There is a difference between momentum and a moment. A moment is a flash, a stroke of lightning, a pose. It's a beautiful thing, don't get us wrong. It's an instant, caught forever on film or burned into our brains. But momentum is a freight train.
Angelica Ross is both momentum and moment. She's one of five transgender actors in Ryan Murphy's groundbreaking FX show "Pose"—recently picked up for its second season—about the 1980s LGBTQ ballroom scene. New York is burning. Again. Still. For her part, Ross has been accumulating momentum for decades to serve us this pose: She plays Candy, a troubled member of the House of Abundance. Proud and angular, Candy has body insecurities, a struggle not unfamiliar to the actress who plays her.
Ross chatted with Ad Age about the show, about families (biological and curated), and running TransTech Social Enterprises, which is making tech literacy more accessible to trans people. This interview has been edited.
Talk about what re-creating the ballroom culture in the '80s means to you as a performer and as a trans woman.
I can relate to it with my own struggles, my own body, and how I found acceptance. I was kicked out of my own house and had my own drag mother, you know, a house mother. Things with my family are great now—my mom and dad were at the premiere—but they had kicked me out. "Pose" makes the case that it's important to have some sort of family structure even if you have to create one. You know, if I go back home for a while, my mom will be like, "Oh, I didn't really throw you out the house." And I know so many other LGBT parents who don't really own or talk about the rejection, and it prevents healing. I think the show puts it all right in our faces.
It's almost like a truth and reconciliation commission for the LGBTQ community.
Ryan Murphy created this role for you after you didn't get another part in the show. How did that feel?
It was so affirming. I've been doing this practically since I was in diapers. Musical theater, swing choir, jazz choir, chorale, independent films, modeling, but on the outskirts and hiding sometimes, like taking a job and them not knowing I was trans in the beginning. Or, going into auditions and having them tell me, "Sorry, you don't look trans enough." But to have Ryan Murphy respond to my performances the way he does and have them listen to me when I have suggestions... I just can't explain how amazing it is to have professionals at the top of their game acknowledge that you're delivering.
So there was that big episode that centered around your character getting silicone implants. Do the show's body insecurity issues resonate with you personally?
Yeah, that was hard. Standing in the makeup trailer for two hours as they put on the prosthetic hip. ... It was hard to see my body the way that I want it to be versus the way that it is. Back in the day I sat on that doctor's table getting pumped with silicone out of some unlabeled jar of whatever. It could've easily turned out different. Luckily, I only went for the initial sort of base treatment and just never went back.
Are you glad you didn't?
It's complicated, very complicated, very complicated. Overall I'm glad because the way my body sits now is definitely more natural, feels natural, but I definitely wish I was more hippy and curvy or whatever. What I've learned about being trans in transition is just that sometimes good things don't happen when you try to rush things. Just as a young girl grows into a young woman, you know, we transition, we grow into our bodies the same way.
What do you make of this moment that trans people are having in media and entertainment? How do you parlay that into something that's lasting and meaningful?
Well, trans people know that it's not a "moment." It's momentum that continues to build. We know that the cameras are on, the mic is hot. Outliers like Laverne Cox, myself, Janet Mock, you look at our stories and we were the theater kids, or Janet Mock, she has a master's degree in journalism, she's been writing forever. Some of our community members might have looked at [trans actors] and thought we were foolishly preparing. "Oh girl, they're never gonna allow no trans girl to be on TV." But a lot of us have been ready for the mic to be hot and now that it is, we're not putting it down.
You do a lot of advocacy work, and a lot of it with TransTech Social Enterprises. What's the goal, and why tech?
It's to remove some of the elitism and the classist sort of perspectives that people have when talking about tech. Let's see how technology can help you step up your game to the next level. We're having the second annual TransTech summit this year in Chicago at the Groupon headquarters again.
What's the theme?
Basically it's "calling all superheroes." I'm trying to get across in my community that people can become their own heroes. I used to work at Bloomingdale's when I was transitioning, and they didn't want me using the same bathroom as the female employees or what have you, so it was a struggle. Wardrobe was war and makeup was war paint, and we were the best at it. But our gay brothers—and they had their struggles as well—stepped into the beauty advisor positions because they found a niche in society being a non-threat, the gay friend who could give you beauty tips. Now, girls coming out of prison, coming out of situations and realizing they have a dream and want to get into the beauty industry or whatever, they can learn how to run a PayPal account and a YouTube account, charge a friend a little, start small and take charge. It can start there. It doesn't have to start at building websites and coding.
You were in the Navy. You've previously said it was a way to make yourself quote-unquote "more normal," which is sort of tragic.
It's just funny to me. Have you ever heard of the show "Quantum Leap"?
For sure: "Oh boy!"
The Navy feels like another lifetime and another person. You look back and think, "How did I survive?" And it's always because you just do. I feel I'm still sort of grappling with things, but I know that all of these experiences are for a reason; they were to condition me for a certain level of leadership. It's almost like in the time of Donald Trump—or you think about the Holocaust or slavery—it's fertile ground for a certain type of leadership. We're in an extreme time right now. I know I'm being prepared to take responsibility and that the world is ready for me. It's taken me a long time to be able to talk about myself like this, and talk about these things this way.
And you have a platform that's getting bigger and bigger. What do you make of the recent Scarlett Johansson scandal over her being cast to play a trans woman in "Rub & Tug"?
I'm just glad that she recused herself. That shows the sign of someone who's listening. You've got to understand how crazy it sounds when you say you want to do something to help a community, and everyone in the community's saying no.
There's an entitlement to wanting to help but not actually listening.
And look at what someone with cis male white privilege like Ryan Murphy, what he's doing with that. I'm not about kissing ass and brown-nosing, I promise you, that's not what this broad does. But he has become aware of what his privilege can do. Some proceeds of the show are being donated to LGBTQ organizations, trans people are being paid to not only play trans but to be makeup artists. It's putting money into our community, and then we put money back into our community. This is how we help, this is how you change whole dynamics. It's incredible. I'm so grateful.
"Pose" aside, do you have a favorite show?
I love "Dear White People" and "Handmaid's Tale"—I have to pace myself with that one, it's just too intense because of our own reality—but "Queen Sugar"