Tyra Banks’ resume is impressive: supermodel, actress, advocate, philanthropist, author and social activist. But she makes it clear that the role of which she is most proud is being the successful host of her own talk show, “Tyra.”
“It is so important. I feel it is a calling for me. It’s one of the reasons I was put here,” she told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Wednesday in New York. Now in its fourth season, the five-day-a-week show was celebrating its 500th episode, a milestone that’s exceeded her wildest expectations when she began it in 2005.
“So many people told me, ‘You’re going to cancel in the first month,’ ” she recalled. “Ninety percent of talk shows cancel in the first year. For us to be reaching 500 episodes — oh, my gosh, I feel so good.”
She’s up for a daytime Emmy for the highly regarded show, which is syndicated by Warner Bros. In it, she likes to address social issues ranging from the plight of the homeless to the way overweight people are treated. She doesn’t just talk about the issues, she gets involved in them, donning a fat suit for her segment on that subject and dressing in rags and begging on the street for her show on the homeless.
“I don’t like to just talk about it, I like to do it,” she told Morales. “There’s so many things that I’ve done where I’m actually doing it. I feel it’s more empathizing with the situation rather than just sympathizing with it.”
For her 501st show, airing Thursday, she goes back to high school, spending the day at Lincoln High School on Coney Island and learning just how much life has changed for kids since she graduated from Immaculate Heart High School, a private all-girls school in the Los Angeles area.
“We reach a lot of young people and a lot of high schoolers. I wanted to go back to school to see how it was almost 20 years later, approaching my 20th reunion,” she said.
It’s nothing like she remembered. “I found a lot of different things,” she told Morales. “There were metal detectors — that wasn’t in my day. Cyberbullying is like at an all-time high. We had this quick assembly at the school. I asked, ‘How many of you have been cyberbullied?’ Almost the whole room raised their hand. We had note-passing and gossip.”
She also found that kids are dealing with sex at a much earlier age than she remembers. “The pressure to have sex at such an early age — I talked to some of the girls about that,” she said. Another issue, she said, was domestic abuse. “A 15-year-old girl was in a one-year domestic abuse relationship — just things that we didn’t deal with.”
“Tyra” is Banks’ second television show. The other, “America’s Next Top Model,” debuted in 2003 and is also very popular with young women. Of the 500 “Tyra” shows, she says her most memorable are the ones she did with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They were also the most nerve-racking, she confessed.
“I was shaking with Barack, because I knew the world would be watching in a different way,” she said. “I was a nervous wreck. It wasn’t Tyra talking about weight, it was Tyra talking about heavy issues — no pun intended.”
The 34-year-old Banks began her career as a fashion model as a teenager. She was the first black model to appear on the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She also graced the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
A former Supermodel of the Year, she’s been named one of the most influential people in the country by both TIME magazine and Forbes. She’s had several nominations for Daytime Emmys and has won a Teen Choice Award for “Tyra.”
Her acting credits include “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Higher Learning” and “Coyote Ugly.”
She’s active in a variety of charities and outreach projects, including TZONE, a program she started eight years ago in Los Angeles to boost the esteem of teenage girls.