Tracey Ross: TV’s Outspoken Individualist
How many Objectivists are there among television actresses? Well, there is one for sure: Tracey Ross of NBC’s popular soap opera “Passions.” As you might guess, she’s an individualist to the core. The irony is: she plays an altruist—the beautiful and compassionate town doctor, Eve Russell. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Now in her mid-forties, Ross has long been a role model to aspiring black actresses. In 1984, the viewers of “Star Search,” a talent show that foreshadowed “American Idol,” voted her the first $100,000 “Star Search” Spokesmodel winner. At that time, black women were just beginning to win national beauty contests, and Ross’s victory was all the more impressive because it was ordinary viewers, not diversity-conscious judges, who chose her. In the years that followed, she had a recurring role in the soap opera “Ryan’s Hope,” made guest appearances on prime-time TV programs (including “The Cosby Show”), and won parts in movies such as The Cotton Club.
Ross had avoided soaps because of bad experiences with “Ryan’s Hope,” which she had joined in its dying days. But in 1999, when “Passions” was just gearing up for its launch, her agent finally persuaded her to read for the part of Dr. Russell. Ross soon learned that “Passions” was to be a new kind of soap opera, mixing elements of humor, science fiction, and fantasy (including witches). When she saw the first scripts, she decided it was her kind of show.
Today, the program has about three million viewers and is especially popular with younger females, whom advertisers consider a crucial demographic group among soap-opera fans. Viewer polls in Soap Opera Digest have frequently rated Ross the favorite actress on the show. For the last seven years her work also has gained her nominations for the NAACP Image Award, in the category “Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series.”
As one of the most popular stars on daytime TV, Tracey Ross is a long way from the poverty of her childhood, when she first began dreaming about being an actress. But though she loves working with the cast of “Passions” and playing against type as the character Eve Russell, she also made clear when I interviewed her that her TV persona is nothing like her real self.
“[Eve is] an altruist to the tiniest bone in her body,” she says. “Everyone’s life has value but hers. She’s a self-sacrificing animal. She just lays down on the pyre and says, ‘Throw a match on me.’ She’s always willing to make sacrifices, and there’s always somebody willing, as Ayn Rand said, to take any sacrifices you might be willing to make.”
In fact, Ross compares Eve to Catherine Halsey—niece of arch-villain Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead—who tried to live her life serving others. “[Catherine] was bubbly and full of life, but by the end she was a bitter, prune-faced young hag who worked for some social organization. That was her whole life. [By then] she hated life in general, because [Toohey] had gotten her to think her life was not of any importance; the greater good was all that mattered. And she was trying to live that.” In Ross’s view, her “Passions” character resembles Catherine at the midpoint of the novel, before she was completely destroyed. The Virtue of What?
Tracey Ross’s introduction to the works of Ayn Rand came a few years after her “Star Search” award, when she was staying at the house of an actress friend in Los Angeles. A book on her friend’s shelf intrigued her: Rand’s 1961 collection of essays on morality and politics, The Virtue of Selfishness.
“I’d never in my life heard anything like the title,” she recalls. “I’d never heard that there was a virtue in selfishness. Everything that I’d ever heard was the altruistic take, and I didn’t know there was another. I was blown away to find out that [altruism] wasn’t all there was. . . . It went against everything I’d ever heard or been taught. At first, I thought it was crazy.”
But it didn’t take long before Ross was nodding in agreement, and Rand’s style of writing had a lot to do with that. “She talks to you as if she knows that you don’t know what she’s talking about—but she just breaks it all down for you,” Ross says. “I could see the truth in it from the way she explained it and proved her case.”
Soon enough, the future star of “Passions” had a passion of her own: a love for Ayn Rand’s works. “I think I have everything she has written,” she told me. “I didn’t see any reason why I should stop reading. I never saw any reason why there should be a book by Ayn Rand, and I should not know what was in it.” She also watched the 1942 Italian film version of We the Living, and took her teenage son to see the Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life.
Along the way, Ross even picked up some Rand memorabilia. In the late 1980s, while living in New York, she flew to Los Angeles to attend an auction of Rand’s personal effects and submitted the winning bid for Rand’s famous cigarette lighter. It is inscribed with the initials “AROC”—for the author’s married name, Ayn Rand O’Connor—and bears a dollar sign on the other side. Objectivist Spokesmodel
In 2003, Ross revealed to Soap Opera Weekly that her favorite book was Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Earlier, she had told the magazine that Ayn Rand was one the three people in history with whom she’d most like to have a conversation.
But Tracey Ross’s endorsement of Objectivism goes well beyond the typical plugs by celebrity Rand fans. In interviews, she articulately advocates individualism and decries the nanny state. Asked by Soap Opera Weekly to disclose her wish for the new millennium, Ross replied, “That all people take responsibility for their actions.” Asked for her pet peeve, she answered, “I hate when any group or politician asks you to do something for ‘the children.’ I feel that’s manipulative, and that it never is about the children [emphasis in the original].”
This advocacy is backed by continuing self-education—for example, buying books from the Laissez Faire Books catalog, to learn more about Rand’s free-market philosophy. That is where Ross found Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, a critique of modern environmentalism that she has touted to her soap fans in a magazine interview. “From the time I started reading Ayn Rand’s books, I started to say, ‘I had never read Virtue of Selfishness,” she told me. “I had never even heard of it. And it’s so important. What else am I missing?’ So I search for someone who has a different opinion, just so I can get a truer story.”
While Rand’s philosophy has helped her gain a more positive self-image, Ross notes that in one respect it also has humbled her, for she now stands in awe of the business world’s innovators and entrepreneurs.
“What changed, after I read those books, was that I recognized there were [very productive] people, and the best thing that I could do for those people was to get out of their way and let them fly.” Despite her own accomplishments as a popular actress, she explains, “I don’t have that same intelligence. I don’t have that perceptiveness and focus. So the least I can do is just get out of their way. Most of the time everyone is trying to pull them down, tear them down, or, as Ayn Rand states, burn them at the stake.”
This thought really sets her off. “Practically anybody who’s in any kind of business situation, I’m always trying to look at it from his side. It’s amazing to watch somebody come up with an idea, make it real; and then [after] everybody gets it, they decide it’s a necessity for them—and that he’s charging too much! It wasn’t a necessity before he invented it. You didn’t even have it until he got the idea and made it a reality. Yet all of a sudden you have more of a right to it than he does.”
Ross gets especially angry when the government goes after successful business people who have contributed so much through their innovations. “It’s kind of mind-boggling what goes on with Bill Gates, the pharmaceutical companies, and all the doers and the risk-takers. I have a huge appreciation for Gates, and that whole antirust thing with him just tore me up. It seems like such a horrible thank you for everything that he’s done.”
In regards to politics, Ross says that reading Rand was “the end of my being a liberal.” She leans libertarian, but usually votes for the GOP. “I just usually end up voting Republican because they’re a little bit less altruistic than liberals.” Liberal Daughter, Individualist Mother
If it was Ayn Rand who helped Tracey Ross become an individualist, it was the example of Ross’s late father that initially helped her avoid becoming a collectivist. As a card-carrying Communist, he had Tracey and her siblings read Marx and Lenin. “I don’t think I was ever fully buying it,” she recalls. “It sounded good for a minute, but you kept going along the track, and it kind of just dissolved and fell to pieces.” Ross also saw first-hand how Communists could abandon their basic responsibilities. “When you’re a Communist, you can honorably get away with ignoring your family and be fighting for the proletariat. Your own family can be hungry, but in the Marxist world, that’s not really important.”
Times were tough for Tracey, her mother, and her siblings when she was growing up in Brooklyn. For a time, Ross says, they would sleep four to a bed and frequently go hungry. Her mother, who was divorced from her father, made meager wages as a legal secretary but was proudly self-reliant. “She came up in the pre-social-programs era, so she wasn’t used to anybody trying to give her anything, or saying that she was owed anything, or saying she had a right to this or a right to that,” Ross remembers. “That was all appalling to her—that somebody would give you money. She was my role model.”
At 19, Tracey was about to apply for welfare when her mother’s lessons kicked in. “I went down to the welfare office, got the forms, and started filling them out,” she says. “I got halfway down the form, and I thought about my mother being like a workhorse. And I thought: ‘God damn it, if she could not get welfare, and I’m young and strong at 19, damned if I’m going to get it.’
“I tore the papers up and put them in the garbage.”
Today, of course, Tracey Ross has consciously embraced Ayn Rand’s philosophy of rational individualism. She calls it “the basic building block that everything else is built on,” and it affects her life in many ways. “The most important impact has been to make me independent and self-reliant and not expect anything from anyone else and not feel that I’m owed anything. It’s very freeing. A lot of people walk around with grudges, because they feel like they’re owed something and they’re not getting it. And I used to feel like that, so it’s nice to take that grudge off. Then you can really enjoy life, and make some progress.”
Ross, a single mom, says that Rand’s ideas have even helped her with child rearing. She is proud of her son Bryce, now 17. “He has a real strong sense not only of what’s right, but why it’s right,” she says. “I always thought it was really important that a child not just know not to steal, for example, but why not to steal. And I thought Ayn Rand gave the best reason. I can’t quote it, but it was basically: If you don’t have the right to your property, you don’t have the right to your life. So if you deprive somebody of their property, that’s akin to depriving them of part of their life. That rings so true with me.
“So I love Ayn Rand, because when I explain to Bryce why we do this or don’t do this, I can go back and get principled, understandable reasons why. Not ‘because it’s not nice.’ Or ‘because we don’t do that.’ Or ‘because it will hurt their feelings.’ There are real life-and-death reasons why you don’t do something. And I love Ayn Rand for giving me that.” A few years ago, she took Bryce to see the documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. Now, she says, he is bringing up mother.
“He’ll remind me of what Ayn Rand said,” she says, laughing.