Smize Cream isn’t just an ice cream shop. Tyra Banks hopes her new ice cream company, named after her signature modeling expression of “smiling with your eyes,” is the start of an empire with a reach and scope akin to Disney.
“Walt Disney is one of my inspirations, my role models,” Banks, 47, tells me during a chat outside the flagship Smize shop at Santa Monica Place two days ahead of its July 2 grand opening. “I look at what he did and how it’s still relevant to this day. His legacy lives on — the family entertainment, the happiest place on Earth. That’s what I want, a legacy.”
Smize comprises not only a collection of seven ice cream flavors, including The Best Vanilla I Ever Had, Cookie Caramel Queen and Chocolate Barbeque (think smoky dark chocolate), but also a cast of original animated characters including DJ Splitz and Lil Y (the latter two inspired by Banks’ mom and son, respectively). “We’re going to do movies and cartoons,” Banks says. “We have a book proposal about DJ Splitz being the matriarch of the family and her grandson Lil Y who thinks he has magic, but he doesn’t. One day magic happens involving a factory and ice cream, and it changes the fate of their lives.”
Banks knows about life taking unexpected turns. Growing up in Inglewood, Calif., she had dreams of making it in Hollywood. “I’m an entertainer and always have been. I was going to go to college to write and produce television,” she says. “But modeling happened to me because I was discovered. Somebody said, ‘You should be a model.’ I took the chance and was very successful. But I’ve always come back to my roots, which is storytelling. … Smize Cream is an entertainment company that happens to sell ice cream.”
Surveying today’s modeling landscape, where diversity is more encouraged and supported than ever, Banks says she never thought she’d see such progress. “With ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ we did things and people looked at us like we were crazy. I would send girls that were thicker, size 12 and 14 — I’m a 12 right now — to castings, and they didn’t have clothes for them,” she says. “As much as I was trying to make change, the industry wasn’t ready for it. So to now see that and to see it’s a revolution, I never thought it’d be in my lifetime. I preached about it my entire career, but never thought I would see it.”
She recalls the racism she faced when looking for an agent early in her career. “They’d look me right in the face and say, ‘No, you’re Black, and we already have a Black girl,’ Banks says. “Then I looked at the wall in the agency, and there was literally one Black girl out of a hundred — one out of a hundred!”
Banks has undoubtedly conquered the worlds of modeling, television (she now hosts “Dancing With the Stars”) and even publishing with her New York Times best-selling young adult novel, “Modelland.” She did, however, encounter controversy after segments from early “Next Top Model” episodes resurfaced during the onset of #MeToo and Times Up, and she was called out for being less than complimentary about contestants’ looks, among other things. Banks has since apologized.
Her next move, she says, is opening the Modelland amusement park at Santa Monica Place just steps away from the Smize Cream shop. The launch, which has been delayed due to the pandemic, is another major step in building an empire that also includes Banks’ almost 14 million Twitter followers and another 6.7 million on Instagram.
Banks says that some of her drive comes from proving her naysayers wrong. “As a model it was ‘No, because you’re Black.’ Then it was ‘No, because you’re curvy.’ Now as an entrepreneur it’s, ‘Well, you used to be a model,’” she says. “Oftentimes, I’ll be pitching something to someone in a meeting, and toward the end they’re like, ‘Wow, you really know this. You’re a businesswoman.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I understand I used to walk on a runway in my panties, but even that I did as a businesswoman. There were way more beautiful [models] that didn’t have cellulite all up their booty, but you were paying attention to me because I was marketing myself.”