Tyra Banks on Beauty, Body Image, and Makeup as the Great Equalizer

Those lucky enough to be considered gorgeous by a large number of people — and talented enough to actually make it as a model — are pretty #blessed. But the reality is those careers rarely last past age 29. That is, of course, unless you manage to spin your modeling career into an acting career, a reality TV career, a talk-show-host career, and a business career — a.k.a. the Tyra Banks model “model.”

Recently, I caught up with Banks when she was in town to promote her cosmetics line, TYRA Beauty. It’s the kind of Avon or Mary Kay format in which individuals (known in this case as “beautytainers”) sell the product as a way to own their own business. Banks refers to this as BYOB, meaning be your own boss, and sees it as a potential path to financial independence.

“My mom was married to my father and very unhappy,” Banks says. “It was a very negative marriage, but she stayed because he had the money and she did not. And so she was really stuck and didn’t have financial freedom. And so I decided instead of putting my cosmetics on the shelf I wanted to create an opportunity for primarily women … to really come to this and be able to sell these products and make what I call those 'Banks' signs.”

While Banks seemingly could have launched a number of businesses, cosmetics are an intentional choice.

“Makeup is the great equalizer,” she says. “I feel like it’s not fair that some people have natural beauty and they wake up and they look a certain way.”

She has a point. It's not fair. In fact, sitting side by side with a freakin' supermodel I couldn't possibly understand this any better.

Banks continues, “It’s like, she didn’t do nothing for that. What did she do for that except be born? So like, she might wake up like that, then it’s like, but boo, give me five minutes and I can match you."

As much as I love a good mascara application or overdrawing of the lips, it still seems like even with every eyelash extension and lip pencil in that arsenal, five hours still wouldn’t equalize this room.

Which brings up another point: body image. While it’s far from one person’s responsibility to answer for an entire industry, Banks has been an incredibly prominent figure in the modeling world since the 1990s. And given the national conversations around fat-shaming (particularly because of Donald Trump), it’s on a lot of folks’ minds.

“Well I had a career that I started skinny, then I gained weight, and then certain parts of my industry said I was too big for it. So I reworked my career to go for companies that liked my curves,” Banks says. “And then later as I transitioned out of modeling, whether it was commercial modeling or high fashion, I continued to have curves. I got thicker and thicker. And it actually made me more relatable to my audience. So when I had a talk show and I was thicker, my producers would be like, ‘This is good. Keep eating. This is good.’ Because then the country feels really connected to you and feels like, ‘She’s a real girl, just like all of us.’ And so that’s my body type now. I’m a curvy girl and I love it.”

Settings aside for a moment the massive amount of baggage that comes with producers telling a woman to keep eating because it makes her relatable, I want to know: Will “plus size” (read: average size) become the norm in the fashion world anytime soon? ”The fashion world is really going to follow the money. The money, the money, the money,” says Banks, before she suddenly pauses to correct herself.

"Um – I’m sorry that’s not true. Not true. The fashion industry – no they don’t follow the money, 'cause if that’s the case they would have a lot of clothes in more sizes,” she says, almost surprised at her own realization. “The fashion world is all about, really like, trends. And so it just has to become cool.”

While Banks is probably best known for 22 seasons of hosting America’s Next Top Model, she finds a way to continuously reinvent herself, which is something that is equally impressive and necessary in an era when our attention spans are so short that most people dream of a mere 15 seconds of fame. Beyond TYRA Beauty, Banks will be starring in a new NBC competition reality show called Funded, in which entrepreneurs get paired with a mentor, and then compete for $1 million funding from a venture capitalist. Think: Shark Tank meets a business version of The Voice.

“It is all about the celebration of entrepreneurs and giving people that have already started a little bit with their businesses that extra huge bump to take them to the next level,” Banks says.

This is how her own projects work. Each one builds on the last, and reaches out as an extension of the other. And her entrepreneurial encouragement must be working. After we spoke, I walked to my car and was stopped by a woman who asked me what kind of lipstick I was wearing. As I paused to remember the shade of berry or wine or sassy attitude my deep shade of matte red was named after, the woman, who turned out to be a “beautytainer,” cut in to tell me that I should be wearing TYRA lipstick — and that I could get it from her.

Engagement marketing, for the win.

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Sarah Ventre