Born December 4th 1973, Tyra Banks has become one of the biggest names in fashion. A truly modern woman, Banks has made her name in modelling and television, bringing the two together to form one of the most successful reality television franchises in history.
A career made of firsts; Tyra signed with Elite Model Management aged 17. Banks’ modelling career began in Paris, when during her first week in the fashion capital; she wowed so many designers that she booked a (then unprecedented) 25 shows – a record for a newcomer.
She became the first black model to feature on the covers of GQ and Sports Illustrated magazines, and only the third African-American model to secure a cosmetics contract. The contract was with Cover Girl, an affiliation that continues to this day with Tyra’s show America’s Next Top Model.
One of the most sought after faces of the Nineties, Tyra was a consistent presence in magazine editorials and did campaigns for brands as diverse as Ralph Lauren and H&M, plus runway duty for designers Bill Blass, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors and Yves Saint Laurent. Banks also scored numerous magazine covers ranging from Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. In 1997, she received the VH1 award for Supermodel of the Year, and in the same year, became the first ever African-American to grace the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
If Tyra’s career had stopped at this point, there would be plenty to discuss. Her pro-active barrier-breaking paved the way for girls like Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn. Banks bridged the gap between commercial and high-fashion like few other models: her work with lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret made her a household name in America, while still commanding respect in the world of high-fashion.
Nearing the end of her own modelling career, Banks began to examine what else was on offer. She did some television and film work, and found her interest in television re-ignited (she had initially planned, before modelling, to go to university to study television production). Tyra came up with the idea of merging her two passions: television and fashion. She would create her own reality show. The concept would be simple: ordinary girls from across America would have the opportunity to audition for the show and a small group would be selected to travel to New York to live and work as models. They would go on photo-shoots, participate in challenges, and every week, one hopeful would be eliminated. The process would be repeated until there was only one girl left: America’s Next Top Model.
The first series (or cycle) was aired in 2003 on a small television network in the States. It was an unexpected hit, and Tyra suddenly found herself in great demand. In 2005, she made the decision to officially retire from modelling to concentrate on her television career, and we all know what happened next.
America’s Next Top Model became more than a successful reality show, it became a phenomenon. Watched in 170 countries, the format was shipped out to 17 countries that now hold their own respective model searches. Many of the contestants have found success, including Alice Burdeu (winner of Australia’s Next Top Model series 2) who has become a favourite on the runways of Europe and New York, walking for the biggest names in fashion, including Marc Jacobs, Lanvin and Alexander McQueen.
The show has captured the imagination of the public and the desire to see the next series shows no signs of slowing down. Six years on, with the 13th cycle due to air in the UK this January, ANTM is still hot property and there are few other shows that can make such a claim.
The real triumph of the show is what it has done for modelling’s PR. Previous to the show, modelling was perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a closed book, but Tyra’s idea to overcome this was to explode myths and break down stereotypes, proving that when it comes to high fashion, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Knocking sideways the idea that models are invariably blue-eyed blondes, the public’s fashion education began in earnest.
You will now be hard-pressed to find a fashion-conscious teenager that doesn’t know the meaning of ‘editorial’. The exploration of the fashion industry, from the inside out, proved to be the show’s calling card. The viewer was given privileged access to what goes on at a photo-shoot, taking an in-depth look at the respective roles of the stylist, photographer and creative director, seeing how they work with a model to create an image. It did modelling a tremendous service in showing that fashion is first and foremost a business.
It also shows the (decidedly unglamorous but very necessary) process of go-sees - another term every teenager is now familiar with. Contestants during every series are expected to visit designers, giving them a real flavour of the day-to-day business of a working model. By attempting to replicate the real-life model experience as closely as possible, Tyra educated both the contestants and the viewers in how fashion really operates.
The show also educated aspiring models as to what the fashion industry wants, and despite its ever-changing perimeters, the essential wish-list stays the same: versatility, personality and an unforgettable walk. Even now, these are non-negotiable if a model wants to make the transition to supermodel.
The secret to the show’s success is that it doesn’t just want to find the next big thing, but a model that can, like Tyra, do it all. A few years ago, the idea of a model that commands the runway, does print work and campaigns, all with equal aplomb, was seen as unrealistic. But Tyra’s insistence on finding girls who could be all-rounders has paid off. Post-recession, the fashion world is looking for ways to pull in more revenue, and the models that are doing well are those who are triple threats.
Take a look at the names of the moment – models like Lara Stone, Agyness Deyn, Chanel Iman and Karlie Kloss. Lara has shot campaigns for Hudson Jeans and is now the Spring / Summer face of Versace; Chanel walked her first Victoria’s Secret runway earlier this month, and Karlie is about to appear in a campaign for Dior. Between them they have sold everything from cut-price cashmere to lingerie, and this is the way ahead. Limiting yourself to one branch of modelling means limiting your money-making potential, and these days, no-one can afford to be elitist.
The decision to allow the public to see the process behind the image was a canny move on the part of Banks. Even though we have seen so much of what goes on behind the scenes, the magic is not lost. The transformative ability to turn an ordinary girl into a goddess with the help of lighting, styling and airbrushing still manages to draw us in. Fashion is no longer just about the polished, finished product.
It is this very process that keeps us watching America’s Next Top Model. Over a decade spent working in the industry has given Banks an insight into fashion is that both knowing and forgiving. Banks has re-aligned people’s expectations of the fashion industry. Fashion is about standing out, not fitting in, and America’s Next Top Model cracks the myth that fashion is about conformity: it consistently celebrates the unusual, the edgy and the editorial.
Tyra’s pet project has transformed the way we see the modelling industry, changing it from a spectator sport to something far more approachable. It’s more than entertainment – it’s given modelling a whole new level of respect. Blowing apart the notion that modelling is for simpletons, the show ardently proves that posing for the camera, as with any skill, is harder than it looks.
In less than twenty years, Tyra’s career has gone from ingénue, to entrepreneur, to media mogul. In 2005, she launched her own talk-show, aimed at young women, and can now count herself as one the most successful models of her generation, with an estimated income of $23 million in 2008 alone.
With news breaking this week that Tyra is to cancel her talk show but continue working with ANTM and foster new projects, where her career goes from here is anyone’s guess. Having left an indelible mark on the modelling world, she has made her fortune by preparing the next generation of models for the challenges that are already being faced by the fashion industry. Far from being out of touch, Banks understands very clearly where modelling and fashion are headed, and what is for certain, is that somehow, somewhere, she will continue to be a part of it.