Tyra Banks: Woman on Top

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com September 11 2009 9:00 AM ET

Whether she’s coaching a transgender aspiring model on America’s Next Top Model or putting The Advocate’s cover line “Gay Is the New Black” up for debate on her eponymous talk show, Tyra Banks always struts the right side of the runway between exploiting and celebrating gay people. The 35-year-old former supermodel was even honored with the prestigious Excellence in Media Award at the 20th annual GLAAD Media Awards in March. Now sizing up the competition for cycle 13 of Top Model, which premieres September 9 on the CW, Banks shares some drag-worthy beauty secrets and reveals who’s still in the running towards becoming her next gay best friend.

The Advocate: You’ve done so much to educate people about gay issues. What did we do to deserve so much of your attention?
Tyra Banks: As a model immersed in the fashion industry, I was lucky to be embraced by the LGBT community, and many of them became my dear friends. They’ve shared the stories of their struggle, pain, and excommunication from their families, as well as their triumphs. Those friends have really become a second family to me, and I would never be where I am today without their support.

What did it mean for you to receive the recognition from GLAAD?
2008 was a really big year for me — my talk show won an Emmy, True Beauty [which I executive-produced] became a hit, and Top Model continued to grow — but I have to say that I was incredibly honored to receive that award. I feel so fortunate to have the power to put a transgender woman like Isis on Top Model last year; that was a very proud moment for me, and it took a lot to get there. Of course, there have also been a number of lesbian contestants on Top Model since the very beginning, but I don’t pay attention to anyone’s sexual orientation; I focus on their modeling ability. And I’m proud to have my talk show as another platform that allows me to address important LGBT issues, so to have that community recognize me for my efforts is very rewarding.

Any behind-the-scenes scoop on the New York awards ceremony?
Before the show kicked off, I hung out backstage with my good friend Clay Aiken, who presented me with the award. He’s such a funny guy, and he loves making fun of me, so it was great to catch up. When it came time for the actual show, I realized I should have made a bathroom stop as soon as I sat down. I didn’t want to miss a minute of the show, so I held in my pee for five hours. But my only regret is not powdering my face before accepting the award because my face was so oily it looked like I dipped it in bacon grease.

Speaking of which, how was the free dinner? I follow you on Twitter, so I know you like to eat.
[Laughs] The food was incredible! The sauce on the chicken was so delicious that I debated licking my plate.

In your acceptance speech you apologized for stealing the word “fierce” from the gay community and then overexposing it. You also said you were currently taking suggestions for the “new fierce.” Have you found a worthy replacement?
The new word I’ve started using is “disgusting.” I did have a funeral for “fierce,” but I have to admit that she rose from the dead.

From the many hot gay topics you’ve tackled on your talk show — including last year’s GLAAD Media Award–nominated episodes “Don’t Ruin My Gay Wedding,” “Gays in the Ghetto,” and “Transgender Triumphs” — what’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned?
We did an episode on domestic violence where one of the abusive relationships we featured was a lesbian couple, and the studio audience did not take it seriously. I was surprised by their reaction, so I had to explain that this was a real issue that extends beyond sexual orientation, because abuse is abuse no matter the gender of the abuser. At that moment I realized that this is still a major issue, and there’s still a lot more that needs to be done to increase awareness and support of the LGBT community.

The upcoming cycle 13 of Top Model is limited to contestants 5-foot-7 or shorter. Are there any gay or trans shorties in the mix?
Yes, there is a lesbian contestant in the final 14 of the petite cycle. She loves her girlfriend so much she has her name tattooed on her shoulder.

Let’s say that I wanted to be your new gay BFF. What would it take for me to break into your posse?
The most important quality you need is honesty. I don’t need a friend telling me I look fierce, but I need one that tells me when I smell funky. People might think that I’m really into fashion and glamour all the time, but I’m not. So when I’m just chillin’, my BFF can’t be afraid to tell me that I need some mascara or I’ve got a weave track showing.

Promise you wouldn’t yell at me?
My gay BFF can’t be intimidated or feel he can’t tell me the truth, even if it may sting a little. I used to dress in old T-shirts and jeans when I was off work and didn’t really care about how I looked. Finally, one of my friends staged an intervention and said, “Tyra, I know this is your off-time, but it’s embarrassing how casual you’re dressed right now. Spend a couple minutes on minimal makeup, girl, because you don’t want anyone to see you and say, ‘Miss Top Model looks busted!’” [Laughs] I’d also want my new gay BFF to not talk about work. I spend the week working on Top Model and the talk show, so even if I’ve done fun stuff like tape backstage with Beyoncé or hang out with Miley Cyrus, I don’t want to think about work on the weekends. I love to laugh, and sometimes being silly with a good BFF is just what I need.

What would we do for fun?
Maybe take an African dance class, go for a run outside, or kayak. My perfect Sunday would include walking around the city in sweats and a pair of Keds, buying jewelry from NYC street vendors. A potential BFF should also have a love — no, an obsession for good food like I do. I am obsessed with trying new restaurants and exploring cool cuisines, but you can just as easily find me dipping into a movie on a Saturday afternoon for buttery popcorn and a soda. The last movie I took in with a good gay best friend was Brüno — pure craziness!

RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo is clearly inspired by Top Model, and RuPaul has even instructed contestants to be “hotter than Tyra wearing a fat suit in July.” But if a drag queen really wanted to emulate you, what would be your best advice?
The key to a drag queen doing me is overdoing me. You’ve got to go all the way over the top, times 10. First of all, get a honey brown weave or wig, some green contact lenses, and some big-ass chicken cutlets to stuff the bra. You also need a killer runway walk, but that weave has to be fly. The bigger the better, but quality is key — no cheap weave hair! And always be ready to smile with your eyes — “smize” — at the drop of a hat.