Tyra Banks, model, businesswoman and tv host of America’s Next Top Model, talks to Abi Jackson about self-respect and why she doesn’t do diets.
America’s Next Top Model offers tears, tantrums and a tantalising glimpse into the lives of fashion models; but there’s no denying the main allure of the show is Tyra Banks’s motivational pep talks.
The woman radiates confidence, self-assuredness and, more importantly, she talks a lot of sense.
Though the vast majority of the young women watching the show will have no real desire (or hope) of becoming models, Banks’s little speeches are still fabulous; all about the empowerment, self-belief and respect.
Of course, critics would argue it’s all rather hypocritical - Banks is promoting fashion, an industry that plays a monumental role in the body-image woes plaguing so many.
Don’t be fooled, though - Banks is well aware of that.
“Body image is a really important issue,” she says. “For me, it really started with not feeling confident in my own body when I was a very young girl, about 11 years old. I was very thin, there was nothing I could do to gain weight, and I was very sad.
“Then when I started being a fashion model, about five years in, I started to gain weight - and I was told I was too fat! So after experiencing not feeling positive about myself being small, and being bigger, this is something I’m very passionate about.”
She says her “dear mother” - her role model - is to thank for helping her develop a steely inner confidence.
“She’s been very supportive of me when I wasn’t feeling good about myself,” Banks says of her mother, Caroline, who worked as a NASA photographer (she and Banks’s dad, Donald, a computer consultant, divorced when their daughter was six). “Throughout my teens, she knew the words to tell me, that actually, as a fashion model, my physicality was a product. It wasn’t my heart and soul and spirit they were saying wasn’t good enough if I didn’t get hired. Not every product’s right for every job.
“That allowed me to separate myself from the job, and that’s been very instrumental.”
Evidently so. Because Banks has been the subject of body-bashing headlines a number of times in more recent years and, you’ve got to hand it to her, she’s dealt with it admirably.
When those so-called ‘fat’ beach photos emerged of her in late 2006, to be splashed across the web and tabloids with captions like ‘America’s Next Top Waddle’, Banks responded by calmly admitting that yes, she was carrying a few more pounds than her younger catwalk days, but that she was “still hot”, certainly not “fat”.
In fact, she dedicated an episode of her Tyra Banks Show (during which she wore the very same swimsuit she’d been snapped in) to highlight how ridiculous and damaging the criticism was - not just to her, but to women the world over.
She was never a super skinny model anyway, and has made it clear that she thinks the size-zero trend is “wrong”.
Mind you, she’s keen to point out that the modelling world shouldn’t be setting the standard for mainstream body ideals anyway.
“There’s always been pressure for women to look a certain way,” she says.
“If you go way into the past, you had to be curvy. If you were skinny, you were considered poor. Women’s bodies go in and out of fashion. Right now, the general rule is that beauty is to be skinny. Women are hearing that and it’s messing with their head.
“I always talk about this with reference to the entertainment world,” she adds, “which is all about extreme talent, things people can rarely do.
“If you think about Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, Beyonce; these are people that have amazing voices and we pay to hear them because we admire their talent. And look at talented actors, top athletes; see what they can do.
“Then you look at fashion and these models who just look absolutely amazing. But the difference is, fashion’s the only industry that says if you don’t do that or look like that, then you’re not good enough. Nobody’s telling anyone that if they don’t sing like Beyonce, they’re not good enough.”
Banks is well aware though that much of society - particularly the millions of young girls and women who struggle with body image and self-esteem - cannot see this point, and cannot understand that it’s ok not to look ‘perfect’.
“And it leads to this negative ‘fat talk’,” she says, “girls thinking, ‘I’m not good enough’.”
Banks is just as passionate about a number of other issues away from the catwalk and camera lenses, and the Next Top Model empire (it’s shown all over the world, with countless countries launching their own contests).
She is a businesswoman, she’s involved in philanthropic projects, she founded the leadership and life skills development programme TZONE in 1999, which became a charity in 2005, and there’s her Tyra Banks Scholarship which helps young African-American women.
She makes no secret of the fact that she’s ambitious and a hard worker, and is as dedicated to supporting women in business and education as she has been talking out against domestic abuse.
“A lot of people look at women who are very driven as something negative, but I would look at that as something positive,” she says. “I’m very driven and I hope that I continue to inspire other young girls to not be apologetic for wanting to be successful, or make money, or change the future of their family, and not have to rely on a man for doing that.”