Tyra Banks’ daytime talk show, “The Tyra Banks Show,” should not have been a hit. Conventional wisdom tells us that for every “Rosie” or “Ellen,” there are a hundred Carnie Wilsons or Roseanne Barr trainwrecks, as daytime is still the place you go when you have personal branding power without the grounding influence of true skill.
Not so with Tyra.
What is it about “Tyra” that provokes such interest — the show is continually discussed and lampooned — three years into its syndicated run? Its reach has even outstripped the success of tired old “Top Model,” now airing on The CW and in its 10th season, in the national consciousness, despite having no discernable point whatsoever.
“Tyra” episodes fall into several basic categories: Tyra talks about herself, Tyra dresses up as something weird, Tyra talks about naughty stuff while giggling, Tyra does an on-air advertisement for her other show, “America's Next Top Model,” and Tyra has regrettable conversations with celebrities and stars of far greater magnitude and dignity.
The common thread, of course, is Tyra herself.
Tyra doesn't give the people what they want, she gives the people what she wants. The coincidence lies in the fact that the subjects that command Tyra's interest most, celebrity, fashion and scandal, also happen to be those things that her audience finds most fascinating.
But that's not the whole story: daytime and tabloid TV are full of those subjects, often presenting them in much slicker, nastier or funnier ways. Tyra must bear some responsibility for her success beyond her commonplace interests and celebrity access.
Tyra bristles at comparisons to Oprah, and for good reason: Her talk show lineage is not classic daytime, but the celebrity discussions and outsider approach of Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler. Remove the edge from their ironic, often bitter takes on celebrity, and you find the key to Tyra's success. Tyra is never above her topics and is always captivated by them, the perfect cruise director for trainwreck culture.
Her instincts are good because she has remained, in large part, a member of the audience itself. Tyra has positioned herself as a curator of pop culture, driven by curiosity and her own innate consumerism. When we watch "Tyra," we're really watching Tyra sit alongside us and watch something else. She is a celebrity among consumers.
Even when things get personal, Tyra maintains the balance between hostess and participant. A discussion of guests' fears quickly becomes a discussion of Tyra's own bizarre fear of dolphins or winged animals. A panel of strippers and exotic dancers is quickly subjected to Tyra's sharp tongue, hating strippers as she does. Even her irritating attempts to upstage her guests, as when she segued from Hillary Clinton's comments to an unrelated story about her upbringing, only serve to bring us closer to the subject itself. She becomes part of the noise.
Tyra always front and center
Whether discussing cellulite with Hillary Clinton or taking survivors of sexual assault on Parisian shopping trips, Banks is front and center, wearing ridiculous clothing and making bizarre claims to independence, street-smarts and wisdom beyond her 34 years. She is the supporting star of every moment, joining her transsexual makeover victims on the catwalk, redundantly explaining her own reactions in real time as they occur, or drawing allusions to past and future episodes of both shows.
In the years since “Top Model” began, Tyra has moved from being a product, as a model and outspoken model advocate, to a career as the pop-culture face of modeling. She is putting herself into the role of fashion and modeling spokesperson, taking on the mantle once worn by Janice Dickinson, and it's a role that she could conceivably fulfill for decades.
Luckily, both her reality show and her talk show allow her to straddle this line, influencing the action without necessarily being the center of it, try as she might. Tyra's influence on the decisions and events in “Top Model” seems impossible to discern, while the variety and intensity of the guests and stories on “Tyra” are so overblown and intense that you can only locate Tyra in the excitement by the fact that she's generally jumping up and down, screaming, or flipping her dress up over her head.
The true genius of the Tyra brand, and what assures its dependable rise and prominence, is Tyra's self-obsession itself. Tyra's greatness is not in giving people what they want, it's in giving people what she wants. The success lies in the fact that, due to her own overwhelming typicality, these things coincide. What Tyra wants is what the country wants, and she gives it willingly.
She knows her audience because she is her audience, to a greater degree than perhaps any hostess seen before, because the commonplace and sensationalized is as deep as Tyra gets.
But comparisons to Oprah aren't completely off-track. Tyra has certainly inherited her predecessor's skill at appealing to both sides of her audience through aggressive blandness.
Tyra's warm and fuzzy, and deeply sensitive, while still broadcasting her own street-level legitimacy with every carefully chosen word and intonation. Her squeamish approach to sex is as relatable as her morbid obsession with it. Likewise, her ability to shift from squealing ingénue to sage mentor, often in the blink of an eye, and often for no reason whatsoever, gives her appeal across age demographics.
Ultimately, Tyra's success will be contingent on keeping herself in the spotlight without being asked to create anything of value herself. If Oprah is America's mommy, Tyra is the cool big sister, with sexier clothes, better boyfriends, and excellent taste in lipstick.
Jacob Clifton is a staff writer for Television Without Pity.