When Tyra Banks sashays down the Victoria's Secret catwalk in trademark Angel wings for the last time Wednesday, she'll be trading in her image as a glamorous supermodel in favor of her new calling: a down-home, just-one-of-the-girls media star.
Banks, who turns 32 next month and probably could pose in $10-million diamond-jeweled bras for a few more years, is quitting modeling, she says, while "the phone is still ringing." But that's not the only reason the first African American woman to land the covers of GQ, the Victoria's Secret catalog and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is stepping off the runway now. Banks is busy trying to build the media empire she has been dreaming about since she began her modeling career in Paris as a teenager.
"Phase two" is what she likes to call this new career chapter, which includes her hit UPN reality show franchise, "America's Next Top Model," and her 2-month-old -- and so far, modestly successful -- syndicated talk show, "The Tyra Banks Show," which airs twice daily here, at 10 a.m. on KTTV Channel 11 and at 5 p.m. on KCOP Channel 13.
It's an ambitious and in some ways unlikely transformation for Banks, who became a celebrity based on her almost unreal beauty and who now promotes herself as a real woman who's not afraid to confess her own flaws (cellulite!) and insecurities. Forget the past, Banks says that what we're seeing now is the true Tyra Banks.
"The beginning of my modeling career was about myself," the Inglewood-born Banks said, recently cuddled in a blanket on her dressing room sofa. "It was about how many covers can I get, or how many doors can I knock down -- because so many people were telling me as a black model I wouldn't be able to accomplish certain things and I wouldn't be successful in the fashion industry -- so it was all about me, me, me, me!
"And now with the young girls that write me about their insecurities and how they say that me being open and honest helps them has brought me here to this place. So instead of me, me, me -- of course, it's still my show, it's still my name on the show -- now with the success I've had, I have the power to change. It's using all of that to give back."
The way that Banks goes about it, with her hey-girlfriend style and confessional approach, appeals to the multicultural women who laugh and cry with her on her show when she reveals what a romantic breakup felt like, makes fun of her cellulite and removes all of her makeup on camera.
"I saw her walk onto the stage and she was so much skinnier than I expected," said Malinda Eubanks of San Diego, who celebrated her 22nd birthday with her mother and sister by attending a talk-show taping. "But then she sits down and starts to interview someone and she leans over and she has this fat roll over her pants, and I'm like, 'She's human.' "
But Banks' keeping-it-real manner does not sit well with many critics who have wondered if Banks' talk show has become a narcissistic forum for working out her personal issues: Banks has undergone an on-stage sonogram to prove that she does not have breast implants and confronted a porn actress who goes by the name of Tyra Banxxx. And she has invited longtime rival Naomi Campbell to air out their differences on the Nov. 18 show.
"I've done that throughout my whole entire career, actually, as a model," Banks said. "I would do a Victoria's Secret interview and I might tell the interviewer about my cellulite. But I think on the talk show, because it's my show, it's standing out a lot more. When I show photos before and after retouching, I still like the after. I'm still a victim of this society and what's considered beautiful. So if I have control over a photo, I will clean that up, fix that up. But I feel it's my responsibility to say this ain't real, this is entertainment. This is an image, but this ain't me."
To that end, Banks readily points out "my fake hair, my fake eyelashes" and on a recent episode lifted her dress to show her girdle to a young man in the audience who admitted to fantasizing sexually about her. Banks went so far as to tell the stunned man that she has cellulite on her buttocks, a main topic on an upcoming episode.
Her breasts, however, are another matter, and Banks admits it's one rumor she has not been able to shake. (Indeed, a Google search for "Tyra Banks breasts" brings up 491,000 entries.)
"It was about feeling frustrated that people thought this and I'm selling bras to little girls and women and I didn't do this! I didn't do this! This is what nature gave me," she said. "It's easy to say to myself, 'I don't care.' But whenever I hear it, it really gets to me. And it's not because I have something against implants. If you want to buy it, go ahead. This hair? It ain't mine. No big deal."
The media backlash -- the stories that claimed that this show, in which Banks ordered the men in the audience to leave so a doctor on stage could give her a checkup and compare her sonogram to another woman's who did have implants, was a self-absorbed ratings stunt -- surprised Banks.
"The show was 100% personal, but I didn't think it would be as big as it was," she said. "It was just something I wanted to do and now I feel so good. If anybody writes or says that I'm fake, I could care less anymore."
Banks got teary during the episode -- and there's a good reason for that, explains her mother, Carolyn London, who has worked alongside her daughter for 15 years and appears on the talk show regularly.
"It was just one more area of showing that she's human and that she has feelings," London said. "For her, it was a cleansing, an opportunity.... Everything she's doing is an effort to wipe away the mystique, the whole thing about being a model."
Banks said letters and e-mails poured in from girls and women who were touched by her revelations of insecurity and self-doubt in her 1998 book, "Tyra's Beauty Inside & Out." In it, Banks told stories of feeling desperate at age 11 when she unexplainably lost 40 pounds after reaching her present 5-foot-10 frame and everyone thought she had an eating disorder. Later, after her body filled out and she had moved to Paris at 17 to become a fashion model, she was criticized in the industry for her large forehead ("they called it a fivehead") and her voluptuousness. Translation: "I was too fat."
"I go in and out of insecurity like everyone else," Banks said. "They're not serious insecurities where I'm going to hurt myself or cry myself to sleep at night. But I feel it like everyone else."
Banks' ongoing dialogue with her readers motivated her to create T Zone, a self-esteem-building summer camp for 13- and 14-year-old girls in Los Angeles that she hopes to expand nationally.
Her work with "my girls" at T Zone, coupled with the reality TV craze, led Banks to develop "America's Next Top Model," the show that helped turn UPN in 2003 from a men's network (think wrestling and "Star Trek") to one that appealed to young women.
A fan of "The Real World," who wished that "American Idol" filmed the singers behind the scenes of their performances, Banks said the idea to blend those two shows in the world of modeling "hit me in my face" one morning while she was making tea. Her agent was skeptical, but UPN President Dawn Ostroff bought the show in a matter of hours. In its fifth cycle, the show is No. 1 in its time period (8 p.m. Wednesdays) among 18- to 34-year-old women, the demographic most important to UPN, CBS' sister network.
"The core of 'America's Next Top Model' is about who you are inside and breaking down all the barriers for these girls so they can get to know their real selves and let the real them come out and blossom," Ostroff said.
What Ostroff never expected was for Banks to take her producer credit on "Top Model" so seriously. Apparently, nobody had informed Ostroff that Banks had been critiquing television commercials, shows and movies since she was a little girl, making her mother "hate going to the movies with her to this very day."
"I just didn't think Tyra had that talent," Ostroff said. "I knew she had a great idea, but I didn't know that she would be an incredible executive producer, where she would have the ability to edit, create different segments, and where she would be so great in casting. She so could have phoned this show in."
The first season wasn't easy for Banks, who says even members of her staff disrespected her because they expected her to act like a "stupid supermodel."
" 'Top Model' helped so much for people to see that I have an opinion and a voice and that there is a stereotype about models not being the sharpest knife in the drawer," she said. "Even people who worked for me came up and apologized after seeing that I was in the editing bay every single day and that the show was very successful."
The show's success helped Telepictures Productions sell Banks' syndicated talk show, which is available in 90% of U.S. markets, said Telepictures President Jim Paratore. Paratore and his staff started talking to Banks about hosting her own daily talk show about five years ago when she was appearing monthly on "Oprah."
"We were sold on Tyra before 'Top Model,' but it did help us sell other people on buying the show -- not only because of the popularity and the ratings but because she basically redefined the UPN network," Paratore said. "There's not a lot of people like Tyra who have the ability to cross over from topics with real people ... and then also sit down and feel comfortable with a celebrity or go out and do a field tape bit."
Among the 118 syndicated shows on the air, "The Tyra Banks Show," which draws 1.8 million viewers, ranks 69th in total viewers and 47th among 18- to 49-year-old women, according to Nielsen Media Research. On the show, Banks has helped couples work out marital problems; exposed singles to new dating methods, such as "blirting," (BlackBerry flirting); and helped hurricane victims.
Whatever the issue, one thing you can count on is that once Banks struts down the runway in lingerie for the last time (CBS will air the Victoria's Secret show on Dec. 6), the focus of her life will be talking. And talking.
"I talk so much, it's ridiculous," she said and laughed. "And I also wanted to be the voice of my generation. Because I tried to sing, child. And I was about to get signed by a major record label and I had to make a decision: Sing and have a decent voice -- it's not horrible, but it ain't Whitney Houston -- or do something that I know I can feel strong and comfortable and one day be at the top of my game with. And I was like, OK, no singing. Voice of the generation it is -- not a voice on the radio."