We’re a few weeks out from the 29th season premiere of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, but new host and executive producer Tyra Banks is thinking about something other than a dance floor. “I brought in a rug for our floor at home with A-B-C’s all over it plus shapes, numbers and bright colors,” she says from Los Angeles, “but my son was like, ‘Mommy, our house is turning into a classroom! This is home, not a school!’”
Home-schooling 4-year-old son, York [with former partner Erik Asla], during the pandemic is a topic Banks, 46, says she could discuss all day. “The positive side of [the pandemic] is I would have never had this much time being with him as a working mother. And I’m extremely fortunate my mother now lives with us and helps out. I kind of feel like this is how families are supposed to be.” Still—as most parents know—balancing their career with kids hasn’t been easy, particularly during these last six months.
But if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Banks, who seems to accomplish whatever she sets her sights on. After forgoing college to try her hand at modeling, she became the first Black woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition in 1996 and the first female model on the cover of GQ the same year. Then of course, there was the massively successful reality show America’s Next Top Model, which she created in 2003 and ran for 24 seasons. She went on to host her own talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, which won two Daytime Emmys during its five-season run. Also, two seasons hosting America’s Got Talent. And now there’s Dancing with the Stars.
It was announced in late July that Banks would be replacing the dancing competition’s longtime cohosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews, which stunned die-hard fans and prompted some to speculate the reason she was hired was because she was a Black woman and the show was trying to conveniently diversify its older, conservative-leaning audience. (“I can assure you that wasn’t the reason,” Bergeron said recently.)
At the time of the reveal, Banks said in a statement, “Tom has set a powerful stage, and I’m excited to continue the legacy and put on my executive producer and hosting hats.” While specifics of her contract were not made public (“Girl, I can’t talk about a contract!” she says with a laugh because, yes, I asked), it’s presumed to be a multiyear deal that’s part of the show’s “new creative direction.”
If Banks is nervous about taking over, she doesn’t show it. “Still, I’m going to have to convince a lot of people that I can do this job,” she says. “I know I can do the job, but I’ll have to convince them that they will enjoy me doing the job.”
But how did the job come about? And when you factor in a career path as carefully executed as Banks’s, why did she decide this was the right next step? Ahead of the September 14 premiere—which got people talking thanks to a very interesting cast—Banks opened up to Glamour about the hurt she felt from people’s reactions following her hosting announcement, her fellow high school alum—also known as the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle—and why she’s cautiously optimistic about the future.
Glamour: First of all, it’s been such an emotionally heavy year. As a Black woman and as the mother of a young son, how are you coping?
Tyra Banks: I’ve teared up about this because I never thought in my entire lifetime or my child’s lifetime or my grandchild’s lifetime or my great-grandchild’s lifetime I would see the world get behind the plight of Black people; to get behind the injustices and the unfairness. Not just in the judicial system, but also in corporate America. Because of that, it brings tears to my eyes to see this happening.
I did a speech for a company a couple months before COVID [hit], where I was like, “Yo, all the white men in the audience, can you listen to me right now? You guys hold the power…so we need you to say yes, we need you to give us the opportunities, we need you to open the door, we need you to put all your biases behind.” I said this way before what’s happening now, but we always need the people in power to make changes.
Speaking of people making changes and using their voice, you and Meghan Markle went to the same high school, Immaculate Heart. Are you in touch?
She was maybe in seventh grade when I was in 12th, so I can’t remember if I ever met her, but she’s my IH sister for life. I’ve tried to give her space because you reach a certain point in life and the whole world starts coming at you, so I don’t want to be another one of those people doing that. I want to respect her being my IH sister in this instance, but you’re making me think about something and maybe I should reach out to her.
Let’s talk Dancing With the Stars. You recently said how fortunate you felt to be trusted with an “institution” like DWTS. Was this something you always wanted to do?
I never would have thought of it, nope! It actually hurts my feelings a bit that people think that I was hired because I’m a Black woman. [The show] reached out to me many, many months ago before any of the [racial] unrest happened. And it was something that I had to think about for a while because I knew that there’s a lot of responsibility coming in to an institution. Tom Bergeron is a genius host, a comedic host. I had to make sure that I could bring something new, [while] respecting what he’s already done. And that could I really bring my audience to the show.
Then as I had further discussions with ABC, they said they wanted me to executive-produce, and I was like, ‘Okay, now you have a yes!’ But I’ll be 100% real with you: It’s not my heavy-lifting executive-producing of America’s Next Top Model. I’m coming into something that’s already there and I’m making some tweaks. [The show’s] executive producer, Andrew Llinares, does the lion’s share of the heavy lift of DWTS, and I’m not going to take undue credit. Yes, I’m an executive producer, and yes, I have the ability to make certain decisions, but a lot of the time I’m deferring to Andrew out of respect for a show that’s super successful. I’m really just bringing in different elements to do some updates.
Have you talked to Tom or Erin since the announcement was made?
I haven’t. I want to call Tom so bad and tell him that I have some serious shoes to fill and he’s very, very talented.
What do you hope skeptical viewers say after they watch you?
I hope they say, “You know what, I’m going to stick with this.” Like, “Wow…I was wrong about that.”
Let’s talk logistics: Will there be a studio audience? Are the dancers being tested every day? How will safety protocols work?
There will not be an audience. The health and safety of the cast and crew is of the utmost importance. There’s going to be a dedicated production zone, and there’s going to be pods of people where these are the only people you will be interacting with from a cast and crew standpoint. Dancers will only be in contact with their celebrity partner. And there’s strict social distancing on set and in rehearsals. But the craziest thing is that the married couples have to live separately throughout the duration of the entire season.
I think we have three or four married couples. Yeah. So you understand, they’re serious about making sure everyone is safe.
How will you be different from what viewers have seen either from hosting your own talk show or on America’s Next Top Model?
I’m just going to be myself in terms of personality. What will be the most fake is me walking out on that dance floor with the wackiest, craziest outfits with amazing hair and makeup. That’s not me—that’s a whole creation. But what’s coming out of my mouth and personality is going to be who you’re talking to now.
After the DWTS announcement was made, you also signed a deal with ABC Signature Studios and your production company to create unscripted and scripted programming. What kind of content do you want to bring to the network and studio?
We’ve got to be flashy, we’ve got to stand out, because there’s so much good TV right now. We have to be unafraid. After our deal was signed, one of the scripted-programming executives said, “Wow, you’re wanting to make some noise! You want to make some change in the world but you also want to make people laugh. You guys are not trying to be safe. I love it!” That just touched me.
[My team is] an all female crew and we sit around the table and we beat an idea over and over and over again [until it’s ready to present]. We will do seven decks on one show idea because I’m like, “We need to add an idea, we need to twist it, flip it, make it louder, make it flashier.” So for us to deliver that and get that kind of feedback, it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s working.”
Is there anything in the works you can talk about yet?
We have some huge game show ideas, as well as strong scripted content. There’s a project that’s actually a spoof of America’s Next Top Model, but it’s scripted and highly self-deprecating. People are like, “You’re okay to make fun of yourself like that?” And I say, “That was a character.” We have beautiful cartoon [ideas] because I see it as huge business. And we have a big project with my mom too.
On a closing note, as we head into a new season, how are you feeling about where you are in this moment?
It’s very difficult for me to look in the mirror and think about [being] hopeful for myself, especially when I turn on the news. But I feel hopeful about a cure, about a vaccine. I feel that we’re going to be better from that, that we’re going to be connecting more than ever. Smizing has been totally transformed. Now I see nurses and doctors on social media making videos about how smizing is allowing them to connect with people because they have to wear a mask all day and can only connect with their eyes. So I foresee a very hopeful tomorrow.
The other side is scared as hell because there’s so much uncertainty. I’m starting this [ice cream] company, Smize Cream, and we’re doing amazing things, but we’re holding back because of so much uncertainty. But I’m hopeful that I will be able to hire so many people and take their careers to the next level—especially people of color.
The new season of Dancing With the Stars premieres on ABC on Monday, September 14. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @JRadloff and on Instagram at @jessicaradloff14.
Originally Appeared on Glamour