In a July 2021 interview with Variety, former model Tyra Banks said that her role model was Walt Disney. She described the iconic mogul as someone who is ‘still relevant to this day’ and that ‘his legacy lives on — the family entertainment, the happiest place on Earth. That’s what I want, a legacy.’ She said this while promoting her new ice cream shop, creatively titled Smize Cream, a reference to one of the many strange catchphrases and buzzwords birthed from her tenure as the host of America’s Next Top Model. On top of buying flavors like The Best Vanilla I Ever Had, Cookie Caramel Queen and Chocolate Barbeque, visitors will encounter a cast of original animated characters including DJ Splitz and Lil Y. Banks also shared her plans to write a book about these characters and to finally open her themed attraction, ModelLand.
Ya’ll ready for this week’s photo challenge?! Let’s see if you have what it takes to win! The theme: HOUSEWORK, but make it FASHION. 1) FOLLOW @ModelLand 2) Snap your best photo while serving us those housework looks 3) tag #ModelLand in your photos and we might just post YOU! 💛 pic.twitter.com/nSBwi6M4ik— Tyra Banks (@tyrabanks) April 14, 2020
The interactive event has been described as an amusement park but seems more in line with the Instagram-ready attractions of places like the Ice Cream Museum. The website says that ModelLand is ‘not just an attraction. It’s a place full of story that battles what “attractive” means. When you step into ModelLand, you enter a fantastical world where we will celebrate your uniqueness while we help you master your angles and up your photo game.’ This ‘first-of-its-kind’ place promises a story-driven experience for visitors with photoshoots, runways, shopping, and theater. Essentially, it’s supermodel LARP-ing with the Tyra seal of approval.
If you’ve followed Tyra for a while now, the term ModelLand will probably inspire some truly bananas reactions. Ten years ago this month, Banks published Modelland, her first (and currently only) YA novel, which later inspired one of the more questionable episodes of America’s Next Top Model. In 2011, I was a YA book blogger who spent a lot of time on Goodreads with fellow reviewers trying to figure out what the hell was going on with this 576-page behemoth. To call it a mere vanity project didn’t do it justice, even by Tyra’s notoriously self-aggrandizing standards. This disjointed blend of fantasy, dystopia (which was very big in YA at that time), motivational speech, and self-insert fanfiction was a startling mixture of untethered ambition and artistic ineptitude. I can’t say that it left much of an impact on young adult fiction beyond its status as a subject of morbid curiosity, but it certainly feels like a natural extension of Brand Tyra and her attempt to be a true multimedia mogul.
Modelland is set in a universe called Metopia where supermodels are revered on the level of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and everything is twisted to accommodate their strutting glory. The eponymous Modelland is a magical boarding school where the lucky attendees can compete for the chance to become an Intoxibella, the A-grade of models who may also be deities. This illustrious academy chooses its new students through The Day of Discovery (also known as TDOT), which is essentially a souped-up scouting session. Your chances of being picked are greatly increased if you find a SMIZE, a talisman that enhances your natural beauty. These SMIZEs are dumped into the water supply for people to locate, Willy Wonka style. Our heroine is Tookie De La Creme, a ‘Forgetta-Girl’ who is constantly described as being hideous because she has frizzy hair, a large forehead, and mismatched eyes. Her family, who are Dickensian levels of evil, are grooming her younger sister Myrracle for model stardom but, surprise, it’s Tookie who is chosen to attend Modelland.
Was that a lot of words to describe the basic setup of this novel? That’s a pretty accurate way to convey the sheer crushing weight of reading Modelland. There’s simultaneously not enough plot and too much of it, while every detail is described to agonizing levels with the most perfunctory of language choices and made-up fantasy words that feel as though they were created by someone who had never spoken a day in their life up until that moment. That last part won’t surprise Top Model viewers who watched season upon season of Tyra trying to make various catchphrases and Banks-ish vocabulary stick (‘pot ledom’, anyone?) Half the time, just figuring out how to pronounce such terms is tough enough. The famous Intoxibella who disappeared and who is clearly another Tyra stand-in is called Ci~L. Other characters have names like Zarpessa Zarionneax and Shiraz Shiraz. Rather than just refer to places like Australia or Mexico, she renames them Didgeridoo and Texicoco. If a word seems too mundane, it’s re-Tyra-ed.
Modelland itself is somewhere between Hogwarts, Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and a morally questionable experiment from A Clockwork Orange. David Cronenberg and Junji Ito combined couldn’t come up with images as grotesque as what Tyra deems to be magical. When the new recruits get to the school, their periods are magically synced up without their consent then gotten rid of entirely. The hospital nurses (called purses) have knives coming out of them and the doctors all have roller skates instead of feet. Students are fed by being strapped into harnesses and lowered into giant vats full of food in a scene that reads like someone’s Deviantart feeder fantasy. One teacher’s head is just an enormous hand.
It gets worse when Modelland tries to be serious. Banks talks a lot about how she wants to be a healing figure, an inspiration to younger generations on topics such as body image and self-acceptance. Tookie isn’t the only unconventional beauty welcomed to Modelland. Her outcast friends include a little person, a plus-size girl, and an albino girl who speaks in offensive broken English. Tyra wants the world to know that real beauty is on the inside, but her literary offering to this mantra is one that manages to be unhelpful and often deeply gratuitous. Her attempts at bleak, Dickensian backstories are unintentionally hilarious, such as the moment where it’s revealed how Tookie’s acrobat father got his glass eye. Themes such as disordered eating, self-harm, and bullying are handled with the deft touch of a wrecking ball to the point where one wonders if Banks’s emotional inspiration was Mommy Dearest. It doesn’t help that Tookie, Tyra’s obvious young stand-in, is constantly bemoaning her looks in a way that only highlights her obvious beauty. Oh, you have eyes that are two different colors? Yikes for you, sweetie. Even by the standards of Banks’s notorious narcissism, it’s pretty grating. It makes you wonder how the ghost-writer dealt with working with her.
Yes, believe it or not, this book was ghost-written. Usually, this revelation wouldn’t surprise me since the majority of books by celebrities, including these YA titles, aren’t authored by the biggest name on the cover. But this book is so truly out-there, so undeniably the singular vision of someone’s unfettered id, that the mere image of Banks having to dictate ideas to a beleaguered and underpaid ghost-writer is funnier than anything within the many pages of Modelland. I have to give the author, Michael Salort, credit here: he certainly captured what it meant to be Tyra Banks, for better or worse. This is a woman who truly seems to view modeling as the pinnacle of human achievement, an occupation nobler than peacekeepers and more magical than witchcraft. It’s a mindset that explains a lot about both Modelland and Banks’s growing business empire.
It also seems like a reasonably solid basis for this kind of story. Being plucked from obscurity as a teenager to travel the world, have your photograph taken endlessly, and be positioned as a legendary beauty must have been a surreal experience. Banks has talked openly about feeling like the ugly duckling in the industry and experiencing racism as one of a scant handful of Black models in the room at any given time.
Tyra Banks’s legacy has shifted throughout the years, as have memories of Top Model. Even its die-hard fans couldn’t overlook for long how messy and insidiously manipulative the series became with its pseudo-camp machinations and reality TV tropes. This is a show that had more than one episode with blackface challenges, plus various contestants accusing the producers of racism and dirty dealings. In one season, Banks chastized a gay contestant for ‘constantly’ talking about her sexuality. Fatphobia was common, as was good old-fashioned emotional manipulation. This isn’t a genre that has ever been kind to people, especially women, but the cultural shift of Top Model has been drastic, realigning Banks into an unexpected villain role.
The series was always about her, about her ego and eagerness to mold an empire. During the height of the series, she had her own talk show, which received surprisingly solid reviews. She’s hosted major network shows like America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars. She’s acted and made music and made a big deal about going to Harvard Business School to do a non-degree certificate program. While she doesn’t do much modeling these days, she did return to the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2019, becoming the oldest woman to do so at the age of 45. She has certainly made her impact on the world of modeling, an industry defined by the endless disposal of young women and girls’ bodies, and she’s spun that career into something highly lucrative with multiple profitable side-hustles.
Her journey towards Disney-esque power has not been without controversy, however. In 2015, Vice published a piece diving into the shady practices of some of her business ventures. On top of multiple Top Model contestants condemning her for her exploitation and cruelty — one woman said that she and others were treated ‘like slaves’ — her beauty empire, Tyra Beauty, was described as a multi-level marketing scam that deliberately targets young women and forces them into signing non-disparagement contracts. Imagine Mary Kay Cosmetics tactics but with more gibberish vocabulary.
It remains to be seen where Tyra goes from here. She certainly still has her fans and is in a position to make basically whatever she wants to happen. We never did get the second or third planned novels in the Modelland saga, which may be for the best. I shudder to think of how much more incomprehensible Tyra’s word choices could get.
Header Image Source: Bobby Bank // Wire Image via Getty Images