Before there was Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox or Jazz Jennings, there was Tracey “Africa” Norman.
In the mid-1970s, Norman was the face of Clairol’s Born Beautiful hair color (No. 512, Dark Auburn). She had an exclusive contract with Avon. She did several photo shoots with Essence. She was a house model in Balenciaga’s Paris showroom.
She had also been born male, although almost no one knew her secret, a story she told in the latest New York magazine.
An African-American model already facing discrimination based on her skin color, she knew that any hint that she was also transgender would have ended her career and could have led to her death.
When word did eventually get out, the work dried up.
“I was a model, so males and females were attracted to me, and when they find out that I’m not what they perceive me to be, it freaks them out,” she told the magazine. “That’s what I’ve experienced in my life, what I was getting from straight women and straight men.”
Norman started competing in New York’s drag ball community, joining the House of Africa and mentoring its younger members for competitions. She was inducted into the ballroom hall of fame in 2001.
Now 63 and still turning heads wherever she goes, Norman has become an icon to younger transgender performers.
“I was just enthralled, first of all, that there was this black model in the ’70s who got a hair contract, who had cosmetic deals,” said Laverne Cox, who stars in the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” “That’s just a really big deal for any black model, and then for her to be trans is beyond amazing.”
While it can still be unsafe to be an out trans person, Norman seems ready to embrace her complete identity.
“I was reminded that I made history, and I deserve to have it printed,” she told New York magazine. “And I’m still here.”