Banks has romanced a number of high-profile figures over the past two decades — from her Higher Learning director, John Singleton, to singer Seal — but she keeps quiet on the subjects of dating and marriage. For the last three years, she’s been linked with financier John Utendahl, founder of a large investment-banking firm on Wall Street. The two have been seen and photographed together around New York City but mostly keep their relationship off the radar.
“I’m not sure exactly how gossiping about my life with my audience really helps them,” explains Banks, who adds that she’s never been shy about delving into other areas of her life. “I’m constantly describing my bodily functions, I’m very open about the subject of heartache, but I choose not to share [details about dating], so that very minor part of my private life stays very private.”
She will admit that having a family is moving far up on her agenda. “I talked about adopting a baby when I was 20 years old, before it became ‘hip,’ ” Banks says. “It’s not like I want to hop on a bandwagon, because I said it 15 years ago — bringing a child into your life who is not genetically yours is one of the most beautiful things you can do. But I’m also interested in having my own baby, too. Maybe I’ll do both. In any case, it needs to be sooner rather than later. I’d like to be able to run around with my children.”
Banks’ love affair with carbs, fat and sugar is the stuff of legend. Perhaps the most sensational blow came in 2007 when tabloids ran unflattering swimsuit photos of her with the headline “America’s Next Top Waddle.” She took matters into her own hands, announcing that she weighed 161 pounds — a gain of 30 pounds since her modeling days — and using her talk show to tell her critics to kiss off.
These days, Banks is slender again, though she has joked that her cellulite situation is almost a lost cause. A self-admitted “foodie,” she still “loves the grubby, nasty, greasy stuff that’s real good” as well as “the high-end stuff ” in fancier dining establishments. “I like high-low,” she says. “I don’t go to the cool, trendy restaurants. I go to either the holes in the wall or the super-fancy restaurants where there are no cool people.”
One favorite: New York’s fun and frivolous Five Napkin Burger, which she calls “amazing.” Says Five Napkin general manager Todd Cederholm, “Tyra’s been in a few times, and she’s really cool, very outgoing and just generally gives off a great vibe. The whole restaurant was gawking as she and this guy sat at a corner-table banquette and ordered three burgers to share between the two of them.”
Following in the footsteps of runway pioneers Beverly Johnson, Iman and one-time rival Naomi Campbell, Banks reigned as arguably the most successful black model of her generation. She broke new ground as the first African-American beauty to grace the cover of GQ and Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition. Retiring from the business in 2005, she remains connected with the fashion world through her reality show and Tyra.com, which promotes her trademark meme, “Beauty inside and out.”
Leading models today “are known only by a select few people in high fashion,” she says, describing how top actresses and singers like Penelope Cruz and Beyoncé have taken over magazine covers and ad campaigns for clothing and cosmetics. “Models now need to promote themselves, think like businesswomen and diversify their careers by doing other things,” she says. “Chances are very slim that a mere model will become a household name today.”
With Top Model, Banks is careful to cultivate contestants’ cool quirks over their Barbie blush — she calls it “debatable beauty,” and it’s key to the show’s success. “Women who watch Top Model together should disagree,” she says. “I want one to find a certain girl interesting while her friend might feel she looks like a freak. It opens up that narrow view of what little girls are constantly told is ‘beautiful.’ Sure, the show is about modeling and taking an aesthetically and geometrically correct photograph. And, of course, we do show some ‘pretty’ girls. But the majority of them are a little askew. Our underlying message: This girl looks like you.”
The demise of The Tyra Show was publicized as a mutual decision between its host and the network, though Banks’ associates say, on background, the move was purely a financial decision made by the struggling CW. (The show was syndicated for its first four years, then moved to the CW in September 2009 with the network banking on further branding with Banks via Top Model.) With Oprah Winfrey set to leave her own hit syndicated show, it appeared that opening might have boosted Banks farther up in the overall ratings, especially since she dominated viewing among her young female demographic and felt “ecstatic” about her numbers last fall right before the plug was pulled.
“The network made a mistake in not waiting for the TV advertising crisis to end,” says a longtime associate. “But perhaps there’s a silver lining, because carrying both The Tyra Show and Top Model, there was a perception she was overextending herself.” Some of the bruised feelings relate to the fact that Top Model, originally airing on the old UPN network, was pivotal to the CW’s growth. (Banks literally “pulled the switch” to begin broadcasting the upstart network.) “I’m still really proud of the [viewership] numbers,” she explains. “Even after we announced the show wasn’t returning, we beat many competitors and often came in at number one for our demo. A lot came down to economics — after running numbers and figuring risk versus return, we decided it wasn’t best to bring the talk show back.”
Still, new TV programming plays a large role in Banks’ future, as do moves into motion pictures, book publishing and other media. “I’m trying to build a strong business. I want to create new stars, new shows and new products for my audience and create a legacy that outlives me,” she says. “There are so many other ways I want to reach women besides doing a talk show.”
For Banks, the journey is the destination. “I loved planning The Tyra Show more than actually having to do it,” she explains. “I loved coming up with show ideas, honing each program and crafting it. I’m more excited being in a meeting than being on TV.” These days, Banks is taking plenty of meetings, discussing everything from live stage shows to Internet properties. On the books front, Banks says she has 20 — yes, 20 — projects in various stages of development and expects to publish young-adult fantasy novels along the lines of the Twilight and Harry Potter series. In addition to big media plays, Banks is also making headway in her philanthropy efforts such as her TZONE Foundation, which teaches self-esteem to underprivileged youths.
Today, Banks’ company has a dozen fulltime employees, and she hopes to double that number by year’s end. While her business grows, however, she’s mindful that she’s staking out new turf for a former model and that there’s no ready-made blueprint for her to mimic. “What I’ve done postmodeling has been really difficult because there haven’t been anyone’s footprints that I could follow,” she says. Fortunately, “trailblazer” is a title Banks is quite comfortable with.