Voice to match?

On UPN's competition series "America's Next Top Model," supermodel Tyra Banks is partly responsible for bestowing instant cover girl validity on a woman she and a panel of judges believe is worthy of fame and fortune in the glitzy world of beauty sales, runway domination and photographic notoriety. But the show, now in its second hit season, has been a source of newfound legitimacy for the 30-year-old Banks as well, since she's its creator and executive producer.

It's part of a long-standing strategy of Banks' -- along with charity work and occasional acting forays -- to be more than just your average Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and Victoria's Secret catalog icon. (She was the first African American woman to grace those covers.) The real judging to come may be when the Los Angeles native launches her bid to be America's next top singer with her first music video, filmed with the "Top Model" contestants and debuting with the Feb. 24 episode.

There's never been a model-turned-recording-artist who's hit it big. Are you nervous?

I'm very excited! I've been singing for about six years, secretly, because I feel like people are going to think I'm a dumb model if I start talking about it and have nothing to play or show. But this has been a passion of mine. I feel like a really strong performer on stage. I don't want to do anything I'm bad at. It's not a Milli Vanilli situation. [Laughs.] I can really sing.

In music, training is important. In modeling, what's harder to fix: a bad runway walk or a one-note face?

The face. If the girl is really blocked, it's difficult to get through. There's a top model now, when she was young her face had one expression and I did not understand why she was famous. It took her over 10 years, but now she's one of the best models out there.

Judge Janice Dickinson has a flair for harsh opinions. Do you feel the need to balance her out, the way Paula Abdul does with Simon Cowell on "American Idol"?

Sometimes Janice will make a statement that the girls can do nothing about. Like "Your feet are too big! I hate big feet!" What can someone do about that? Then I'll say, "So you've got a size 11. Turn them this way, they'll look like a size 9." That's the way I critique the girls. But we love to hate Janice. And hey, I hired the woman. [Laughs]

The bad handling of criticism on the show is fascinating. Why are some of the contestants so prickly about it?

It's a case of being the prettiest girl in your town, your school. You get all the guys, you're prom queen, then you come on my show and get a reality check. The girl on your left is more beautiful on the inside and getting farther than you and may not be as pretty. Then the girl on your right is way more beautiful than you and a [pain] and still getting ahead. A lot of girls can't handle it, and they realize they're a lot more comfortable in their hometowns being the big fish in a small pond.

How would your 18-year-old self do on this show?

I would not have gotten in. Physically, I probably would have gotten a callback, but I would have treated the auditions process like a college admissions interview, where you have to have the right answers. The girls that acted like that with me, I was like, "I don't need these Miss America answers. I need you to be real."

When you're scouting for a "Top Model" finalist, what are you looking for?

The main thing is potential, the type that only people in the fashion industry can see. When I first started modeling, I wasn't the gorgeous girl. I had a big forehead and narrow chin, my eyes are really big and far apart. But I guess that's what agencies were attracted to. We get beauty-queen-pageant girls come in, but they're a dime a dozen. That's not what necessarily makes a top model. It's the imperfection.

Will you keep a girl around longer because she's a drama queen?

I can't do that. I need the fashion industry to respect [the show], so I can't have girls continuing when the industry is rolling their eyes like, "Come on, that's a joke."

What do your colleagues in modeling think of the program?

I've had women who were top models in the '70s tell me it's difficult to watch because it's a reminder of what they went through. Everything that [the girls] have to go through is legitimate. Everything they've done I've done. Then there are people like Iman, who never miss an episode. And now the big designers want to be involved in season three, when before we were begging them in season one, "Ple-e-e-ease!"

Who's surprised you by admitting to being a "Top Model" fan?

There were a lot of famous people at the Golden Globes telling me, but if I were to out them, they'd probably want to kick my butt. So let's just say A-list actors on the stage receiving and giving awards.

-- Robert Abele

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