Metro Weekly

Done with performative inclusivity, Angelica Ross is creating her own change

Angelica Ross speaks her mind, sings her soul, and holds Pose dear as she writes her next chapter

Angelica Ross
Angelica Ross — Photo: James Anthony

Angelica Ross is an artist and activist known for articulating powerful messages through her art and advocacy. In character, in speeches, in interviews, she doesn’t hold back, expressing herself with fierce yet friendly authenticity. But today, before she can venture her thoughts on her enigmatic role on the current season of FX’s American Horror Story, or on the executive decision-making of the current presidential administration, or on the voting tendencies of the Television Academy, she takes a moment to introduce the eager pint-sized pooch bouncing on her lap.

“My little Hammer,” she says affectionately, also a reference to the hammer notoriously carried as a weapon of protection by Candy Ferocity, the breakout character Ross played for three seasons on Pose.

As a cast member of Pose, Ross contributed to a groundbreaking platform for LGBTQ+ talent, particularly trans women of color, in front of and behind the camera. The Emmy-winning series, depicting the vogue house and ballroom culture of the ’80s and ’90s, seems in a unique way irreplaceable. “I’m glad that it happened,” Ross acknowledges. “I just know that this moment will inspire more. I don’t know what’s next, but I know that Pose was just the beginning.”

For Ross, Pose was a launching pad to roles on another Ryan Murphy hit, American Horror Story — first on season nine’s slasher spoof 1984, and now on the Provincetown-set ghoul-fest Double Feature, where Ross portrays a darkly determined character known simply as The Chemist. The high-profile series work also led to Ross landing a development deal with Pigeon, the production company behind OWN’s Iyanla: Fix My Life, to develop and produce scripted and non-scripted content. “We’ve got a few shows that I’ve been pitching to networks,” she says. “We’re just looking to get picked up.”

She’s also been recording music, joining legendary house diva Ultra Naté and trans singer-songwriter Mila Jam on the dance anthem “Fierce.” Released as part of the Fierce Project’s effort to bring awareness to the rising tide of hate crimes against Black trans women, the single was a one-off project that might prompt a new unexpected direction for the inspired influencer.

Ross has for years been developing vital platforms outside the entertainment industry, as well, with the company she founded, TransTech Social Enterprises, an incubator for LGBTQ talent focused “on economically empowering the T.” She’s channeled some of that experience uplifting trans people in tech and business into Miss Ross, PhD, an upcoming book that will serve as a part memoir.

“I’ve been going through titles,” she says. “But now as we’re closer to the publishing, it’s Miss Ross, PhD. And it is really because in my college talks, when I set the foundation and tell people about who I am in my life, I talk, in ways that are reflective for them, about how I’ve been underestimated and undervalued in my life for the lack of credentials. I have gone through my life in such a mindful way, in such an intentional way, educating myself along the way, with various books and various teachers, that I have learned to have a master’s degree in Miss Ross, I would say. That was a few years ago. It’s since been upgraded to a PhD. So that’s why it’s Miss Ross, PhD.”

Angelica Ross -- Photo: Steven Simione
Angelica Ross — Photo: Steven Simione

METRO WEEKLY: I can’t help but bring up the Emmys, because it’s the day after. [Nominated in several major categories, Pose was shut out, except for Costuming, Make-up, and Hairstyling.] Were you there, were you watching? What did you think of the show?

ANGELICA ROSS: I was definitely watching from home in my robe, which was very nice for me. I had the candles lit, I had the good vibes sent out, and I was hoping for some wins for Pose. We saw the wins for the hair, the makeup, and the wardrobe team, which is absolutely fantastic. And it would have been nice to see the writing, the directing, as well as the acting acknowledged. But it is an awards season, and there was a lot of great television. I know that I personally enjoyed Ted Lasso, and so I voted for a few of the folks there as well. I’m really happy for all the winners that actually won because it is quite a moment. For me, I actually got to participate in the sort of synergy, when I was presenting at the Creative Arts Emmys. And I felt a great vibe, so I guess, whether you are a nominee or a presenter, I’m the type of person that when it does come to celebrating that moment, even if it’s not mine, I’m totally good with celebrating others. Because I know it’s a lot of hard work to get there.

MW: I share the disappointment that Pose didn’t win more of the major awards. I was especially rooting for Mj Rodriguez, because I feel like “Blanca” had earned that recognition. Still, I was happy to see Jean Smart win in comedy for Hacks. You mentioned Ted Lasso, did you have any other favorites competing?

ROSS: Yeah, I really loved Hacks as well. Oh my God, that was a great show. I have not seen all of everything. I’ve seen most of all the shows, but, I’m going to be honest, I pay attention to what stories are told, what stories get to be told, and what stories we’ve heard retold over and over again. I’m just not as invested or personally interested in shows that are blindly white. And excuse me, I don’t mean to use ableist language in saying it, but what I mean is just shows that are all white, and that people of color are an obvious afterthought in the script, of how they sprinkle folks into the situation. I think of very fictional narratives that seem to still not be able to find places for Black people to exist.

I have learned so much in these few years that I’ve been in Hollywood. I’ve learned to let things really slide off my back, like water off a duck’s back, as Jinkx Monsoon would say. Just because there’s so many factors involved, and the best that you can do is focus on yourself as a factor, focus on what you’re doing, what you’re producing, do better. Meaning, not that what you did or put forth wasn’t good enough, but for me, always, better is the option. So regardless of how things were seen or perceived, I’m always working to do better the next time around.

MW: This was a milestone year for diversity in the nominations, but of the 12 major acting categories, all the winners were white. The hashtag #EmmysSoWhite was trending. Are we supposed to look at it as that’s just how it turns out sometimes?

ROSS: No, listen, what I at least understand is that the Emmys are voted on by our peers. When I vote, I vote for other actors in my peer categories, both in leading and supporting acting roles, actor and actress, all of it. And so I feel like it’s just really indicative of how our peers move and think.

Here’s the thing. Everybody wants to rush to call themselves an ally, for all the things. And, oof, there was a moment that was so cringe-worthy last night on the Emmys. It was just so beautiful to see someone like Debbie Allen, who has worked for decades in all avenues of the business, who has earned every stripe and every star, you know what I mean? So that moment, when she took up that space and told them to quiet down the music, she was like, “I’m not even paying attention to that.” Everyone in the room sort of understood what that meant, I thought. Until a white cis man tried to do the same thing, and didn’t realize no, no, no, honey, listen, congratulations on what you do, but you do have to understand that white people, especially here winning the awards, are taking up a lot of space. You read two pages, carrying in a way that does not say that you understand what it looks like for white men to take up too much space, and how to create more space within a program that’s on TV, that has commercials, that has a certain bandwidth, that they do have to cut or do what they gotta do.

So I always see that in various rooms. There’s still a gap between allyship and action. There really is this gap, and that is what I think we saw last night — the gap between folks calling themselves allies and the actions of actually voting for [it]. Like Lovecraft Country. I love Pose, I live for and I love Pose, and I think we did an amazing job all across the board. But I also think that Ms. Aunjanue Ellis, baby, the performance she gave in Lovecraft Country was awe-inspiring. I remember watching that performance, and I mean, I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it right now.

She transcended the human spirit in ways that made everybody who had a mundane experience of their lives, she took us all beyond that in ways that I thought were so profound. I will never forget that performance. I thought it should have been acknowledged and awarded. So there were many performances from people of color that I thought should have been awarded and acknowledged, but again, we aren’t…. I’m going to just say that there’s a gap between allyship and action.

MW: Speaking of filling these gaps, a recent change in the TV Academy rules allows actors to have a gender-neutral title or identity on their nomination certificate and the statuette if they win. Although the rule doesn’t change the fact that there are still binary categories, so I question what this rule change achieves.

ROSS: What I know from my experience is that when it comes to systems and systemic change, it happens and many times it happens slow, and it happens in increments. And so I believe in just hearing that, my first mind is saying, “Thank you for the incremental step.” But it’s just interesting to me, because I don’t know if I see the need anymore for gendered categories. When I look, I want to see a best acting category between the genders, when we know that there were just performances that really were riveting. And maybe there’s different categories for participation, whether that is supporting, lead, maybe there are other additional categories that could be placed in it that I’m not thinking about. That could still make for more awards, because we’re talking about now that would basically halve the awards. So I just think that we have to find ways of being more inclusive, while also making sure we’re communicating that what we are focused on is the art, is the craft. That’s what we’re focused on when we’re thinking about awards.

MW: Another sort of filling the gap measure was reported last week. A talent management company called Transgender Talent, which is run by trans activist Ann Thomas, announced that they are starting a consulting arm to assist film and TV productions on better portraying trans and non-binary characters. There are a lot of studios and companies that are consulting with people about inclusion and diversity. Are you seeing measures like this making a difference?

ROSS: I believe it’s a fad. I believe that it’s performative. I believe that the waves of change that we’re seeing are almost based off the performance of ratings. “What type of ratings will we get by making this move, by doing this sort of thing?” And then when that season is over, then it goes to a lull again. There’s no equity or consistency or foundational change.

What that really looks like, even right now, when it comes to women directors and things like that, there’s just a conversation to be had. Because I feel like I see people checking this box, and thinking that they’re doing diversity by bringing in women directors, but they might be all white women. Let alone any Black male directors being brought into these other spaces where there haven’t been any before, or Black women. So, for me, I see many times it’s a great effort, but we’re not there yet, where it’s coming from the heart. As an actor, and as an audience member, I know when it’s not coming from the heart.

MW: You founded TransTech Social Enterprises to bring about meaningful change in education and employment opportunities for trans people interested in tech. What progress are you seeing from your efforts?

ROSS: I have seen so much progress, especially with what we’ve been able to do at TransTech. By going virtual with our summit last year, we were able to touch all of the continents, and have people logging in from Jamaica and Africa and Thailand and Australia, and just everywhere. In Detroit, from the backseat of their cars. It was great seeing Black trans women literally on their iPhone, in the car, in a “Girl, we didn’t want to miss your keynote speech” sort of situation at the TransTech Summit. But also, seeing the real effort of people reporting back, getting hired at certain companies, starting their own businesses, seeing trans people working in media, and expanding and working their own platforms.

So I do see that there are two things happening. Technology is sort of the catalyst for both the conversation around trans rights, because that conversation gets to go digital. It gets to get into the hands of your everyday trans person who is able to tell you what it’s like to walk in their shoes. But also, beyond the conversation, the technology is hitting to the point where people have to stop talking about it, and they have to take action, and they have to put rubber to road. And when they get to that point, I’m finding that folks are starting to be prepared for those doors that are opening for trans people, and for LGBTQ people in general. People are trying or saying, or even sometimes doing virtue signaling, or even performative acts of hiring or inclusion. But the reality is, if you are prepared for that moment, you can take advantage of that performative act, and make it into something else.

MW: Are you seeing things move faster in tech and business than in entertainment?

ROSS: Yes. Because when the cameras are off, the bottom line is productivity. When it comes to business and work, at the end of the day, folks just want to know if I’m paying you X amount of dollars an hour, can you do the job? That’s it. And so once we get the ignorance out of the way, and we know that we’re supposed to have an environment, due to protections of the law, that protects people from harassment in the workplace. Because if we don’t do things like that, what we’re in essence doing is greenlighting the erasure of trans people from public existence. We’re now understanding that at one point people were saying, “Oh, do you and just live your life.” But at the same time, every decision that is made in public policy is so that you don’t have to deal with trans people publicly, in the restrooms that you frequent, the job that you work at, at the beauty counters that you go to.

And it just needs to be understood. It’s not yet understood across the board, because we came out of such a bad administration and presidency. There’s this echo, and sort of a residue of racism and bigotry that is still formulating into policies that we’re having to fight. I’m a little unclear on how that’s able to happen under this new administration. I mean, listen, I understand there’s levels to this, but I also feel like when you are certain about the treatment of humans and certain things, and you’re coming from a certain office with what they call executive power, it’s time to lay down the law. Lay down the law that says respect each other.

MW: I fear, unfortunately, the response to asking people to be kind to everybody.

ROSS: And it’s really that simple.

MW: Switching topics to “Fierce.” I’m a house music head and I love Ultra Naté. How did “Fierce” come about?

ROSS: I was brought onto “Fierce” through one of the producers at A2 Productions, Anthony Preston. He wanted to do his part in helping the violence and everything that was happening with trans women, period. But him knowing from his particular place as a gay cis male, having relationships with cis Black women or cis women period, and the conversation he hears about trans women, and sometimes the misunderstandings or the challenges that seem to go sometimes in both directions. So he wanted to create a project that would bring all of us together, the fierce boys, girls, cis, trans, non-binary, and just have a celebration, more so of each other. Celebrating how we’re more alike, the fierceness and ways that our femininity shows up in its flairs, and celebrating that in each other, instead of trying to qualify it.

I think that Ultra recorded the song originally a few years ago, and Mila Jam came on next to the song. And when I heard the song, and he asked me to come on, as far as the different parts of the project, I was like, “Hold up, Anthony. Me-me-me-me-me. I sing too.” Originally, I thought I would be able to just slide on in, and maybe sing part of the verse or something, and he was like, “No, we want you to sing the hook then.” So I’m singing, “Be legendary,” singing from my gut, you know? That was interesting to go do that, it opened up a whole new alley for me. And so Anthony and I are about to release my first solo single, “Only You.” We’re currently working on the music video and releasing that song. And we have a music video dropping very soon for “Fierce.”

Angelica Ross — Photo: James Anthony

MW: I’ve personally missed being on the dance floor this last year and a half. Have you had the opportunity to dance to “Fierce” on a crowded floor?

ROSS: No. And I can’t wait for that moment. I will say I have had the pleasure of performing “Fierce” live in Chicago at Market Days. When we started, I’m looking out the trailer to see how many people are out there, I’m like, “Okay, that’s cute or whatever,” but by the time we hit the stage to do the “Fierce” performance, the crowd was packed. People were at the front stage, singing along with the lyrics, video cameras out. It was such a moment, where I went into my own Sasha Fierce. I’m sliding on my knees across the stage. We did not rehearse that in rehearsal, child! But I’m in it. I’m alive on stage. And that’s when Anthony looked over, he was like, “You know, there’s a moment when you know something’s for somebody. That was that moment.” I can’t believe that I’m getting another chance, at this stage of my life, to have a resurgence of music. I’ve been doing music for a long time. I grew up in the church singing, playing piano, and I just thought as a trans woman, I’d never see the day that I’d be able to be recording music and releasing music videos to the mainstream.

MW: This actually seems like a good moment for LGBTQ artists, like Lil Nas X, obviously, Kim Petras…

ROSS: Michaela Jaé!

MW: Of course. We’re seeing people all over the place, but there is pushback from those who want to complain about seeing a gay agenda or queer agenda.

ROSS: We don’t care anymore. We don’t even care anymore. “Thank you to the gay agenda,” like Lil Nas X said. I don’t even care any more what they think. And that’s what’s been so beautiful, to see Black queer and trans people say, “You know what? I actually don’t care anymore what you cis het, homophobic, transphobic people think. We don’t care anymore.”

So if it’s time to come for anybody’s neck about their homophobia, if y’all want to put up with the patriarchy, if y’all want to put up with them calling you bitches and hoes, if y’all want to put up with them slapping the shit out of you, and then glorifying the violence against women, if y’all want to participate in that, y’all can do what y’all want to do, but Black, queer, and trans people, we’ve said enough. We’re dying. The girls are dying. We have no more time to be playing, “Well, if you all didn’t put it in our faces.” Nope. You’d still have a problem.

You always are going to have a problem with this, so let us just go ahead and uproot this right now. It’s done. In my mind, it’s a done deal. You’ve got Billy Porter, you’ve got Lil Nas X, you’ve got myself, you’ve got Indya Moore. You’ve got Preston Mitchum, who’s an attorney, you’ve got George M. Johnson writing and producing. You’ve got so many Black, queer, and trans people — Ashlee Marie Preston, Imara Jones, folks from all sides. We don’t give a damn no more.

MW: You bring up Billy Porter. Another dance floor that we’ll all be missing is Pose. I interviewed Billy earlier this summer while the final season was airing, and his attitude was, “Don’t be sad it’s over. Be glad that it happened.” Where are you in your mourning of the ending of Pose?

ROSS: I miss Pose. I sent out a tweet just a couple of days ago, just like, “I really miss Pose.” And that’s all I said. And when I tell you, folks were just, “Girl, me too.” “Oh, who you telling?” “Oh, here you go. I just finished crying about this and now here I am back at it.” I will say this, I understand those who feel like, “Man, we don’t get to keep nice things.” We get something that feels so close. One thing out of all the things that are out here, that so many people have related to and gravitated towards and loved. I feel like we don’t ask for much. We got this show, that’s almost an anomaly. So I do understand how folks feel when there’s nothing to fill its place at the current moment. There isn’t. There hasn’t been. We get flashes, we get characters, we get guest stars. But as far as this show is concerned, it’s now created, I think, a big hole in representation. And I miss Pose, is all I can say.

MW: For you, after Pose, comes American Horror Story. First, 1984, which I enjoyed, and the current season, Double Feature. I know it’s split into two parts, Red Tide and Death Valley. I know that your character The Chemist appears in Red Tide. Do you also appear as that character, or someone else, in Death Valley?

ROSS: I am confirmed to be in the second half, in Death Valley, so yes, I will be a quite pivotal role in the second half. I cannot confirm or deny whether it’s the same role or a different role, but I will say that I believe there are some connections.

And honestly, it’s so weird to be in Ryan Murphy’s world, where I fully have the scripts, I’m about to film my final scenes, and I still cannot personally confirm or deny certain things, because it’s all in there, but I think it’s left up for the audience. I think so many things are left up for the audience to make their own interpretation.

MW: Talking about the themes, one in particular that really pops out of Red Tide is this idea of the superiority of talented people over the merely mediocre or talentless. In the context of artists and creative people, it seems like a really cruel way to conceive of the entertainment industry, but it also doesn’t seem outlandish. How does it strike you?

ROSS: I think that what Ryan Murphy is doing with this conversation in Red Tide is interesting. There are some profound aspects of the conversation, but I think it’s an extreme dramatized version of the conversation. Because I do know that people do often pay a price for greatness, but I think that that can be perceived by some as selfishness, as being cold, as many different things. But when you’re an artist and you are dedicated to your craft in certain ways, the craft demands your focus. It demands your attention, in ways that you cannot be caught up in audience approval. Or you cannot be caught up in certain things.

I think that our culture oftentimes overfocuses on the outcomes of talent, or the outcomes of success, and not the journeys and pathways, and the ways you have to actually almost cut open your veins on the page. How you have to bleed on the page. A lot of people are not willing to do that.

There’s so many people I talk to, and I can tell they’re talking about their dreams in a certain way. They’re doing so much talking and not willing to actually sit down and do it, and actually do the thing. It hurts. It takes pain. It’s a lot of things. So I think there’s a lot of conversation around that, and it’s not just black and white around the talented and the untalented, but I think there is a conversation around coveting a life that you’re not willing to work for. Coveting something that is not your dream, and creating more suffering for yourself because you’re wanting something that’s actually not yours to have. Like there are many, many positions around being in the entertainment business. So someone who doesn’t have the talent to be an actor, but hasn’t discovered that they’re a great editor or director or sound person, they’re going to create a lot of frustration for them instead of actually putting in the work to be a great editor or sound person or light person.

The fame thing has us thinking that we all are supposed to be in front of the camera or in the spotlight — and that’s one of the trickiest places you’ll ever be, the spotlight. And that’s a place that you do not want, unless you are truly ready for it. I’m telling you from experience, and just to know that I feel conditioned and ready for the spotlight, but one thing I’ve definitely learned and said before about the spotlight, is it only amplifies and puts a light on what you’ve already got going on.

So if you got some unresolved stinginess or bitterness or whatever it is, the spotlight’s going to show it. If you’re narcissistic, the spotlight’s going to show it. For me, I’m hoping that the spotlight is showing a mixture of what it looks like to take up space that you earn and deserve, while also creating space for other people. Space that also says that I haven’t arrived, that I’m always continually working towards. And just something that is not stale, is not dead, is always willing to move, to change, and be better.

MW: Another aspect of Red Tide that reveals character in the same way fame and fortune can, is addiction. The story does a great job of showing the horrors of addiction, and the damage that it can do to a family. Are there other aspects or elements of the story, either part, that you found frightening or disturbing?

ROSS: Listen, Alma needs her ass whooped, is what I know. I don’t believe in beating children, but that one might need some exceptions, because she’s on another… I joked around a lot during this. I joked around in one of my tweets saying, “So sad. Tune in to watch a family torn apart by drugs,” or just like, “Somebody call CPS, Child Protective Services,” because these folks let this child… That’s a child. But we’re in drama, so it’s exaggerated. At the same time, I just love the way that this is going to unfold in the series finale. Because it does turn some of these narratives on their head, around who’s in control. I will give a nod and say that The Chemist has a master plan.

MW: The show makes great use of the desolation and the cold of Provincetown off-season. Where did you shoot the show? And have you spent much time in P-Town?

ROSS: I performed once at the Crown & Anchor in Provincetown. I did a live performance there several years ago. But no, during the filming of this season, I was scheduled to be in Provincetown, but there were so many challenges with COVID and with just the scheduling of all of that, that I ended up filming my parts in Los Angeles. So I actually never had to deal with the brutal cold that some of my colleagues had to deal with.

MW: Something about your character that I think is cool, is that her gender, race, identity, is not a major aspect of her role in the story. Speaking for myself, I want to see queer actors and queer characters in stuff where that’s not the whole point of them being there. What’s your take on the character’s role in the story, and how her identity is not the point?

ROSS: You know, I just show up as an actor. I bring as much as I can possibly bring to the role, but what I know most of all that I’m bringing to the role, is myself. And what I’m doing is, in most roles, I’m pulling back all of my protections, all the ways in which I know to present myself every day. I pull all that back so that they can do their work — hair, makeup, wardrobe, from the hats, wearing the suits….

MW: It’s a great wardrobe, by the way.

ROSS: Paula Bradley, she’s been behind some of the most iconic looks from Gwen Stefani. She styled her for years. So she was behind styling me on 1984, and on this season. So some of the lines are a little sharp with the suits, with the tie, it still comes in at the waist. There’s very non-binary lines. It plays both in feminine and masculine lines, with my hair and with my wardrobe, but the makeup is always glamorous. And so I felt extremely beautiful in this role, wearing short natural hair. I felt like it was an homage to so many Black women with short hair. But in the ways in which I performed the role, I just allowed a non-binary energy in. Is the character trans? We don’t know. She could very well be a trans woman, or a non-binary person. Her name’s The Chemist. I love the fact that we can create art that allows the audience to fill in the gaps.

AHS: Double Feature airs new episodes Wednesdays through October 20 on FX, and is available for streaming on Hulu. Visit www.fxnetworks.com.

Follow Angelica Ross on Twitter at @angelicaross and learn more about her projects, book, and company at www.missross.com.

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