Tyra Banks is sitting in her trailer on the set of “America’s Next Top Model” on a Saturday afternoon in Santa Monica, Calif. She’s hair-and-makeup-ready, wearing sweat pants and about two hours away from taping the finale of Season 24, which is expected to last well past midnight.
Though she’s working on the weekend, the day before shooting the finale, Banks was hard at work on another project: her upcoming book. And the day before that, the new mother spent all day on the “Top Model” set, shooting the penultimate episode of the season and sitting in executive meetings to plan the big finale.
That busy schedule is why Banks stepped away from her on-camera duties last season of “Top Model,” selecting Rita Ora to host, while she continued her producing work. But after overwhelming noise from fans, Banks decided that a one-season hiatus was enough, and it was time to get back to wearing many hats as creator, executive producer, and the face of the franchise that now airs in over 180 countries.
“My social media was really blowing up,” Banks says of the viewer reaction to the last season of “Top Model” when Rita Ora was cast as host, in lieu of Banks, who made the decision to step down from her on-camera role. Speaking of her co-creator, Ken Mok, Banks says, “We had a lot of spirited conversations of him really wanting me to come back and me being not so sure, but then I started seeing the feedback on my feeds and I couldn’t ignore it, and so finally I called him. It was kind of an uproar.”
Aside from returning as host, this season of “Top Model” will have one big change — there is no age limit for the model contestants. Banks and her team felt the progressive decision would send an important message to the age-limiting modeling industry.
The model-turned-mogul admits it was difficult not to serve as host last season, but she wanted to take a break to balance her busy schedule of juggling a multi-layered career and motherhood. “I’m kind of jealous of actresses because they do a movie, they do PR, and then they go away for a year, whereas I’m like a corporate worker and I go to work every single day and I don’t have these hiatuses,” she explains. “So it was nice to not have to be in production and have to be on camera, but when everyone was telling me to come back, and I’m like, ‘I’m done, I’m done, I’m done.’ I didn’t realize how special this was to me and how much it was my baby until that first day I got back to set and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m home.’ There’s a difference between me looking at like this and also producing and also executing.”
Here, Banks talks to Variety about the new season of “America’s Next Top Model,” her busy career, and her experience as a women in the entertainment industry.
The last television show you hosted before returning this season to “Top Model” was “Fab Life,” which was abruptly canceled, after you stepped away from the series. What happened there?
One of the reasons was I felt I have a self-funded business in Tyra Beauty and millions of dollars poured into that of my own pocket, and I felt like the time I was spending at “Fab Life” was pulling away from something that was really important to me and is more of a legacy business. When I had “The Tyra Banks Show,” it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Having a talk show and doing six shows a week is just nonstop, and toward my last season I was so stressed because I was doing two “Top Model” seasons per year and the talk show all year and I was overlapping. That’s why I’ve learned to not overlap, so I don’t go crazy. I felt like there was a meat hook in my back and I was walking onto the stage and the meat hook is pulling me back to my dressing room saying, “You need to just stop. You need to rest.” And I’m just pulling against it and my flesh is tearing. That’s how I felt. So if I felt that way and had fie very successful years, why the hell did I say yes to another talk show? Meat hook, in the back! One of the main reasons I took “Fab Life” was to promote my beauty company, but I realized that being on the show all the time, and then doing meetings [for her cosmetics line] in the alley behind the show, I’m like, wait, this is so much money that I’m spending over here on this business and I’m checking in between commercial breaks and I was already so exhausted even after two months of “Fab Life,” so I stepped away, which is not my thing — I’m not a quitter.
Have you ever quit anything else in your life?
I was a Victoria’s Secret model for 10 years and they wanted to renew my contract. I didn’t renew, but I don’t consider that quitting. I consider that transitioning. “Fab Life” was like, ‘Peace out. I’m good.’ I think it was one of the best decisions I made because it got canceled a couple months later anyway.”
“America’s Next Top Model” has now already aired on VH1 for one season, but what are the differences you’ve observed moving the show from the CW to VH1?
When we retired the show [from CW], I thought it was going to be retired forever. We had a big wrap party at Ken’s [Mok] house, he transformed his backyard to this very fancy, gorgeous thing with all this food — we had a homemade donut bar and a coffee station thing — and I paid for for half of it, so we spent all this money on this wrap party, and then a couple minutes later, there’s bidding war and all these other networks want it, and I’m like, ‘What?! Did we have to do that wrap party?’ We ended up going with VH1 and while I wasn’t on the hosting side, I still was on the producing side, and VH1 is very passionate about ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ They actually are involved in a very micro way. They were very hands on and excited and they really wanted to inject new life into the show and modernize it, and I think they did a really good job with us in doing that.
You also host “America’s Got Talent” on NBC, and have a busy schedule to juggle. How long are your days on the set of “Top Model?”
“Top Model” is different every day. Let’s say I’m judging — I get in around 9 a.m., and we can finish around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. But that’s only if it’s just judging. There can be crazy days.
How has motherhood influenced your career decisions and scheduling?
I love taking him [her two-year-old son, York] to work. I have nurseries in my contracts now, so he has a nursery at “AGT” and he has a nursery at “Top Model.” I want him to understand what his mother does and that she’s not just this lady on TV when he gets older. I want him to understand that his mother works and she’s a business person and working behind the scenes and all of that. I’m trying to expose him to that side of my business, but not put his face all over everything. He’s literally behind the scenes. So that feels really good. And I wasn’t doing that at first — I was seeing my son in the morning and seeing him after work, which is pretty much a typical working mom thing, but then I was like, let me take advantage of the fact that I am on sets and I am the boss on a lot of my sets and to be able to incorporate him into my life. What’s happened now is now he’s even more attached to me because he sees me more, so now he’s pulling away from the nanny.
When you were working as a model back in the day, did you have aspirations to do more beyond the modeling industry?
I always knew I was going to produce TV and film because that’s what I was going to go to college for and I deferred that to go to Paris to model. So that was always my goal. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to be a showrunner and in charge, I just knew I was going to be a really strong part of the creative part of the team. It’s just kind of full circle for me — deferring film and television and university for modeling, and now I’m right back to where I always wanted to be. Now, I say that modeling happened to me, but I happened to TV and film because that was the goal and the dream.
You also fit in time to teach at Stanford. Why was that important to you?
I had spoken at Stanford about a year before I taught there. One of the associate deans was in the audience with one of their professors, and I finished speaking and then I was in the back just taking pictures and talking to some of the students and they asked me if one of their professors could come in the back, and she was like, ‘That wasn’t a speech or a talk. That was a class. Have you ever thought about teaching?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s something I want to do maybe later, like in 20 years when I retire.’ And she’s like, ‘Well what about next year?’ I was like, ‘What?!’ I really love teaching and educating and doing it in a fun way, so we stayed in touch and we ended up creating this curriculum in a class they don’t have at Stanford called Project You and it’s all about personal branding and taking their brands to the next level and it was the most amazing experience for me. My style is very ‘edu-tainment’ — not just education but ‘edu-tainment.’ It really is engaging and fun and catchy and I’m creating my own acronyms and things for them to really hold onto.
Do you have any regrets in your career?
This isn’t a regret but I wonder — I was making a heck of a lot of money being a Victoria’s Secret model back in the day, and it was very risky for me to say no to a three year contract that was on the table again. “Top Model” was doing well, but it was still new and my talk show hadn’t been renewed yet because I just started my talk show, and I said no to that Victoria’s Secret contract. Of course it all ended up okay, but if somebody that I was mentoring asked me what to do, I’d say ‘Girl you better sign that contract and do that talk show at the same time!’ It was risky. In hindsight, of course it worked out, but I don’t know if it was the best decision at that time to put all my eggs into one basket — well, two baskets.
You have become a media mogul making decisions both in front of and behind the camera, but that’s not the case for most women in the industry. How do you think the industry is progressing?
You know it’s so interesting because as a model, going back to my past, I didn’t feel the women glass ceiling because that industry is run by women — female models are paid sometimes 10 times more than a male model on a set. I didn’t have that mindset that I’m a woman and it’s holding me back. I felt I’m a black model and that’s what’s getting in the way of me having the same opportunities as other people — or should I say, it was getting in the way of other people, it wasn’t in my way. So that was more of my challenge. And then I started to gain weight, and I felt like me having a butt and boobs now, I was losing jobs because of that, so I needed to pivot and change to a career that celebrates that instead of me trying to starve myself. That’s when I got into producing film and television. So, I didn’t feel the woman thing, but I felt the model thing.
What do you mean by “the model thing?”
I felt, ‘Oh, you’re a model, so what could you possibly know about producing television?’ Until I produced a hit and they’re like, ‘Oh, now we trust you. What else do you have?’ So based on just my past, my fight has been a little different. It’s the model thing, and I think she’ll always be inside of me, whether other people are seeing it or not, so I’m always like, ‘Let me show you how smart I am! Let me prove to you how focused I am!’ Even when I’m 80 years old, I’ll be like, ‘But I’m a smart model!’