The first sign that something was wrong came on a flight from Australia. As Tyra Banks boarded the plane (she’d been in Sydney doing a photo shoot for one of her TV shows), “the flight attendant goes like this,” recalls Banks, acting out someone eyeing her from head to toe. “Then she says, ‘Thank God, thank God! They’re liars.’ ” Banks pauses, her eyes wide in disbelief. “I had no clue what the woman was talking about.”
She would find out soon enough. Within hours of landing in L.A., Banks was fielding calls from friends and family worried about reports that she had recently gained 40 lbs. Says her agent, Benny Medina: “They were those calls like, ‘Baby, are you all right? If you’re gaining that much weight, we need to talk.’ ” After initially laughing off the concern (“I was like, ‘I don’t care,’ “), Banks found herself unable to sleep that night. And so she did what countless adolescent boys and supermodel wannabes have done over the years: She booted up her computer to Google Tyra Banks.
But instead of searching for the hottest shots from her barrier-breaking modeling career, Banks entered the words “Tyra fat.” What came up stunned her: Link after link of unflattering photos showing her in a one-piece bathing suit on a Sydney beach, under headlines that screamed, “America’s Next Top Waddle” and “Tyra Porkchop.” The discovery – coupled with reports that claimed executives at CW (which airs America’s Next Top Model and, in some markets, her syndicated talk show) had been pressuring her to slim down – prompted Banks to, for the first time in this exclusive interview, publicly discuss her much-buzzed-about weight gain; she is also dedicating part of the Feb. 1 episode of The Tyra Banks Show to setting the record straight about her size. “It was such a strange meanness and rejoicing that people had when thinking that was what my body looked like,” says Banks, 33, explaining her decision to speak out as she walks around the lake in L.A.’s Kenneth Hahn Park. “It was really hurtful to me.” She also worried about the effect such reports would have on her fans. “I get so much mail from young girls who say, ‘I look up to you, you’re not as skinny as everyone else, I think you’re beautiful,’ ” Banks says. “So when they say that my body is ‘ugly’ and ‘disgusting,’ what does that make those girls feel like?”
As for how Banks feels about her own 5’10” body – which she says is at 161 lbs. these days, about 30 lbs. heavier than when she landed on the cover of SI’s swimsuit issue in 1997 – well, the answer is one any woman can relate to. “I don’t want to sit in front of you and be soap-boxy and fake and say, ‘I love myself, I’m beautiful, it’s great,’ ” Banks says. “I still feel hot, but every day is different. It’s when I put on the jeans that used to fit a year ago and don’t fit now and give me the muffin top, that’s when I say, ‘Damn!’ ”
In other words, yes: She has put on weight, though not nearly as much as those recent tabloid stories suggested. (Banks believes the pix were snapped at an unflattering angle.) “She has a very womanly, gorgeous body that goes up and down,” says her good friend Heidi Klum. In fact, Banks says that since she retired from modeling in 2005, the number on the scale has fluctuated from 148 lbs. to 162 lbs., depending on how well she is taking care of herself. “I feel more comfortable when I’m lighter – I sleep better, I snore less, I have more endurance when I work out, my arms look better,” she admits. “But I don’t have the desire to really keep it up. When I was modeling, I remember one year in Milan, Veronica Webb and Karen Alexander would be going to the gym every single day during the collections. I was like, ‘Wow, I want that.’ I wish I had that discipline.” But she doesn’t – not then, not now, which helps explain why she isn’t freaking out about having to wear size 32-waist jeans or about “the fat roll” she claims to have on her back. (Her biggest source of figure angst is her size-DD breasts, which she says make it hard to find clothes that fit: “I would love for them to be a size and a half smaller.”) In fact, with the astonishing frankness that has helped make The Tyra Banks Show a hit – and landed her on TIME and Forbes magazines’ lists of the most influential celebrities – Banks has resigned herself to putting on “about 5 lbs. a year,” she says, a pace that would have her nearing the 200-lb. mark by age 40. Even that prospect doesn’t seem to shake her. “I won’t be rejoicing and joyful, thinking I’m the most hot thing in the world,” she says. “But is it going to kill me and be the end of the world? No.”
If Banks seems unusually accepting of her body – especially for a woman who made a living in an industry known for prizing thinness above all – it’s in part because she has been dealing with weight issues all her life. Growing up in Inglewood, Calif., Banks shot up to 5’10” tall and only 110 lbs. during her adolescence, prompting schoolmates to tease her by calling her “Ethiopian.” Even today, Banks says that the “lowest point of my life” was when, as a young teen, a friend came over asking for her, and her mother, Carolyn London, replied, “Oh, her skinny butt is in her bedroom.” Recalls London, 58: “She heard that and broke down. I had no idea she felt so insecure about her physical appearance.”
Those insecurities would continue – albeit in a different form – during her modeling career. At age 18, Banks headed to Paris and landed one high-fashion show after another. (Interestingly enough, with a body mass index, or BMI, of only 16.2 at the time, the Tyra Banks of 1992 wouldn’t be eligible to model today in Madrid, where the fashion industry ruled last fall that its runway models must have a BMI of 18 or higher.) Back then, “I was naturally thin and never had to worry,” says Banks, who, at age 20, signed with CoverGirl, becoming one of only a handful of African-American women to land a coveted cosmetics contract. Then Banks’s body began to change. “She wasn’t fat, she was curvy,” says her mother, who managed Banks’s career at the time. That’s not how the fashion industry saw it; Banks recalls that her modeling agency printed out for her a list of designers with the heading, “Will not book Tyra because of hips.” A particularly painful moment came when, during a fitting for a show in Milan, she heard two seamstresses calling her “grasso” (fat). “I was 126 lbs. at the time!” she says. “If some designer said it, it would hurt – but it hurt even more because maternal women were saying it.”
Banks responded by trying to stick to a diet of salad with chicken – but she couldn’t do it: “I was going against my natural habits, and the food didn’t satisfy me. It didn’t feel right.” She knew she was being airbrushed (as are most fashion pictures, to be fair) to bring her in line with the industry’s standards of beauty. By age 22, “the agency wanted her to lose 10 lbs.,” recalls London, a creative consultant for Banks’s talk show, who is divorced from her father, Donald Banks, 59, a computer consultant. “I sat there and said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ ”
Mother and daughter proceeded to have a heart-to-heart over some pizza in Milan. “During that meal, we started thinking,” London says. “I [had] sat backstage during the fashion shows, and I would watch young girls with hip bones that protruded so far it made me wonder if it was painful. Before I let her go that route, I said, ‘Let’s work with what you’ve got.’ ” In 1995 Banks went home to L.A., where she asked her agent to try to book jobs for which a bosom and hips were seen as an asset, such as the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swimsuit issue and Victoria’s Secret. Addressing the high fashion world as if it were a lover who done her wrong, Banks says, “I said, ‘Child, you’re telling me I’m too big? I’m going to the commercial side.’ ” Smart move. Banks became SI’s first African-American cover girl; she also picked up film roles in Higher Learning and Coyote Ugly and along the way moved a lot of Miracle Bras. “When she walked down the [Victoria’s Secret] runway, she was bigger than all the other girls, but if you asked anyone who their favorite was, it was always Tyra, because she’s curvy,” Klum says. “She hid the body parts she didn’t want to show, and she rocked it.”
That continues to be her game plan. Armed with a series of outfits featuring waist-cinching, corset-style belts, Banks has found a way to comfortably play up her curves on her TV shows. “My breasts are getting bigger as I gain more weight,” she says, “so if I wear loose clothing, it looks too unshapely. You ask, ‘Where’s the body?’ ”
But what of that Internet chatter wondering if Banks has the right kind of body to be giving out advice to aspiring models on her show? Banks is utterly dismissive. “You have to be thin to be a model – I don’t have to live up to that model standard anymore.” CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff agrees. “That’s totally ridiculous,” she says. “Nobody can say she has to look a certain way to lend her experience.” Ostroff adds that – contrary to a report that appeared on a media gossip Web site claiming a CW producer had said, “Tyra still looks good, but she’s put on close to 50 lbs. since starting her talk show. . . . It could be a real problem” – the network has “never” asked Banks to lose weight.
Which is not to say that Banks didn’t do a little prep work in 2005 before her last trot down the VS runway. “I cut back on carbs for a month,” she says. No fan of crash diets (“I know how to diet, the tips and tricks to lose weight fast – I’ve been around models half my life!” she points out), Banks says she is focusing on her health these days, with mixed degrees of success. Although she tries to get in an hour of cardio each day, she doesn’t work with a personal trainer and says that exercise is “to relax,” rather than lose weight. She also admits, “I’m not the healthiest eater; I know that. What I eat and how I live, it all shows.” That only seems to be working in her favor. Her talk show is now entering its second season – some in the industry see her as the heir to her idol Oprah Winfrey – and the most recent season of Top Model delivered its strongest ratings ever. (Model’s eighth season begins Feb. 28.) Indeed, it appears that by adding a little padding, Banks the businesswoman has earned a bit of credibility. “[TV execs] think it’s better when I’m at 155 lbs. – at 145, they feel I’m not as relatable,” she explains.
Now if only she could find a man to feel the same way. Despite a few high-profile romances – her past loves include director John Singleton and NBA star Chris Webber – Banks says her recent dates have had a hard time coping with her career. “They have to understand my schedule – I’m a very busy woman!” Another obstacle: accepting that the Banks they see on TV – you know, the one with “the hair weaves and false eyelashes” – is not the Banks they’ll get at home. “They want to date me, then after a while you wake up and they are like, ‘What’s this?’ ” she says. “This is a creation my team put together. That’s my biggest insecurity.”
But not, she wants to make clear, the number on the scale. “I’ve made millions of dollars with the body I have, so where’s the pain in that?” she says. “If I was in pain, I would have dieted. The pain is not there – the pain is someone printing a picture of me and saying those [horrible] things.”
Besides, Banks is having a lot more fun these days eating the pancakes off a friend’s plate at IHOP than trying to fit into designer sample sizes. Of course, if someone would come up with a miracle cure for cellulite, she’s not above admitting she’d be first in line. “I think every woman,” she says, “would want to do something about their cellulite!”
• By Allison Adato. Amy Elisa Keith in Los Angeles