Phebe Wahl Phebe Wahl | August 20, 2020 | People Features National
From a new gig as host of Dancing with the Stars to the debut of her ice cream line, Tyra Banks has an uncanny knack for serving up exactly what the country craves—all with her signature smize.
When I marvel at the list of barriers Tyra Banks has broken—as the first Black model to grace the covers of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue and GQ—she is quick to correct that she was, in fact, the first female model ever to grace the cover of GQ. “I was actually the first female model,” she says. “It’s very difficult for people to look at a Black woman and think that she was the first woman—you know what I mean?” Although the former Victoria’s Secret Angel has been honored by her many firsts, Banks notes it is what happens after these doors open that matters most. “It’s nice at first, but you also want to get it out of the way because you just want it to be normal,” she says.
Regularly ranked among the world’s most influential people by Time magazine, Banks continues to break barriers at a pace that shows no signs of slowing. In typical Banks fashion, this fall she will debut not only as host of Dancing With the Stars, but also as executive producer. “I think it’s a very powerful message, particularly being a woman,” she says. “I’ve been executive producer of shows that I created, but to be trusted with an American institution... and for ABC to say, ‘Not only do we want you to be the ringmaster, but we want your input on how we can make certain changes to this show to make it more relevant to bring a certain excitement’ … To have that trust is probably the biggest compliment to me.” Banks notes that for many years people mistook her as merely the host of America’s Next Top Model—the long-running reality series that ran for a mind-blowing 24 seasons—while she was, in fact, both the creator and executive producer of the show—who also just so happened to be the host. “So, finally, I feel like, wow, there’s some trust there from one of the most powerful entertainment institutions on the planet, ABC.”
“There is a robust team that is working very, very hard to create the safest environment possible,” Banks says of how the live show will film this fall amid the pandemic. The seasoned host teases that this fall will be very different. “We’ve been working very closely to bring even more relevance to the show—and to add technology and things that are connected to pop culture and elements of fashion,” she says. The fashion will no doubt be fierce, and the costume changes aplenty. Thankfully, this top model is a seasoned pro when it comes to quick changes. “We’re going to try to keep the audience guessing ‘What [is she] going to wear now?’... not just this week, but what does she wear in the next 30 minutes—you know, bring a Met Ball slant to it,” the supermodel says. “Dancing With the Stars has a theme each week; I would love to try to dress in the theme as well.” Might we even see Banks bust a move? “Maybe the cha-cha just because that’s something I can do like hip-hop,” she says. “There are so many things we are doing that will be new and exciting.”
When asked where she gets her charismatic confidence, the California-bred beauty humbly credits her mother. “My mom was a champion for me. I don’t know if I would have been able to have the success that I’ve had without her strength and guidance,” she says. “There are times when I wanted to give up—just walk away—so her being there and saying ‘I did not raise a quitter’ was very integral to me. She taught me about sacrificing, about tunnel vision, about stepping up… and the triple dues that I needed to pay for being a Black woman, or the quadruple dues I needed to pay for just being a woman in the entertainment industry.” Banks keeps her family notoriously close, noting that her mom lives with her today. “I hope to teach my own son that sometimes we have to work a little bit harder just to get a sliver of what other people have, as people of color,” she says. “He’s going to be living in a totally different day, so I think it’s going to be a lot better for him. There will be a lot more open doors for him. But one thing that I didn’t really focus on that much was personal time and the prices of work, work, work. I want to show him that the balance is important.”
The supermodel notes one of the blessings of the current crisis is more family time. “This time has also allowed me to be closer to my son than ever,” Banks shares. “At the same time, it’s a huge, huge challenge. Whether you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, having to be the teacher too is a huge challenge, and wanting to make sure that I’m enriching him as best I can.”
Despite the pandemic delaying plans to open her ModelLand theme park, the consummate businesswoman quickly pivoted. “I’ve been working on it for 10 years,” she shares of the project originally slated to open in May in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s a location-based shopping and theatrical attraction.” Banks decided this was the year to launch her ice cream brand named after her signature smize, Smize Cream, originally set to launch in conjunction with ModelLand. “We looked at our entire portfolio and said, ‘What can we open now that would still delight people, particularly during a challenging time in the world?’” The answer spoke to Banks’ much-published passion and, in my opinion, the unsung hero of the pandemic: ice cream. “Research has shown that it actually increases happiness so much that during World War II they took off tax on ice cream,” Banks says. “We were like, this could bring happiness to the world! This can also allow our company to still employ people… and tap into my own passion, which is ice cream.”
And leave it to Banks to serve us with a smize. “It’s the most amazing, indulgent ice cream,” she says with excitement. “And the differentiator for us is that in every serving there is what we call a smile prize, which is a chocolate truffle that you have to find as you’re eating it. You don’t know where it’s going to show up! Each truffle is filled with a different center, depending on the flavor of the ice cream. It’s like the new Cracker Jack, except it’s edible genius,” she says of the product that will ship nationwide starting this fall. Banks will open a stand-alone shop in Santa Monica at Santa Monica Place.
Banks famously said that it was her beloved ice cream that stood in her way when preparing for one of her swimsuit covers, but the supermodel always has a healthy attitude when it comes to weighing joy over out-of-touch body ideals—and the power of ice cream as an instant mood boost. “There’s a lot of research about it just being something that makes you happy,” she says. “I wouldn’t advise to do what I do, which is sometimes eat two pints a night! I have an ice cream company—and I want to sell ice cream—but I don’t advise doing that,” she says laughing. “I do think moderation is everything. It’s a treat. So exercise, but find delight in the things that make you happy during these most challenging times.”
It is this trademark joie de vivre—and the sparkle behind that smize—that makes Banks so magnetic on camera and is the true secret to her success. She is quick to credit the origin of her spunk: “my crazy mama,” she says. “Today she is singing love songs at the top of her lungs and my son is singing along with her! I love it. She’s cleaning out a basement and singing,” Banks marvels. “I do try to bring joy. I try to be a leader—a joyful leader. It’s just kind of my nature I guess. But there are times when things are hard. I cry.” It is this authenticity and vulnerability that deepen her allure, no doubt. The emotions—and the love of ice cream—is real and fans can feel it. With her power to connect, there is no doubt we will see more from this model-turned-mogul. “My production company is about to sign a really big deal with a huge network,” she says gleefully. “We’re going to be producing more Life-Size [the 2000 film], more television shows, scripted and unscripted films, cartoons for kids—so we’re very excited about that.”
We’ll take a double scoop of whatever she’s having, please.
Photography by: Joshua Jordan/Trunk Archive