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Photograph: Courtesy Justin Bettman

Pose star Angelica Ross talks telling trans stories on TV

Written by
David Goldberg

In celebration of Pride in NYC and FX's fabulously transgressive new series Pose, we're speaking to the five women at the center of the show—Angelica RossHailie SaharMJ RodriguezIndya Moore and Dominique Jacksonalong with producer Janet Mock—about their experiences.  Here's our chat with Angelica Ross, who brings acting experiences on series like Doubt and Claws to her portrayal of the sensitive, opportunistic Candy. 

You're probably the most seasoned TV actor in this group. What's it like working as a trans woman on Pose as opposed to on other series?
It’s completely different. Every other show that I’ve been on was in this mode of trying to figure out how to get on the wave of having trans people involved, and so sometimes things weren’t as intentional as they could have been. When I was on Doubt on CBS, there was a 60-second scene, but in that 60 seconds, people were so affected because it was trans women in a very normalized situation. We were having lunch and we all looked like we had somewhere to go after that lunch. We were talking about guys and dating, but in 60 seconds it felt more real than anything you had seen on television. You can see what it means to have trans people playing trans roles, and to have a trans writer. With Pose, we have writers, directors, actors and makeup artists that are trans. And that’s a huge difference.

I've done a lot of movies and shows, and they weren't always the ideal situation I wanted to be in, but I wanted to work. I was building the credits. I was in the background when JLO had the show South Beach on the CW. On some stuff, they'd known I was trans, but for a lot of the first part of my career, I was riding stealth. So to be able to be myself, to be open, to not have to look over my shoulder, to really play the full spectrum of my instrument is so different. I’m so grateful to be in this time, to be doing this.

Did you have concerns going into Pose?
We all had concerns going into the show, because you just don’t know. Ryan Murphy’s doing it, and he has hits after hits after hits, but in the past has had portrayals of trans women, like on Nip/Tuck, that weren't the best. But I think that he was aware of that and has been educated over time. When I saw that he had enlisted Janet Mock, immediately a lot of my fears were put to the side, because I know the level of intersectionality and intellect that she can bring to the table. She’s strong and courageous and I know she speaks up, so a lot of the things that are going to be a concern for me as a black trans woman on set—I know that she’s going to be aware of them. On our show, we’re a family, so when people say: "We want to do this right and we want to do this a certain way," it doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be OK from the jump start. But to have a crew, and to have people who want to listen with us when we are consulting with them—about my character’s look or makeup—there’s a certain level of expertise that we have as trans people, and that we’re bringing to these roles that otherwise wouldn’t if a cis man were to play it, or trans people weren’t in the room at all.

Were there any storylines that were difficult to revisit based on your own experiences?
There are ways that some of these characters talk to each other that can be a bit harsh. But it’s family, and  these are the tools that polished us coming up. If I didn’t have a drag mother who read the filth out of me, I wouldn’t be sitting here as polished as I am today. What we’re seeing is people figuring it out. And for my character, especially, she’s going to go through some things that definitely bumped up against my own traumas—dealing with body issues, beauty standards, being a dark skinned black girl trying to find her beauty spotlight in the ’80s. They weren’t lighting us right, the makeup was ashy. It was very difficult for me because the struggles that Candy was struggling with are things that I struggle with to this day. It’s also still struggles that cis women struggle with now, of feeling less than as women because they don’t have the perfect ass or they don’t have the perfect breasts.

A lot has changed since 1987, but for POC trans women, a lot of the struggles of Pose still persist.
Visibility has an effect on those who are privileged; it brings more privilege, and on those who are marginalized it brings more marginalization, because it also brings a spotlight on to them where they’re at, in the hood or in certain places that are less tolerable. Suddenly, there are more people who are aware that there’s trans people. I was coming back from a photoshoot from BuzzFeed feeling beautiful, gorgeous, and I was walking down the street and these guys thought I was gorgeous. They were starting to catcall, and as I got closer one of the guys was like: "That’s a man." And then they all start yelling "that’s a man!" as I’m walking down the street, and now I feel unsafe. I don’t know if that is going to be the last words I hear, am I going to have an altercation, do I need to run. So that visibility for people of color sometimes makes us more vulnerable.

What is Candy like?
Candy is very sassy and fashion forward. She believes there is no color she can’t wear and wear well. She wears every color in the rainbow—the brighter, the better, because it contrasts her skin. She looks up to Iman and feels like if the world was more accepting, she would have been a model already. From the neck up she feels beautiful, but she feels very self conscious about her body from the neck down, and she’s struggling with that. Just like a lot of trans women.

What we’re going to see and what we’re excited about is how this conversation brings in folks like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, who are doing things to their bodies, where we were doing it as more a form of safety and self protection, because the more womanly we look the safer we are walking the streets. I used to wear so much makeup and be beat and that would get me clocked, so then I’d wear less makeup. Nowadays, cis women are beat for the back row, and so now when i’m called a man, that’s not just violence against me as a trans woman, it’s misogyny against all women. There are cis women who are being attacked and called men because they are wearing makeup and because they are too tall and they might have an adam’s apple. Once cis women start to realize it’s not just harmful to trans women, then we’ll start to come together more and attack this together. It sucks, but we’re all under the patriarchy.

Photographer: Justin Bettman
Styling: Israel Mejia
Location: Hudson Yards Loft
Special thanks: Aurelia, Onarin, Levi’s, James Chan, IRO, Rachel Antonoff, Dolce & Gabbana, Joanna Lara Constantine, Christian Louboutin 

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