Angelica Ross on Pose, Beauty Standards, and the Importance of Being ProblematicEntertainment
Angelica Ross is busy. On top of running TransTech Social Enterprises and planning the LGBTQ talent incubator’s annual Trans Tech Summit, she stars in Pose, an hourlong FX drama about power, access, community, big hair, and Dynasty-style shoulder pads in the 1980s New York ballroom scene.
Ross plays Candy, a frustrated member of the House of Abundance who masks her insecurity by lashing out at others. The most recent episode of the show, written by Surpassing Certainty author and Pose producer Janet Mock, finds Candy shut out of the categories she wants to walk in, so she turns to underground aestheticians to get her those 10s she craves. “This conversation that episode four brings up, I hope it brings trans and cis women together by showing how we’re all struggling with living up to the same impossible standards of womanhood,” says Ross, especially now “when you have cis women who are pumping their bodies.”
Despite her busy schedule, Ross was able to squeeze me in. I recently had the chance to talk to the many-hatted actress and entrepreneur over the phone about Pose, her character Candy, and the impossible beauty standards Candy struggles with on episode four, titled “The Fever.” We also talked about the kinds of trans narratives she’d like to bring to the big screen and why these narratives are always better when they get a little problematic. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: There are two things Candy says in this episode that stood out to me. They’re from that scene backstage at the ball after her house mother, Elektra, tells her not to walk in the body category. Candy defies her, saying “Ballroom was created so we could live our fantasies!” and “She doesn’t get to dictate my reality!” What is Candy pushing back against in those moments?
ANGELICA ROSS: Yeah, it’s one of those situations where, because of the rejection that many LGBTQ people have experienced, the ballroom became that place where any and everybody could really find their category. What you’re seeing is Candy really struggling to find her category and also struggling to push the community’s understanding of what “sexy” can mean. She’s walking fem queen body or sex siren or whatever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a voluptuous sort of body. Sexy is sexy to different people. Candy’s struggling with her body, trying to cover up her muscular arms and the other things she feels make her clockable. She feels like she’s only experiencing half of the experience of being a woman. One of her lines that got cut from another scene was something like, “This mug is flawless, but from the neck down I’m getting read.” When she’s wearing her fur coat stealing from Santa or whatever, she’s just one of the girls out there in public. But it comes to being able to be intimate…she’s craving to have some intimacy. She’s lonely. The world tells her that if she wants something ongoing, something serious—like what Angel or Elektra have—she has to pass in a certain way, and she’s just not passing.
Is that a dynamic you’ve seen onscreen before?
Hmmmm…no, not really. Typically when there’s a trans storyline, they have a man playing the trans woman, so the question of passing isn’t there because she doesn’t. When they cast a man in these roles, the people telling the story are trying to communicate something very toxic to audiences: that underneath it all, this is a man. They think audiences will get confused or whatever if they see a woman. I hope that when people see Candy having trouble feeling like she doesn’t pass, they’ll see something that cis and trans women are all dealing with, especially now, today, when you have cis women who are pumping their bodies.
That reminds me of something “My House” creator Elegance Bratton said in an interview with Thora Siemsen last year, that when you’re looking at the Kardashians you’re looking at a fem queen body. It’s this trickling up of beauty goals that started in the ballroom.
It’s very interesting. We did these things in order to keep us safe so that we were less clockable, especially if you’re out on the street because those things that clock you can make you a target. Now, you have K. Michelle and Cardi B talking about how they pump their asses. This conversation that episode four brings up, I hope it brings trans and cis women together by showing how we’re all struggling with living up to the same impossible standards of womanhood.
Yeah, like, since I started transitioning some of my cis friends have told me that they’ve also done laser or electrolysis or that they have facial hair they shave off. I remember being really surprised. I’d been thinking about it so myopically, like hair removal or whatever was some trans-specific thing. But those impossible standards you’re talking about have such narrow points of entry for most women, if not all of us.
What you see on episode four is Candy not giving up. She’s going to find a way to get her 10s and get her respect. It was hard for me during filming because it was scene after scene of me just getting read, like how Candy calls Blanca a “crossdresser” on episode one. It’s this way that we polish each other in the ballroom and pageantry communities. Sometimes it’s a little bit too mean, like you see with Elektra, but for the most part it’s like, “Hey, well, if you want to pull this together, girl, stop looking like that!” You do what you have to do and learn how to eat the meat and spit out the bone. Just because people are giving you advice, it doesn’t mean you have to take everything verbatim, especially when you’re talking about developing your own style. Style is something that’s curated over time, so the more time and focus and energy you spend on pulling your look together the quicker you’re going to pull it together and walk the runway and get your 10s, you know?
Yeah, like, you learn to trust your own authority on some level.
How did you get involved with Pose? I know, from past interviews, that you and [Pose writer and producer] Janet Mock are friends. Did she approach you about it? Did you have to audition?
The funny thing is, this did not come through Janet. I didn’t even know Janet was involved until after I got the role! Everything was so tight and confidential around this project. They were casting two roles when I auditioned: Blanca and Elektra. I passed on it a couple times because I just didn’t see myself as either character, but my management convinced me to audition. So, I did the audition and got a callback. They flew me to New York to do my callback audition, and there were something like 16 executives in the room from FX. Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobsen, Brad Falchuk, Brad Simpson—
Basically the entire end credits of a Ryan Murphy show?
It was so nerve-racking! It went well. After my audition, Ryan Murphy asked me to tell him more about myself and my experience with acting. I talked for a little bit, and then he thanked me and told me that he thought I was a really talented actor and that he hoped to work with me in the future. I thought he was kicking me out of the door with a nice little pat on the back, and then I got a call a couple of days later saying that I did not get the role of Blanca but that, again, Ryan wanted me to know that he thought I was talented and that he hoped to work with me in the future. I thought he was just trying to be nice, but then a month or so later I got a call from my agent saying that they created a role after meeting me. Candy was a role written for me.
Did you get any kind of character description?
Not at all. All I got was that I was going to be in the House of Abundance and that we were all going to be a little shady. [laughs] That’s all I knew.
Did you play a collaborative role with the writers in terms of developing Candy’s storylines?
Yes and no. Candy wasn’t in the original pilot that [Pose co-creator] Steven Canals wrote, so that’s why I don’t really do too much in the first two episodes. I didn’t have any lines, so Ryan asked me to jump in and ad lib when I could. I have experience doing improv, so I ended up doing a lot of ad libbing. Candy is complicated, so I really got to play around in her complicatedness. She’s shady, she reads, but she’s also very vulnerable. She’s fun, she likes to laugh, so every time you see Candy come onscreen she’s probably going to lighten the mood—except for episode four where we see a little more vulnerability.
Was the “crossdresser” line from episode one ad-libbed?
That was an ad lib. Ryan Murphy asked me to say something there, something mean. I thought about this one trans woman I grew up around who used to call me a crossdresser when I first transitioned because I had the longest Curly Sue wig on and the shortest skirt, it was very…you know. Very when you first get in.
Very that, you know?
That line was so recognizable, so cutting but also something you’d only say to someone you know. It hurts, but there’s some kind of tough love buried in there, too. Like the way you might talk to family.
Candy takes things too far, but she’s just lashing out. She has so much trauma she’s dealing with. In a later episode, there’s a little girl-talk scene where we talk about SRS. Some of the girls have it, and some don’t. Candy hasn’t and she takes her jealousy out, saying something like, “Nobody wants that mangled cat.” These are terrible things to say to someone, especially to a trans person who’s undergone that surgery, but that’s what I love about this show. It’s complicated, and it’s not afraid to be complicated. It does not shy away from showing the problematic conversations we have with each other.
Yeah, I love that. My favorite media by trans women about trans women are the ones that aren’t afraid to get problematic. They’re not accurately reflecting our lives if they don’t go there. I’ve learned so much about how to live from books and other media because we don’t get a lot of information anywhere else. We get it from each other.
Candy’s complicated, like you said. So is Paige, your character on [the Emmy-nominated web series] Her Story. Any news on if that’s coming back for season two?
Everyone, myself included, wants more Her Story. Every once in a while, I’ll binge the whole season. It’s interesting. A lot of people in Hollywood want to be the ones to release queer and trans content, but they don’t necessarily want to support the queer and trans content creators. Her Story shows Hollywood how it should be. This is how you tell our stories. Instead of them telling our story, you take us and a few others like us and create something. I love everything about Pose and there are so many sweet moments in Angel’s story with Stan, but it’s still a very different love story than the one between Paige and James on Her Story. It’s not told from a place of marginalization. Paige is strong and successful. We don’t really see that. I’m hoping we get to see more of that kind of story getting told. That’s why I continue to create content. I’m constantly creating. I’ve been working on a TV pilot called “Stilettos” that’s loosely based on my life. It starts off with the main character trying to make the transition from the adult industry and drag shows into selling real estate and living the stealth life in South Florida with her chiropractor boyfriend. You see them living in a gated community, where, from, the outside they look like a normal interracial couple, which brings its own unique challenges. It’s situations like these that we see every day in certain parts of society, but people don’t know that we’re there. I’m definitely interested in seeing more of those stories.
What are some characters you want to play but haven’t gotten to yet?
I can’t wait to get into science fiction. I’d love to be on Star Trek: Discovery or be in some sort of superhero movie. I’m trying to manifest me being in the Black Panther sequel because I feel like that series is missing a queer element. It shows this spectrum of African diaspora, but it left out the LGBTQ people, you know? I could see myself as a member of a larger tribe or as a spiritual guide or something, like a witch doctor, something like that. I really want to do action, jumping off cars and fight scenes. My body’s built for it. I’m hoping I get the chance to stretch myself and see what I can do. That scene in episode four where Candy passes out—the stunt guy on set didn’t have to help me at all!
That was actually a really good fall, now that I think about it.
By the end of the night, I had a large knot on my knee. I had to ice it, but it was worth it. I feel like Pose is going to be one of those shows that slowly seeps into our system. All of our community is not watching the show right now. I feel like we need to put action behind our words about supporting trans people. Show solidarity. Watch the show. If we want more shows like this that portray us authentically, we have to show that we’re willing to support it.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, how much I’d love to see gay bars screen Pose every week. They do it with Drag Race—even straight bars do it at this point, at least here in New York, because they know they’ll make money. That’d be cute if even half the bars that do Drag Race nights started doing a Pose night on Sunday.
You’re absolutely right. It’s like in episode two, you see Blanca getting kicked out of that gay bar and struggling to find a place that’s welcoming to her. We’re still having that struggle. What bars can we go to? Where do we find our community?
Yeah, we just don’t have the same kind of access to venues and, like, go-to spots that gay men do.
That’s what it’s about. We don’t need anyone to save us. We just need the rest of the LGBTQ community, especially our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, to make space for us, whether that’s at work or whether that’s at play. Help us create the spaces you already enjoy.
And it’s a really good show so everyone wins.
Catch the next episode of Pose on Sunday, July 1, (aka, tonight!) at 9 p.m. EST on FX.