The world's most famous supermodel, Tyra Banks, stands on a soundstage in Culver City, Calif., and barks orders at a beautiful-but-beleaguered cast member of her top-rated reality show, "America's Next Top Model." The Tyra trainee swivels her head again and again to gaze into a TV camera, but the real Tyra wants more. "Whip it fast and tight!" Banks commands. "Relax your mouth, as if you've had a shot of novocaine. It's too soap opera. Novocaine mouth!"
Impatient, Banks demonstrates for the rookie, breaking down the mechanics of head-turning as a choreographer would deconstruct a pirouette.
"We're in a day and age when these kids want instant success, and they don't want to work for it. I feel tough love prepares these girls," Banks says later, defending her cutting style; in one episode she screams at a contestant so loudly Banks' eyes threaten to burst out of her head. But she admits to a second motive: People would rather watch nasty than nice. "I've got to sell a TV show."
Genetically blessed with creamy caramel skin, feline emerald eyes and a perfect pout, Tyra Banks made a name (and a fortune) for herself as the face of Victoria's Secret, Cover Girl and Sports Illustrated. Stomping down fashion runways from the age of 15, she is 32 now, an unmitigated modeling machine. She can flip through a dozen looks — sexy, pensive, dreamy, flirty — in a dozen seconds. She can coo, "Who will be America's next top model?" 20 different ways for promos. Even in front of a wind machine, she seems able to control every hair on her head.
Yet Banks officially retired from modeling last year. And as highly paid as she was — at her peak she could earn $50,000 a day and had a lingerie contract worth $4 million a year — her next fortune could be far larger: Tyra Banks is making a credible run at becoming the next Oprah Winfrey for the younger set.
Buoyed by the success of "ANTM," as fans call the model-search show, Banks launched her own talk show last year, selling it to TV stations in 190 markets and owning a hefty stake in it. Now it has been renewed for a sophomore season — just as "ANTM," on the air for three years and 25 percent-owned by its star host, starts another run as the centerpiece of CW, the new network formed by the merger of Viacom's UPN and Time Warner's WB.
The double duty pays fabulously well: Banks earned upward of $18 million last year, far more than most supermodels earn; she ranks 84 on the FORBES Celebrity list. But it demands a grueling schedule. "America's Next Top Model" churns out 13 new weekly episodes every six months or so, and "The Tyra Banks Show" turns out 170 episodes a year. For five months last year, from August to December, Banks worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, taping two talk-show episodes three days a week (plus daily segments for "ANTM") and preparing for her last fashion show for Victoria's Secret. She awoke at 4 a.m., was in makeup by 5 a.m. and ran on three or four hours of sleep each night. "There was a burning in my stomach every single day," she says.
Talk show apprentice
Oprah Winfrey, with a net worth of $1.4 billion and ranked third on the FORBES celeb list, has been the unchallenged queen of daytime talk for two decades; Banks even apprenticed on Winfrey's show for two seasons, starting in 1999, as a semi-regular contributor. Yet the supermodel upstart fares especially well among a group coveted by advertisers: young women. Among women ages 18 to 34, Banks' talk show draws 2.2 million viewers a week and has delivered the highest daytime ratings in years for stations in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. Some 36 percent of the Tyra audience is under 35, double the percentage of that age group among Oprah's viewers; almost 60 percent of the Oprah audience is 50 or older.
Banks' appeal popped when her first show, "ANTM," debuted on UPN in 2003. Reality shows were hot, and she conceived hers as Fox's "American Idol" meets MTV's "Real World," set in the fashion business. She pitched it to veteran reality producer Ken Mok, who said simply, "Hell, yes!" He still co-owns it with Banks and UPN's parent, Viacom. The formula clicked instantly: pretty girls crying, fighting and having every molecule on their insecure little bodies brutally critiqued by Banks and her fellow judges.
Some 43 percent of the 18-to-34-year-olds watching had never before tuned in to UPN. UPN's focus soon shifted from geeky guys (it had a "Star Trek" spinoff) to hip femmes. "Before she came, UPN was a confused network," says Dawn Ostroff, president of the CW, which will air "ANTM" Wednesday nights and rerun it on Sundays. Last year "ANTM" trailed only the most-watched show, "American Idol," among women younger than 35.
The new series was a hit despite scant initial promotion. "That spoke volumes to me about this connection she had with women. It was a lot deeper than just being a model," says James Paratore, president of Time Warner's syndication unit, Telepictures. His shop now distributes her talk show and co-owns it with Banks' firm, Bankable Productions. Time Warner co-owns the CW network, letting its Telepictures unit cross-promote; Banks already regularly has contestants from "ANTM" appear on her talk show. Almost 90 percent of the "ANTM" audience also watches the Tyra talk show, Paratore says.
Tyra Banks gets real
On the talk show the statuesque host truly has come into her own. She is 25 pounds heftier than the typical model, and she relishes debunking the glamorous illusions of supermodels to reveal herself as a cellulite-prone, baggy-eyed average gal. She gleefully shows unretouched photos of herself (before an editor has trimmed extra inches from her thighs and waist). She regularly appears on camera without makeup, revealing the dark circles under her eyes. She paraded around in a fat suit for a day, then cried about how people had treated her. She once brought on a doctor with a sonogram machine to prove she doesn't have breast implants, as had long been rumored. In another segment Banks confronted famously hot-tempered rival Naomi Campbell about their long-running feud. "I was tired of having to deal with you," she told Campbell, accusing her of having tried to sabotage her early on.
She came to this success only after failing at other pursuits. For a decade she tried acting, guest-starring on sitcoms and giving a few stilted turns in such big-screen turkeys as Jerry Bruckheimer's "Coyote Ugly." Then she tried to make herself into the next Mariah Carey. In 2003, even as her modeling show was under way, Banks hired Carey's music manager Benny Medina, who had also worked with Jennifer Lopez. "Oh child, that was a dream," she says. "I sounded decent, but you shouldn't ever do something just because you're only decent at it." Her first (and only) single, "Shake Ya Body," debuted on "ANTM" and was the most downloaded item on the UPN Web site, but Banks balked at releasing the song for radio play.
Now Banks and Medina are working on new projects. Five Bankable-owned TV shows are in various stages of development, and Banks could appear in all of them. One series would use celebs as the contestants in an "ANTM"-style format. She also is trying acting again, starring in a film that begins shooting next spring, but this time she will also be the producer, picking the director, writer and co-star. Banks also has formed a licensing firm and may offer her own line of midprice lingerie (rivaling her old client Victoria's Secret), and she's working on launching an Internet community with her "ANTM" partner, Ken Mok, and consumer guru Krish Menon.
"Most models have a booking mentality. They're fine as long as they know where to go and what to wear. That's never been acceptable in Tyra's career path," Medina says.
Martha's next apprentice?
Banks hopes to emulate Martha Stewart (in terms of the franchise Stewart built, not her felony conviction), but she allows that first she still must tackle the arcane mysteries of finance. "I was embarrassed when a businessman friend asked, 'What's the yearly budget of your talk show? What's the per-episode budget?' And I looked at him with these blank, typical-model eyes and said, 'I don't know.' I call myself a businesswoman and I don't know that? So that is my goal next year — to really dissect the budget."
She also aims to loosen up and spend a bit more of the ample wealth she has built. When Banks was growing up, she lived with her younger brother and her mother in a one-bedroom apartment in the gritty Inglewood section of Los Angeles, which made her frugal — and fearful of losing everything. "I have a poverty demon," she says. "I'll ask my accountant if I can afford something, and he'll say, 'What are you talking about?'" Of course she can.
By the time Banks was 19, she had saved all of $10,000, which her mother, Carolyn London, who managed her for the first seven years of her career, placed with a Merrill Lynch money manager. The supermodel has stuck with the unnamed adviser ever since. She owns homes in New York and Los Angeles and just sold one in Florida. She lost $100,000 on an Internet investment with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. "But I'd do it again." When she formed her own production company, she originally called it Ty Ty Baby, named for her childhood nickname, but her business sense trumped nostalgia and she switched to Bankable Productions.
"And so far," she says, "my production company has been very bankable."