SHE’S JUST EIGHT MONTHS SHY OF 21, but Tyra Banks already has her feet planted in two grown-up glamorous worlds. In New York City and Los Angeles she has been turning heads—both as a-hot-if not-quite-yet-supermodel and as Will Smith’s sassy, athletic, not-quite-yet-girlfriend Jackie on NBC’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The problem is, most of the strangers she meets aren’t quite sure yet how to react to her. “When people know me as a model,” she says, “they back off. They have trouble relating lo the image they see in the magazines. But when they recognize me from television, they relate to me as this chill-out girl. It’s like, ‘Hey, girl, what’s up?’ ”
Heaps. In fact, she could use a third foot. Next year she’ll even make her motion picture debut (“and introducing…”) as a track runner named Deja in Higher Learning, directed by her boyfriend, 26-year-old John Singleton (Poetic justice). Yet only a few years ago, Fresh Prince was nothing more to Tyra than a sitcom she liked to watch while eating dinner at her family’s three-bedroom duplex in Los Angeles, and runway poses were something she practiced while watching Cindy Crawford’s House of Style on MTV. Trying to walk like a model, she remembers, “my ankles would shake and I would bend my knees and stick my lips out.” Now, thanks to her long-limbed beauty and happy energy, the 5’11”, 125-lb. Banks has a contract with the IMG agency, a deal with Cover Girl makeup and a buzz: She has been called the New Naomi Campbell, although Banks is wary of being touted as the black model of the moment. (“Why do I have to knock Naomi out lo be successful? With white models they don’t do that.”) Her mother, Carolyn London-Johnson, 45, who used to run a photo lab, quit her job lo manage Tyra’s career.
Some things haven’t changed. Tyra lives with Carolyn and her second husband, Clifford Johnson, 47, a high school graphic-arts teacher, and still has her old bedroom and stuffed animals (although she plans to move into her own house in the not-distant future). She also remains close to her dad, Donald Banks, 48, a computer consultant, who lives nearby. (A brother, Devin, 26, an Air Force paramedic, is stationed in Okinawa.)
Although she once daydreamed about becoming a veterinarian (with the beautiful nom de vet Stephanie Clifton), Tyra became interested in modeling while a student at Immaculate Heart High School in L.A. She and a friend would buy makeup at Thrifty’s, then go home and vogue. “We thought we were so cool,” says Banks, hooting. At 17, she began making the round of agencies. “The market for black models was not very good,” says Carolyn, who shot Tyra’s portfolio and accompanied her on interviews. “They would say, ‘We have this many black girls already.’ ” Her looks, Banks was told, were “too ethnic.” She finally signed with L.A. Models, but then decided to enroll at Loyola Marymount University in L.A. in the fall of ’91. That August, though, a French modeling agent, scouting for talent in L.A., offered Banks an immediate chance to model at the couture shows in Paris. Banks accepted and within a week of her first stroll before the style mavens she had accumulated 25 bookings. “That girl is a live wire,” says model Niki Taylor. “She can work a runway like you would not believe.”
It was last spring in L.A. that Singleton, who met her through mutual friends, was smitten. “And when I saw her on the runway, it was, ‘Damn, she is beautiful,’ ” he says. “I was dying.”
He recuperated enough, and has confidence enough, to put her in his movie. So far, her acting résumé contains only one credit—Fresh Prince’s Jackie—but “Tyra is good,” says Singleton. “She adds a lot of flavor to what could have been a throwaway role.” She landed the part after rehearsing at home with her mother, then impressed the producers by arriving at her first audition wearing an athletic combination of a T-shirt and shoes. Her acting aside, that height-enhancing outfit showed her to be a good one-on-one match with the 6’2″ Smith.
Although Learning is her first step toward movie stardom, Banks says she has been asked to read for other parts—a drug-addicted mom, an aviator’s wife and, for The Firm, the seductress who sleeps with Tom Cruise in the Caribbean sand. Why pass on the chance to be onscreen—horizontally, even—with Tom? (Karina Lombard accepted.) Because, says Banks, she wants to avoid being cast solely for her decorative value: “I don’t want roles that scream. I AM SO PRETTY!”
That’s an admirable goal—and, in Hollywood, a challenging one.
BRYAN ALEXANDER in New York City