Tracey “Africa” Norman always knew that the question wasn’t if she’d be found out, but how long she could go undetected.
To be black and from Newark in the mid-1970s and get plucked from a model casting call for Italian Vogue by Irving Penn — it was the kind of success story that was unheard of, especially for someone like her. She was signed by a top agency, photographed multiple times for the pages of Essence magazine. She landed an exclusive contract for Avon skin care, and another for Clairol’s Born Beautiful hair color boxes: No. 512, Dark Auburn, please. She went to Paris and became a house model in the Balenciaga showroom, wearing couture and walking the runway twice a day. Norman was never as big as Iman, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, or the other models of color breaking barriers on international runways or on the cover of Vogue. But she was riding that wave. It was more than she could have ever hoped for when she was a kid in New Jersey. Back when she was a boy who knew that, inside, he was a girl.
Norman still turns heads — passersby, shop clerks, waiters at the diner where we have lunch. At 63, she is strikingly beautiful, with buttery deep-brown skin that reads decades younger, and straight black hair that hangs to her ribs. That regal posture, those strong cheekbones demand attention, even as she hides her slender frame under a long black skirt and a navy shearling-lined peacoat that I later learn is from H&M. She’s open and warm but seems nervous. “It’s not easy for me to talk,” she says. She’s practiced so long the art of being both beautiful and invisible, of letting people look at her but not really see her. It’s how she managed to build a career in an industry where her job was to be gazed upon, in an era when the truth would mean certain, and possibly violent, persecution.
We’re living in a time when trans models like Lea T and Andreja Pejic have been the faces of Redken and Make Up For Ever, and Caitlyn Jenner has been celebrated on the cover of Vanity Fair. This kind of cultural acceptance makes it easy to lose sight of how dangerous it was 40 years ago — and still can be today — for women like Norman to just walk down a street. Fear of harassment from both police and civilians was constant. To live one’s life openly as a transgender woman, let alone one as a black trans woman, simply wasn’t done. The only option, really, was to “pass” in straight society.
But Norman wanted to do more than pass — she wanted to excel in the most scrutinized realm of femininity. Friends from back home in Newark who worked in fashion had been telling her for a long time that she was beautiful enough to model. It would be a better alternative than what she thought might be her only option to make a living: “I was trying to not become a sex worker,” she says. She’d just started to see her body change and her breasts grow from hormone injections. “I was thick,” says Norman. “Well, I was fat, but I say thick.” Her friends taught her how to do her makeup, how to dress for her new figure, how to present.
A makeup artist friend, Al Grundy, worked in the office of a company that dressed models backstage and always knew where fashion shows were being held in the city, which in those days were at the labels’ showrooms: Halston, Bill Blass. He taught Norman what to say at the door, how to become invisible. “I would just tell them that I was a student at FIT and they would let you in, but you couldn’t sit. You had to stand in the back row and it was really tight,” says Norman. “I would go to see how models walk, because I was still in training.”
One morning in, she believes, 1975, Norman was on her way to see a fashion show that Grundy had told her about at the Pierre Hotel. When she stepped out of the subway, she noticed a group of black models she recognized from magazines standing on the corner outside the hotel. She waited for them to go inside, and then slipped in behind them. Through the door, into an elevator. “My mind just kept saying, ‘Follow them,’” she says. Off the elevator, into the next room. Norman made sure she was the last person in line.
“After I got close enough to see what was going on through the door of the hotel room, I saw it was an interview,” she says. Near the end of the day, her turn finally came and she stepped up to the desk, where they asked for her name, phone number, and agency (which she didn’t have). The next day she got a phone call saying she’d been booked for a two-day shoot for Italian Vogue and the pay was $1,500 a day, more money than she’d ever seen. “My eyes popped out of my head!” says Norman. “I couldn’t wait to call my mom.” She didn’t realize until then that the people she’d met at the desk had been an editor from Italian Vogue, Basile designer Luciano Soprani, and photographer Irving Penn.
The next day, she showed up at Penn’s photo studio to be dressed in Basile — Soprani’s collection had been inspired by an African safari he’d taken — and pose with other black models, including Peggy Dillard. “She was the model of the moment,” says Norman. “She’d been on the cover of Vogue,” only the second African-American in the magazine’s history, following Beverly Johnson. Dillard was nice to her, Norman remembers, while the others shunned her — not because they suspected her secret, just because she was new.
She remembers that Penn gave her a lot of encouragement and direction. “He told me to look straight ahead. I’d look straight ahead,” she says. “He told me to turn my face three-quarters. I turned my face three-quarters. He told me to smile with my eyes and I was confused about that so I would just smile” — Norman demonstrates, and laughs. “Then he told me that my eyes were too big. I looked like a deer in headlights, so he told me to close my eyes and open them.”
At the end of the second day, Penn congratulated Norman and wished her well on her new career. “And I kind of tilted my head like, ‘Huh?’” she says. “And he said , ‘Well, we’re going to call an agency. They’re going to put you on a diet and if you get on that diet and lose weight you can make a lot of money.’” A week later she was at the office of Zoli, a boutique and rather eccentric agency run by a Hungarian-born designer named Zoltan “Zoli” Rendessy whose client roster included Pat Cleveland and Veruschka. With Penn’s endorsement, they signed her immediately and began sending her on go-sees, billing her as a younger version of Beverly Johnson, never mind that Norman was only two months younger.
Peggy Dillard’s kindness to Norman, in retrospect, was perhaps a product of her being more sensitive to the cues than others in the room. Dillard had spent much of her youth DJ-ing at her brother’s gay disco in New York, and had friends who’d transitioned, “so I noticed with Tracey’s hands and ankles some things that were characteristic to men. It didn’t bother me. I thought she was beautiful.” When Norman went behind a screen to change rather than undressing with the rest of the girls, “that became a confirmation to me that my instincts were on target.”
Dillard didn’t tell anyone else about what she’d noticed. “It was really hilarious to watch Irving Penn calling people like crazy, which you never saw him do. He was on the phone the whole shoot, telling people, ‘I’ve discovered the next Beverly Johnson!’ I just kind of watched and thought, He doesn’t know that this is a boy!”
Penn’s assistant on that shoot, the now-well-known fashion photographer George Chinsee, who just happened to be with Dillard when I called, adds that a few weeks or months later, Penn got a call from Alexander Liberman, editorial director at Condé Nast, about rumors that Norman was not born female. Chinsee, who overheard the conversation, says Penn was livid. “He just thought it was ridiculous that they’d even think that Tracey was not a woman,” he says. “He said, ‘Oh, this is a vicious rumor!’”
Dillard has kept her observations about Norman to herself until now, but says she has vivid memories of the shoot because it was important to her. “It was really, really a moment for me. Because I knew that this was a first. I knew that Tracey was breaking that glass ceiling. That’s one of my favorite pictures.”
Norman’s first clear memory is of her mother standing on their front porch in a heated argument with her father. Tracey was around 6 years old and riding a bike, in her male body. “I saw my mother in this beautiful sleeveless black dress and high heels — she always wore her hair short, red lips,” she says. “She looked absolutely incredible to me. It was like a movie.”
Tracey’s “being effeminate,” she says, was a regular source of strife between her parents. Her mother was accepting; her father thought he could change her. “He tried everything he could. He bought me boxing gloves and was trying to teach me how to box. Kept hitting me on one side of my head.” Not long after that fight when she was 6, her parents separated and her father moved out. Her mother worked multiple jobs to support Tracey and her sister, Zakia: sewing at a coat factory, bartending, and then finally working as a secretary for a city councilmember. Her father worked odd jobs, too, as a barber, and then at a slaughterhouse for cows and sheep. After junior high, Tracey says her father was never much in her life.
She ran into him when she was in her 40s, boarding a bus from Newark to Penn Station that her father happened to be driving. “I recognized him as my father; he did not recognize me,” says Norman. “I was like, ‘Daddy, it’s me.’ He was shocked to see me.” Years later, when her father was diagnosed with cancer and Norman started visiting him in the hospital, he came around. “He saw that I have done something very exciting with my life. I think he was proud of me at that point. He was more accepting.”
Norman says that as far back as she can remember, “it just seemed like I was living in the wrong body. I always felt female.” All her friends in school were female and kept her relatively protected from bullying: “For whatever reason, my karma did not attract violence. Name-calling sometimes.” She would closely observe their behavior. “I would watch how they sit, listen to how they talk, how they communicate with each other. I would see how they walk. I would see how my mom would live her life and how she would move through the world.”
Her first sexual experience was at age 5, when she was molested by a teenage boy who lived down the street. “I didn’t mind,” says Norman. “I went back a few times. I was very young. I didn’t know any better.” What bothered her more was finding out that a friend of the boy’s was hiding in the closet, watching. “I got mad because I thought it was personal,” she says. “That’s when I first got my experience of being called a fag.” But the insult didn’t exactly register with her. “In my head I was straight and I only liked men.” And in her head, she was a woman.
It wasn’t until graduating from high school, class of 1969, that Norman first spoke her truth, in dramatic fashion. She was on the steps of her school, having just gotten her diploma — the first in her family to do so — when she told her mother that she was a woman. “She just opened her arms, gave me a big hug, and said that she knew, she was just waiting for me to come to her,” says Norman. “I had a moment where I realized what they mean when they say unconditional love.”
Actually realizing her feminine identity took longer. Some time after graduation, Norman wandered into S. Klein, a department store in downtown Newark, and bought her first dress. “Some flowered thing, but I thought it was pretty,” says Norman. She couldn’t try it on there because she was still in boys’ clothes, so she held up the size 14 in the mirror to gauge if it was big enough. At home, she tried it on for her mother, who thought it was ugly. Norman put it away in the closet.
A few months later, a beautiful woman came up to her on the street. Norman didn’t recognize her but she recognized Norman. They had been friends in junior high. “At the time we were both male and we weren’t in the same class,” says Norman. Years later, here that friend was, with breasts and makeup and long hair in a ponytail. “I said, ‘Well, how did you do that?’ And she reached into her pocketbook and gave me birth-control pills, told me not to take the dark-blue ones on the bottom, just take the first three rows on the top.”
It wasn’t until Norman started going to the clubs Third World and Up the Down Stairs that her transition began in earnest. Those clubs were filled with transgender people — white, Latino, African-American. “They were absolutely breathtaking to me, and I knew that I was in the right place,” says Norman. “Eventually, I got up enough nerve to start asking questions. And I finally found someone who told me where this doctor was.”
The doctor was known among the transgender community for working under the table out of an Upper East Side office. “You would pay in cash and come back the following month and get another shot,” says Norman. Her breasts began to grow, reaching a B cup, and, she says, “I was slowly melting,” losing weight without trying, perhaps because of the hormones or perhaps because she was happier. Or perhaps it was the acid-laced punch at gay dance mecca Paradise Garage. “They warn you, ‘The punch is spiked’ and it just went — psheeeww! — right over my head. The next thing I knew I was on the dance floor until the morning: ‘This is the best punch I ever had!’” The rest came off without conscious effort. “Losing weight was being active in the summer, learning how my body worked. Having sex.” She laughs. “That’s an activity.”
Going out in the clothes that reflected who she was on the inside, though, was dangerous until she was comfortable with her transition. “Police officers would question some of the girls, or they knew that some of the girls were transgender and they’d arrest them,” says Norman. “I was very fortunate that I never was arrested, that I was never accosted by the police.”
A year after graduation, she felt like she could pass as a woman, in public, in broad daylight. “I was always a daytime girl, bright sun, walking the streets, going to visit a friend,” says Norman. “It started small. It was no big, ‘I’m here!’” And yet here she finally was. “It was fantastic being myself,” says Norman. “It felt so free.”
Every day Norman left the house she still shared with her mother to go to a job or a go-see, she would say a prayer: “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.”
The friends who’d helped her transition had warned her of how vulnerable she was in the line of work she’d chosen. “They told me, ‘Just go in, do your work, and leave. Don’t worry about being invited to dinner with photographers, don’t stay late by yourself with photographers, don’t go to big giant parties by yourself with photographers. Just tell them no thank you and come home.’”
How did she pass in an industry where changing in public is part of the job? “Duct tape becomes a girl’s best friend,” she says, slyly. “I had to do other things, yes. I’d like to keep some things private.”
Things were moving fast with her agency, Zoli. They sent Norman around the country for catalogue shoots, including to Miami for the I. Magnin catalogue. It was her first time on a plane. Essence magazine hired her for a big beauty shoot, her first major booking since Italian Vogue. Photographer Anthony Barboza shot Norman with a gold collar made in Africa, and the hairdresser Andre Douglas took a wig off his own head — from his new collection he was trying to promote — and placed it on hers. Soon, she'd have her first close call.
During a break in the shoot, a makeup artist pulled Norman to the side and said that he knew what was going on with her. Maybe he noticed how nervous she was, or how large her hands were and how she’d cross them just so to make them appear smaller. She had no noticeable Adam’s apple, and her voice was as soft and high as it is today. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I think you’re beautiful. Just be natural.’” It was worrisome that he had noticed her secret, but he seemed to have good intentions, and his encouragement actually helped her relax. “I just started being myself during the shoot,” Norman says.
Barboza remembers that same makeup artist approaching him as well. “He told me, ‘You know, Tracey’s a guy,’” says Barboza. “I said, ‘Oh, really?’ And he said, ‘Well, Essence must have known that when they hired her.’” And they went on with the shoot. “It was fine with me,” says Barboza. “I’m just doing the job and Tracey was a good model. I remember she had great cheekbones and she looked good in the wigs. It didn’t make any difference to me and I didn’t say it to anyone; I was just surprised because I didn’t notice at all.” When Norman got the call some six months later for another Essence shoot, she knew that the makeup artist had kept her secret.
Norman’s big Clairol moment came in the mid-’70s as well. The company was looking for fresh faces to adorn the boxes of its new hair-dye line for women of color, Born Beautiful, and brought her in for a test. Under the bright lights, her hair had reddish undertones. They snapped photos and labeled her hue Dark Auburn, Box 512, and concocted a hair color to match. She had never dyed her hair, but she had done a home perm to relax her curls, and the interaction of the chemicals and the sun had naturally lightened it to a shade women would pay money to re-create. She signed a contract for two years’ use, with the agreement that she’d get paid more if they renewed, which they did, twice. “So they used my box for six years, because they said it was the hottest-selling box,” says Norman. “This is what I was told.” Thousands of Clairol customers were emulating the look, and affirming the beauty, of a transgender woman.
“She had that commercial look,” says Pat Cleveland, one of the biggest models of the day. “She looked like how the girl next door might wish to look.” Cleveland remembers Norman well from shows they used to do in New Jersey. “But I didn’t know Tracey was a boy,” she says. “She was a professional person who was able to make things look good and sell them. I think Tracey got away with a lot because she was so good. You never would’ve known. I didn’t even know it until now.” Cleveland had plenty of transgender friends in the art world, but thinks that Norman’s success in straight magazines and advertisements is remarkable, especially when race is added to the mix. “It was difficult for any black model at that time to go commercial,” says Cleveland.
Norman has but a few known transgender contemporaries in the modeling world, all of them white. There’s April Ashley, who in 1960 became one of the first Brits to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. She was shot for British Vogue and appeared in a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope film as a woman, only to have her career abruptly end when she was outed in a tabloid in 1961. The first out trans model was Teri Toye, who made a splash opening a Stephen Sprouse show in 1984, and spent three years walking for the likes of Gaultier and Chanel before retiring to Des Moines, where she’s a real-estate agent. Best known is Caroline “Tula” Cossey, who modeled throughout the 1970s, until she appeared in a 1981 James Bond film and News of the World outed her. Cossey eventually wrote two memoirs and became the first trans woman to model for Playboy in 1991.
But Norman’s story was barely known even in the trans community. Janet Mock, an MSNBC host and author of Redefining Realness, recalls first hearing about Norman right after she herself came out as transgender in 2011. She was shocked. “It’s like another girl telling you, ‘Oh my god, there was once this woman who modeled all these years and she wasn’t a white girl, she was a black girl, and she had a Clairol campaign and she was on the box of a hair color!’ And you’re like, ‘What?’” Mock Googled everything she could about Norman, which at the time turned up just one YouTube video. “There was a sense of relief for me, at least on a personal level, to know that, ‘Holy shit, someone has been there before and has done this, at a time when there was a lot more violence and a lot more risk,’” says Mock.
Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black, too, discovered Norman’s story about five years ago while reading a blog dedicated to the unsung heroes of trans history. “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,” says Cox. “That’s just a really big deal, for any black model, and then for her to be trans is beyond amazing.” Cox was well into her transition at that point, but she found Norman deeply inspiring — proof of a lineage of black trans women succeeding, and making a living off their looks. “I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at that photo of her on that Clairol bottle and that caption, ‘Born Beautiful,’” says Cox. “Yeah, we are born beautiful.”
A holiday-issue shoot for Essence, circa 1980. Hairdresser Andre Douglas braided Norman’s hair and beaded it in gold; they wrapped her in an Egyptian cloth. The photographer told her to imagine she was Cleopatra floating down the Nile; his assistant climbed a ladder to shower her with gold flakes. “He was clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking.” The magazine’s then-editor-in-chief, Susan Taylor, had seemed very excited. “She even mentioned, ‘The pictures are so beautiful, Tracey, this could be a cover,’” says Norman. They were on the third roll of film when Norman noticed someone else come onto the set. It was one of Andre Douglas’s assistants, the one who was always asking her questions.
The same hair people had worked on nearly all of Norman’s Essence shoots, and on every shoot this assistant would probe. Didn’t he recognize her from New Jersey? Did she know a model named Tommy Garrett who signed with Ford? “I’d say, ‘I haven’t met that person,’” says Norman. “Really, he was my best friend.” Norman thought she’d done enough to throw him off the trail of her true identity. Still, when he walked in that day, she lost her concentration. “For some reason it felt negative,” she says. “The whole situation felt negative to me.”
According to Norman, the hairdresser spoke with Taylor and then Taylor stopped the shoot, saying: “‘I think we have enough.’” The editor untied the Egyptian cloth Norman was wearing. She was kind about it. “She was asking me was I all right; she was standing behind me, looking at me in the mirror, rubbing my shoulder, complimenting me on how soft I was,” says Norman. “That’s when I knew. The way that she looked at me through the mirror, it was different. She was looking for the person that this hairdresser told them that I was.”
(Taylor did not respond to requests for comment; both Douglas and the hairdresser who spoke to Taylor are deceased.)
Taylor didn’t say anything explicit to Norman then — or ever. And it’s possible that Norman misinterpreted their interaction. But she doesn’t think so. The next day when she called her agency to find out if she had any bookings or go-sees, they said no. “All I know is that my work stopped that day.”
After a week went by, she went in to pick up her check and sat in the waiting area until Zoli himself came out to talk to her. “I said, ‘Is there anything going on that I should know about? Because suddenly I’m not even testing,’” says Norman. “He came up with the excuse that my hips were still too big and I should think about losing more weight.” At this point she was a size 6, the model size of the day. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll call you in about two weeks when I’ve gotten down.’ I was a size 4 when I called back.” Still there was no work.
Norman claims she was not paid for that last Essence job, and the pictures were never used. She says she contacted Taylor to see if she could at least have copies of them, but “she said none of them came out good,” Norman says. “Later I heard she threatened to sue the agency for false advertisement. But the agency didn’t know about me, either.”
Eventually a friend in the industry confirmed that her secret was out. “It goes through the grapevine really fast. Really, really fast. I kind of upset the fashion world for a while,” Norman says. None of the girls she’d modeled with would speak to her. “I had many black female models that I took jobs from super-angry at me,” she says.
Norman was depressed about not having work but also angry that no one would actually say why. “I was upset that nobody confronted me with the truth,” she says. “I guess that’s maybe because they were afraid of lawsuits, but I don’t know if I would’ve had the frame of mind at that time to try to sue people. I just felt so upset about it because it was my people and my community that did this to me. The black community and the gay community.”
It’s taken Norman years to understand that perhaps Taylor and her agency felt betrayed or lied to. But the reaction itself is proof of why she had to keep her secret. Being out was never an option. “I’ve always said that the person that walks through the door first leaves the door cracked. 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.”
Laverne Cox has appeared on the cover of Essence twice. She got emotional during the first shoot in 2014, she says, thinking of Norman. “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.’” She chokes up. “It just means a lot to me that history can be rewritten.”
A year or two passed. By 1982, Norman had given up her apartment on the Upper West Side to move back in with her mother in Newark. A girlfriend of hers, Sherry Gordon, suggested they join their friend Tommy Garrett in Paris, where he was working as a model. They bought two one-way tickets on TWA for $175 and carried $100 between them, plus the number of where Garrett was staying. Norman’s mother had provided her with her sister’s birth certificate to get a passport since she didn’t have female identification of her own.
For about a year Norman, Garrett, and Gordon stayed together in a series of hotel rooms, taking turns paying. At night, they’d share a single pomme frites sandwich and splurge on a Pepsi each. Eventually, Norman moved into the spare room of an American male ballet dancer. One day she got a call intended for his former roommate, a white woman who’d just moved back to New York. Norman said that the other girl was no longer in the country but that she, too, was a model. The woman on the other end of the line asked her to come in. Norman lied and said she was booked for the next two weeks. The truth was she knew she wouldn’t be able to fit into a French size 6 and needed two weeks for a crash diet. She subsisted on popcorn, water, and tea, and walked around the city wrapped in plastic wrap to try to sweat off the pounds.
Two weeks later, she showed up at the address the woman had given her for the fitting. She had to lie on the floor to wriggle herself into the black leather skirt, but she made it, walked for the designer, and got a six-month contract for two shows a day. It was the Balenciaga showroom.
It was the ideal job, not least because she didn’t have to do the Fashion Week go-sees where she would have run into models from New York who knew her. She was safe. “When I worked for Balenciaga, that’s when all of my insecurities and inhibitions stopped,” she says. She was amazed at what she saw in the mirror. “The person I was looking at was so beautiful, made-up, hair done, in a beautiful billion-dollar gown. I just felt so fabulous. My confidence grew from that moment on.”
The only downside was that she didn’t exactly fit into the shoes Balenciaga asked her to wear. She’d spend her morning walking in pain, then rush back to her flat during her lunch break to soak her feet in ice-cold water before returning for the afternoon show. “After a while my feet actually started bleeding because the shoes were so tight,” she says. “But you just, you know, do your work.”
When the Balenciaga job ended, Norman took Garrett’s advice and tried her luck in Milan, but work was slow there, too. After a couple of years abroad, she booked a flight back to Newark. Maybe memories were short. Maybe she’d get work.
“That’s the only thing that I truly regret,” says Norman. “I should’ve never left Paris.”
At first it didn’t seem so bad back in the States. Norman signed with the Grace del Marco Agency, a boutique firm that specialized in models of color. It was a much smaller firm than Zoli had been, which meant less work, but also less exposure. But three months after coming home, Norman again became a victim of her success. She was hired for an Ultra Sheen cosmetics ad — her third beauty contract. The ad featured three women of color of different skin tones, with Norman being the darkest. The trouble was that the ad created too much attention. Remember that girl who was a boy who used to model? She’s back. “Anywhere I went, they would say, ‘Oh, oh, you’re the Tracey.’”
After that, she couldn’t get work as a model, other than for local runway shows with designer friends. As her funds ran out, she moved out of her apartment on the Upper West Side and started sleeping on friends’ couches. Her rejection from the fashion world seemed, to her, completely hypocritical. “Beauty and fashion is all about illusion,” she says. “So when the doors were opened for me, I walked right through. And then the doors slammed … Once the doors closed, I was no longer a woman and I no longer got the respect of a woman. People who used to say ‘she’ now said ‘he,’ and it’s not who I am and it’s not the person that I identify with. It’s like you, as a person, no longer exist.”
If she’d been a drag performer — recognized as a man who happened to wear women’s clothing for other people’s entertainment, she thinks things might have been different. But she looked like, walked like, and was living her life as a woman, in a fashion world only open to beautiful women. “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 says. “That’s what I’ve experienced in my life, what I was getting from straight women and straight men.”
There was only one time when that wasn’t the case, the time Norman fell in love. A straight male office worker from Long Island asked for her number when they met at a club downtown. He didn’t know that she was transgender, but in the end he didn’t care. She was his first (trans lover, that is), and they had a three-year relationship. But he was the exception to the rule.
Norman was now in her late 30s, living once again with her mother in Newark. She found work as a salesperson in a fancy shoe store in the Short Hills mall, but she lost that job, too, after word got out and other mall employees started bringing their friends around to stare at her through the window. “I went from full-time to part-time to no-time,” says Norman. Her designer friend Douglas Says suggested she work at Show Center, a burlesque peep show featuring trans women in Times Square. “I liked it because we were in a booth and behind glass and the dates couldn’t touch you,” she says. They offered private shows and dancing onstage where customers would put tips through a slot in the glass. Norman spent three years at Show Center, earning $900 to $1,500 a day, enough to move back into the city.
It was while she was working at Show Center that she got involved in the drag-ball community. At first, she’d just attend the balls and watch. But when she heard about a ball offering a grand prize of $1,000 — she was, as always, broke — she called up a designer friend and borrowed a dress to compete. Norman didn’t win that ball — she wasn’t carrying a purse, a technicality, and she still thinks she was robbed — but she was happy to be in a place where she could finally be exactly who she is. She became a member of the House of Africa, one of the teams that competes against other houses in the balls, and eventually “the mother.” She prided herself on using her modeling skills to get her “children” to walk like professionals, rather than in the flamboyant style that was in vogue before she joined. Her own personal trademark move was to walk out in just jeans and a T-shirt. When she reached the judges, she would pull out a white handkerchief from her back pocket. “And then she’d wipe it across her face and show the handkerchief to the judges [to show that she had no makeup on] and the place would go crazy,” says Garrett.
In the ballroom world, excellence and longevity are rewarded with titles like “legend” and “icon.” Norman became both, and was inducted into the ballroom hall of fame in 2001. More important, she was embraced by a community of women who finally understood her struggles. “Girlfriends to relate to, to share with,” she says. “We didn’t compete against each other. There would be no men we’d compete for. It was just true love, friendship, and respect for each other. I’ve never had that with another female, so I cherish that a lot.”
Folks from Sally Jesse Raphael invited Norman and some of her ball girlfriends to appear on an hour-long trans beauty pageant, including a swimsuit, talent, and evening-gown competition. Norman wore a plunging black one-piece, and sang Jody Watley’s “Real Love,” and much to her surprise, won. Her mother, who passed away earlier this year, was cheering her on from the audience. “My entire life, my mother was my best friend,” she says.
Norman saw Susan Taylor one more time after that fateful photo shoot. Norman was working at Peter Fox Shoes — for a time she was the manager of the Soho and Madison Avenue branches, selling high-end footwear to the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Whoopi Goldberg — and she walked up the steps from the basement one day to see Taylor shopping in the store. Norman was instantly nervous; no one she worked with knew her secret, and she worried that Taylor would say something about what had happened in her previous life. “I was just holding my breath for a minute.” Then she said, “Oh my god! Hi, Susan. How are you? You haven’t changed a bit.’ And she told me the same thing, she said: ‘You haven’t changed a bit, after all these years.’” Then Taylor grabbed her shoes, said good-bye, and left.
That was one of the last times Norman was fearful about being found out. Now she feels like it’s time to tell her story, to a world that’s finally ready to hear it. “I was reminded that I made history and I deserve to have it printed,” she says. “And I’m still here.”
Makeup by Renee Garnes; hair by James Harris; photo editor: Emily Shornick.
*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.