Originally published in
October 2012
She might be more used to picking models than posing herself these days but has Tyra Banks still got it? Without a doubt.
Tyra Banks is rolling around on the floor of the photographic studio, tangled up in pieces of backdrop that she’s torn to smithereens. She’s screaming, panting and growling at the camera. This display of raw fashion is an awesome sight, and reminiscent of the kind of movie scene where the overzealous photographer urges his muse to ‘make love to the camera’. Banks needs no such encouragement. This photographer’s lens has been smitten with the supermodel since the first shutter click three hours earlier, and is still hungry for more. Click click, oh, click click, yeah.
I’m a drag queen darling, this is my natural look
Photography: Seiji Fujimori

It’s no surprise that Banks can turn it on like a light. She is a seasoned professional with almost 20 years experience in the fashion game. What’s refreshing to discover when she arrives at the Manhattan studio for the ARISE cover shoot this morning is that she’s no diva. She is on time, greets everyone courteously, and disappears into the beauty room without a fuss. A while later, I follow her in and find her in a dressing gown, fully made-up – smoky eyes, nude lips, big hair. “I’m a drag queen darling, this is my natural look,” she says in an incongruous English accent (mimicking mine).

She’s prone to adopting funny voices on her juggernaut of a show, America’s Next Top Model (ANTM). Having pioneered fashion as a subject for reality television when it launched in 2003, it’s now in its 19th cycle, aired in 170 markets and boasts 22 international editions and counting (Africa’s Next Top Model is in the works). As creator, executive producer and presenter/judge, she oversees everything – from the early makeovers, or ‘Ty-overs’ as she calls them, to the photo shoots, the humiliating challenges and the tearful eliminations – like a glamorous mother hen.

But what makes ANTM unique is the casting. Instead of opting for the tallest, thinnest, blondest girls, Banks champions diversity by including all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. None of the contestants have gone on to build careers to rival Banks’ own, but there have been several success stories, such as plus-size beauty Toccara Jones, actor Analeigh Tipton and ARISE show model Aminat Ayinde.

“People don’t understand [that] modelling isn’t about becoming a household name. You can count the number of world-famous models on one hand,” says Banks. “When these girls leave their small towns and then go on to forge modelling careers, I’m like ‘Dang, my little show made that happen’ – it makes me so happy. Yes it’s funny to see these girls trip-out and be competitive,” she admits, “but our universal theme is celebrating debatable beauty. It’s eyes that are too far apart, foreheads that are too large, chins that are too small, mouths that are too wide – features that people don’t instantly recognise as beautiful but viewers at home can be like, ‘I look like her, does that mean I’m beautiful too?’”

In whatever she does, Banks’ aim is to empower women. “As a black model I was constantly being told ‘No no no, you can’t have this job, you can’t have that cover, you’re not going to make as much money as the white girl next to you even though you are 50 per cent more famous than she is,’ “ she says, an edge of defiance still quivering in her voice. “And then later when I started to gain weight, it was ‘No no no, your boobs are too big, your butt is too big.’ Hearing these things about my race and my body type made me empathetic to anyone outside of the norm.”

For someone who has become a global star thanks to her supernaturally good looks – and, up close, 38-year-old Tyra Banks still looks very good – her mission might seem perverse. How can someone sing so loudly about the importance of being beautiful on the inside, when her outside is so banging? Yet she swears she wasn’t always such a stunner. “As a young teenager I was 98lbs, 5’9” and sent to hospital because I had grown three inches and lost 30lbs in three months. My forehead was so big, my eyes were so huge and my face was growing in these weird ways. My teachers thought I was anorexic, and one doctor actually diagnosed me with gigantism. I would try and stuff myself with food so I could gain weight. It worked 15 years later,” she laughs, squeezing her thighs, “but it was a really hard time for me back then, which is why I identify with young, awkward girls now.” Tyra Lynn Banks was born in 1973 in Inglewood, California. When her parents divorced, her mother Carolyn London-Johnson brought up Banks and her brother with a strict work ethic. She was a bookish student at the all-girls Immaculate Heart High School, where she was discovered and signed to Elite. Aged 18, and 5’10”, the agency sent her to Paris, where she was an instant sensation, walking in 25 shows in her first season, including Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. “It was interesting because my mom [and long-time manager] had got me to study all the designers before I went to Europe. When I was on my way to the YSL go-see, I stopped off in a bathroom and scraped my hair back into a chignon and threw on some red lipstick because that’s what all the girls looked like in his shows. I got booked. I feel so blessed to have been fit by that man. Now I can tell my future children, ‘Mommy used to get work with YSL, and play with his dog’.

“I’d never dreamed of being a supermodel but once I saw that I had that kind of success, I gave myself a year to become famous, and it worked. I saw it as a business. I didn’t go to the parties or drink alcohol. I would hang out on the Champs-Élysées, at McDonalds, with my other nerdy American model friends instead. Sounds weird but it kept me sane. I was focused and did well, not because I was the most stunning, but because I kept my eye on the prize.”

She went on to shoot for Elle, Vogue, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar, do advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana and Cover Girl. In 1994 she was voted one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People In The World. By the mid 1990s she’d move away from haute couture to reinvent herself as a fuller-figured, commercial model. She was the first African-American on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the first African-American model to sign a contract with Victoria’s Secrets.

But her real interest lay in television and film production. She set up Bankable Productions (now called The Tyra Banks Company), first launching ANTM and then the hugely popular girly talk show The Tyra Banks Show in 2005. One episode famously saw her square up to the tabloids that had published unflattering images of her in a swimsuit, with a segment in which she wore the same swimsuit again and told the press to “Kiss my fat ass!”

She tackled other beauty taboos on air by cutting off her weave, going without make-up and disrobing to prove she hadn’t had breast enlargements. Most notably, she confronted her old adversary Naomi Campbell in an interview in which the pair laid to rest their long-standing catwalk feud (Banks claims Campbell used to have her banned from walking in the same shows as her back in the day). The Tyra Banks Show won multiple Emmys during its five-year run and was commended by Oprah, who Banks had previously worked for as a youth correspondent.

Banks has also dabbled in singing and acting (including a fabulous turn in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air) and penned the young-adult novel Modelland. But one of her proudest achievements to date was recently graduating from Harvard Business School’s three-year Owner/President Management programme, further cementing her current status as a model mogul. “Harvard was fantastic. There were only 18 women out of over 100 students in my class, which just shows you how desperately we need women in business. I was the only girl in my dorm.” Did any of her roomies get star-struck? “A couple but they got over it because I wasn’t glamorous in class. I had my natural, shoulder-length hair, a washed face and a Harvard sweatshirt on. I looked like everyone else, just a little taller.”

Banks is putting her business acumen into her re-launched TZONE non-profit organisation, which is aimed at developing teenage girls’ life skills. Originally a summer camp, she’s now partnering with a new facility called the Lower Eastside Girls Club. “It’s a huge building right across the street from the projects. What do you call them in the UK?” Council estates. “That’s right, council estates!” she says, adopting my British accent again.

“TZONE will be housed there as an after-school programme where girls can come every day. This could change lives – I want to create CEOs.” So what is on the Tyra curriculum? “Things like self-esteem building, financial literacy and diction lessons based on what I call Two-ness – the ability to say ‘Hey girl, what’s up?’ and bond with your own people, as well as be formal and able to say, ‘Hello, how are you today? I’m here for my job interview.’ Teaching will be fun – I want my girls standing on tables, chanting and singing.”

Her other upcoming projects include a TV sitcom, a fund for female entrepreneurs and a hush hush ”dream project... a crazy idea for teen girls.” With over 7million Twitter followers, a net worth estimated to be between US$30m-US$90m, and a listing among TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012, these endeavours look set to further cement the Tyra empire. And it’s not just her business that’s booming. She’s happy in herself too: “When I look in the mirror now, I feel good. My face is better than when I was a young model. But my butt is different now, I don’t pass the pencil test anymore.” The what? “You know, where you put a pencil where the crease is and if it falls you’re good, but if it stays it’s bad. I can probably hold two up now! And I’ve got cellulite, I don’t love it but I don’t mind it. I’m embracing myself more as I get older.”

Interview over, she gets to work with the photographer, putting into play some of the 275 smiles she’s renowned to have in her modelling arsenal, including her most fierce ‘smize’ (smile with your eyes), slowly building up to the backdrop-ripping crescendo. She then gets up off the floor, adjusts her hair, says her sweet goodbyes, and takes her leave. It’s all in a day’s work for this bona-fide model citizen.