This Black Transgender Model Landed a Beauty Campaign 40 Years Ago

The first black transgender model to have her face featured on a box of Clairol hair color wasn't in 2015 — it was in 1975.

"I was reminded that I made history and I deserve to have it printed," said Tracey “Africa” Norman to New York Magazine, when she sat down to tell them her story for the December 14 issue.

And what a story it is. Norman saw success in commercial modeling at a time when it was a challenge for any woman of color to land modeling contracts —much less a black transgender woman. But she did. Norman signed with the high-profile Zoli agency after being discovered at an interview for Italian Vogue — one she walked into by following a group of models through a backdoor, though she had no prior bookings or representation.

Later, she went on to model for Essence magazine, a fashion house in Paris, and Clairol beauty products, among other contracts. It was under the brand Born Beautiful that Clairol unknowingly highlighted the trans model. Thousands of customers eventually purchased Box 512 in Dark Auburn, unconsciously affirming the beauty of a transgender person at a time with trans women were far from celebrated.

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Quietly making history.

Super model Pat Cleveland confirmed to New York Magazine the opposition that Norman would have faced, particularly being both black and transgender. "It was difficult for any black model at that time to go commercial," says Cleveland.

Despite that, Norman had "that commercial look," according to her fellow model. Cleveland believes that Norman was able to break the barriers she did because of her talent. "I think Tracey got away with a lot because she was so good," Cleveland said. "You never would've known [that she transitioned]."

And for a long time, almost no one knew, which is how Norman was able to model despite the rampant discrimination and violence aimed at trans women in her day. Norman knew the risks, explaining that every day she went on a shoot or a go-see for a contract, she would say to herself "Please Lord, don’t let anybody disrespect me, call me a name, or try to embarrass me. And please don’t let this be the day."

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Other trans models were few and far between — and are still rare today. Up until recently, almost any transgender model saw her career end upon the public revelation that she had transitioned. There was April Ashley who appeared in British Vogue in 1960, but saw modeling contracts dry up when she was outed by a tabloid in 1961. And there was Caroline "Tula" Cossey, who modeled during the 1970s, but was outed after appearing in a 1981 James Bond film. She also saw her career end.

Norman eventually was outed at a holiday shoot for Essence around 1980, and her career in the U.S. ended abruptly. Although she was able to go on to model in Paris for some time, she was never able to return to her previous stature in the American modeling world again.

But it's not all bad news.

“I’ve always said that the person that walks through the door first leaves the door cracked," said Norman of her career. "There was a perception that a transgender woman couldn’t be passable and work in fashion magazines and land contracts. I proved that wrong. I left the door cracked for other [transgender people] to walk through.”

And now, 40 years later, trans actress Laverne Cox has been on the cover of Essence twice, once in October 2014 and again in July 2015.

The moment was not lost on Cox, who gushed, "I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm doing a cover shoot for Essence and this is the magazine that 40 years ago fired a trans woman when they found out she was trans. It just means a lot to me that history can be rewritten."

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