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Tyra Banks' mom shares the advice that helped her daughter break barriers

Carolyn London talked about being the mom and manager of superstar model Tyra Banks.
/ Source: TODAY

Tyra Banks is a known around the world as a model and TV personality — but the superstar wasn't always so iconic.

Her mother, Carolyn London, sat down with TODAY's Sheinelle Jones to talk about raising the boundary-breaking runway star on a new episode of "Through Mom's Eyes."

London raised her two children as a single mother after getting a divorce when her daughter was just 5 years old.

"I raised both of my children with this saying... 'Look to the other side,'" London said. "It's not about where you are now, but where you want to go. Envision yourself there."

London said that her daughter's creative interest began early in life. While her older son, Devin, is a "curious, anthropological bookworm," Tyra was always "the creative."

"She would look at TV commercials when she was in elementary school and she would say 'Now, you know, if they had put that hamburger on a different kind of plate and then had that girl walk over and pick it up,'" London recalled. "It was like, 'What are you doing? You're dissecting commercials?'"

When Banks was bullied for her looks, called a "giraffe" and an "ugly duck" in school, her mother tried to help her through it by focusing on other characteristics.

"I concentrated less on her appearance and more on her abilities and her character," London said. "We would take trips to the book store, art exhibits, the museum, because those are the things that she really loved doing. She became an inspiration to other girls at school."

Another activity for the mother-daughter pair was photoshoots. London was working as a biological photographer, shooting at home, and had a friend who worked in the fashion industry. She occasionally assisted on those photoshoots, and would bring her daughter with her to those sessions.

"A lot of models that I was working with would say 'Have you ever thought about her being a model?' And I would say 'Oh, please,'" London said. "So one day (Tyra) came to me and she goes 'Mom, maybe this is something I should look into.' So I said 'OK. You go and do your research, and you tell me what you find out about that industry.' And she came back a week later and she told me, 'This is a go.'"

After Banks applied to colleges and was accepted to five, she received a scout call inviting her to fashion shows in Paris, France.

"I told her that I would support her in whatever decision she made, because it's not my life, it's hers," London said. "But the one thing I did say (was) 'You are starting a business. You are the commodity. So you are going to study. You are going to know that business inside and out before you step on any airplane to go to Paris.' She looked at videotapes of runway models through the ages, and she said 'You know what? Every single one of them has a signature walk.' And I said 'Well, looks like we need to work on a Tyra walk.'"

London said that Banks' work translated into "almost immediate success" in Paris.

Tyra Banks in Paris in 1993.Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

"That is where everything went crazy," London said. "The press started following her, (asking) 'What is your name? Where do you come from?'"

To quell the chaos, she stepped in as her daughter's manager.

"It was so scary, Sheinelle. ... I said 'From now on, you don't book things, you just do it through me,'" London said. "I didn't really realize that I was managing her, I was just taking care of my child."

Banks quickly began breaking barriers in her career, becoming the first Black woman to cover the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and being among the first Black models to sign a contract with Victoria's Secret. London said that dealing with racism was "the most challenging aspect" of the industry.

"She was constantly told that Black models didn't sell magazines, that Black models don't get advertising campaigns, that Black models don't wear winter clothes very well, (that) they look best when their dark skin is exposed in summer wear," London said. "One thing after another. A trait we both have is 'Don't tell us that you can't do something.' There's always a way in. It may be on the side door, the back door, the basement door, a tunnel. You find it. Find it. And continue moving forward."

"I got a phone call from the president of IMG Models, and he goes 'Your daughter is gonna be on the cover of Sports Illustrated,'" London continued. "I just sat still, just quiet, and I thought to myself 'She did it.' She said 'I'm not going to let them tell me that a Black woman can't sell magazines. It was a feeling of accomplishment as a mother, instilling that much in your child, to know that she's truly a trailblazer."

Banks continued to break boundaries and try new things in her career, never giving her mother "a chance to exhale" in her role as manager. While not every step worked out perfectly — London laughed recalling her daughter's short-lived singing career — it was a learning process for both mom and daughter.

"Sometimes you have to let your kids bump," London said. "You can't protect them from everything, because you learn so much in life out of your mistakes."

Now, Banks is a mother herself after welcoming a son in 2016.

"I waited a long, long time for that," London said. "When she finally decided that she wanted to do that, you know, she had a difficult time, and I went through that with her. But when she finally did it, it was life-altering for me. I'm really happy for her. I wanted her to have another one, but she said no."

London ended the conversation with Sheinelle by sharing the piece of advice she'd give her daughter and to other moms.

"Be truthful and honest with your children, to create a relationship where they feel comfortable enough to come to you for anything: I think that's so important," she said.

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