Back in 1997, when she was 23 years old, Tyra Banks was the first African-American to appear solo on the cover of the Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit edition. Slim and innocent looking, but with massive jugs, she gazed coyly out from the front page, glistening with sexual potential. She became a masturbatory fantasy for legions across the globe, and she was, without much exaggeration, considered to be the hottest creature on the planet.
Since then, she’s managed to transform herself from the ingénue everyone wanted to screw, to the moralizing grandmother who’s a massive buzz-kill. This has nothing to do with the way she looks— she still looks great— and everything to do with the way she acts. A virtually inescapable presence on TV, we’re forced to watch as she sucks oxygen from the set of “America’s Next Top Model” or thumps dramatically about her daytime talk spectacle, “The Tyra Banks Show.”
The show is a preachy mess of self-help babble, empowering fashion tips, celebrity gossip, and titillating features on racists, dwarves, cheating boyfriends and deviant sex practices. Mostly, though, it’s Tyra, whether she’s tramping about in a fat suit, sliding around a stripper pole, or shamelessly cross-promoting her myriad other media ventures.
Banks is overconfident, self-obsessed and insincere, and everything you really need to know about her, and her talk show, can be condensed into a 90-second clip from an episode that aired a year or two ago.
On this clip, we see Tyra standing on her set. Arrayed around her are a number of TV sets, each one displaying an unflattering paparazzi photograph of Tyra standing in the ocean in her bathing suit. It looks like it was taken in an unguarded moment, and has the feeling of having captured a creature caught in its native habitat. She looks graceless in the picture, shlubby and, maybe even a little, um, big-boned.
Naturally, the tabloid press was having a field day with it, and it was this matter that Tyra wished to address. She decides to do this wearing the same bathing suit she had on when the photograph was taken, and a pair of fuck-me shoes with a four-inch heel. She looks pretty good, which is the point.
She then makes her case, telling us that world LOVES seeing her in a certain manner—and then she strikes a variety of aggressive supermodel poses. Fierce!! Sexy time!! Ay, Caramba! But wait! She then presents herself in an exaggerated slouch, with her gut hanging out and her ass sticking out, saying that the world seems to have a problem when they see her like this. She’s playing this bit for laughs, and the audience begins to titter.
But now the tone changes. As Tyra begins to gain the confidence and support of the audience, she tells us that if she wasn’t so strong and firm in her belief in herself, that she would almost certainly be starving herself so that she might meet the expectations of the haters. In doing this, she’s elevated herself above the vast majority of her viewers, who do not have the same self-certainty that a powerful and wealthy supermodel might have.
Nonetheless, Tyra begins to rage on their behalf. Feigning tears, she declares that all the unsupportive husbands and dick head construction workers out there, all the people who have ever put a woman down, “CAN KISS MY FAT ASS!” The audience, standing as one, burst into applause while Tyra grins insipidly. It was as manipulative and self-serving as anything the Bush-Cheney government ever thought to try to attempt.
This little bit of theatrics perfectly encapsulates the personality that informs and entirely dominates the show, revealing a woman who mistakes her own elitist narcissism for an empathetic connection to regular folk.
The fact that Tyra chose to present herself in bathing suit and heels cracks me up. It wasn’t Tyra’s point to refute a culture that unrealistically objectified women, but to refute the conclusion—that Tyra Banks was fat—that this culture had reached. She didn’t want to look vulnerable or ordinary, she wanted to look like the supermodel she was. She was in four-inch heels, for God’s sake! Although she was pretending solidarity with all the women watching, her goal wasn’t to graze with their pudgy-fingered herd, but to separate herself from it. All she really wanted to do was prove that she did not look like the image in the photograph.
Tyra, of course, greedily drank up all the fame, fortune and opportunity that was offered up to her based on the “perfect body” she had a dozen years ago when she was an SI queen. Now, at 35, when her body has matured into a fulsome normalcy—and when the appraising eye of that culture no longer serves her narrow interests— she decides to abandon and attack that which had so richly rewarded her. I mean, wasn’t she in the business of promoting unrealistic expectations of women in our popular culture? Was this irony entirely lost on her? Well, yes, yes it was.
Further, her talk show is littered with rail-thin celebrities excitedly enthusing about their new diets, and on any season of “America’s Next Top Model,” Tyra will tell some normal sized chick that she should consider becoming a Plus-sized model. Yeah, because that’s where all the money and glamour is, right? And now she wants us to believe that not only is she on our side, but that she’s one of us, and she’s telling us this while striking supermodel poses in heels and a bathing suit?
Tyra, feeling beautiful and confident all the time, pretends that she relates to the lumpy masses out there watching, but her empathy is entirely false. She sees her audience as pets. Hovering above them, she jumps into the spotlight, pushing them aside every opportunity she gets. Always drawing the conversation back to herself, she gabbles on about her brilliant and exotic career, always overplaying her virtue, while hamming about like the bad actor she is. Simply put, Tyra patronizes her audience, trying to fob off her galloping ego as some sort of freakish girl-power, and you know, it’s kind of sickening to watch.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.