Tyra Banks: Role model with a new role

Model, TV host and now author Tyra Banks.

From starring role in "America's Next Top Model" to an aspiring literary role model for young readers, Tyra Banks is not one for resting on her laurels. Nor is she one for forgetting where she comes from. Tracy Smith has our Sunday Profile:

Tyra Banks knows how to work it.

As if it wasn't enough to be a former Victoria's Secret lingerie model, she's the head of her own successful media company, and a well known TV star in a perpetual search for "America's Next Top Model."

At 37, an age where many former supermodels' best paydays are behind them, Banks is bucking the trend. In 2009, four years after her final runway appearance, Forbes listed Tyra Banks as the highest-paid woman in prime time, with an annual income of $30 million.

But it was hard to imagine that kind of life in the part of Los Angeles where she grew up, a lower-middle class neighborhood. "I wouldn't call it the 'hood. We didn't have gangs and things like that," she said.


They also didn't have much money. Banks was raised by her single mom, Carolyn London, in a modest L.A. apartment building. It's a place London hasn't set foot in since the family moved out nearly 20 years ago.

"Oh my God, it looks so much smaller!" London exclaimed.

Banks said an arch was what felt smaller to her: "I grew a little bit!"

Back then, Tyra was so painfully shy that her social life amounted to kissing imaginary boyfriends on her bedroom mirror.

"I wanted to kiss a boy so much and I hadn't yet, and all of my friends had," she said. "So the mirror that was here was my boyfriend and I kissed it so many times. Oh, my God!

"And not just like this - I'm talking like, 'Oh, I think the French kiss thing,'" she laughed. "And there would be so much spit on this mirror. And then my mom would come in and go, 'What is - ? This mirror's all dirty! What the hell is on this mirror? What are you doing?'"

"Did you know what was going on?" Smith asked.

"No, I didn't know!" said London.

"I didn't think to clean it," Banks laughed.

Shy or not, young Tyra was a good enough student to be admitted to both USC and UCLA, but the tall, skinny teen also caught the eye of model scouts.

To start a portfolio, Tyra's mom grabbed her camera and posed her daughter on the stairs ... next to the garbage cans.

"The sun was setting so it was really like orange-y light," London recalled. "And I shot it just like that. And that photo stayed in her portfolio for two years. Everyone loved it."

"Crazy, right?" Banks said.

"So did you know, mom, then that Tyra would be 'Tyra'?' Smith asked.

"No!" she laughed. "I thought it would be a phase that she went through, that she would experience and say, 'Well, I did that,' and then go on. What I really wanted her to do was to go to college, you know?"

But college would have to wait: Tyra Banks became the face every designer seemed to want, a fixture at Victoria's Secret, and the first African American woman on the coveted cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

But she realized she couldn't model forever, and in 2005, Tyra Banks decided to strut off the runway ... for good.

"How scary was that when you walked away from modeling?" Smith asked.

"I don't think me walking away from modeling was scary for me," Banks said. "In hindsight, I think it was very risky. When you talk about risk, because it paid the bills. So I don't know if that was the smartest thing in the world to do.

"It paid off. You know, of course, in hindsight, everything is like, 'I was so smart.' But just in hindsight, it was kind of throwing all my eggs in one basket."

That "basket" was television. Banks had started her own reality show, "America's Next Top Model" in 2003, and her own Emmy Award-winning talk show a few years later.

A big part of her appeal was her unabashed honesty about the beauty industry that made her famous.

"It seems like every time you turned around, you were peeling off another layer of yourself," Smith said.

"It's like I have to let you know that this is not real," Banks said. "I have to let you know that my boobs are saggy. I have to let you know, I feel like it's a responsibility. And so I don't know how to not do that."

Banks' lifelong issues with body image - and the bizarre realities of the fashion world - were the inspirations for her first book. "I said, 'What am I going to write about?' And everybody says, 'Write what you know.'"