Tale of Two Tyras: Ex-Model Explains Split TV Persona

Exclusive 'Nightline' interview with 'America's Next Top Mogul.'

September 3, 2009, 10:12 AM

Sept. 8, 2009 — -- Call them "daytime Tyra" and "nighttime Tyra."

By day, Tyra Banks, the supermodel turned television personality, presides over a talk show known for bringing a message of uplift and empowerment to women.

By night, Banks reigns supreme on "America's Next Top Model," a reality show on which contestants are judged by how they dress and the way they look -- just the criteria that "The Tyra Show" attacks as hollow and, at worst, oppressive to women.

It's possible to see two conflicting messages. But Banks says the underlying message is the same.

"I don't think so, because a lot of the time the pretty girl [on "Top Model"] goes home early, or the most photogenic girl goes home early," Banks said. "One of the big, most underlying messages for me is celebrating beauty that is not typical. ... 'America's Next Top Model' is not a bunch of Barbies -- it's a lot of girls that are atypically beautiful."

Watch the full interview with Tyra Banks on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

See photos of Tyra Banks through the years HERE.

In the course of her unique career, Banks, 35, has pulled off more than one unlikely transition.

She changed the face of modeling, becoming the first African-American woman to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue and the first black cover model for Victoria's Secret.

She conquered reality TV as the host of "Top Model." And then she proved the skeptics wrong by launching her own talk show -- a model with a talk show? -- and making it a hit. Today she lauches a new lifestyle magazine, Tyra Beauty Inside and Out.

Banks sat down with "Nightline" recently to talk about her younger years, her life as a supermodel and making the switch to TV.

She discussed the potential contradiction between the gospel of self-acceptance on her talk show and the culture of judgment on "Top Model."

And then there were topics she declined to discuss.

Tyra Banks: Early Years

When she was a teen in Los Angeles, Banks said, becoming a supermodel wasn't a goal, or even a dream.

"It wasn't something that I always wanted to do -- it wasn't like I grew up and looked at magazines and said, 'Oooh, that's so glamorous, I wanna do that,'" she said. "It found me.

"I was thin, I was 98 pounds, I was 5 foot 9, I was an inch shorter than I am now," she said. "So that is not just supermodel thin, that's just like, what's-wrong-with-her thin, and I had very low self-esteem because nothing I could do would make me gain weight."

But a high school friend saw something in her she never saw in herself.

"This one girl comes up to me," Banks said. "And the first thing she says is, 'Have you ever thought about modeling? You look like you could model.' And I was like, 'Huh?'"

And so the journey began. But along with success came heartbreak.

"To go to an agency and for them to say, 'We already have a black girl' -- singular, 'black girl,'" Banks said. "That was weird.

"There was one woman in the agency who said to me, 'I know you are all excited you got your new little pictures in Seventeen magazine and things, but, um, you're not gonna get far in this world because you're black, so you should learn how to type, because the furthest you're gonna get in this agency is being the head receptionist like me,'" she said. "She said that to me."

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."

'Kiss My Fat Ass'

"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.

"Fourteen days later I came on my talk show and I had an outfit that I was gonna do this whole speech in, and at the last minute I called to my stylist and I said 'Yyanice, do you have that damn swimsuit that I took pictures in? Do you have it?' She says 'Yeah, I have it right here.' I said 'You know what, pull the baby oil out, oil up my body put the swimsuit on.' She's like, 'Are you serious?' I'm like, 'I'm putting it on.' ... In hindsight I'm like, 'Dang, I did that.' But at the moment it felt real."

Banks took the stage wearing the suit, and launched into a harangue against the harsh way society judges women's bodies, which culminated with Banks inviting her critics to "kiss my fat ass!" And the audience went crazy.

"Yeah and the audience was crying," Banks said. "You have to understand there is a camera here, but the audience members are sitting right behind them. There are women crying as I'm talking, so I'm feeling their pain, and then I started to feel the pain, at that moment is when it felt personal to me ... at that moment it was about women everywhere and me, and that's when the tears came."

The "kiss my fat ass" moment made Banks the queen of self-esteem and body image -- every woman's girlfriend.

And for her recent season premiere, Banks shed another layer: She revealed her real hair.

"Years ago, when I first started wearing hair extensions, I would get mail from young girls, or young girls would come up to me and they would say, 'Tyra you have the most beautiful hair, like I could never grow hair like that!' And I would say 'Child, this is a weave!' I was like, 'This ain't my hair, young girls need to know,' so now I'm always pulling layers off.

"I've showed myself, I've showed my cellulite on my talk show, I've showed myself with no retouching, and I feel if I show the real raw me, the young girls at home will go, 'Oh my god, my hair looks like that! My hair's like Tyra's and I'm OK, that means I'm OK,'" she said.

But to some, Tyra's messages seem mixed. She's the cheerleader for real beauty on her talk show, then judges a beauty contest on "America's Next Top Model."

She dismisses failed candidates, and her comments sometimes seem less than supportive. "Face looks like a wind tunnel," was her assessment of one candidate ("wind tunnel in a good way," she later added). "Miss Jay," she told another, "you've put on weight."

But Banks denies that the two roles are contradictory. In any case, she said, it would be disingenuous of her to go too far in her criticism of modeling.

"I made a career doing this, so I can't just say 'Oh, what I did was so horrible' -- I did it for 20 years," she said. "But I was never the typical model. I planned for the end at the beginning -- it was a career and a business for me. I used my platform to expand what beautiful is to people.

"It is important for women to feel beautiful when she looks in the mirror and I tell women if you don't feel beautiful, find one thing that you can look in that mirror and say that is beautiful," she said. "I'm choosing girls [for 'Top Model'] that are what I call debatable beauty. Sure, you gotta have your standards in there, if everyone is debatable people might go, 'I don't get this' ... but 60 percent of my cast are debatably beautiful."

Tyra Banks Says 'I Wish I Was More of a Diva'

Millions of women tune in each week to find out who gets closer to winning "America's Next Top Model" but, ironically enough, none of the winners have actually become America's next top model, as the title would suggest.

"American girls haven't been America's next top model," Banks said. "We are fighting against a time when a supermodel is not a supermodel anymore. Back in the day, as I said, you could name 10 supermodels, 20. Can you name five now? Can you really?

"It's about the marketplace," she said. "I'm creating careers for these girls. And it's sad that the title of the show makes you go, 'Oh, they are not America's next top model -- but who [the] hell is? Who the hell is right now?

"A lot of my girls are very successful around the world," she said. "The world is bigger than American Elle, American Vogue, Glamour magazine. So there are some very successful girls globally."

Whatever the prize, interest in the show remains intense. A recent call for auditions in New York City for models under 5 feet 7 turned into a melee when thousands of hopefuls showed up and space ran out. Police barricades were tossed aside and punches were thrown.

The show's audience keeps growing, too -- despite a revolving door of judges.

The abrupt departure from "Top Model" of judges such as Paulina Porizkova and Janice Dickenson has been accompanied by rumors that Banks is hard to work with. Is she a diva?

"I wish I was more of a diva," Banks said. "I wish was harder, I wish I didn't care so much about being the nice girl all the time. Because a lot of the time people can take kindness for weakness ... so I wish I had a little bit more 'oomph' in me."

After her departure, Porizkova said Banks lacked respect for the co-judges. Dickenson called Banks self-righteous. Why would they say so?

"I don't know," Banks said. "Why do you think?"

The former model showed that she knows how to hold her tongue, too. "Nightline" asked her about rumors of a relationship with a certain financier.

"Oprah told me don't talk about your man unless you want the whole world in your business," Banks said. "I said OK."

In any case she is skeptical about the institution of marriage, she said.

"I don't have that 'Oh my god, I gotta get married!' thing," Banks said. "If it happens, it happens, but it's never been like 'Oooo, I need to do that!' I don't know, it's a little difficult for me to understand, actually, when women really want to get married. ... I think it's because I'm a product of divorce, my parents divorced, so I don't understand that whole married thing when 70 percent of marriages fail and 50 percent of second marriages fail."

But behind the scenes and away from the drama of reality TV, Banks is surprisingly grounded -- a family girl who admitted she wants a family of her own.

"Sooner than later, definitely," she said, talking about children. "I have a lot of success and make a good living, but after a while you start going why? ... I need to be able to share it with a family, and go to Toys R Us and buy a lot of toys for my child, you know what I'm saying? Like what is the point?"

Tyra Banks: 'I Don't Like Expensive Things'

In her dressing room, Banks proudly points out cost-effective design touches.

"People don't know that I know interior design like the back of my hand, like this is something I'm very passionate about, doing it on a good budget," she said, running through features of the room. "Everything is very economical. Like this carpet, you know it's that carpet, the squares, that like come up."

She lifts one, demonstrating.

Even the glitzy chandelier is relatively thrifty, she said.

"Whenever I try to hire an interior designer, and they try to say 'Oh, this light costs $10,000,' I go, 'Child, I know how to make that look fabulous for $500.'"

Banks, whom the New York Times famously called "America's Next Top Mogul," might just be the most frugal mogul going. In any case she deflects the label.

"I think I'm too young to be a mogul, I think I'm too young for that," she said. "When I think about moguls, I think like Donald Trump. He owns NYC practically -- that's a mogul.

What about reports that Banks makes upwards of $20 million a year?

"I don't know, I always say it could be a hell of a lot less, and it could be a hell of a lot more," she said. "My momma told me don't talk about your money."

Banks said that despite her success she continues to watch her wallet.

"I love being able to go to a store, let's say a store like Topshop or Zara, or maybe even Macy's, depends on what department, and not have to look at the price tag," she said. "Rodeo Drive and all that, I'm looking at the price tag and gulping. ... I don't like expensive things. I buy property, and that has a lot more zeros behind it than a $10,000 bag. ... I like things that appreciate. I don't want to take something and the minute it leaves the shelf it depreciates."

It appears that Banks has her sights set on growing her brand, on creating an empire after the manner of Oprah. Is there an imprint she hopes to leave?

"I'm still figuring that out," she said.

"I mean, I was a little black girl who had started to see images of myself in the media. I was 9 years old when Vanessa Williams won Miss America. And that was like 'Whoa!' That was such a big deal.

"My 'kiss my fat ass' moment, you know, showing the world curves are beautiful and don't say otherwise -- those types of things are important to me, it's just redefining beauty," she said. "If I could be remembered for that...

"I'm 35, but if I could be remembered for that, for now," she said. "I mean five years from now, I'm sure there will be something else, but for now, that is so important, it is so important for girls to turn on the TV and see themselves, open up that magazine and see themselves."

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