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Tracee Ellis Ross Opening Her Own Doors

October 01, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actress Tracee Ellis Ross, the second of superstar Diana Ross' five children, doesn't buy into the old adage that having a famous parent automatically opens doors in Hollywood.

"It's just garbage," insists Ross, who stars in UPN's new sitcom, "Girlfriends."

"There is an analogy I use for the whole famous parent thing. They say 'Oh, it's going to open doors for you.' I always say, 'You know what it does? It unlocks the doors.' When it is your time and you deserve it, that's when [the break] happens."

Ross, who has inherited her mother's big, expressive brown eyes and drop-dead figure, believes it was kismet that opened the door for her on "Girlfriends."

"It felt like destiny," says Ross.

In the sitcom--which is executive produced by Kelsey Grammer--Ross plays Joan Clayton, a 29-year-old African American who has just been made junior partner at her law firm. The self-assured attorney wants it all--the job, a husband and children. But she hasn't been able to find the right man.

Joan confides her feelings, emotions and disappointments to her three best gal pals, Maya (Golden Brooks), her outspoken assistant who is married; Toni (Jill Marie Jones), a beautiful real estate agent who wants to marry a rich man; and Lynn (Persia White), a professional student working on her third master's degree.

From the moment Ross received the pilot script, she felt an immediate connection to Joan. "The details of what Joan was speaking of might not have been what I experienced in my life, but the underlying emotions were all things I could relate to, and have at one time or another. The voice--the words--were so me."

"Girlfriends" creator and co-executive producer Mara Brock Akil, who has written for several African American sitcoms including "Moesha," initially wanted Joan to be of a darker hue than the lighter-skinned Ross. "I felt you don't see that [color of] black woman as a lead in television," Akil explains. But her original concept for Joan went out the door when Ross walked in for her audition.

"When Tracee came in," Akil recalls, "she showed me something I didn't even see in my own character. I was looking for something else and God gave me something better."

Akil and Ross discovered they have much in common, including their curly hair. "We scream about [our similarities] and laugh about it," Akil says. "It's kind of neat to meet somebody who is so similar to me down to everything from the kind of style we have to restaurants we eat at to our hair," adds Ross.

Besides "Girlfriends," Ross is also a regular on MTV's hip-hop sketch comedy series, "Lyricist Lounge." The actress is planning to continue doing the cable network's show. "Hopefully, it will work into the schedule and I'll be able to do both because they both occupy such facets of who I am."

Ross was a theater major at Brown University, but after graduation she gravitated to the fashion world. "There are two things I love in life--clothes and acting," Ross explains. "[Upon graduation] I was offered a job at Mirabella as a contributing editor."

She worked at the magazine for nine months, then left to help revamp New York magazine's fashion office. "While I was [at New York] I was able to do everything from my own shoots to writing little bits of copy to ordering catering to choosing models to writing insurance letters. It was sort of a crash course in this is what the fashion business can be for you."

But Ross realized fashion wasn't her world. "I had too much to say that I couldn't say through fashion."

Deciding to give show business a whirl, Ross soon got a gig as host of Lifetime's pop culture series, "The Dish," and a role in the low-budget movie, "Far Harbor."

During the filming of "Far Harbor," Ross decided she'd made the right decision to become an actress. "Every bit of my being was being used to say something," Ross says. "I thought, 'I can be all that Tracee is and lend it to something and be [that] character.' "

*

"Girlfriends" airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m on UPN.

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