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.”
This story could have turned out much differently. “I used to want to write commercials as a kid,” Banks recalls of her childhood in Inglewood, Calif. “I used to tell my mom, ‘Mom, they didn’t end the commercial right. They should have ended it on the burger, ’cause they’re trying to sell the burger, and they ended on the lady’s face and I don’t even remember if it’s McDonald’s or Wendy’s anymore.'” But becoming America’s Next Top Copywriter was not meant to be: After a high school friend encouraged her, Banks entered the modeling industry at the age of 15. Despite her success (she moved to Paris when she was 17 to walk in the couture shows and was the first black model on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED at 22), she remained steadfastly focused on her career. “Even as a model I used to think ‘brand,'” she says. “My mom always told me, ‘Plan for the end at the beginning. You’re gonna have to retire really early like an athlete, and then what are you gonna do after?'” adds Banks, who cites her mother as an influence at least seven times during the interview. “So I always looked at it knowing that there was something after.”
That something turned out to be television. After a brief attempt at acting (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Higher Learning), Banks decided to create the kind of show that she would watch. Shortly after her stint as a “youth correspondent” on The Oprah Winfrey Show (1999–2001), Banks hashed out the idea for America’s Next Top Model while making tea in her kitchen. Though the industry wasn’t primed to take Banks seriously — “As a model, my roadblock was being black and curvy. As a producer, my roadblock was being a model” — she and exec producer Ken Mok (Making the Band) found their show a home on a newbie broadcast network (see story on page 34). A mix of The Real World and American Idol, which launched the year before, ANTM gave viewers a reason to find UPN — and later, The CW — on the dial. Now with versions in 15 countries and a string of copycats in the U.S. (Bravo’s Make Me a Supermodel being the most recent), Banks’ teatime idea is a reality TV phenomenon. “I thought it was going to last for two seasons,” says Banks. “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.”
While Banks’ screen time on ANTM has noticeably diminished since her talk show’s debut, a recent production meeting proves she is still actively involved in even the smallest details, like the show’s opening montage of the contestants. Viewing one poorly lit model’s visage, Banks exclaims, “She’s getting nasal labia folds!” and then tosses out directives like “Let’s use a sepia tone” and “Desaturate the color.” It was during ANTM’s second season that Banks first started thinking that she might have a knack for TV production. “I was going to go to college for film and TV,” says Banks, who was accepted to USC and UCLA but decided not to attend. “So I was like, It’s finally time for me to take advantage of this place I have now and this passion I have.”
After ANTM was established as a hit, Banks went looking for a new challenge — one that would allow her to teach young women more than how to strike a pose. “That’s one of the reasons I was put on this earth,” says Banks, who founded a now-defunct camp for girls in 2000. (She one day hopes to open facilities similar to Boys & Girls Clubs of America in different U.S. cities.) Premiering in September 2005, The Tyra Banks Show balanced a tone that was both educational and outrageous — as host, Banks has donned a fat suit and had a sonogram on her breasts to prove they’re real. “There’s something about Tyra — you just feel comfortable talking to her,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures, which co-produces Tyra. “She’s self-deprecating. She’s vulnerable. And she’s not embarrassed to say anything about herself.” The moment that transformed Banks from the Top Model glamazon to the Tyra girlfriend came during one such personal revelation in February 2007. After unflattering photos of Banks in a bathing suit turned up online alongside snarky headlines like “America’s Next Top Waddle,” she stood in front of her audience wearing the same swimsuit and tearfully told critics to “Kiss my fat ass!” The episode — an instant YouTube classic — helped position Banks as the flaws-and-all friend her fans love. “Sometimes you feel really helpless with the tabloids because the falseness becomes truth,” she explains. “I just wanted my truth to be told.”
These kinds of melodramatic, often goofy antics have also made Tyra an easy target for the blogosphere and shows like E!’s The Soup — take, for example, an infamous November episode that featured a women’s-health expert… and her vagina puppet. “That type of stuff doesn’t mean you’re not being taken seriously,” says Banks. “It just means you’re being heard. To me, the vagina puppet — yeah, it gets spoofed, but it also gets women talking about their vaginal health.” Either way, the right people are taking Banks’ show seriously: She recently landed presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Mike Huckabee as guests. “It was a lot of pressure,” says Banks, who adds that those interviews are her proudest accomplishment to date. “It felt like people were going to be watching in a different way. It made me feel like I can’t just look like a dumb model. But this is not CNN either, so I still have to be fun and quirky and cute and girly.” (Case in point: Banks asked Senator Clinton about her favorite topic — cellulite.)
Given her big-name guests, public battle with her weight, and dedication to “empowering” women, Banks has been compared to her onetime employer Oprah Winfrey. “In the beginning, I used to hate it,” she says. “I used to cry at night just because of the pressure. And I didn’t want her thinking that I was saying it.” Banks is also quick to shoot down the connection — respectfully, of course. “It’s flattering. [But] if I was white, I don’t think they’d be saying it. I think a lot of it has to do with being a black woman.” (A call to Winfrey’s office for comment was not returned.)
Banks considers herself more akin to Martha Stewart and Donald Trump. To that end, her latest development is Bankable Enterprises, created to move the mini-mogul into arenas like real estate (might we suggest Tyra Towers?) and retail. While she’s mum on specifics, Banks also mentions ideas for amusement parks and Broadway shows. (“I’m always looking at how I can be atypical,” she says.) In the meantime, her Bankable Productions’ film-and-TV-development slate is stocked thanks to a hefty deal with Warner Bros. Entertainment last year. (In July 2007, Forbes estimated that her annual income was $18 million.) “Very few people have the vision, the passion, and the ambition that she does,” says Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. “In a marketplace this cluttered, anytime you have a presold brand or persona, it gives you a leg up. And she is a presold commodity.”
The film projects developed by Banks under the new deal will include the banner “Tyra Banks Presents…,” much like other branding giants, including Winfrey and Tyler Perry. First up, she’ll develop the Gossip Girl-esque tween books The Clique into a series of straight-to-DVD movies. And this summer, Banks will reteam with ANTM exec producer Mok for a reality competition set to air on The CW that pits young women against each other for a shot at a fashion magazine position. She’s also teaming up with Ashton Kutcher for another reality project, which she vaguely describes as being “my brand and his brand combined.” (America’s Next Top Geek?) In fact, each of these projects exists within Banks’ current definition of Tyra Inc. “It’s the attainable fantasy,” she explains. “Girl empowerment — but not preachy. I like it to be surrounded by a little bit of candy so you don’t know that you’re getting a message.”
As far as she’s come, Banks is still slightly tentative about her rising status. “There’s a fear I have with success in the business world,” she admits. “People have this image of women, especially in business — that they have to be ballbusters, and that’s so not what I am.” That said, the woman whose company logo features a shiny bank vault is not going to stop growing her media empire. “I’m not afraid of wanting money at all,” she says. “Money will give me more power to do things that are truer to my spirit than what I’m already doing.” Still, she adds, “I don’t think I’ll always be on television. I don’t know whether it’s 10 or 20 years, but I know it won’t be when I’m 60.” C’mon, Tyra, even sexagenarians need a fierce girlfriend.