Tyra Banks holds a place in the pop cultural canon as one of the most iconic reality show hosts of all time; She saw us through the unique stylings of the “Leftover Lady” Jade Cole, weathered the storms of Saleishagate, and was there to hold our hand across every botched CoverGirl commercial (“Brasilia!”) America’s Next Top Model has ever seen. For 13 years, we were rooting for her. We were all rooting for her — but, in the end, Banks was rooting for a career evolution, making the difficult (yet unexpected) decision to relinquish her gig to pop star Rita Ora ahead of ANTM‘s 23rd cycle.
Now that the new-and-improved season — the series’ first VH1 edition after previously airing on UPN and, later, The CW — has crowned a next-generation champion in 20-year-old India Gants, Banks (currently a new mom, makeup mogul, and television producer) opened up to EW for an exclusive interview about her time on the storied, worldwide television franchise she built from the runway up, her upcoming teaching gig at Stanford (her friends are even calling her “Professor Banx” with an x, she says) and that time she almost left the show all the way back in 2007.
Check out our full Q&A with Banks below. For EW’s extended ANTM feature — including quotes from Banks, Ora, and ANTM’s newly crowned winner — click here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was it difficult to let go of ANTM and watch another person perform the job you did for over a decade?
TYRA BANKS: It wasn’t that hard. Many years ago, I was stressed with starting new businesses… I went to [my lawyer] and I was like, you know what, I’m ready to bring someone else in. I won’t say the name of that person, but I actually brought a different person to the network, met with them, and said, ‘This is the person I want to take the reins of this show.’ This was cycle 8. It was very early. My lawyer held an intervention of sorts, and said, ‘What are you doing? You created this show. It’s starting to get traction around the entire world. I beg of you not to do this.’ But, I was so tired. I was like, fine, fine, I’ll just continue. I called [my potential replacement] and said, ‘We’re not going to have you do this for now.’ 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.
So, being almost entirely behind-the-scenes as executive producer allowed you more time to take creative control of this cycle, right?
My hand as a producer is more overall, saying, ‘Okay, how can we make this more exciting?’ I’m not in the edit bay every day like I used to be. In fact, I haven’t been in the edit bay every day for a couple of years. I do have a really strong team that is taking the reins on the creative side. I’m not handholding this brand like I used to. I used to have a problem of being too much of a micro-manager… but 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.
Seeing that overall picture, how do you think India’s win reflects what the show has become today, as opposed to what it was when you started it in 2003?
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… She’s this high fashion, intimidating looking person with a warm heart.
When did you start having discussions about shifting the show’s focus to social media and branding?
We brought one of my mentors, Martin Lindstrom, on the show a couple of years ago… He talked to the girls about personal branding… so we saw this back then, happening already. Now, social media is at an all-time high. We’d be idiots to ignore it. That’s one of the reasons why Top Model is still in existence 23 cycles in, because 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.
A big part of maintaining a business is advocacy. Before it became a bigger point of advocacy, Top Model was way ahead of the curve in terms of showcasing a diverse cast. Even back to cycle 1, when you had Ebony, an openly gay contestant. Why is diversity such an essential piece of the ANTM fabric?
It starts with my personal journey of being a black woman, first of all, in the fashion industry. Even though I was a successful supermodel, I was hearing ‘no’ quite often. Being curvy and not having a body that was a cookie-cutter [shape]… [I had to figure] out how to pivot my career to make my curves work for me. Being black and being curvy made me empathize with people who didn’t fit the cookie cutter. Whether it’s the girl with alabaster skin and red, frizzy hair with freckles all over her face to a girl with Ebony’s skin and close-cropped hair and features she didn’t feel were considered beautiful in society. 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. This has always been a passion of mine. It’s so nice to see it’s normalizing. I guess Top Model has normalized what difference is in beauty.
Is the option there for you to step back in as head judge? I think a lot of fans miss you.
Speaking to social media, I’m not blind, so I do see a lot of people are stating that. It’s so funny, there was one fan who gave me this whole long diatribe, this long post about how I’d turned my back on them… [there was] a lot of negativity being spewed my way for not doing the show. Believe me, I’m a human being, so it does sting a little bit that they feel like I’ve deserted them or that I’ve walked away from something I created. It does sting, but it’s a change of heart, I guess.
Would you ever step back into the role?
I don’t know. I don’t really think so. 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, so that is my goal.
I also have to ask, because I just read your tweet about the best picture mix-up at the Oscars: Did you immediately think of the franchise when that happened? Something very similar happened on Australia’s Next Top Model.
Of course! We’re not getting our credit where credit is due. [Laughs.] We had meat dresses before Gaga rocked them and we had winner mistakes before Steve Harvey and the Academy Awards.
Truth! So, what can the Academy do to recover from that?
Sometimes, these mess-ups are good for television. TV is in a state right now where not as many people are watching as much as they used to. [Audiences are] on their phones and watching all different types of things on social media. These types of mess-ups, while not deliberate, actually make people more interested in seeing something live happen and encourage them to [tune into] live television, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a good thing for the television community.