Sunday August 19, 2012
Tyra Banks: A model of steel
By Natasha Ann Zachariah
Not just a pretty face, supermodel Tyra Banks runs a business empire and owns a diploma in business from Harvard.
Supermodel Tyra Banks was at the height of her career when her mother taught her a poignant lesson: A model is needed only for as long as she is in style.
Backstage at fashion shows in Europe in the 1990s, her mother, who was also her manager then, would point out that the “It” girls from previous shows were not there.
It was a wake-up call for the model, who was at the time being booked by fashion powerhouses such as Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Yves Saint Laurent, and was being touted as the next Naomi Campbell.
Banks, who started modelling in Paris when she was 17, says that set the wheels in motion for her next career moves beyond the runway.
Referring to models going out of fashion, the 38-year-old American from Los Angeles said in an interview in Singapore: “My mother told me that one day, that would happen to me, and that it was okay.
“She asked me what my plan was, saying, ‘I didn’t raise a girl to wait by the phone for a boy or a job.’ She helped me understand that I really needed to be thinking about the end.”
Banks was in Singapore to support the launch of Asia’s Next Top Model, the Asian spin-off of her popular America’s Next Top Model TV franchise, which she created and still hosts today.
And her foresight has paid off.
Today, the supermodel is a supermogul, as the press has dubbed her, running a successful empire under her The Tyra Banks Company.
She was estimated to be worth US$90mil (RM270mil) last year, according to Forbes. In comparison, her fellow supermodel Campbell is said to be worth half of that, while Heidi Klum has about US$70mil (RM210mil).
A huge chunk of her income comes from the Top Model show, which started in 2003 and is now into its 19th season. It has been franchised and syndicated all around the world. An anomaly in an industry that is glamorous and hardly austere, Banks is known to eschew spending money on designer togs and she does not flaunt her wealth.
Hinting at her businesswoman instinct, she says: “I don’t value things where I don’t get a return on the investment. A designer dress is nice but I have to keep it for 30 years for it to be worth something more.
“I’ll spend money on a home, have a massage, time with my friends, but not a dress. That’s what makes me happy – things that are experience driven, rather than just things.”
Beyond the model and businesswoman tag, Banks has a string of notable add-ons: New York Times best-selling author, producer, talk-show host and Daytime Emmy award winner.
She had bit parts in television shows such as the The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, acting with Will Smith, and in movies such as Coyote Ugly (2000) and Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009), and laid down a music track, Shake Ya Body.
The leggy 1.78m-tall beauty, who has a high forehead, doe eyes and a curvaceous figure, has struggled with being labelled as a supermodel, wishing at times that she would be introduced otherwise.
“I used to want to let go of that model tag. People would write articles about me or introduce me walking out to a talk show, and I would think ‘don’t say supermodel, don’t say supermodel’.”
But she eventually realised that being known as a model was not hurting her image.
“I did that. It was a part of my life. I lead a show, it is encouraging to take the modelling industry as a serious job. I’ve accomplished a lot as a model, and what’s wrong with that? I take the model thing with pride now.”
Reflecting on the industry, she says she would not be this successful if she were starting out in the industry today at 17 again.
Banks, who was a size four among the waif-thin size zero models when she started, says: “I probably won’t get accepted, that would be too big for a runway.”
She is unimpressed, and unconvinced, that the current fashion industry buzz about using bigger girls in shows will change anything.
“There’s a lot of talk and it comes and goes but that’s not the norm sample size on a runway,” she says. “It’s still a zero. Today, it’s easier for girls of colour to get into the industry, but it is harder for a girl who is not a size zero. Now it’s a size thing as opposed to a race thing.”
In person, the straight-talking Banks is true to her on-screen persona. She is personable, yet commanding, outspoken and thoughtful. She “smizes” perfectly – a term she coined to mean smiling with your eyes. She is passionate and driven when talking about her future plans.
And it is this drive that led her to enrol in Harvard Business School’s Executive Education programme and to graduate with a diploma in February this year.
For Banks, who gave up studying film at the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to pursue modelling, it was a chance to be more business savvy for her burgeoning empire.
The move is a curious one, given that she could easily hire someone to manage the background work while she fronts it.
“I’m not looking to tap-dance forever – to just host various shows, and just create revenue,” she says. “I’m looking to create businesses and hire the best of the best, and know what’s going on with my company. I needed business school for that.”
On the cards is scripted shows from her production company. She will also launch a philanthropic partnership with the Lower East Side Girls Club Of New York City to help young girls between eight and 18 build self-esteem and a positive body image – causes that the Queen Of Self Esteem, as she has been dubbed, champions.
Banks hits another milestone next year, when she turns 40 in December – something she is “totally concerned” about.
“I don’t care about the look thing,” she says. “But children, a life, family, yes. It’s totally on the cards. I definitely have to have some kids by 40, don’t you think?”
Well-trained to deal with unwanted questions, Banks turns the focus on the men in the room, swatting off further questions to confirm if she is indeed dating rumoured beau, British model and upcoming America’s Next Top Model judge, Robert Evans, 24.
The mood turns light as she hams it up with the guys, pointing out how “fine Asian men are” and to call her if they knew any available man.
As the interview winds down and she heads off, she gets distracted – by this reporter’s hair.
With her media face off, she runs her fingers repeatedly through it, fascinated by the texture and thickness. She invites more people to touch it, saying: “You gotta feel this, it feels like a wig.”
It is reminiscent of what she does on her reality show, where she compliments young wannabe models on about their features – a personality trait that has endeared her to many women.
But she is reminded by her entourage that she is running late. And just like that, she is all business, and goes off with a smize. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
1990: A 17-year-old Banks starts visiting model agencies while at Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart High School, but is told her look is too ethnic. Her big break comes weeks before she starts school at Loyola Marymount University – a French modelling scout offers her a chance to model in the Paris couture shows.
1991: She is booked for 25 fashion shows, a record in the business for a newcomer.
1993: Naomi Campbell reportedly persuades fashion powerhouse designer Karl Lagerfeld to ban the rising star from Chanel’s catwalk.
1997: She becomes the first African-American woman to be photographed for the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and snags a solo for the cover of Sports Illustrated. She was photographed the year before for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with Argentinian model, Valeria Mazza. VH1 names her Supermodel of the Year.
1998: She writes and releases her first book, Tyra’s Beauty, Inside & Out, which dishes out self-esteem and make-up advice.
2003: The first season of America’s Next Top Model airs.
2005: She uses her skills from being a youth correspondent on The Oprah Winfrey Show to become host and executive producer of her own talk show, The Tyra Banks Show. She also announces her retirement from modelling.
2007: She is photographed unflatteringly in a bikini on holiday. She addresses the criticism on her show, saying her now famous line: “Kiss my fat a**!”
2008: She wins her first Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Informative Talk Show.
2009: She enrols in Harvard Business School’s three-year owner/president management programme.
2011: Her young adult fantasy-adventure novel, Modelland, becomes a New York Times bestseller.
2012: She is named as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. She is one of only four African-Americans and one of seven women to have made the list repeatedly.
> Asia’s Next Top Model is scheduled to premiere on Nov 4 on Star World (Astro Ch 711) and Star World HD (Ch 722).