Who doesn’t love Tyra Banks? Bold and beautiful with brains for days, there’s no doubt the supermodel, actress, singer, author, TV talk show host, and reality television star has what it takes to be on top — and stay on top — of the entertainment industry.
However, for many gatekeepers in the fashion industry, Banks, a curvy woman of color, just wasn’t a “good fit.” But that didn’t stop Banks. Rather than cut herself down to size to squeeze in, Banks carved out her own unique space in the fashion and entertainment industries, building a multimedia brand so massive, even Oprah’s got her eye on her.
Last weekend, Banks headlined GIRLCULT, a day-long festival in Los Angeles celebrating kickass women, and shared how she defied the haters and broke in to the industry by embracing who she is — and her story is nothing short of inspiring.
Banks, a fashion model from the age of 15, was 21 years old and living in Europe when her Milan-based modeling agency called her mother into their office and told her that Banks was getting “too big,” handing her a list of eight designers that did not want to hire her because of her size.
Devastated, but still wanting to work in the industry, Banks’ first thought was to diet to make herself fit in, but her mother had other ideas. “She said, ‘We’re going to eat pizza,'” recalled Banks. So, they went to a pizzeria nearby, and over a “big ass, juicy, cheesy slice,” Tyra and her mother wrote out a list of their own: modeling clients that like ass.
“‘Because your ass is getting bigger’,” Banks remembered her mother saying, “‘and I’ll be damned if my baby starves for this damned industry.'”
Victoria’s Secret, Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue, and Pepsi all made the cut, and Banks presented her agency with a new list of potential clients. But, her agency wasn’t sold. At first.
“The agency [said,] ‘No, because they’re not really that into black girls, so we’re not going to call them,'” said Banks. But Banks persisted, and finally her agency called Victoria’s Secret, who offered Tyra a 10-year contract with the brand, named her one of their original “angels,” and put her on the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, making Banks the first black woman to land that spot in the luxury lingerie brand’s history.
Banks checked Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue off her list, too, becoming the first African-American woman ever to grace the special edition’s annual cover, first in 1996 with Valeria Mazza and then again 1997 with the cover all to herself. That same year, Banks appeared in a Pepsi commercial alongside fellow supermodels Cindy Crawford and Bridget Hall.
But attitude isn’t the only thing you need to succeed. According to Banks, in addition to hard work, focus, and dedication, achieving one’s goals begins with understanding the reason why we want to create something new or affect change, a lesson she said she learned when conceiving her hit reality television series, America’s Next Top Model.
“When I decided to create this modeling show, I didn’t just say I wanted to put models on TV. I didn’t start with the ‘what.’ I started with the ‘why.’ And my why goes back to my booty, and my skin, of being told ‘You’re black and you’re thick, so you can’t do this.’ For me, my why for America’s Next Top Model was to expand the definition of beauty, to break the beauty barriers.”
Indeed, Banks’ commitment to opening the eyes of the fashion industry to the many and varied faces of beauty has been the calling card of ANTM for years. Over the series’ 23 cycles, models of color, petite and plus-sized models, and transgender models have all strutted Banks’ TV catwalk, giving viewers at home a well-rounded appreciation of what is beautiful in others and themselves.
“If you start with the ‘why,’ you will touch people’s hearts and their souls, and that is the best way to get in front of the people that want what you want — [only] now, they’ll want what you got.”
All we have to say is: FIERCE!