Down to earth

Pithy and powerful, Tracee Ellis Ross exhorts people to become who they already are.

Though her favorite flower is the tulip, trees are what moves Tracee Ellis Ross most in nature. 

“Trees are so rooted and grounded,” she told Girl Scouts of Stamford and Bridgeport after a luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich last month. “And yet, they change with the seasons.”

Earlier at that luncheon — an annual benefit for Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, The Fund for Women & Girls — she had introduced the theme of trees, comparing women, and no doubt herself, to a sequoia sapling.

“It takes time for those roots to grow,” she told the more than 800 attendees. “But that tree has now turned into a redwood.”

If there is one quality that defines Ross, the Golden Globe Award-winning star of the hit NBC sitcom “black-ish,” it is her understanding that who you are, no matter how anxious or insecure at present, is the wonderful person you can become. Or as she put it, “All the things you think are not great will be your aces in the deck.”

Ross’ pithy comments exemplify her powerful, vibrant presence, one eminently suited to her role as co-founder of Time’s Up, Hollywood’s proactive response to #MeToo, and as keynote speaker for the fund’s luncheon, which raised nearly $600,000. (Since 1998, the fund has invested more than $6.5 million in programs for girls and women — and men, too — enabling them to receive educations, job training and support for careers they would not otherwise have had. Recipients include Rebecca and Richard DelValle, who described for the audience how they have overcome addiction and incarceration respectively to build a life together with their blended family of six through the fund’s Family Economic Security Program at Housatonic Community College. 

At the press conference that followed the luncheon, Ross took a moment to salute the couple who received a standing ovation at the event.

“Just the way you touched her back and called her ‘my love,’” Ross said, complimenting Richard.

Family and friends are essential, Ross told Juanita T. James, the fund’s president and CEO, during the luncheon’s onstage interview. 

“They keep me afloat,” she said. “It takes a tribe to do this thing called life.”

Her mother, Diana Ross — one of entertainment’s greatest stars and most glamorous women — has always been a parent first, Ross said.

“She taught me the value of family, the value of hard work. She was a mother before she was Diana Ross. …I don’t remember her saying, ‘I don’t have time.’ She has a vast capacity for love.”

Today, Ross says, she is happy to see her mother, 75, “age so gracefully and with such joy.”

Her father, music executive and businessman Robert Ellis (né Silberstein), has been no less a fixture in his daughter’s life, evidenced by his attending the luncheon. He received this onstage shout-out from Ross: “When the world sees me, they’re also getting to know his kid.” Her professional name — she was born Tracee Joy Silberstein — is, she adds, a tribute to them.

Both parents and assorted siblings and friends are always just a call away for Ross, who counts phone time, bath time and a glass of wine among her evening rituals, wherever she is — although the glass of wine must be between 4 and 6 p.m.

“As I get older, I prefer to drink earlier, otherwise I’ll be up at night,” says Ross, who doesn’t look 46.  Still, aging has its advantages, she says.

“I think the eyes start to go first for a reason. Things start to look softer, like an Instagram filter,” she adds to audience laughter.

That self-deprecating humor suggests a woman completely comfortable in her own skin. But it wasn’t always so. Growing up in Greenwich —“Maybe I’ve seen you at Whole Foods or CVS or on the ave,” she wondered at the audience, referring to Greenwich Avenue — she was eager to please and uncertain of her looks and herself.

“My job was to take the weather in the room,” she recalled. And act accordingly.

She tried to corral her ebony curls and make her lips thinner — the same lips that now rock red lipstick — by curling her top lip under. Maybe this was because although she admired performers like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, feminist Gloria Steinem and female buddy shows like “Cagney & Lacey” and “Kate & Allie,” the faces she saw there didn’t usually reflect her own.

Today, Ross’ phone saver is a photograph of her 6-year-old self, a reminder “that I was cuter than I felt.” She learned to let herself take root, blossom and adapt to the seasons, to wait to become what she had always been.

At Brown University — from which she received a degree in theater in 1994 after attending The Dalton School in Manhattan, Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx and the Institut Le Rosey in Rolle, Switzerland — she discovered acting was fun. Auditioning taught her it could be disappointing. She was fired from one guest stint. But she persisted to conquer stage (“Love, Loss, and What I Wore”) and screens big (“Hanging Up”) and small (“Girlfriends”). A host of accolades, including eight NAACP Awards and a 2015 honorary doctorate in fine arts from Brown, have followed.

A model in her teens, Ross’ 2017 limited-edition capsule collection of essential women’s apparel, accessories and home décor for JCPenney proved to be one of the retailer’s most successful capsule launches. A year later, she became the first black woman to open a TED Conference with her talk “A Woman’s Fury Holds Lifetimes of Wisdom.”

We saw a bit of that fury as she bristled at a reporter who asked her why she never married and had children when she’s such a loving person. “That’s such a personal question,” Ross said pointedly. “I have a life filled with love.”

And one whose success she is happy to share, particularly with other actresses. Female competition is in part a myth, she said. 

“There’s enough sun for everybody.”

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