An Afternoon With Tyra Banks: Many Smiles, Multiple Faces

I don't follow Tyra Banks. I do not watch her talk show, nor have I ever seen more than 5 minutes of any cycle of America's Next Top Model.

In fact, my experience with Ms. Banks is informed only by what I read in the gossip columns... or the recaps of her shows on this very site. So it was with some curiosity - and caffeine-deprived trepidation - that I ventured out into the rain yesterday to hear what the media mogul had to say at a NY Times "Times Talks" event.

Why the Times chose to feature Banks at a live event almost a year after the editors of its Sunday magazine ran a 8,000+ word cover story on her was unclear, but there she was, outfitted in a tight, stylish beige dress, flesh-colored shoes and bouncy, shiny, highlighted hair. (Note: I am not one to be able distinguish real hair vs. a weave from a distance of 100 feet.) Perhaps her appearance was related to the recent inauguration of the country's first African American president: the interview kicked off with a glowing rehash of Banks' interview with Barack Obama in October 2007. ("Obama mania was just starting," the talk show host alleged, somewhat incorrectly, adding that she was so nervous about the interview that she asked the then-Senator to "feel my [shaking] hand.") Perhaps it was the publicity surrounding her recent court case. But whatever the reason, there she was, towering over an awed Ms. Hirschberg, charming the audience with self-deprecating commentary about her physique, trotting out the usual platitudes about girl power, self-esteem and inner beauty. (She even managed to get in a plug for her Ashton Kutcher collaboration, the awful, blessedly one-season-only reality show True Beauty.)

Discussion of politics dominated the event's first 20 minutes (in addition to Obama, Banks also scored interviews with then-Senator Hillary Clinton, and Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee) and talk then moved on to her own rise as a model and her reinvention as a media personality and the runaway success of her eponymous show - she says she was "trained" to talk to teen girls from her experience working with crisis counselors involved in her female self-empowerment foundation, T-Zone; apparently the idea that crisis counselors withhold judgment of others didn't rub off on her - which, she says, will undergo a complete and total overhaul when it returns this fall. (Despite Ms. Hirschberg's best efforts, Banks declined to elaborate on what this overhaul will entail.)

Up next was Banks' long-running reality show, America's Next Top Model, which was introduced via a humorous clip show featuring a group of contestants learning how to slide down the wall and crawl provocatively across the floor of a dance studio. Once the laughter over that died down, Banks talked about the show's conception and resulting success, including her penchant for renaming ANTM contestants to her own desires and whims ("Who wants three girls named Brittany on the same show?" she asked rhetorically) and the 275 "types" of smiles she's perfected. (Later, she and Hirschberg invited three young women onto the stage to master three of them.)

But for all her efforts to keep things clear cut for her audience - lest they be unable to distinguish the differences between women named Brittany, or types of smiles - Banks demonstrated a disturbing lack of self-awareness with regards to her own complexities, contradictions and faces, repeating earlier assertions that she is driven to acquire "power", not money...as if hers is somehow a kinder, gentler, sort of capitalism. (Soon after declaring that she is not for "sale" she announced plans to branch out into retail, the kids' market -Disney/Nickelodeon - and real estate.) In fact, as the lights brightened and audience members gathered their things, I was left with no better sense of the woman than the description found in a recent essay about Banks, ANTM and feminism in which the media baroness is described as a woman so "polarizing" that observers "can easily swing from you-go-girl admiration to stark revulsion in a course of a five-minute segment." Turns out, they can do the same during the course of a 75-minute talk as well.

Tyra Banks's Unusual Brand Of Feminism [More Intelligent Life]

Related: Banksable [NY Times]

Earlier: Tyra Banks Wants Us To Feel Better About Ourselves So She Can Feel Better About Cashing In On It