The statuesque beauty holding court in front of her studio audience on a recent January morning in New York City is ready for anything. And that’s good, because Tyra Banks’ fans do not hold back. Demands one woman, ”Is it true you moved your show to New York for a man?” Banks, styled in a formfitting white dress, breezily rejects the claim that the relocation of her eponymous talk show — and her hit reality show, America’s Next Top Model — has anything to do with her love life. The young crowd is primed with energy; hands shoot up and down like the critters in a Whac-a-Mole booth. To them, Banks isn’t some inaccessible celebrity — she’s their girlfriend, their incredibly cool older sister, their BFF. A pale brunette stands and asks, ”Can I get a hug?” Banks assents, but not without commanding, ”You have to hug me fiercely, though.” As the 5’10” stunner envelopes the petite twentysomething in her ample bosom, the fan breaks down in tears.
This sweetly sappy scene represents more than weepy female bonding. Known solely as a pretty face for much of her career, Banks has reinvented herself as a power player in the entertainment industry — and more importantly, as a brand. It began with the modestly successful debut in May 2003 of her creation America’s Next Top Model, which has grown into a worldwide hit and is embarking upon its 10th cycle (premiering Feb. 20 on The CW). The most recent edition was the network’s top-rated series, averaging 5.2 million viewers weekly. And The Tyra Banks Show — a broad mix of women’s issues and frothy fare — is now a talk-show force to be reckoned with: 4.3 million adult female viewers tuned in weekly this past November sweeps, and, with a median age of 40, Tyra has the youngest talk-show audience in daytime. (Oprah‘s median age is 55.) Now the 34-year-old has a broader goal in mind: world domination. (Yes, seriously.) With a recent multimillion-dollar TV-and-film-production deal through Warner Bros. Entertainment, along with retail and real estate projects in development, Banks is poised to become the most influential woman in television since the almighty O herself. Says Banks: ”Oprah Winfrey is a mogul. Martha Stewart is a mogul. I’m probably a mogul in the making. I’m almost there.”
NEXT PAGE: ”I thought [America’s Next Top Model] was going to last for two seasons. Around season 5, I said, ‘Ken, how far can we go — 8?’ He goes, ‘I’m thinking 10.’ Now we’re at 10 and not stopping.”