Is Tyra Banks’ Empowerment Rhetoric Really Just A Cover For Selfishness?

By Gwen Farrell
·  6 min read
tyra banks

Like any girl coming of age in the mid-2000’s, I remember turning on the CW on a weeknight and finding “America’s Next Top Model.” Though the show has changed hands, judges, and networks since then (it’s now in its 24th season), there was something gripping about the reality show element to the competition format.

Contestants are pitted against each other for a chance to become (as you might have guessed) America’s next top model, with the winner landing a contract with a global cosmetic brand or modelling agency and a cover on a well-known magazine.

At the show’s center was its magnetic creator, producer, and host Tyra Banks, a model herself, as well as an actress, businesswoman, and now inevitably, a staple of reality television and social media. Banks’ early vision appeared to be creating a talent-driven show aimed at inspiring and motivating its contestants to reach the ultimate prize: the contract and magazine deal, as well as influential connections and a reputation in the modelling world with Banks herself as the anchor. 

But as we’ve arrived in the new decade, serious questions are being asked about those motivations, as well as Banks’ own primadonna attitude that dominates the show. As we look back and evaluate contestant after contestant, season after season, it looks like Banks stands less for female empowerment than she does for her own advancement. 

Wielding Power and Influence

From the show’s first “cycle” as it was known in 2003, ANTM was at the forefront of the emerging popularity and demand for reality TV. Many even argue the show’s competition based-format later inspired other popular hits of the genre like Project Runway. With Banks’ own starpower behind her (she was the first black woman on the cover of GQ, after all), as well as that of Andrè Leon Talley, a fellow co-host and editor at Vogue, the show had the momentum to go the distance.

Now, many are noticing how the show hasn’t aged into more PC sensibilities. While defenders of Banks point to the time and place these comments and actions were made as a viable explanation for why they were accepted back then (including one challenge were contestants had to “switch races,” resulting in a white contestant appearing in blackface and an afro), proponents of cancel culture demanded an apology from Banks, which resulted in a half-hearted acknowledgement of her past problematic actions.

From a rewatch perspective, it’s also apparent how much Banks has relied on the crutch of the “cruel, modeling world” to explain away her actions.

From a rewatch perspective, it’s also apparent how much Banks has relied on the crutch of the “cruel, modeling world” to explain away her actions. In the oft-cited example of urging one contestant to alter the gap between her front teeth (saying “Do you really think you can have a CoverGirl contract with a gap in your mouth?”), Banks appears to be merely introducing contestants to the harsh realities of what working in the industry will look like.

But Banks’ detractors — and there are many of them — point to how unnecessarily cruel and unforgiving she was in the context of host/contestant relationships. While this could have stemmed from her attempts to truly acclimate contestants to the jarring demands of such an appearance-based world, it also could stem from Banks’ personal attitude and her own motivations.

Verbal and Emotional Abuse

Even if you’re not an avid fan of ANTM, either in its heyday or even now, it’s nearly impossible not to be aware of the Tiffany argument.

In Cycle 4, contestant Tiffany Richardson was a popular fan-favorite but clashed early on with Banks. This resulted in the episode titled, “The Girl Who Pushes Tyra Over the Edge,” suggesting that the ensuing argument was entirely Tiffany’s fault and not Banks’. This is puzzling when you actually watch the clip, where Banks explodes at Tiffany, justifying it with “when my mother yells at me like this, it’s because she loves me.”  

While it’s true a quieter, off-screen discussion wouldn’t have made as engrossing TV as Banks’ now-viral screaming did, when you consider Tiffany’s own perspective things shift a little sharper into focus. “I felt like we were just there to be humiliated,” Tiffany said in 2016, years after the incident, saying the process was less about genuine criticism than it was about the judges “roasting” the contestants. 

“I felt like we were just there to be humiliated,” Tiffany said in 2016.

One Youtube observer even surmises that the physically challenging, even dangerous, stunts the contestants were asked to perform were posed to push them into screwing up and embarrassing themselves. In a separate challenge, a contestant whose loved one recently died was made to shoot photos in a coffin in a cemetery.

Pushing Dangerous Narratives

Banks has not been idle since she left ANTM in 2015. That same year, she introduced her now-defunct business, a cosmetic and lifestyle brand called Tyra Beauty. Observers were quick to notice that Banks’ business model essentially amounted to a multi-level marketing (MLM) format, often used interchangeably with pyramid schemes. 

Banks’ business model for Tyra Beauty essentially amounted to a multi-level marketing (MLM) format.

Youtuber Madison Harnish did a deep dive into Tyra Beauty and revealed several concerning things about the brand, namely Banks’ reliance on misleading marketing and pushy ploys. Banks claimed her start-up empowered women to “be their own boss,” when it really resulted in those at the top making money from those at the bottom, as MLMs do. Banks’ Tyra Beauty advertisements also used MLM buzzwords like social-selling, financial freedom, innovation, etc. Harnish concludes that it amounted to nothing more than a scam aimed at young women. The brand eventually failed in 2017 amid criticism and complaints from actual sellers who were roped into the business through the promises of “being your own boss,” but ended up losing their investments.

Closing Thoughts

Banks has repeatedly taken credit for the success of others and has used her reputation in the business to justify toxic words and actions.

But it’s evident that in both her ANTM career and her short-lived start-up, Banks has built her success on her misleading rhetoric of empowering women when, in reality, as former contestants and employees will attest, she garnered those results from the exploitation and mistreatment of the women she claimed she was helping. The proof is there for everyone to see — all you have to do is watch.

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