December 15, 2014 12:00 PM

Tracee Ellis Ross is the first to admit that her world has recently been turned upside down. Luckily she’s enjoying the upheaval. “I feel like a kid in a candy store,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier.” In the six years since Girlfriends, the CW sitcom that kick-started her career as a comedic actress, ended its run, Ross had all but disappeared from the spotlight. But now she’s back on TV—starring as multitasking doctor, wife and mother Rainbow Johnson on ABC’s new hit comedy black-ish—and she’s reveling in her second chance at success. “I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t a big deal,” Ross, 42, says of landing a major network show. “We’re having a lot of fun, and the bonus is that the world is watching. It’s exciting!”

Of course, Ross is used to a life that’s a little less than ordinary. The second child of icon Diana Ross, she was raised in New York City by her mom and dad, music manager Robert Ellis Silberstein. But despite having one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities as a parent, Ross says the spotlight wasn’t always something she prized. “I think because of my mom’s fame, it wasn’t ever really a thing I was looking for,” she says. “I was terribly shy growing up. I really had no interest in being in front of the camera.” And yet the cameras were often around. Ross and her sisters Rhonda, 43, and Chudney, 39, were staples on the red carpet and in magazine photo shoots in the ’70s and ’80s, hanging on the hem of their mom’s glamorous gowns. But all the glitz didn’t keep Ross’s goofy side from emerging. “I was always just hyper and silly at home with my family,” she says. And though she and her mom have always been extremely close—and Ross chose to use her mother’s surname professionally, adding it on to her father’s middle name—it’s Silberstein whom the actress says she resembles most. “My sense of humor, my silly personality and my nose are all Bob Ellis!” says Ross. “I’m very much my father’s daughter.”

Still, certain traits from the original Miss Ross have been passed down. “I absolutely love pretty clothes. I definitely got that from my mom,” she says. Obsessed with fashion as a child, Ross began modeling herself at a young age. She attended Brown University and thought she’d end up with a career in fashion—until she picked up an acting class as an elective. “I realized that everything I was shy about or I didn’t like about myself, I could use as an actress,” she says. The discovery has served her well. Ross’s good friend and black-ish creator-writer Kenya Barris says of the actress, “There’s a saying in comedy that you usually get pretty or you get funny, but very seldom do you get both. Tracee gives you both in spades. Her face is everything. There’s so much expression there.”

Despite having been in the industry peripherally as a child, Ross says her decision to move to Hollywood and attempt to make it as an actress was “very scary.” Her first gig was in the small film Far Harbor, directed by a former college classmate. “A guy from Brown was looking for a black Jewish girl,” she says. “Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Connelly were the two other women in the movie with me. Both of them have gotten Oscars, so I think that bodes well for me,” she says with a laugh. It wasn’t until she landed the part of Joan Clayton on the female ensemble comedy Girlfriends that she felt she’d finally hit her stride in Hollywood. “We shot over 170 episodes, and I went from being kind-of-good at something to having a lot of experience under my belt,” she says. With black-ish, she’s thrilled not only with the success of the show but also with its societal impact. “I really love the way it handles race,” she says. “My mom’s black and my dad’s Jewish. This show is sort of pulling apart the myth of the ‘black experience.’ It’s not monolithic. Differences in experience, points of view and opinions aren’t what pulls us apart. It’s what brings us together.”

While Ross finds herself playing a mother of four on black-ish, in real life she’s single—and has no qualms about making jokes about it. “The last time I was kissed was when I walked in the door,” she says. “My dog Ladybug totally made out with my face. She’s a Lhasa Apso, and she’s gorgeous. We had some serious sexy time.” But that doesn’t mean her maternal instincts are dormant.”I’m a mommy, caretaker-type person,” she says. “I don’t have children in my life, but the next best thing are these kids that I’m working with.” There’s also her large extended family, including her younger siblings, brothers Ross, 27, and Evan, 26, Diana’s children from her second marriage, to entrepreneur Arne Naess Jr. Ross has particularly enjoyed watching Evan join her in what is now the family business of being famous: He’s currently starring in Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 (and recently made headlines when he married Ashlee Simpson). “He doesn’t need any pointers from me,” says Ross. “He’s making his own mark. It’s wonderful we have this shared experience.”

Enjoying the sort of success it took more than a decade to build has left Ross with only one problem: She no longer wants a thing. Luckily she seems ready to embrace that mentality. “I used to be very focused on what I want,” she says. “Now it’s easier to appreciate what I have.”

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