The UK Corner

Urban Entertainment from a British perspective

The UK Corner: Getting to know Tracee Ellis Ross

On Tuesday 8 November Soul Marketing and BET presented an intimate evening with actress and producer Tracee Ellis Ross at the Mayfair Hotel in London. The Getting to Know… Event was the third in its kind designed to bring diverse communities together to learn, network and be entertained. The queues were thronging outside the hotel and passersby curiously asked what was going on. Diana Ross’ daughter was in London for three days to promote her family based-sitcom Reed Between the Lines, which premieres on BET UK on Tuesday 15 November via channel Sky 191 and Freesat Channel 140.

During champagne and nibbles entertainment and sports figures such as MOBO Awards founder Kanya King, singer Kim Mazelle, Olympic athlete Dalton Grant, journalists Jacqui Joseph and Sherry Dixon, and actresses Judith Jacobs and Nakeba Buchanan, mingled with competition winners and other guests. Before Ellis Ross took questions, Soul Marketing founder Glen Yearwood introduced the evening including performances from comedian Felix Dexter and singer Renny Bird, and brief speeches from Michael Armstrong, Senior Vice President and General Manager, at BET and Ava Hall, Vice President, International Programming and Production.

Finally, it was time for Ms Ellis Ross to grace the stage in a black and white dress. Her size 7 ½ feet wore YSL red pumps from the promo shoot (the fashion enthusiast gushed about having them in brown and black too!) and matching Ruby Woo MAC red lipstick. Interviewed by Journalist Brenda Emmanus, Ellis Ross talked about her recent presenting/hosting jobs at the MTV European Music Awards and the Black Girl Rocks! Not one to do it with the lights off, Ellis Ross requested illumination as she shed light on her story.

The second of five children, Ross followed her mother singer/actress Diana Ross in to the entertainment business. Though at times she admits to resenting sharing her mother with the world, she followed a legacy, which she described as a blessing and an opportunity, with an international education in America and Switzerland. Ellis Ross became a model before going into theatre and TV. In 2000, a DVD she made as a fun gift for friends got into the hands of MTV executives and led to a regular appearance in the MTV series The Lyricist Lounge, a hip-hop variety series mixing music, dramatic sketches, and comedic skits. This evoked her hit catchphrase “Where all my diggas at?” Fondly recalled by fan Bode (pronounced Bo-day as the entire audience learned following Ellis Ross’ accidental mispronunciations (Body?), which resulted in mass chants…).

More assuredly, of course Ellis Ross spoke about her most acclaimed role as, in her own words, ‘retarded’ unlucky in love Lawyer Joan Clayton in Girlfriends. She didn’t dish any dirt on why Toni (Jill Marie Jones) left but, explained that the episode, which featured Joan vowing to curse less, was art-imitating life; Ellis Ross expressed a need to see more characters on screen representative of her, who speak in a way not often reflected on screen. Principled, she stated that she would not take a role for money if it clashed with her values. She also explained that with the average career of an actress spanning ten years, when the show ended abruptly in 2008 due to a lack of funding and the writers’ strike, she wondered if it was the end of her career. She won two NAACP Image Award for this role, she explained that though the show never won an Emmy, nor was the cast invited to be guests on Jay Leno, knowing that fans in the UK and Africa love all 176 episodes of the show compensates.

After Girlfriends, roles in Private Practice and CSI followed and Barack Obama’s office called on Ellis Ross to campaign. This period also saw her develop her public speaking in self-esteem workshops with teenage girls where she emphasized the need for self-love including of diverse hair – a subject she explores in her new show. Having had initial concerns about the images BET portrayed, the opportunity to talk with Loretha Jones, President of Programming at BET, enabled Ellis Ross to see scope for her vision to produce progressive and balanced programmes with authentic voices, where women of colour take responsibility for their roles, such as Reed Between the Lines in which as lead actress and number one on the call sheet, Ellis Ross plays Therapist Dr Carla Reed opposite Malcolm Jamal Warner as her husband Dr Alex Reed.

In their 13 hour work-days Ellis Ross, who would not be drawn on whether or not she was in a relationship, disclosed that she has built up a chemistry with Warner, best known as Theo Huxtable from The Cosby Show, whose biceps she repeatedly told us, she couldn’t fit her hand around, and whom she texts to go over the script. Her other co-stars include Anna Maria Horsford and Melissa De Sousa, with guest appearances from Robin Givens, Romeo Miller and Lauren London.

Ross took questions from the audience, some more controversial than others. She admitted that though she had spent some time in London before and had visited her step sister the day before, she did not know much about the Afro Caribbean communities in the UK. If however, she were traveling to a desert Island, she knows exactly what she would bring: her beloved dog Ladybug, her family and their loved ones. She encouraged industry insiders and viewers to be proactive in creating the shows they wanted to see after comments about the negative representation on the recent TV British drama Top Boy. Ellis Ross, who admitted she drew on her own experience of therapy when twice playing a Therapist, encouraged debate when the audience was stirred by a producer’s question about mental health issues in the black community. Ironically, the stir caused signaled the stigma in question.

On a lighter note she complimented a few ladies on their London style though the fashionistas were reluctant to publicly declare where they picked up their bargains! One audience member asked about Ellis Ross’ interest in Remembrance week following her appearance on BBC Breakfast that morning in a vintage YSL poppy dress. Ellis Ross explained that it was kismet to debut that dress at this time and revealed that she has no stylist but has assistants because she loves to shop and takes Polaroids to whittle down clothes; her happy place is her wardrobe!

Ellis Ross favours the styles of the fifties and eighties; her style icon may be Katherine Hepburn but Carmen Miranda and Lena Horne are the icons she’d most like to play, though it’s too late for her to nab the latter role. The audience loved Ellis Ross just being her lively and outgoing self. Her positive energy oozes out of her 5’7 and a half frame. Next year’s Getting to Know…event will feature soul legend Chaka Khan; it is fitting that an artist of strong caliber was her predecessor under the microscope.

L TO R: Anna maria Horsford, Melissa De Sousa, Tracee Ellis Ross, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Nadji Jeter, Zoe' Hendirx, Zoe borde

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