Tyra Banks reveals she almost quit 'America's Next Top Model' 10 years ago.

By Joey Nolfi
March 08, 2017 at 11:00 PM EST
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You could see it in their eyes as Tyra Banks entered the judging room on Wednesday night’s season finale of America’s Next Top Model; she’s the type of model-mogul-actress with too many hyphenates to count, a pop cultural entity who can still elicit looks of starstruck bewilderment on the faces of international entertainers (here’s smizing at you, Rita Ora) and supermodel body activists (hi, Ashley Graham) alike.

Since relinquishing hosting duties to Ora last year, Banks made a cameo on Wednesday’s episode (only her second on-camera appearance across the show’s 23rd cycle), helping her successor choose which model hopeful — editorial stunner India Gants or branded businesswoman Tatiana Price — would strut ANTM’s next-generation crown into the future.

Banks, however, swiftly exited the set before Ora and company anointed 20-year-old Gants as the winner. “I leave it to you four,” she said as Ora, Graham, Paper magazine’s Drew Elliott, and stylist Law Roach begged her to stay. “Peace out. Good luck.”

Recalling Banks’ former glory at the head of the panel, the moment injected a new-and-improved cycle with a nostalgic rush, but also served as a fitting metaphor for the 43-year-old’s involvement in shaping ANTM’s ever-evolving identity. Though her name still appears in bold letters at the tail end of the show’s opening credits (she’s the creator and executive producer, after all), Banks has been inching closer and closer to the outer edges of the Top Model family for years; she’s still there (largely in spirit), but the decision to coronate America’s Next Top Model is no longer hers, and her exit was a long time coming.

“It wasn’t that hard,” Banks says, speaking exclusively to EW, of stepping away from the gig, something she’s wanted to do since the show’s eighth cycle began in 2007. (Read our full interview with Banks here.) She even had a successor in mind; Banks brought an unnamed heir apparent (she won’t say who) to The CW for a series of interviews, but her lawyer ultimately talked her into staying — for 14 more cycles. “It’s something that’s been on the tip of my fingers for so long, so it wasn’t necessarily difficult [to let go]. It was actually exciting. I wanted the show to continue; I wanted to keep it new. With me creating and owning a significant portion of the show, it’s in my best interests to keep it going and to keep it fresh.”

And refresh, revitalize, and renew she has.

Banks might not take a daily seat in the show’s editing bay or micro-manage production (she says she “used to have a problem” with the latter) anymore, but she still means something to the program, which has come a long way under her wing — from cycle 1’s cramped, closet-sized judging room to a worldwide franchise that now boasts more than 20 international editions, including offshoots in Mongolia, Australia, Finland, Thailand, and the Caribbean.

“I had mentors telling me in order to expand your production company and have new things, you have to delegate. You create and you move on, so that’s where I am right now with the show is more overseeing in general,” Banks — she now juggles a cosmetics line, dubbed Tyra Beauty, a production company, and an upcoming teaching gig at Stanford — admits.

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It’s perhaps that agile transition from model to global brand that pushed cycle 23 — the modeling competition’s first on VH1 — to new creative heights. Banks’ profile as a dynamic fashion icon-turned-entrepreneur provided a blueprint for what the show now looks for in its victors. No longer are a modelesque frame and cheekbones sculpted for the Gods the sole requirements to win the ANTM title; in the vein of the Jenners, the Hadids, and even Ora herself, these ladies have to take ownership of their public personas — brands, businesses, and boss-like attitudes — to secure the prize.

“I feel like we accomplished a new outlook on what it takes to be a model in the modern world… You can’t just be beautiful… You have to be in control of how you’re portrayed and have a vision of who you want to be,” Ora, the show’s sitting host, tells EW. “Our current culture within this industry is no longer just about being beautiful and being able to walk. You have to be adaptable to everything: social media, businesses, working with brands, film, music… the list goes on!”

“We’re constantly looking at where the world is and [figuring out] how we can either join it or create new things to stay relevant. It’s more of a responsible thing than a fashionable thing; it’s like responsible business,” Banks adds.

The goal wasn’t always to build a multi-faceted star, though. Dating back to ANTM’s inaugural season in 2003, the show hawked itself as a producer of legitimate modeling talent, though few fashion superstars have emerged from its ranks. While several finalists — including cycle 5’s Mollie Gondi and cycle 1’s Elyse Sewell — have worked consistently on runways and in magazines around the world, ANTM has yet to produce an actual supermodel. In fact, its most successful contestants have worked as actresses, with cycle 11’s Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love., Lucy) and cycle 3’s Yaya DaCosta (The Kids Are All Right, The Butler) booking major Hollywood roles.

While alumni have appeared in global editions of Vogue (cycle 3’s Toccara Jones posed for Vogue Italia, cycle 16 winner Brittani Kline shot a six-page spread for Vogue Mexico), the new breed of ANTM has shape-shifted its standards to combat critics who blame the “stigma” of reality television for impeding contestants’ careers.

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“It’s an opportunity to set the tone for future years,” Gants says of her win. “I’m ready to set the bar and do something different… I see [past cast members] working, but I guess it’s not the kind of jobs I want to be doing. I don’t want reality TV to hinder my opportunities as a model at all. I want to take this new revamped season and say, ‘Look, America’s Next Top Model can develop high fashion, high-end, working models.’”

Being turned down for modeling jobs is something Banks herself is no stranger to and even incorporated the sting of rejection into the show’s track record of championing diversity and self-acceptance.

“Even though I was a successful supermodel, I was hearing ‘no’ quite often… being black and being curvy made me empathize with people who didn’t fit the cookie cutter,” Banks, who’s long made a priority of featuring models with varying body types, skin conditions (cycle 12 burn victim Tahlia Brookins, cycle 21 vitiligo diagnosee Winnie Harlow), and genders (trans model Isis King launched her career on cycle 11), explains. “In putting these girls on the show and saying, ‘You are beautiful,’ I wasn’t necessarily telling them they were beautiful; I was using them as a vessel to tell millions of girls around the world who looked like them that they were beautiful… It’s so nice to see it’s normalizing. I guess Top Model has normalized what difference is in beauty.”

And yet, amid a contentious cycle (14 women vied for cycle 23’s accolades), the show has perhaps given us its sweetest, most relatable champion of that message yet, one whose down-to-earth demeanor can connect with new audiences on social media (she has around 100,000 Instagram followers) as well as the high-end clients she hopes to book.

“I’m really proud of India. I wouldn’t say she’s super different from what we’ve had in the past, but I do think she’s going to benefit from what’s at her fingertips, which is this convergence of social media and traditional model. She’ll be able to work in the high fashion industry but also connect to everyday people,” Banks speculates. “She’s this high fashion, intimidating looking person with a warm heart.”

As Banks herself graduates to the next phase of her career, she sets Gants out into the world with the weight of ANTM’s legacy pushing her forward, though she’s not keen on reclaiming her post anytime soon.

“I don’t really think so,” Banks responds when asked if she’d ever front the show again. “I’m hoping that we can continue to be successful where we are. It’s about watching the ratings, trying to increase them, and getting them to a place where the show can live without me.”

While Banks’ 22-cycle run at the head of the series is finished, Gants’ potentially game-changing reign is just getting started.

“I’ll be in New York soon,” she exclaims, with Banks’ blessing in tow. “To whoever’s reading this: I’m ready for work.”

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