Tyra Banks has obviously forgotten she's a supermodel. For one thing, she agrees to have lunch at a Hollywood joint called Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, where she arrives wearing blue jeans, a red sweat shirt and just a hint of blush. No wonder the waitress, after taking Banks's gut-busting order of fried wings and cheese grits, says to her, "Girl, has anyone told you that you look like Tyra Banks?" After a few minutes, the waitress returns. This time, she realizes who she's talking to, and she's got some advice. "Your forehead ain't as big as they make it look in those Victoria Secret magazines," she says. "They don't do you justice, and you ought to tell them that." At this point, any self-respecting diva would slap the woman. Banks just plays along. "What should I do, girl? Should I tell them they need to make me look better?"
The fact is, Banks has never looked so good. At an age--30!--when most models give up and marry a rock star, Banks is turning herself into a multimedia empire. Her show, "America's Next Top Model," has single-handedly resuscitated UPN--faint praise, perhaps, but the program is running neck and neck with the competition on NBC and ABC. As if TV and modeling weren't enough, Banks just launched a singing career. The video for her single, "Shake Ya Body," got 155,000 hits on the UPN Web site since it debuted on "Top Model," though it's possible that many fans didn't bother listening to the music. "I want to be successful across the board," Banks says. "I want an empire like Oprah's. I may do it with a little more cleavage, but I plan to get there."
OK, so maybe she's a little bit of a diva. Then again, no one thought a model could pull off creating a major TV show. "Top Model" features 12 women competing in a variety of tasks--runway walking, agency visits and the always-grueling nude photo shoot--with the winner receiving several modeling deals. That might sound tedious to people who don't know a Manolo from a Barolo, but "Top Model" may just be TV's perfect reality show. It's as deliciously cut-throat as "Survivor"--last week one woman implied that a rival had an eating disorder, in hopes that Banks, who serves as the host and chief judge, would vote the woman off. Like "The Apprentice," "Model" also does a great job of showing viewers the inner workings of an industry (who knew that the recognized expert on runway walking was a skinny man in pumps?). The show can even out-nasty "American Idol," thanks to a judge named Janice Dickinson, who says things like "This photograph looks like the battery has died in her vibrator." "People are comparing me to Simon Cowell," says Dickinson, a former supermodel. "I look much better in a thong."
Banks says the idea for "Top Model" simply came to her one day. "I was in my kitchen in my underwear looking out the window, and just saw the words 'America's Top Model' in my head," she says. "I wanted to do a show where people were striving for a goal, winning something that you've worked hard for." That's not a bad description of how Banks made it. She left home for Paris when she was 17 and endured years of battles with a rival she still can't bring herself to name, but we can: Naomi Campbell. "She did so many hateful things, like getting me thrown off shows because she was more famous," says Banks. "It got so bad that I called my mother and told her I wanted to just give up." Instead, Mom started managing Tyra's career. Before long, Banks became the first African-American on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue and the first female model of any race on the cover of GQ. "The minute you meet her, you understand why she's a supermodel," says Ken Mok, the TV producer who created "Top Model" with Banks. "She has such a big-picture sense about herself. If she was a doctor, she'd be chief of surgery at Cedars."
Singing, Banks admits, will be harder to conquer. The last time she performed in public was at the 2000 NBA all-star game. Kobe Bryant was launching his ill-fated rap career, and Banks sang backup. The whole thing was so bad, her part was cut from the telecast. "God, that was a mess," she says. In typical do-it-yourself fashion, Banks paid $30,000 to make the "Shake Ya Body" video herself. She says she knows most people won't take her seriously as a singer unless they see her in action, so she hired top manager Benny Medina and is hoping the song will lead to a record deal. "I know I could fall on my face, but that's life," she says. "I'm not going to let that stop me."
Besides, she's got plenty of careers to fall back on. She still has her Victoria's Secret contract, though Banks says her runway days are basically over. "I'd be in fittings and some Italian designers would say to each other, 'She's getting fat,' thinking I didn't understand them," she says. UPN has renewed "Top Model" for two more years (though the network is nervous about this week's episode, which features something that looks like an orgy). All that, and she's in a three-year relationship with Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber. Despite her plus-size ambitions, Banks admits she's a little shocked that she's kept all these balls in the air. "I'm in an area where there isn't any blueprint for me, and that can be nerve-racking," she says. "Sometimes you want to call someone up and ask, 'How do I do this?' It's like walking around in the dark." At least this time she's walking around wearing more than underwear.