The Fierce Racism Backlash to Tyra Banks’ ‘America’s Next Top Model’

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CBS Photo Archive/Getty
CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Despite her best efforts to position herself as an advocate for size inclusion and racial diversity in the modeling world over the past decade, Tyra Banks can’t escape the problematic ghosts of her television-hosting past as her critics on social media continue to rehash her most controversial and cringeworthy moments.

For Gen Z consumers of television, it may be hard to imagine a beloved competition show in which women are forced to weigh themselves in front of their fellow castmates (and thus the world), are given drastic makeovers against their tearful pleas, don blackface for a challenge, are instructed by the show’s judges to lose weight, and advised to wear additional makeup if they’re not white. Believe it or not, these were once casual if not frequent occurrences on America’s Next Top Model, a show that could only thrive in an era prior to social media and the widespread adoption of social justice rhetoric on the internet.

Even before its latest reassessment on Twitter, America’s Next Top Model’s legacy online, like most reality juggernauts of the early 2000s, has been that of a plentiful meme farm, from Banks’ “two women stand before me” spiel to her famous “hoe but make it fashion” tutorial to the clip of her asking “how many people were scared?” after a contestant fainted. (I would be remiss not to mention the multitude of “surprised” GIFs starring Miss Jay Alexander). For the most part, Banks has made the most out of her brand simply by doing the most. But with the addition of the show on several streaming platforms since last year, her re-circulated antics and soundbites as a host—in addition to her past beef with Naomi Campbell and her short-lived yet indelible daytime television show—have made her less of a fun, eccentric personality in the eyes of the public and more of a celebrity supervillain.

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Last May, Banks apologized in a tweet after clips depicting the lack of sensitivity toward race and certain contestants on ANTM resurfaced. And a few months later, in an interview with Tamron Hall, she admitted that the show “messed up” regarding the exclusive casting of the show. Unfortunately for the Dancing with the Stars host, there’s no reliable way to put a pin in online criticism. As long as the source is still readily available online, people will continue to dissect and share it for their own entertainment or more serious analysis. Likewise, a new video currently making the rounds from cycle 3 of the series that features Banks and the show’s panel of judges, including photographer Nigel Barker and model Janice Dickinson, has raised new accusations of anti-Blackness, colorism, and outright bullying.

The viral clip, which is pulled from a compilation titled “black antm models getting misjudged for 4 minutes” on YouTube, shows the panel evaluating untouched and retouched portraits of contestants Yaya DaCosta and Kelle Jacob. The premise of the photoshoot alone is baffling, in that the women are seemingly being judged for how much their natural faces match up to the airbrushed versions of the photos. To some users, the exercise felt like a smokescreen to allow the judges to point out what they considered to be the women’s flaws—one of the flaws, according to Barker, being DaCosta’s skin, which appears immaculately smooth and blemish-free in both photos but noticeably a few shades lighter in the edited version. Banks assures her that she “can get there.”

The judge’s evaluation of Jacob’s photo is even more baffling, as Banks tells her that women of color have to wear more makeup because “we don’t reflect light.” Maybe the show’s most routinely petty judge Dickinson then goes into an animated bit having the producers switch back and forth between her untouched and retouched photos, comparing it to a Hitchcock film and mimicking horror-film violin screeches. When Jacob retorts that she has “beautiful skin,” Banks cuts her off and scolds her for “placing the blame” on the photographer.

This led Twitter users to go down a rabbit hole of some of the show’s other controversies, including a lawsuit that was filed by former contestant Angelea Preston, who claimed her prize from cycle 14’s all-star season was revoked after production discovered that she was a former escort, and an episode on cycle 4 in which a contestant named Keenyah Hill claimed that she had been inappropriately touched by a male model on a photoshoot, and the judges insisted that she should’ve controlled the situation. These troubling incidents—in addition to the clip—demonstrate how much of the toxic, cruel nature that has come to define ANTM was a collective effort on the part of the producers, judges, and other people working behind the scenes in addition to Banks’ own contributions. It’s also a direct reflection of the cutthroat state of the fashion industry and the mistreatment models are expected to endure, a topic that’s been brought to light in recent years thanks to the #MeToo movement. Nevertheless, Banks, who also served as an executive producer, will always be the unmistakable face of the program and has enough problematic soundbites for the internet to map most of the show’s ethical failings onto her.

The inescapable nature of Banks’ missteps on ANTM and her daytime talk show Tyra, which is another bottomless well of mind-boggling and offensive moments, are interesting to discuss in relation to one of her most recent career ventures. In 2020, she announced a new theme park called ModelLand, which borrows the name of her 2011 novel that, as described on its website, features “fashion and beauty, photoshoots and runways, shopping and theatre.” While the Santa Monica attraction has yet to open in light of the pandemic, the website promotes a space for people of all shapes, sizes, genders and races to receive the supermodel treatment.

Most would argue that monetizing the fantasy of equality for marginalized people in the beauty and fashion space is not the same as dismantling oppressive beauty norms, and there’s even an obvious argument here that it’s exploitative. Nevertheless, this move is, at the very least, an expression of Banks’ new values as a beauty mogul whether or not she’s actually making a difference in the modeling industry. These beliefs certainly aren’t radical in the year 2021, when nearly every fashion brand is offering plus sizes and incorporating body-positivity language in their marketing. But like all brands attempting to stay relevant in the age of inclusivity, she simply doesn’t have a choice but to evolve.

Still, it’s fair to say that the legacy Banks built for herself on television looms large over her modeling career for most millennials and especially Gen Z, whose primary reference for her is presumably memes and reaction videos. One can imagine the cycle of discovering and reacting to the worst parts of her career on social media to repeat itself every year or so.

Banks took a bold risk betting on her brashness, and it looks like she’ll keep paying the price for years to come.

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