Ignoring the naysayers, Banks scored the Sports Illustrated cover and became a fixture of the Victoria's Secret runway. But even as the ultimate industry insider, she said, she saw things in the world of modeling that made her feel alienated. She began to question the nature of beauty, and the role race played.
"I know that I got the covers of those magazines and that I had a very successful commercial side of the modeling industry," she said. "I think it had to do with my coloring and the fact that my eyes were green and my hair is sandy and my skin is caramel-colored. And I look at who society puts on a pedestal when it comes to black beauty, and a lot of the times it's a biracial girl, or a girl that does have lighter skin.
"I have made it one of the missions of my life to redefine and to open up the small box of what beautiful is," she said.
That mission, to redefine beautiful, has become the core of Tyra's brand. Consider her talk show's extreme social experiments, in which she has gone as far as to don a 350-pound fatsuit to feel what it's like to be unpretty.
"I stepped off a bus on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, and I was like 'Whoa!'" she recalled. "People pointed at me and laughed at me out loud, and I was like this is crazy, I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad."
What drives her quest to understand the world in a deeper way?
"It might have something to do also with being a model for so long, and maybe there is something inside of me that wants to prove, you know, like how dedicated I am to something," she said. "I know I am [taken seriously] now, but I didn't think I was before. I had people saying you know, you're a model, you have a talk show, it's gonna be cancelled, you're just a model, nobody cares."
Now, everybody cares. Banks has interviewed dozens of celebrities and politicians -- most notably the sitting president.
"It was surreal interviewing him," she said. "Just like my whole life flashed in front of me, like the little girl from Inglewood, Calif., like the little pom-pom, frizzy hair, you know having Barack Obama on my stage, I was freaking out. It was surreal, and I was shaking so hard on the stage.
"But the thing is you can't tell," she said. "I look at it and I can't tell I was nervous, but I was dying, and after he left I ran into my control room and I doubled over."
But an even more striking moment on the show -- the one no one will ever forget -- was Tyra's very public reaction to a photograph of her in a bikini taken by paparazzi while she was on a shoot in Australia.
In the unflattering photo the former model looked larger than usual. The pundits proceeded to have a field day with captions like "Tyra pork chop" and "America's next top waddle."
"I didn't care about what the pictures looked like, but the issue for me is what they were saying," Banks said. "Women are gonna go, 'They are calling Tyra fat, what the hell am I?' ... That's when I got mad and that's when I said, I have to do something about this. If I was just a model, I wouldn't care, I could do a photoshoot the next day.