You’d think that after years of strolling down the world’s runways with flashbulbs popping or posing in negligees for the Victoria’s Secret catalog, Tyra Banks wouldn’t be such a stress case. But the first season of her show, “America’s Next Top Model,” almost did her in. She says she had constant stomachaches (her doctor thought she was developing an ulcer), would lose sleep over budget issues and even had nightmares about how to handle the trials and tribulations of the show’s first top model, Adrianne.
As the second season gears up (it premieres Tuesday night on UPN), Banks says at least some of her anxiety has abated. “I didn’t have stomachaches, but I still lost a helluva lot of sleep,” she says, calling from her office in Los Angeles. “When you’re the surprise hit of the season, you’ve got to top yourself — that’s another whole big chunk of stress that came to me. You also don’t want to be an imitation of yourself.”
The mix of models that Banks and co-producer Ken Mok assembled for their “Real World” meets “American Idol” series this year includes Heather Blumberg, a customer service representative whose favorite movie is “The Hot Chick” and likes Hogie Yogie subs; Yoanna House, a 23-year-old baby-sitter whose preferred activities include watching sumo wrestling and rally racing, and Catie Anderson, a wire stripper (electrician) from Minnesota, whose profession even Banks finds strange. “I don’t get it. She is absolutely stunning,” Banks says. “She could be in Paris right now, doing Dior. Weird.”
Banks introduces another plus-size model and felt it was important to have a shorter girl, “to represent the Jaime Rishars, the Kate Mosses and the Devon Aokis of the world.” She discovered, however, that the energy among the cast was much more competitive the second go-round. “Last season, when Adrianne got sick, everybody was in the bathroom trying to help her up,” Banks remembers. “Well, one of the girls gets sick this season and all the girls are just looking at her. We couldn’t even really show how cold they were.”
Scenarios like that forced Banks to choose between her role as a producer, who’s looking to make exciting television, and a friend, who wants these women to succeed. “I’m torn, because we need to keep this real, and because nobody was supporting me. Models weren’t trying to help me down the runway,” she says. “But as a mentor, I know I need to tell them to calm the hell down. Sometimes I won’t even go to the set if something crazy is happening, because I know if I go there, I’ll feel guilty for not jumping in. Because you can’t jump into reality, you know, unless there’s violence going on.”
Part of that guilt comes from the fact that she’s still working as a model. “I’m still doing Victoria’s Secret. I know there are boardrooms in Fortune 500 companies picking me apart and wondering, ‘Do we want Tyra to represent our product?’ If I were retired, then it’d be different.”
What distinguished the show last season was Banks’ tendency to show a little tough love, which she hopes coaxes these young women out of their shells. It’s a technique Banks learned from her mother. “She is so brutally honest with me,” Banks explains. “I’ve never had to experiment with any type of drugs or get involved with any type of sex early because I can ask my momma anything. I’d ask, ‘Momma what’s crack?’ and she’d answer, ‘Well crack is this, the pipe looks like this, let’s open up the crack dictionary.’ You know what I’m saying? That bluntness and that realness allowed me to survive in this industry full of insecurity and people lying to you and saying how gorgeous you are.”
Banks insists the show is “extremely realistic,” though under normal circumstances, “it might take a year to make a top model, sometimes five years,” instead of the 10 weeks on the show. She also believes it deglamorizes the industry. “I think there are mommas and daughters in Texas that are like, ‘We want you to be a model,’ and then they rethink it,” she says, in a Texan drawl.
And, had she had the opportunity to be on a show of this ilk — Banks was discovered in high school at a time when she preferred Mad and Cracked magazines to Vogue — she thinks she never would have made the cut. “I think physically I would have been fine, but personality-wise, I would have felt like I was in front of college admissions people and that I had to say the right answer.”
All this model scouting, however, hasn’t made Banks want to open her own agency. “Hell no,” she exclaims.
Producing the show has compelled her to find projects with fictional storylines, including a one-hour drama that she will only describe as “gritty and real” and a made-for-TV movie. But she also keeps her eyes peeled for fledgling talent no matter the time and place. “I just had a meeting at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf with my producers and when we were there, we chased two girls,” Banks says. “One we chased until she got into her Porsche and drove away, which made us think, she’s either got a rich man or she’s a model. And the other one was 14 with her momma. I’ve never been like this before. I used to say, ‘Oh, you should be a model,’ but now I’m like, ‘Come on my show.’”