“It’s a lot of things,” she says, speaking to us on the phone from Los Angeles where she’s in her car on her way to her next appointment. Angelica’s not complaining at all though, adding that she loves being “booked and busy” – and following her standout performance in Pose, we suspect it’s going to be that way for some time yet.
We are living in a golden age of television and at its centre Pose is a drama shining brighter than any other show out there right now. Centring around the ballroom scene in 1980s New York City, it assembled the largest cast and crew of trans actors, producers and writers a drama series has ever seen. In fact, almost the entirety of the actors at the forefront of the series are LGBTQ. And as the consistently positive reviews and numerous Emmy nominations suggest, putting LGBTQ people at the centre of LGBTQ narratives provides the best results.
This was no better showcased on television than in a recent episode of Pose where Candy was the focus of the story. With the show in its second season and the timeline up to 1990 during the peak of Madonna’s success with Vogue shining a spotlight on the ballroom scene, not all aspects of the underground subculture is given the attention it deserves. We’re going to warn you now: if you’re not up to date with season two there are spoilers ahead.
In what will be remembered as the most heart-breaking hour of television ever produced, season two episode four of Pose found Candy cruelly and brutally murdered in a motel room. It highlighted the very real problem of trans women of colour being forced into sex work to survive, and in doing so putting their safety at risk of extreme violence and, in this case, murder. At her funeral, the spirit of Candy returned to speak with those she had left behind, including Billy Porter’s Pray Tell, Indya Moore’s Angel Evangelista, and her parents who she had had a fractious relationship with regarding her transition. It ended with Candy finding peace in the ballroom up in the clouds, lip-syncing the house down to Never Knew Love Like This Before. For those watching at home, there wasn’t a dry eye in the land.
“The reaction was overwhelming and I think it’s exactly what the world needed, for something to hit close to home,” Angelica says of the outpouring of grief from viewers for Candy. “And how much closer can you get than people’s living rooms or iPads and their cell phones and mobile devices? I was seeing people watching, and the reaction videos. And people were sending me DMs into my Instagram and sending videos of them either crying while watching it, or they were sending me them singing in jubilation to Never Knew Love Like This Before. They would send me videos of people playing it at LGBTQ pool parties, or at clubs, or people singing it in their cars. It’s absolutely overwhelming.”
Considering the emotional turmoil experienced by viewers at home, how did Angelica respond when she first read the script? “I couldn’t stop crying,” she admits. “What I immediately thought about was this quote, and I can’t remember who said it, but the quote goes ‘No tears from the writer, no tears from the reader.’ And so when I read the script, and I was immediately crying page after page, I remember laughing because I had to create my own commercial break while reading the script because it was that heavy. I knew the commercial break would be necessary when actually watching the show. And it was one of those things that was true to life, that once we got to seeing it on screen, it was that tears from the writer and tears from the reader. I was devastated and also immediately understood the importance of the story we were about to tell.”
That importance cannot be understated in 2019. Candy’s violent murder at the hands of a cishet man took place in 1990, but 29 years later and the killing of trans women – and particularly trans women of colour – remains an ongoing issue. “The main response that I get from [fans of] Pose is their grief over losing Candy,” Angelica says. “And for many of our viewers it’s beautiful to see that they got what we meant for them to get, which was this conviction to now be on the lookout, to be like, ‘This has made me aware that this issue is still going on, or there are ways that I can speak up more and use my privilege.’ The reality is that Pose could get even realer, if we didn’t want to give some joy; being trans and being LGBTQ is that we do have all of these highs and lows, but we could have much more lows in the show if we wanted to and still be considered on the nose. It has been my hope that through Candy’s portrayal we would get to this place of not one more. Unfortunately, I’m scared to find out who the next name is going to be because I know it’s coming. But I’m hoping that when it does come, the same uproar that we saw happen on social media when Candy’s death happened, I want to see that times one thousand for the next trans woman that dies. And I don’t want to hear, ‘What was she doing?’ because we all know there are various things you have to be in order to survive in this world as anything but a white cis male.”
Long before Pose captured viewers across the globe, Angelica Ross was a visible and vocal advocate and leader in the trans movement. Her breakthrough in Hollywood has meant that she has had to spent more time dedicating herself to her craft, but if there’s one thing Pose can claim is its purpose of being art as a form of activism. In 2019 so far there have been 12 documented killings of trans women of colour in the US. It meant Angelica threw everything she had at Candy’s final scenes, knowing the importance and relevance to today’s world they held. “[There are] people who say ‘Oh, you’re just Hollywood’ and who don’t really understand that you’ve just spent 18 hours filming a really difficult story, and one that you’re hoping will vibrate across the world and end trans murder,” she says. “So, it was very very difficult filming this, meanwhile with all this stuff going on, but I had to stay focused on the work, knowing it would have some sort of impact.”
But while Pose has been lauded for its educational value, raising awareness of communities, identities and issues that have been overlooked, oppressed and disregarding by mainstream society for too long, Angelica suggests its activism works in other ways too.
“What I think it is teaching us the most, is that it’s teaching us about ourselves,” she explains. “It’s teaching us about this community that many may not have known before, what have you. But the problem in America that we’re still experiencing today is that many people don’t seem to see themselves in this story. They don’t think to see how they’ve been complicit or what part they’ve played in rejection, or in not supporting you or in their ideologies or ways that they contribute to collected powers. I think that’s what’s interesting in Pose, that many people are starting to see themselves, and are starting to question themselves about ‘What am I doing to make sure this isn’t happening now on my watch?’”
There’s a hope that Pose will make Hollywood stop and question themselves too. The momentum of the show feels like it could finally knock down doors for trans actors and creators who have previously not been welcomed into those spaces. For Angelica, she’s immediately been snapped up by one of FX’s other leading series; American Horror Story. “The fanbase alone, just on the announcement that I’m on this show has been overwhelmingly accepting and excited and stanning,” she says. “They know every move that you’re doing, but I think it’s absolutely wonderful because what I have seen in the growth of my fanbase – after episode four of Pose, I went from like 50,000 followers on Instagram to about 100,000 – and what I noticed was that a lot of the fans were American Horror Story fans. I’m still experiencing the same trolls coming after me and saying stupid things, and calling me a man on social media; and now I’m seeing these American Horror Story fans coming to my defence in ways that are educated and brilliant, and so I see the effects in real time. I’m seeing it cross genres, it’s not just in an LGBTQ story, it’s now in a story that may involve a trans actor, but we are yet to know if that is even part of the storyline, because I don’t think it is – although I don’t know for sure…”
The first hint of a potential American Horror Story teaser and we’re digging for more. “What I can say is that she’s completely different from Candy,” Angelica says. “What’s very interesting is that they’re both black women, but they are obviously from two different backgrounds of privilege. And when we’re talking about this conversation of privilege, sometimes we only know how to talk about it across race lines, and sometimes white people don’t understand their privilege and what have you. But now we’re getting to an intersection where we can tell these stories, and what’s uplifting me as a black advocate, is that there’s more work to be done within the black community. And when I think about privilege we need to talk about academic privilege, but also cis, heteronormative privilege, about male privilege, about these things that some black men in our community are unable to talk about privilege because of their experiences in America, but when you’re a black trans woman being oppressed by black men, it brings up a different conversation. I think I’m going to easily be able to tell a story within my new role of, at the very least, this character is coming from a different background of privileges that includes academic and cis privilege. And in that difference you’re going to see that Candy was street, my character on AHS is more strategic.”
American Horror Story: 1984 will premiere later this year, and includes Cody Fern, Billie Lourd, Mathew Morrison, Gus Kenworthy, DeRon Horton and Emma Roberts amongst its cast. When Ryan Murphy told Angelica she had the role, he promised that her character would be “unforgettable”. Angelica adds that she’s learnt not to take Murphy’s words lightly. “I know that when he says this is an unforgettable role, and I start reading the first three scripts, I’m like ‘oh my god,’” she laughs. “And as an actor, I feel so blessed because I am that kid, and you can ask my assistant who has been my friend since middle school. She has seen me from doing community theatre and Fame and Grease, and all these things and coming to a place where I was unsure of myself because of my transition, when the world tells you that you have no value, and not even the world just your own family. And you have to get to a place to heal beyond that and make your own family, and then be ushered into a space that affirms exactly what you’ve always known about yourself. That I am a star, and Candy knew she was a star and sadly she didn’t live to see this reality. But the silver lining in her story is that Angelica Ross gets to live that story.”
Not only does Angelica get to realise what she’s always known, but she will continue to use her privilege to raise others. She launched TransTech five years ago to economically empower trans people, and during that time she’s witnessed life-changing results. “One of our members struggled with homelessness, and I mentored her personally over the years and watched over her and gave her freelance work and connected her to different employment opportunities to the point that I was in Miami a couple months ago and was invited to a gala that she was being celebrated at,” Angelica says. “She’s now working and making six figures as a black trans woman. We have many wins like that where people are getting full-time jobs and getting into politics and winning seats to be state representatives, like in Colorado. We are seeing trans people both in Hollywood, but in politics, and in corporations and in the tech field and we’re seeing us take up space. It may not be as much or as fast, but I think with shows like Pose it’s helping us get there quicker.”
Angelica’s next ambition is to utilise technology to ensure the safety of trans women – in particular trans women of colour. The idea centres around an app as “a technical solution to keep trans people safe, but to create social solutions to get cis men looking out for trans women, escorting them to make sure they’re safe from place to place, creating offline safety measures as well as online safety measures.”
With Trump in the White House being America’s all-too-real horror story, the United States needs people like Angelica ensuring the safety of the most vulnerable marginalised communities during a time when the administration is actively throwing obstacles in their way. “All I can say is that this administration has to be dismantled one way or another,” Angelica says when asked about the current leadership. “We have to vote this dude out and handle things after that. But part of the situation is that we don’t realise that his finger is hovering over the nuclear button, and not just for war. We’ve given this man the purse-strings to our country, and we’ve given him power in such a way that we are all in a high state of anxiety because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’re all scared of scrolling down our timelines on Twitter. What is he going to say next? What kind of drama he’s going to pull us into next? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I refuse to live my life in such a passive way, in such a way that I’m waiting for life to give me the cue. I know where this story is going, we’ve seen it before with Hitler, in other places within history. What I say is, this isn’t about Trump. This is about who we are as America, and understanding that we the people are much stronger than not just one idiot. In reality it doesn’t come down to just one idiot, he reflects an underlying current within in this country. But in order to solve this issue we have to face the problem. We have to not just be aware of the underlying current, but we need to snatch that bitch from underground and bring it up above so we see it for what it is and face it and fight it head on.”
Angelica’s ferocity cuts through; years of advocacy, adversity and activism as both armour and ammunition against this awful administration. “We can’t get any further by playing these games that we’re playing right now,” she says, before landing her final thought of this interview. “We must act now is all I can say, and I’m doing everything I can do in my power as a black trans woman – and you need to ask yourself, what are you doing?”
Photography Mike Ruiz
Words Lewis Corner
Fashion Brandon M Garr
Makeup Merrell Hollis
Hair Nathan J
Executive production EJ Jamele