, especially at the intersection of me also being a dark-skin black woman. I knew to collaborate with Louis Vuitton I would be adding to the narrative already in progress that black and trans is beautiful. I brought all of my blackness and my transness to the shoot. I don’t identify as gender-neutral, but I do feed my masculine and feminine side through fashion, and in this shoot, I was certainly channeling fluidity.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for GLAAD
For many, style is frivolous and not serious. What would you say to anyone who doubts the importance of style in how it relates to gender expression?
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Whether you are meeting the future love of your life or your employer, fashion has the power to communicate who you are, and you don’t have to break the bank or mop Macy’s to do it. That is why for many of my talks that are in front of trans audiences, my style inspiration is “clean.” That can be a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt, sneakers, and a hoodie, or it can be a plain navy blue dress, a pearl necklace, and matching earrings that not only say clean but also say, “I know who I am.”
Do you use style as a way to empower yourself and others? And if so, what do you want your personal style to say to the world?
My style exudes confidence, not from the price tag or the label but from how I wear it. I have spent a lifetime baring my soul. Now everything else becomes an accessory, a way to kindle and adorn beauty that is already there. Wearing headwraps is one of the ways I do this most often. Being able to take a piece of fabric or scarf laying around, wrap it around my kinky coif, and head out the door says I don’t need to fuss with my hair when I have cheekbones and lipgloss.
Along your journey, did you struggle with dressing for your body type? Do you have any style tips or lessons you’ve learned along the way that you can share?
I have struggled my entire journey to dress for my body type. I have been labeled “too skinny” and not having enough curves, very similar to Candy Ferocity, the character I play on Pose. So before I resorted to implants, I used various shapewear. From removable silicone breast enhancers to hip pads made out of couch foam, I used whatever tricks I could to help me bring the woman in me out of her shell.
How has your identity and experience impacted the way you approach your personal style?
I’m no longer confined by what is considered to be masculine or feminine. One of my favorite shoots was for V Magazine where I’m wearing a Saint Laurent suit sitting in a relaxed IDGAF mood. When I’m glamming up for various events and red carpets, I don’t really stress anymore about what I’m going to wear because I know whatever it is, my personality will come to bring it to you every time.
Are there any places you love to shop or brands you have worn throughout your transition?
Early in my transition, you couldn’t keep me out of Bebe. That was partially because I worked for them and made full use of the employee discount but also because I loved to accentuate my silhouette with pencil skirts, formfitting sweaters, and blouses and to finish off my look with high heels and jewelry. And of course, I love Louis Vuitton now that I’ve got the hookup!
And finally, what’s the one piece of advice you wish someone would have given you on your journey?