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While young women around the world grew up idolizing Tyra Banks for her skills in front of a camera, the supermodel was busy dreaming about working sold-out concerts like Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson. Though her ambitions were high, Banks hit a few flat notes along the way, ultimately abandoning her six-year stint as an aspiring singer after releasing just one single: the 2004 cult bop “Shake Ya Body.” The model-turned-mogul’s transition from the runway to the recording booth (with help from superstar talent like Pharrell, David Foster, Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean, and more) wasn’t as seamless as her signature walk, but Banks tells EW she’s happy to share the story of her shortcomings as a means to inspire young women to embrace their imperfections.
Read on for eight things Banks told us about trying (and failing) to strut her stuff as a pop star. The America’s Next Top Model host opens up even further about her musical ambitions in her new book Perfect Is Boring (co-written by Banks’ mother, Carolyn London), in stores Tuesday, April 3.
Banks spent six years chasing a dream for the wrong reasons
From 1998 to 2004, Banks tried to make it as a recording artist. But not for love of the craft…she just wanted to feel the performative rush of a rock star.
“[Even on the runway] I didn’t just walk: I twirled and sashayed. Sometimes I’d get in trouble with the designers…but I couldn’t help myself. … I pushed, smiled, twisted, clapped, pointed at people, winked and was so over-the-top because I loved the stage!” Banks says. “After retiring from modeling, the only way I thought I could continue to work that stage that I loved so much was I had to sing in order to do it.
“With modeling, I knew that I was fierce. I knew my runway walk, even in those early days, was amazing. … I had true talent even though I was being rejected [from agencies] and being told that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t just a dream; it was more of a mission,” she continues. “I didn’t have a dream to be a model; I was discovered and realized I was good at it and continued to work hard and hone a craft that was already in my nature. With singing it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at J.Lo! That looks so fun!’ There’s a difference. I kept pushing [for] six years. … That was my tenacity and tunnel vision and ‘don’t give up’ attitude. When you mix that with something that isn’t your calling, that’s when it can get a little dangerous. It should have been six months, not six years. But because I had such focus, I continued to go down a path that was not meant for me.”
Despite her fame, Banks was plagued by nerves as she worked with superstar producers
She sought to make those dreams a reality with contributions from Pharrell, Big Bert, David Foster, Rodney Jerkins, and Wyclef Jean. Banks accumulated dozens of pop-R&B songs, ballads, and inspirational tunes with titles like “Beautiful Girl,” “Drivin’ Me Crazy,” and “Why Does it Hurt So Bad?” All the pieces were in play, but one essential element was missing: ace vocal ability.
“If my voice was amazing, I would’ve been a huge pop star,” Banks says. “But my voice was just decent, and that’s not good enough to transition from being a model.” Ultimately, she buckled under the pressure, especially when Pharrell brought her to a recording studio to cut a track called “Playboy.”
“Pharrell believed in me, man. … He had to rent that [studio]. He invested money in me, and here I am, I can’t even get the damn notes out. He was like, ‘You got this, just loosen up! It’s okay!’ But it never became okay. The crazy thing is a lot of it was in my head. I’d go home and sing it so well. What’s in my lungs and in my throat that’s squeezing and closing down because I can see Pharrell’s face through the glass in the vocal booth?”
Banks amassed studio time with industry heavy-hitters without the help of a record label
She met with Sony shortly after featuring on Kobe Bryant’s debut single (and megaflop) “K.O.B.E.,” but Banks’ tenacity allowed her to book major face time with music royalty without a major label standing behind her. “I always had top-notch managers that were preparing me for a record label,” Banks says. “I had Johnny Wright, who managed Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC. At the time, Johnny was the No. 1 manager in the world, [readying] me for a deal. [Sony] was like, ‘The Kobe single is fun, but we need to hear your demo!’ and I never followed up because I went down a path with super producers instead.”
‘Shake Ya Body’ saw Banks rise to her vocal zenith, but it pounded the final nail in her music career’s coffin
She couldn’t hit the right notes with Pharrell and Foster, but Banks says she “sang really well” with Jerkins (who’d already worked with Whitney Houston and Destiny’s Child at the time). Together, they released Banks’ debut single, “Shake Ya Body,” the music video for which Banks filmed as part of a challenge on cycle 2 of America’s Next Top Model.
“We didn’t sell it as a hit. It was just a free giveaway with Top Model. This was before you could just throw a single on the internet like they do today. There were indicators that I should go forward. The episode where we filmed the music video was the highest-rated episode of Top Model at the time, [but] it felt like I was forcing something. … I never got to see that the public wasn’t going to buy it, and I don’t think they would have, honestly,” Banks says. “I do feel like it’s a good song, it just didn’t have the right person singing it. If Janet Jackson or Jennifer Lopez sang it, it would’ve been huge. … One-hundred percent [I think people wanted me to fail]. But, I didn’t put out an album that didn’t work and didn’t move forward because it didn’t work. It had to have a little more self-realization and more drawing my own conclusions. But I do feel like people thought, ‘Okay, let me see this girl sing’ more than ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait for Tyra to sing!'”
Banks’ mother tried to pull the plug on her singing career
“[She was telling me to stop] the whole time!” says Banks. “She was like, ‘Sing through your nose! You don’t have the chops of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, or Nelly Furtado, but you can use some of those techniques to talk through the song!’ She was really trying to help me!”
Amid Banks’ sessions with songwriter Billy Lawrence in Florida, Wright suggested she perform a showcase of her unreleased material for music executives at the House of Blues in Orlando. “My mom felt like I was going to fall on my face in the showcase,” Banks recalls with a laugh. “My mom was just like, ‘Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord.'”
Did she go through with the showcase? “Oh God, of course not!” Banks says. “You would know that. It’d be all over the internet!”
She worked with Diane Warren on a Lilith Fair-style music festival idea
“When I stopped singing, Diane [Warren] still felt that [I should be in the music industry],” Banks recalls of her Grammy-winning songwriter friend. “We talked about collaborating on a [compilation]. … It would have been a girl-power album [with other artists] we’d produce together, and do some type of festival for, like, Lilith Fair with snap!” The female-powered fest never got off the ground. “We ended up not doing it, which was dumb on my part,” she says.
Her stalled music career led to her popular talk show
“It was a direct segue…. [I] decided to stop the singing and focus on being a role model and a leader,” Banks says of the transition from singing to fronting “the early days of wokeness” on the Emmy-winning, socially conscious Tyra Banks Show. She credits a lunch with J. Lo’s manager Benny Medina with changing her perspective. “He asked me what I wanted to feel when I walked into a room. I realized I didn’t want them to be like, ‘How cool is she? I just heard her song on the radio!’ … That type of power wasn’t attractive to me anymore. I realized I could use the real gift, which was still my voice—just not with melody!”
Falling on her face was tough—but empowering
“People [should] understand that the road to success goes up and down,” Banks admits. “It’s just a big, long, wonderful story of failure, not just one tiny thing. After all of that failure and embarrassing myself in the studio, I’m so proud of the ‘Shake Ya Body’ video. I can one day show my son and say, ‘Look at your mama!’ I now have a time capsule of a moment. I’m proud of…looking in the mirror and knowing that it was time to pivot. I realized that it’s not failure; it’s recognizing that something isn’t right. And that led me on a path toward what is right. When I did that, it catapulted my business to a new level.”