Fierce For Good
She is one of the world's most recognisable women. As the founder of the Next Top Model franchise she is the spiritual mother to aspiring top models in 59 countries. She was the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the first model to book 25 shows at her debut Paris Fashion Week. She coined 'Fierce' and 'Smize', terms now ensconced in the vernacular and prefers 'Fiercely real' to 'plus size'. She is Tyra Banks and as Thom Kerr finds out for Black Issue #21, she is on a mission; to expand the definition of beauty.
Interview and photography: Thom Kerr at Independent Artist Management
Hair & Make-up: Justin Henry at justinhenrybeauty.com using
make-up by Kevin Aucoin Beauty and hair products by Kerastase Couture Styling
Fashion editor: Camille Garmendia
THOM KERR:First of all, sincere gratitude that you created the space to shoot for this issue of Black – we truly appreciate it! As the photographer, it was exciting to witness the ‘fierce’ Tyra magic with my own eyes. How was it reuniting with Justin Henry again?
TYRA BANKS: Justin was one of the best make-up artists that I worked with when I was a young model in Europe. It was great seeing him again. The one thing I didn’t remember was his Aussie accent so that was a nice plus. He is one of the rare geniuses that can do hair and make-up. To be honest, I wish he lived in NY or LA so I could work with him more often.
As a young girl, what attracted you initially to the fashion industry?
To be honest, I wasn’t attracted to the fashion industry, the fashion industry found me. I was discovered on a school bench the first day of high school by a fellow student. I thought I was far too awkward and gawky to ever be associated with modeling but it was actually those qualities that launched my early career. Once I was in the fashion world and walking the runways of Paris I was attracted to the nuance of the industry; the specific things that certain designers looked for in a model and what aesthetic caught their eye. I tried to be a chameleon and studied up on designers prior to meeting them at “go-sees” (auditioning for modeling jobs) in order to be the fashion muse they were looking to cast.
I read that in the beginning you had trouble finding representation as a model – what were the some of the roadblocks?
The major roadblock was the color of my skin. It was difficult being an African American face in the industry. Fortunately, my mother taught me that it wasn’t me, Tyra Banks, the person, being picked apart; they viewed me as a product, so I rarely took it personally. After many agency declines I was signed by L.A. Models and offered an opportunity to go to Paris. On that first trip I was the first and only model to ever book 25 shows during one Fashion Week.
What fuelled your determination?
Once I was a part of the fashion world I wasn’t about to take it lightly. A lot of girls around me wouldn’t pass up a party but I knew that this was a business, and a very fleeting one. I was also one of very few African American models in the fashion world at that time so it was important to present myself well and keep that door open for other models that looked like me.
What did it feel like when things started cooking? Do you feel like you had a sense of the significance of what was about to unfold?
My agency didn’t want me to get a big head so they would lie to me and say what I was doing was what other models were doing and it was normal and nothing special. It took a while for me to realize how successful I was.
Was it hard to stay grounded and present when your schedule became very demanding?
I was obsessed with keeping in touch with my high school friends. This was before cell phones, and Facebook and Instagram, so I wrote a lot of letters and spent a lot of time on pay phones on Paris street corners to call them. To this day I’m still friends with some of my best friends from Elementary, Jr. High and High School. They definitely kept me grounded.
It’s no secret that the expectations placed on models, particularly in Paris, demand girls maintain incredibly slender frames. Failure to maintain these standards means talent will be not be considered for the primo high fashion gigs. How did you get the courage to transition towards the commercial side of the business when you knew your body was still developing?
I didn’t make the conscious decision while on the runway that I wanted to stop and pursue Sport’s Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret. It was the impossible physical expectations that pushed me towards a more commercial trajectory. My body was becoming more womanly, it was a natural thing, and my mother wanted me to feel proud of that, not ashamed. Trying to steer my body away from its natural curviness would have been physically unhealthy so instead I steered my career towards an audience who would identify with it and embrace it. This also drilled home the importance of what my message has been since I was a model, which is expanding the definition of beauty outside of the description of “incredibly slender” being the only thing that equals beautiful.
When did you know you’d made the right decision? A lot of other models in your position would have taken drastic measures to try and stay in the couture game.
I knew I made the right decision as soon as I made it. It was scary at first, being a young girl leaving high fashion, the only segment of the industry I knew, and walking into a more high profile, mainstream modeling world that had never been that accepting of an African American model before. But I knew the decision I made was worth the risk more than trying to stay in a world that was rejecting me because of what I naturally looked like. Regardless of the outcome, I knew it was right.
How did it feel when you accomplished extraordinary goals like being the first African American woman on the covers of GQ and Sports Illustrated? It must have been pretty exhilarating to know you were breaking the rules.
It was exciting for me, personally, but the exhilaration came in when I pictured young girls matching their skin color to mine on the cover of major national magazines.
What was one of your favorite modeling career achievements?
There were a few. The ones that stand out are signing a contract with CoverGirl cosmetics, doing a Superbowl Pepsi commercial with Cindy Crawford, my idol. Being an original Victoria’s Secret Angel for 10 years and being on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover, twice.
Was there a particular moment when you knew that it was time to explore the other aspects of your personality?
It was less of a moment and more of knowing when the right time was. Even before I started modeling, I had always wanted to be a TV and Film producer; it was and is my passion. It was what I was going to college to do before I deferred enrollment to go to Paris Fashion Week. Producing is something that is a part of my daily business life now. People don’t realize that I may have edited a scene they’re watching on a show they had no idea I had anything to do with. At any given moment I have 5-10 new show ideas in development with a few coming to a TV screen near you very soon.
How did people first react when you announced your interest in branching into different fields, in particular acting, producing, etc.?
It’s always difficult when going from one field to another especially when you’re the first person to make the jump and when you’ve had so much success in that first field. I got a lot of pushback but I kept going.
What is it like comparing your initial idea to the international phenomenon the top model franchise has become? How do you make sense of it all?
The interesting thing is a lot of people think that I just produce Top Model or host it but people don’t understand that I created the idea and it is the very first fashion themed reality show in history. I chuckle when people think I signed on to do it. Top Model is a pop culture mainstay and one of the longest running shows in television history. It’s not something I ever thought would happen but now that it has it makes a lot of sense. The show blends an industry that has an intrinsic mystery about it with mainstream girl (and now, guys!) next door. People now think “I can do that, I can try out to be America’s Next Top Model” and millions have. It’s very accessible while still allowing me to push the message that I set out with for the show: there isn’t just one definition of beautiful. The show has also birthed over 20 different International versions from Russia to Australia to China and Africa. I am so amazed by this and I travel around the world visiting and appearing on my International versions.
You are totally allowed to tell me I’m wrong, but when I watch America’s Next Top Model I feel the show is centered more on creating a conversation about what beauty can be with the audience at home - there seems to be a higher intention than just teaching modeling skills and launching a new face into the market. Obviously casting is crucial to keep the momentum of the show, but it seems to me that the personal journey of the talent becomes the driving force that viewers can learn from and relate to – would you say that’s an accurate point of view? What is your intention behind the series?
You hit the nail on the head about America’s Next Top Model creating a conversation about beauty. You’ve unearthed my tactic! I wanted to challenge beauty stereotypes by feeding viewers so much “candy” with the message while raising self-esteem and challenging beauty stereotypes in the process. My main goal for America’s Next Top Model was and is to expand the definition of beauty. I rarely cast cookie cutter beauties on the show, although some classic beauties make their way in with their modeling potential but my passion is to expand what people see as beautiful. We’ve had models with everything from bodies covered in freckles to gaps in their teeth to some of the most stunning “Fiercely Real” (my word that I prefer to use over “plus size”) girls that I’ve ever seen. One of my favorite “critiques” of the show is when people say “Tyra, why’d you cast that girl? She’s not a model, she’s not even pretty!” and then they see what she is turned into with hair, make-up and a wind machine and you see her photo and it’s so stunning. People realize that “pretty” has many faces. The message it that beauty really is in the “smize” of the beholder and it’s not what everyone thinks it is.
How do you think that operating all of these projects (TV, Investments, Fierce Capital, your investment arm and T-Zone The TZONE Foundation, which empower and teaches young tweens and teens via The Tyra Banks Company has transformed your perception of yourself?
Giving back has always been something close to my heart. When I was 19 I started the Tyra Banks scholarship fund at Immaculate Heart High School for girls who had great grades but couldn’t afford to go to my high school, which I adored. TZONE is in my bones as is expanding entrepreneurship among women with Fierce Capital. It was just about executing and getting these ventures to the point in my life where they fit and became viable. The Tyra Banks Company is a growing, living and breathing fierce entity with some of the biggest and most groundbreaking “arms” to come...and very soon!
What inspired you to enroll in a business course at Harvard?
I have always had a natural inclination towards business. Much of my success as a Supermodel was not because I looked better than other models but that I marketed myself in a way that stood out. That’s what some of the household name Supermodels do well. All of my career up until Harvard was based on gut, even creating ANTM but in order to get to the next level and grow a global brand past TV production, I needed schooling. It is the best thing I ever did. Harvard’s OPM Business program changed my life and my business and the way I lead. It has inspired so many new projects that I will be sharing with the world. The Tyra Banks Company is truly obsessed with being different and unique and not being derivative. This is something that I knew in my gut and was seconded at HBS, the need to be unique in order to be successful in business. One of my new favorite cities is Boston; I love returning to campus and visiting my professors.
What is your goal with the productions you choose to invest in through Fierce Capital?
Fierce Capital is an extension of my own intrigue with Silicon Valley and the forward-thinking nature of the startup world. Being an entrepreneur is not as clear of an option as it should be for many females. I’ve had the chance to be very entrepreneurial in my life and giving other women that option is the goal of Fierce Capital. We invest in female founded, run or targeted startups.
Now looking back through all of your incredible incarnations throughout the years, what do you think drives you now as opposed to the beginning of your career?
The beginning of my career focused on trying to be a successful model for myself. How many campaigns, magazine covers, fashion shows, and endorsements I could get. The way I see the world now has changed. I am trying to offer as much opportunity to others as I can. Most of the businesses we go into from TV to Fierce Capital to philanthropy and our other upcoming businesses at The Tyra Banks Company are truly trying to uplift others. My previous projects like my talk show uplifted and gave advice and preached “girl power.” ANTM granted lifetime dreams to people who never would’ve had the opportunity.
It’s funny – when I first started shooting I used to tell people who were curious about the fashion industry to avoid it if they were looking to find a stronger sense of self-esteem. It wasn’t a place that was going to make you feel good about yourself. However, my experiences as of late have changed that perception. I feel like part of the journey of self-exploration is to go through the intense scrutiny. If you can survive it, you’ll arrive at an understanding that the best you can do is to be yourself – regardless of other people’s projections. And in that way, the fashion industry may be a darker journey but I feel that it’s definitely given me a stronger sense of self that I probably wouldn’t have investigated if it hadn’t been challenged by a lot of different people and situations around me. What are your feelings of the fashion world, having stepped outside of it and looking in from the perspective of a successful businesswoman?
I still think the fashion industry has a long way to go as far as self-awareness in the way it affects the people that it employs and targets. I do feel that there are marketing tactics in fashion that purposely instigate people to feel insecure in order to purchase a product to make themselves “better”. Consumers are getting savvy and understand the industry and are speaking up. In different projects I have coming soon I'll flip this “insecurity in beauty” on its head. You can make people feel good and still run a successful business. This is something I strive to instill in my TZONE girls through the TZONE at the Lower Eastside Girl’s Club. I recently led a 7 day Self-Esteem, Beauty & Body workshop for 15 girls at the TZONE on the Lower East Side of NYC. One of our sessions focused on the fashion industry’s portrayal of beauty and the tricks they use to get to there. The girls’ faces were agape when I showed them photos of me in raw form and juxtaposed them with retouched images. The fashion industry is based on these images that don’t exist. Adults know it and still buy products based on them. Showing these tween girls that the images they are comparing their own bodies to are not reality goes a long way.
What is the Tyra Banks message that you want to share with world?
Perfect is boring, human is beautiful.
Tyra Banks, once again, what a pleasure! Thank you! Your cover looks fierce!
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