Is Tyra Banks Racist?

The peculiar politics of America’s Next Top Model.

Tyra Banks

It’s been more than three years since America’s Next Top Model debuted on UPN and became an almost instant hit. The show, which is hosted and executive-produced by Victoria’s Secret model Tyra Banks, has also been a model of racial diversity. Though most magazine covers still feature white models, on ANTM young women of every possible hue—full-figured and rail thin, bald and be-weaved—are given the chance to chase their Cover Girl dreams. As of last night, when black 20-year-old Danielle Evans took the title, there have been six winners: three white, two black, and one biracial.

Since UPN’s programming caters to a black audience, it makes sense that Tyra, the first black woman to grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, is at the helm. But lately, the supermodel has seemed disapproving of the trappings of black American culture. Though she illustrates her allegiance to the sisterhood by making loving references to her booty, for the past few cycles Tyra has been discouraging any behavior that could be considered “too black.”

Reality television has not been kind to black women, who are often portrayed as bitchy (see Alicia from Survivor: Australian Outback), crazy (see Stacy J. from The Apprentice II) or both (see Omarosa from the first Apprentice). So, on some level, Tyra may be working to counteract the efforts of producers who cast self-described “strong black women” hoping for a bit of drama. When casting Cycle 3, Tyra made her diva disdain known:

“I don’t want another black bitch,” said Tyra to potential contestant Eva Pigford, confronting what had long remained subtext on reality TV. Eva, who was sometimes referred to as “Eva the Diva,” experienced a significant attitude adjustment while under Tyra’s tutelage and went on to win. But as Eva’s star rose, Tyra’s patience with her dark-skinned contestants began to wane. Tyra criticized Cycle 3 runner-up Yaya’s “Afro-centric” head wraps, and in Cycle 4, she threw a spectacular hissy fit at Tiffany, a black mother from Miami. At the end of each episode of ANTM, one would-be model is sent home. When Tiffany, who sported tattoos and got into a bar fight on-camera, shrugged at the news of her elimination, Tyra exploded:

“I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this!” screamed Tyra, her face contorted, her auburn coif swinging. “I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you. How dare you! You go to bed at night, you lay there, you take responsibility for yourself”—conveniently employing her ghetto-fied accent here, Tyra pronounces it yo-self—”because no one will take responsibility for you!”

Losing composure is not usually Tyra’s style. In her dual role as mentor and executioner, she buddies up to the girls, sharing secrets about self-presentation and stress management. Then, at each week’s judging, she trots out their weaknesses and cuts them loose. So, what was it about Tiffany’s attitude that so inflamed her? Was it that, as a fellow black woman, Tyra felt some sort of affection that turned to exasperated rage when her protégé disappointed her? Or was she just upset because she’d been trying to pound the sass out of Tiffany and failed?

This season, the offending black contestant was Danielle, a gap-toothed beauty from Little Rock, Ark. From the beginning, Danielle took strong pictures, whether standing nearly naked in a freezer or hanging upside down in a fisherman’s net. On ANTM, models are judged on their photographs, personality, personal style, and runway walk; if nothing else, the show convinces viewers that modeling is hard work that requires a willingness to take direction and endure physical discomfort for long periods of time. Danielle excelled at all of this. In fact, UPN viewers voted her “Cover Girl of the Week” several times—but Tyra seemed unimpressed.

Although Tyra had several problems with Danielle—at one point bullying her to close the Lauren Hutton-esque gap in her smile—she was particularly unhappy about Danielle’s “country” accent. Danielle does speak the way one might expect a young black woman from Arkansas to speak, but the lilting, syrupy sound of her voice is a huge part of her charm. All the judges—except Tyra—acknowledged this. While no one found it problematic that Jade (the “biracial butterfly”—her words—from New York City) peppered her speech with made-up words like “analystic,” “dwelve,” and “releasement,” Tyra seemed unable to bear the fact that Danielle (who, incidentally, properly used the word cantankerous to describe herself when she gets pissy) had regional inflection in her voice. Even more to the point, Nnenna, the recently booted stunner from Nigeria, also spoke with a thick accent, which Tyra and the rest of the judges found fetching. Evidently, an African accent is fine, but not an African-American one. At last week’s judging, Tyra told Danielle the judges “didn’t trust her when she opened her mouth.” But the truth is that the other judges loved Danielle, especially when she spoke, because she was articulate, modest, and hugely charismatic.

On last night’s show, when Tyra was evaluating finalists Joanie, Danielle, and Jade on their Cover Girl commercials (the girls had to recite a few lines about mascara), she singled Danielle out, imitating her delivery and demonstrating the difference between an acceptable black Southern accent, and an unacceptable one. Tyra’s deft imitations of the cadences of black speech were impressive, if somewhat broad, and suggest that she too may have learned to modify her speech. Perhaps Tyra was simply trying to toughen Danielle up: The fashion industry is run by white people, many of whom may think “black” or “country” accents are uncouth, a mark of poor upbringing. But shouldn’t Tyra be using her clout to challenge this stereotype?

How Danielle feels about all this is anybody’s guess (at least until the reunion show). She wanted to win, and winning meant pleasing Tyra. But to what end? One can’t help but wonder if Tyra would tell a young Cindy Crawford to have her mole removed. Last night, when Danielle was announced the winner, Tyra gave her a hug and said, “We’re gonna get you some voice lessons, girl!” She just couldn’t let it go.

On camera, many of the black ANTM contestants talk about how thrilled they are to be in Tyra’s presence; how her success as a black supermodel inspired them, helping them see themselves as beautiful for the first time. But how does she repay their adoration? By trying to eradicate ethnic idiosyncrasies in their personality and appearance. Tyra tells the aspiring models that they need to develop a thick skin. But she seems to think dark skin should be tougher than light.