Born on December 4, 1973, in Inglewood, California, Tyra Banks was a leading international fashion model, becoming the first black woman to land the cover of the Sports Illustratedswimsuit issue. She later tried her hand at acting before creating and hosting her own reality TV show, Project Runway, followed by her own daytime talk show, for which she’s won an Emmy Award.
“I went from being the popular girl who looked normal, to being considered a freak. It turned out that the best things [to happen to me] in my life were to be made fun of, and to have no friends, and to feel miserable every single day.”
Supermodel Tyra Banks was born on December 4, 1973, in Inglewood, California. Her father, Don Banks, was a computer consultant and her mother, Carolyn, was a medical photographer. Banks’ parents divorced when she was only 6 years old, but she says that she was too young for the divorce to have much impact on her. “As far as I could see, I had it made,” Banks remembers. “I stayed with Mommy on the weekdays and Daddy on the weekends. I had two birthday parties, two Christmases. Double the presents, double the love.”
Banks says that she developed a love for food—and not always healthy food—from a very young age, devouring fried chicken, candied yams and pork chops at family gatherings. “I was taught to enjoy food, not to fear it,” Banks recalls. She developed healthier habits, too, and began working out with her mother’s exercise group at the age of 6. After her grandmother passed away from lung cancer, Banks also vowed never to smoke.
Banks confesses that she was somewhat of a “mean girl” in middle school. “I was popular, gossipy,” she once recalled, adding, “and if I didn’t want one of the other girls to be in the clique anymore, for whatever tiny little reason, I voted her out.” When Banks attended Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, however, she found herself on the other end of the social food chain. A sudden growth spurt left her tall and gawky, and her classmates gave her cruel nicknames such as “Giraffe” and “Lightbulb Head.” “I went from being the popular girl who looked normal, to being considered a freak,” Banks remembers. Nevertheless, Banks says that the teasing and abuse taught her the importance of kindness. “It turned out that the best things [to happen to me] in my life were to be made fun of, and to have no friends, and to feel miserable every single day.”
By 1989, at the age of 17, Banks had outgrown her awkward phase and begun to resemble the tall, curvy, caramel-skinned and green-eyed beauty who would light up runways and magazine covers for years to come. However, her first attempts to find a modeling agency were met with rejection and discrimination. Banks remembers that one agency said she looked “too ethnic” and another said that it “already had a black woman and didn’t want another.” Then in 1990, while still in high school, Banks landed a contract with Elite Model Management, the largest modeling agency in the world. Later that year, she shot her first print piece for Seventeenmagazine. After graduating high school in 1991, Banks enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, but decided to forego college when Elite offered to send her to Paris for high-fashion runway modeling.
Banks rose swiftly through the ranks of fashion modeling to become one of the world’s top supermodels. She booked 25 runway shows while in Paris in 1991, an unprecedented feat for a newcomer to the industry. But by the mid-1990s, Banks began to gain weight, a forbidden sin in the world of rail-thin clothing models. Unwilling to starve herself to achieve the desired physique for high-fashion models, Banks decided to return to the United States and switch to swimwear and lingerie modeling,
where curvier models are more welcome. “I made my living being 20 or 30 pounds heavier than the average model,” Banks says. “And that’s where I got famous. Victoria’s Secret said I sold more bras and panties than anybody else, and I was traipsing down that runway with 30 pounds more booty than the other girls.”
In 1996, Banks became the first black woman to appear on the cover of GQ as well as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. A year later, she became the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. She signed lucrative contracts with both Cover Girl and Victoria’s Secret, becoming a staple of both companies’ advertising campaigns and runway shows. Tyra Banks has been named multiple times to People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. In 1997, she received the prestigious Michael Award for Supermodel of the Year, and she has also won two Teen Choice Awards for Favorite Supermodel.
In addition to her modeling work, Banks has also occasionally pursued acting work. She made her acting debut in 1993 with a seven-episode stint on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In 2000, Banks appeared in a trio of popular films: Love & Basketball, Coyote Uglyand the made-for-TV movie Life Size. More recently, she guest-starred in an episode of the CW’s popular teen TV-soap Gossip Girl.
In 2003, Banks ventured into the world of reality TV when she created, produced and hosted the UPN show America’s Next Top Model. The show, which pits aspiring models against each other in a competition for the label of America’s Next Top Model, was UPN’s highest-rated show through its first six seasons. In 2006, Top Modelwas chosen to headline the newly created CW television network. The show, with nearly 20 seasons under its belt, continues to draw enormous television audiences.
Banks expanded into daytime television with her own talk show, The Tyra Show, in 2005. The show’s most famous moment came in February 2007, shortly after several unflattering pictures of Banks in a bathing suit surfaced in tabloid magazines. Banks marched onstage wearing the same bathing suit and told critics to “Kiss my fat ass!” She picked up a Daytime Emmy Award for her work on the show in 2008—a feat she repeated the following year as well. In 2010, Banks said good-bye to her talk show after five years on the air. She toldPeople magazine that she decided to end her program to focus on “bringing positive images of women to the big screen.”
The following year, Banks launched a style and beauty website called typeF.com. She also enrolled at Harvard Business School around this time. The model-turned-entertainment-mogul completed her special course for CEOs and other top executives in early 2012.
Over the years, Banks has been romantically linked with director John Singleton, basketball player Chris Webber, and investment banker John Utendahl. She rarely discusses her romantic life in public, however, and remains unmarried and without children.
Banks is active in a number of social and charitable causes. One of her personal missions has been to help young women deal with self-esteem issues. As early as 1992, when she was only 19 years old, Banks funded a scholarship to help young black women attend her alma mater, the private Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles. In 1998, she wrote Tyra’s Beauty Inside & Out, a book aimed at inspiring young women, and a year later she founded TZONE, a foundation aimed at developing teenage girls’ independence and self-esteem.
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