Angelica Ross likes to interact with life the ‘Eckhard Tolle’ way: a kind of Zen and the Art of Glamour & Soul Maintenance. Besides keeping the beauty in check, she’s got a mind’s eye for spirituality, a business card that reads ‘Tech CEO’, and a great handle on this acting thing. As for activism, well, she’s all over that.
A true force to be reckoned with, Angelica is television performer and creative consultant, businesswoman and mentor, web developer and influencer, and a primary figure in the transgender rights movement. Yes, she’s one of the glamorous ones that also gives real good.
Ross began her acting career in the web series Her Story (2016) – a show shot entirely on iPhone and consisting of just six 9-minute episodes. Despite its brevity, the series did (and does, if you haven’t seen it, you must) a remarkable job in relaying the story of two transgender women (Ross and Jen Richards) who are struggling for recognition in both their professional and personal lives. The show won a stack of fringe awards around the world and was ultimately nominated for an Emmy.
It didn’t take long for Ross to fall into series with longer episode lengths, in 2018 landing a plum role in Pose, a show about the 1980s ballroom scene in New York. Then came key roles in jagged seasons of American Horror Story – including 1984 and the show’s most recent (S10) dubbed Double Feature and its latest instalment dropping tonight on Binge.
In the latest AHS, Angelica plays quite the pivotal role. She is the queen dealer of a hard-to-get-hold-of drug that everybody wants for its astonishing properties that turn talented people into absolute geniuses.
Angelica’s character herself doesn’t partake in the little black pill, but rather studies its effects on other folks. Whatever the case, ‘The Chemist’ – as she is referred to in the show – is equal parts Breaking Bad and The Bold and The Beautiful.
Cream chats with Angelica about the importance of diversity in television and the positive-versus-negative representation of trans people in the general media.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Angelica. Pose features the largest transgender cast ever scripted into a television series. Are you proud to be a part of this TV history?
I definitely am. When such a splash is made like this, it really takes the argument and debate around [the importance of employing] trans actors out there, and makes it new again. Even Her Story was the first time Hollywood had put trans people centre-stage. Now we have trans people writing, producing and directing shows. At least that’s what we’re seeing on Pose and on a much bigger scale.
The times they are a-changin‘.
They are indeed. It’s such a big splash now, that if someone were to cast a cis male as a trans person, it’s going to be like watered-down lemonade. You’ll be able to taste the difference. Up until now, trans issues have been talked about but not really at depth. Movies like Tangerine were these lovely portrayals of trans because, one, it was shot simply on a phone, and two, it was this simple story about these trans women that were very ‘on the street’. It wasn’t your glamorous trans women we sometimes see in the media; it was girls in the struggle; struggling with work, relationships, drugs and what-not. But for those of us who know the stories and the community, we see [most trans media] up until now as situations of voyeurism and exploitation – basically white Hollywood coming in and making money off the backs of these stories. Then, when award season happens, you’ve got these white guys accepting awards for playing trans characters. Sometimes I think it’s a cheap trick.
When you began working on American Horror Story, I understand you hadn’t yet seen the first season, Murder House but that you had watched more recent seasons. How in the hell do you get into a series – let alone work in one – without viewing it from the beginning?
To be honest, I’d only first seen American Horror Story through a friend. Every week I’d been going over to a friend’s house and she’d be watching it so I’d join her, but only the current season. After a certain point, I kind of realised: ‘Okay, I need to get some back lessons here’.
“I started watching a bit of ‘Murder House’ but that got a little too scary for me, so I stopped. They say ‘Coven’ is the best season, so I jumped to that!”
Getting back to Pose, how did you feel when you got the news that you’d gotten the role of Candy Ferocity in the show?
It was a shocker for me – only because the last I’d heard, I didn’t get the part. The roles I had initially auditioned for were for Blanca (Evangelista) and Elektra (Abundance) but I turned those down. Basically, I didn’t see myself in either of the characters. I felt Blanca was written for a Latina trans woman and Elektra was more mature than I wanted to go . But not taking on those roles was confusing for my spiritual compass. There were all these serendipitous moments pointing in the direction of me definitely being on the show, and when the audition to play Candy came up, there was just this affirmation for me to play her.
Is Candy based on a real-life character on the NYC ball scene?
Everything is so real on the show. Much of the audience watching the show probably thinks it’s their story – that’s how real it is: being kicked out of a religious household; being put on the streets as a trans person of colour or an LGBTQ person of colour – it’s such a common story. And when you look back at photos from the old ball scene, I can see Candy and the inspiration for her look. You know: black girl in the 1980s, and how they had to struggle with that hair. Also trying to fit into the mainstream of things, beauty standards with regards to body, and so on.
Do you think it’s time trans individuals received more positive representation in the media?
Yes. Unfortunately, so many cis men and women have no idea of what trans people’s lives are really like. Usually, we are the entertainment at drag bars, or we’re the entertainment in sex work, or we get the clip from the news of the trans woman who has been killed.
“What ‘Pose’ does so beautifully is paint the reality of our lives. And we have no other choice but to make something beautiful out of our lives.”
In your real life, youi run a business helping trans individuals make their way into technical industries. How did that come about?
My business [TransTech Social Enterprises] came out of my own journey; it was a blueprint of my own survival. I had to navigate being trans in a work environment that was very anti-trans, and in many ways very anti-black. I had been fired from all these places as soon as they found out I was trans; fired from places where policies were not put in place to protect us from being fired. So I ended up posing on adult websites – but before I could even dip my toe in the adult industry, this woman had me working on the backend of her websites. I learned very quickly that technology was something that helps ‘flatten’ the world; that kind of equalises us. All of a sudden, with technology, does it matter what I look like? Does it matter what I sound like? I could go online and work in any area – whether it was graphic design, web design or administrative work.
Still, we don’t see many trans people in everyday television doing everyday things.
Yes. And unfortunately, when trans women are murdered and it’s shown on the TV news, you hear this echo of, ‘Well, what was she doing?’ Members of the LGBTQ community, especially gay men, have fought so hard for sexual liberation, and we should get to enjoy that. But things have changed. Now in the States, sex workers and gay porn stars are celebrities. But with trans people, if something goes wrong, it still comes across as if we’ve done something to deserve it.
I suppose that’s because of all the negative representation in the media thus far. Gays and lesbians have fought against negative stereotypes for decades – this misrepresentation of us in the media as villainous and murderous types, or horrifically murdered characters. Hopefully, shows like Pose will help rectify that.
I will say this; Ryan Murphy has not been immune to the participation of that. I’m a huge fan of everything Ryan does and I was a huge fan of Nip/Tuck. But there were some very problematic representations of trans women in that show. Even when you finally had this one trans woman who seemed to have it together. She’s a therapist, and she has a child, and she is quote-unquote “passing” – she seems pretty normal. Then, we find out she’s deranged and that she’s sleeping with her son. So, [Ryan] put a log on that fire and he was called out for that. But I’ve since commended him because he’s “gotten” it. And not only gotten it, he’s done everything to make sure that the right effort has been put into making Pose what it needed to be. He included consultants from the community; he included trans people in the writing room, in the directors’ chairs, in the producers’ room, even in music supervision, and of course in the makeup chair. It was really putting your money where your mouth is, and Ryan sees the show as advocacy in itself.
For a creative who truly knows how to stylise a setting, he certainly got the aesthetic factor down-pat, didn’t he?
Oh my goodness, absolutely!
To semantics now. The word ‘trans’ gets bandied about a lot, and there is a lot of sensitivity that comes with that. I wanted to know, would you take offense if somebody mistook you and referred to you as something that wasn’t correct. Say they said ‘transvestite’ instead of ‘transsexual’. Do you take offense to that, or do you give people a little leeway?
Well, looking at the position I’m in, as a leader in the community and the trans movement, I have to give people the opportunity for a teachable moment. But we can kind of feel a difference in the intention behind someone’s words. It’s one thing if someone is saying the wrong word and it’s just by accident, or if they don’t know any better and want to learn. It’s another thing when people are refusing and are calling me a man, a ‘he/she’. You can already feel the heat behind the ignorant terms they use.
“That’s a different thing and that’s where I think my dignity is being attacked. And it’s something I need to stand up for in that moment.”
How do we get further trans dialogue into the mainstream vernacular?
I’m a Buddhist and I’m very spiritually-focused, even in my transition, and the way I look at that. So I love it when I run into things that are not trans-specific but are viewed more in that ‘Eckhard Tolle’ way [author of A New Earth and The Power of Now]. Where we learn that words and labels are not the thing itself. For example, Tolle teaches us how the word ‘sun’, when we point it out… this thing starts to happen where we think we know what that is, and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the sun’. But we’re missing out on being in the presence of the essence of what it is. The sun is not the word ‘sun’; the sun is the beam, it’s the light, it’s the heat, it’s the warmth. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Yes, I think it’s about broadening our perception and our expression of the brilliance of things.
Yes, and we should encourage people to do that when they’re interacting with things and with other people. There’s a way we can do this so as to get people to just enjoy the engagement and the dialogue with others, instead of having to break folks down into categories and labels.
Well, I’ve certainly enjoyed our dialogue today.
Thank you, and likewise.
One more thing. Your website’s URL is missross.com. I assume your IT experience helped you score that. But wouldn’t Diana Ross be fighting with you for it?
I have no idea how that happened. I’ve had the website for a long time and I got it at a time when people weren’t quick on buying domain names. To be honest, I’ve been trying to get Diana to adopt me or for Tracee (Diana’s daughter) to recognise me as her sister. I even met Tracee at an Emmys party once and it was hilarious. There is a section on my site where I like to pay homage to Diana Ross all the time. Because that’s what I do; I carry the essence of being Miss Ross: The Boss.
‘Pose’ and ‘American Horror Story’ are both streaming on Binge.
Episode 7 of ‘AHS: Double Feature’ drops tomorrow (Friday 9th September).
You can keep up with more musings by Angelica Ross via her website missross.com.