You told Tyra Banks that you hated it when she left America’s Next Top Model, and she heard you. After a one-season hiatus, Banks is back as America’s Next Top Model’s host, boss, and glamorous main mama. She also has a few other things on her plate. On a recent morning when Banks called Vulture by phone, she was somewhere between watching Bubble Guppies with her son, York, working on a new book, and planning for her next Stanford University course.
And that’s just the short-term. At 44 and as outspoken as she’s always been, Banks is contemplating how to reach her young, female audience in an even fresher and bigger way than she does now. The key, she says, is becoming so boss that she doesn’t have to wait for anyone’s approval ever again. Banks spoke with Vulture about how she feels about aging, how the #MeToo movement has affected her, and her dreams beyond Hollywood and the fashion industry.
Tell me why you left Top Model, and why you came right back.
I left because I want the show to continue to be successful. We’ve had so many seasons of America’s Next Top Model, one of the longest-running competition shows in history. And so, as a businesswoman, I’m like, Okay, let me keep this going. Let me keep this strong. Let me try to step aside and find people that can keep it super relevant for the masses. And so, we did that. But even from the announcement, it wasn’t received as well as I would have liked it to be. And then when the show started airing, the social-media world out there, particularly Twitter — they’re quite opinionated — were the first to say, “We miss you! We miss you!” I knew that would happen. Of course. But then it turned kind of to that love-hate. Or that hate-love. Where it’s like, How could you do this? And, I’m gonna unfollow you because you unfollowed me by leaving Top Model. Stuff like that.
It made me think about the time I spent at Harvard Business School and one of my favorite classes with my marketing professor. His name is Rohit Deshpande. One of the things I learned from him was, “Your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” Meaning your customer, your viewer, your audience. Whatever your service or product you’re selling or sharing. And so I said, Wow. To me, Top Model is a brand, and it stands on its own and it’s very strong, and that’s what I was working for this entire time, to create the legacy. And I realized I stepped away from this legacy that I’m trying to create too soon. So his voice rang in my head. It’s what they say it is. They’re saying that I need to be there. So, I came back.
It’s interesting that you had done 23 seasons, yet you feel like you left too soon.
Yeah, that’s a long time! I didn’t feel like I left too soon, but they told me that I did, and I said okay. So, let me stick with this brand a little bit longer.
When you watched the Rita Ora season, was there a part of you that agreed with the audience? Did you feel like something was missing?
Well, I remember being on set when we were filming the finale, and I did a quick cameo. I did my scene and then I walked off camera, and looking at my judges, I said, “Bye. You guys handle this decision.” I didn’t let them know I was still there, but I hid behind a monitor, and I was watching them and I thought their dynamic was really, really good. It wasn’t that smooth in the beginning. But that finale — they were flowing, almost as if it was edited already by an editor. It was punchy; it was quick; it was snappy, sharp. Sound bites. Constructive criticism, humor, all the things I think make Top Model what it is, and I was like, Wow, they got this. Even just seeing that, I was very proud of what they had done. It’s crazy that the audience had a different opinion, I guess. After many fights with my partner, Ken Mok, he would call me and text me a couple times a week, wanting me to come back. And we would have very spirited phone conversations. We’re like family pretty much, so we’re yelling at each other over the phone. He’s like, “You’ve got to come back to this damn thing that you created.” And I’m like, “Leave me alone!” But finally, I said, “Yes, I will come back.”
When did you get the idea to abandon the age limit? You have a 42-year-old contestant, Erin Green, whom you gave an extra slot to so she could stay on the show.
The age thing was something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And Ken was very excited when I brought it up with him. He’s like, “Yes, we’re constantly pushing the barriers of what the fashion industry has put up, and we constantly knock them down before it’s cool.” Season one of America’s Next Top Model, I had what we called at the time a plus-size girl. Now they’re calling them curvy girls. I’ve had transgender girls. All these things that weren’t necessarily cool or in the mainstream when we did it. So, I told him, “Ken, think about the age thing. I have these model friends of mine who, when I was modeling with them, told me they were two years younger than me, but now they’re telling me that they’re ten years older than me. Like, that’s crazy.
So, there are two problems there. One is, modeling shouldn’t be about the number on your birth certificate. It should be about your look. And the second thing is, there’s such a double standard when it comes to women and men’s beauty and aging. Some man gets some salty sideburns, salt-and-pepper sideburns, and crow’s feet, and Ooh, he’s hot. When a woman gets that, it’s considered that she’s reached an expiration date. One thing my mother has told me is that as I’ve gotten older, she feels like I’m more beautiful. She says, “You’re way better-looking than you were when you were a supermodel, Tyra.” With America’s Next Top Model, I set that age limit with my team back in the day. It was 18 because we need you to be legal to live in a house. But we capped it at 27. And even then I had model-agency friends telling me that 27 was crazy, and they’d never hire a girl that was 27. Now, I’m like, what’s next? I don’t know what it is, but I’ll figure it out.
You’ve always been brutally honest about yourself, and you just said your mom feels like you’re more beautiful than ever — how are you handling aging?
Um, you know, twofold. I’m lucky that I genetically do look a lot younger than my number. I know that. I look in the mirror and I see that. And I think I’m very lucky to have a mother who embraces age. So I didn’t have a mom saying that getting older was bad or her gray hair is bad. My mom has gray hair, and she rocks it and she’s proud of it. Growing up and hearing that every single day, that my mom feels even more beautiful than she was when she was younger … I mean, she wishes her body was a little more in shape, but I think it’s all about role models. And I have that. So with Top Model and me changing the age limit, I’m trying to be the role model to the world that my mom was to me when it came to age.
Does any part of it scare you?
The thing that scares me is immobility, or how having injuries can one day make you walk a lot slower and not be as nimble. But, like, no. I really look forward to being older and doing an interview with you and being able to say way more than I’m saying now. Because age gives you that license, like that Betty White, to just say whatever the hell you want to say. And I so look forward to that. I also look forward to not having to post all these moments on social media and being like, Ooh, I remember those days when I was snappin’ and chattin’ and ‘grammin’. So those are two things I look forward to: saying whatever the hell I want to say and not really having to be on social media. I love social media, but it’s tiring.
Are you saying that you actually hold back now?
Oh my god! Can you believe it? I’m crazy, right? And I say so much. Like, my publicist is like, you’re so quotable. I’m like, I know cuz I’m crazy. But yeah, I totally hold back, still. There’s so much more. And it’s not like a celebrity tell-all type of thing. It’s just saying whatever the hell comes in my head. And that’s gonna happen at 60 years old.
In the last couple of years, there’s been a conversation in Hollywood about giving women and people of color more opportunities to be in charge, to direct, to create shows, and a lot of it is due to people like Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway, who are making sure the opportunities go to women and people of color. What’s interesting about you is that you’ve been doing it all for a long time now — in front of the camera, behind the camera. How do you view the industry these days, since for you, it’s been a different experience?
You’re right, I have been a boss of a brand, of a program, and a co-boss with my partner, Ken. So I’ve taken a lot of that for granted, of having that opportunity at a very young age, when I was in my 20s, creating a television show and somebody saying yes. Unfortunately, it’s all about somebody saying, Yes, I’m going to give you that opportunity. So, yes, I do feel like I have the opportunity to be a boss. However, I feel like the level of true bossdom is not having to ask someone to say yes. And that is the next phase of my personal career and brand. I want to get to where there’s capital and there are things I have access to and I don’t have to get a yes.
Still, it does feel really good and I’m so happy I’m seeing women like Ava DuVernay. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Shonda Rhimes. The list goes on and on. What I want, in the fashion industry, are girls of color and plus-size and petite-size and all of this. I want it all to be normal and boring. And the same thing goes for women in Hollywood with power. We just want the idea of them being female and being bosses to be boring and normal.
I believe it was a woman who said yes to you for Top Model? Dawn Ostroff, right?
You’re good, girl! Yeah, it was a woman that said yes to me! And she damn near said it almost in the room. I got in a car after pitching and got a phone call where she had said yes.
I don’t know if you read Ellen Pompeo’s interview in The Hollywood Reporter.
I did read it, yes! That was so boss. I was like, so that was B-A-W-S-E. She was a BAWSE! I was so proud of her.
It also made me really mad to hear everything she’s gone through to get there. She’s the star of that show!
She’s the star of that show. But a lot of time with gain, there’s the pain, you know? And I love that she just didn’t say, “Oh, this is what I’m making.” But she told that story so people understand the path and how to replicate that.
These last few months have been hard and eye-opening, with the #MeToo movement and women finally being heard on a number of difficult and painful issues. How have you been feeling as all of this has evolved? It can be empowering, but also deeply disappointing.
I mean, probably both of those. You know, hearing these stories of women suffering in silence makes me sad. But hearing them being heard and believed and seeing such change happen so fast makes me rejoice inside. I just want to make sure this is not a trend and that this is something that is not just sustainable, but continues to grow.
Yeah, because you’re already hearing some of the backlash. Are we going too far? Even some women are asking that.
I just hope the gains in the posts and in the jobs and in the opportunities that we are having in this moment is not just a moment. Because that can happen. And there’s a danger of that happening.
Why aren’t we hearing about sexual harassment or abuse in the fashion industry?
Oh, there are stories. It’s just not as much as Hollywood. But they’re definitely out there. One of the reasons you might not be hearing the wage story in fashion is because women make a lot more than men in terms of fashion models. They make ten times as much as a male model on a set that day. So it’s one of the rare businesses where women outearn men. But in terms of harassment, those stories are coming out.
Did you ever have any experience with workplace harassment or any of the other kinds of abuses we’re hearing about?
You know what? I was lucky. I did not. I do not know why, and I really do not understand why I did not experience that. Because I would go on a go-see, what we call an audition, and it would be fine. The photographer would look at my portfolio, and then an hour later, another model would have gone in the same room with that photographer and he did something or tried something or said something. So, sometimes it’s just luck that happens. But I was aware of certain stories that models said, most definitely.
People felt like they just had to keep quiet and go along with it to continue to work.
Yeah, girls would say, “Ooh, stay away from him.” You would pass along the story. It just was an occupational hazard. But it was still just part of your occupation.
Has anything you’ve heard regarding the #MeToo movement personally affected you or stood out on a personal level?
What has stood out, and I’m sure there are a lot of women in entertainment that feel the same way, is that a lot of the people that have been accused, I personally know. They’re not super-close friends or we don’t talk on the phone or anything like that, but I’ve worked with them, or we have friends that are friends. So, that is weird, I guess, the “six degrees of separation” type of thing. I mean, it’s less than six. And so that is a bit frightening for me. Admiring someone is a whole different thing from knowing someone. That’s the part where like, whoa, that takes it even deeper. Deeper pain.
You were on BUILD Series recently and there was this great question that one of the women in the audience asked, about whether you thought the fashion industry was really liberal, since it is so backward in many ways when it comes to women, people of color, gays.
Yes, I said they are in their political beliefs, but not necessarily in the way they handle their business.
How do you reconcile those things? If those in charge have liberal beliefs, what needs to happen for the industry to feel as liberal or progressive? For women to have the same opportunities, for example?
I can say more about the fashion business because that’s my forte. In the Hollywood world, I’m kind of in my little bubble. I admire a big majority of people in the fashion industry for being so politically inclusive. And when it comes to even gender identity, they are on the forefront of that and have been my role models when it comes to how I see the world. And on America’s Next Top Model, putting on Mr. and Miss Jay, and with so many different things, I’ve learned and been inspired by the fashion industry. It’s just that when it comes to the hiring of models, it gets a little weird. And in today’s day, they can’t make the excuse to say something doesn’t sell because a certain model is wearing it, because a black girl is wearing it. There are statistics that show the spending power of African-Americans, and then seeing imagery of themselves, which makes them double down on spending.
So, I don’t really know what that excuse is, of why the liberal leanings stop there. I honestly don’t know. I’m not in their heads for that, but I do feel that the more we speak and the more fashion is not just about art, but truly connects to commerce and spending and business … money talks. And I feel like that is going to make a lot more change than just some fashion editor becoming more open-minded.
You’ve been talking about these things on Top Model for a long time.
Top Model is more influential on society, not the fashion industry. It’s a show that reaches the masses, and my messages about expanding the definition of beauty and beauty not being a cookie-cutter and all of that, I think that greatly influenced the world and young women’s view of themselves and their reflections. But my primary intention for Top Model was to affect people and hope that the fashion industry followed suit. I did not set out to say, “Oh, these people are totally changing their hiring practices because of Top Model.” But I do think some of that has happened. I do think that us being a reality show and being all about the masses and the world looking at these models and saying, “I like her because of her personality or because of that,” influenced social-media models and their success. I believe Top Model doing these crazy fashion shows that people used to look at back in the day and say, “What? They’re in Spain in some type of cave, and they have models looking like ghosts with these weird high-fashion wedding dresses, screaming like someone’s chasing them?” Now, designers around the world are doing these types of fashion shows that people used to laugh at on Top Model. So I do feel like there’s a lot of influence, but there’s still a lot more to go, a lot more change to happen.
It’s a good thing you’re back then.
I hope so! I really wanted to bring the heart back to Top Model. We do market research and one thing the fans were saying was they felt like it didn’t have as much heart last season. I wanted to bring back that early heart and love — it’s still tough love. I’m still that ballet teacher that believes in you, and is going to tell you to do ten more pas de bourrée. I’m still that strong mentor to get you to be the best and be ready to face the sharks when you leave this competition. But at the same time, there’s a big-sister or motherly love that I brought back.
You have that natural tendency to offer wisdom and advice, which we also see on America’s Got Talent when you get involved with the people, especially when they’re being rejected. But AGT is live. How did you like working in that environment?
Everybody was like, “Oh my god, live TV. How are you going to handle it? Oh my gosh.” That is so easy to me. I can do it with my eyes closed. There was one episode where everything just kept going wrong — some magic trick didn’t work, some lighting didn’t work for one of the guests, one of the acts, their lights didn’t work. And I have no problem. I’m looking at something crazy happen and I am joking on the teleprompter and saying what the next act is and giving my opinion about something. Hosting and being a ringleader of a TV show or something live just comes very natural to me. Now, acting and memorizing lines is not my nature. I have to work ten times harder than an actress on a set to memorize lines and to follow what someone else is telling me to say.
On that note, have you started filming yet on Disney’s Life-Size sequel?
No, but I have a new script in my in-box that I haven’t opened yet. I’m working on another project right now and I’m trying to get that done before I open this new version of this script to give notes on it. But it will be a holiday-2018 movie, Life-Size.
Are you writing another book?
Yeah, I’m writing another book. It’s a little secret, but I’m writing. Maybe we’ll hit you up. I think you’re going to really like it. It’s very special.
Can you tell me what type of book it is?
We haven’t talked about motherhood yet, which is one of the biggest parts of your life right now. How is baby York, and what has been the most surprising thing about motherhood so far?
He is 2, and he is talking, talking, talking. He can count to 20 in English. He can count to ten in Spanish. It’s weird because my mom and I stare at him all the time because he is me, but a boy. His physicality is how I looked when I was his age. It’s crazy.
A funny thing. When I’m on TV, he says, “Mommy! Mommy!” And then he goes, “No, turn it off, Mommy. I don’t want to see you on TV. I don’t wanna see it. Turn it off.” It’s just too much for him or something.
What do you think you’re the best at when it comes to being a mom?
I’m good at balancing screens, meaning media, with playtime without screens. Some parents are like, “I’m not gonna do any screens at all,” and I’m like, “Child, I like my TV.” So York is gonna watch some TV, but we make sure that as much as he’s fiending for it — “Mommy, please, please! Mommy, Bubble Guppies, Bubble Guppies. Mommy, Baby Signing Time, Terrific Trucks and Tayo. Mommy, Mommy!” — I give it to him and then I’m like, “Okay, now we have to play with Mommy on the floor.” It’s harder for me as mom to have to play with him — I can just easily turn on the TV and have it be a babysitter — but that’s not my interest. Particularly because I’m a working mom and need to make sure that the times that I’m with him are very precious.
Are you still interested in having a talk show?
I’m interested in sitting on somebody’s couch and being interviewed. [Laughs.] No. You know, it’s so funny. I wish that I could figure out a way to have the impact that I had with The Tyra Show back in the day, without that schedule. But it’s a painful schedule. I’m going to try to figure that out. I have some ideas that I’m working on for how to be able to still deliver messages and uplift people, particularly young women, without doing a talk show.
You do so much already on social media.
Yeah, but social is just like duh, duh, duh. I really wanna have more of a captive audience and connect and help people get through difficult times, inner-beauty issues, outer-beauty issues, all of that. I just want to be that beacon for them again. So, I’m working on that. Hopefully, in 2019.
You’re also teaching branding at Stanford. I read the class description, and I wanted to take it.
Yeah, I’m going to be doing my second term teaching at Stanford Business School, personal branding. I cannot wait. I love my students and love teaching that class. The students have to give you feedback. Like, you have to leave the room and then they have these questionnaires, and they have to be totally honest. And my co-teacher and I got very high marks, and I was very touched that the lessons meant so much to them. Even now, they’ll reach out to me and tell me the things they’re doing based on my teachings, and that is the best thing in the world. I know I want to do a lot more teaching as the years go by. Right now, my course is a two-week course. But I do feel like it’s a lot of information in two weeks, and in years to come, perhaps I’ll be calling up the Stanford Business School dean and saying, “Let’s expand this class to a month. Now, let’s expand it to two months. Okay, maybe now it’s a whole semester.” We’ll see.
Is that your future? Is that what you dream about?
Yeah! I love teaching, and Top Model is teaching in a way. Entertaining teaching, but it’s like edutainment. And it gives me the most pleasure, whether it’s sitting at a desk and teaching my girls at Top Model or sitting at a dinner table with up-and-coming models. It gives me a lot of pleasure. A lot.
Before we finish, I wanted to ask about your experience of 2017. A lot of people felt like it was a brutal year. Was it for you, and if it was, how did you cope?
Yeah, there were a lot of things in 2017 that were very painful, that felt like you were walking backward. You know, my entire career was always about trying to burst the fashion glass ceiling and the black-woman glass ceiling and black-model glass ceiling. There were so many different things that my career was focused on, and with a lot of success. So sometimes I would get really sad and just say, Wow, all the hard work that I’ve done, all the hard work that my colleagues have done, all the hard work that my forefathers have done, from Iman to Beverly Johnson to Martin Luther King to Coretta Scott King to Rosa Parks. It goes on and on, from fashion to just general civil rights. I would get sad. But now I feel empowered, and I feel that whenever there’s something that’s really, really bad, what tends to happen is people get really, really angry and things become very, very good with a lot of hard, hard work. So I do see that the pendulum will swing in a positive direction where the world is full of love. People are so hungry for it. I mean, when Oprah gave her Golden Globes speech, the response was so strong because people are hungry, and she fed us the most beautiful, empowering sandwich ever. Like, yes! This is what we need. We need to feel uplifted. We need to feel hope when so many people feel hopeless and there’s so much hate. But I do feel that the tide will change in 2018, and by 2019, ’20, we’ll have a whole new world. I believe that.