The Observer was in a green room at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, sitting on a small couch with Tyra Banks to talk about America’s Next Top Model: College Edition. We were sweating bullets; up close, the 38-year-old diva is larger than life and, ironically, much more attractive than she appears on her show. Maybe because she was smiling at us. She looked relaxed and happy, but we stayed tense, ready to bolt if she started her signature tough-love approach: yelling at us for not being fierce enough, or shaking her head in disgusted disappointment that we haven’t lived up to her expectations.
After a moment of silence, we finally cleared our throats and apologized for being terrified.
Ms. Banks laughed.
“Oh, but that’s just a thing,” the retired supermodel told us. “That’s a character.”
“The sad thing is that this character I’ve created just happens to have my name,” Ms. Banks continued. “She has my name, she has my face, but she’s not me. I mentor girls in real life, I mentor supermodels from Vogue, and we’ll sit around on my couch, put our feet up, and I’ll never tell them, ‘You’re not fierce,’ or, ‘You’re not smiling with your eyes.’”
Kelly Cutrone of People’s Revolution offered a similar explanation for her reputation as a taskmaster. “You know what they say, the meaner you are on TV, the nicer you are in real life. And the nicer you are on TV, the meaner you are in real life,” she said.
We don’t know who exactly “they” are, since we have never heard of this particular idiom before, but it is true that Ms. Banks and especially Ms. Cutrone both seemed genuinely nice, unguarded and relaxed, a feat especially hard to pull off in a room full of nosy reporters. Outside in the lobby, we ran into a breathless ANTM fan who accosted Ms. Cutrone as she was entering the building with pictures of the PR maven on her phone. Ms. Cutrone, without missing a beat, gave the girl a hug and invited her into the screening of the show’s premiere.
But of course, don’t let anyone know that. It could ruin the Kell on Earth star’s reputation for being a formidable fashion figure.
While the two female stars on this special season of ANTM—which features only women pursuing higher education, though Ms. Cutrone tells us that the term was broad enough to include trade schools, so that young women without the means to attend a four-year university would not be excluded—both emphasize that their job on the show is to play a role, the male cast members are a different story.
Fashion blogger (and New York Observer profile subject) BryanBoy is the show’s first ever social media liaison: the link between the viewers who now have a vote in the elimination process (à la American Idol) and the judges. The wunderkind repeated his origin story to us: his years spent in a small town in the Philippines, where he would sequester himself in his room and pore over fashion magazines, which were a form of fantasy and escape.
Meanwhile Johnny Wujek, another new face on the show, might be best known as Katy Perry’s stylist and BFF, but he wanted us to know that he didn’t start out reaching for the stars, but rather as a small-town boy with a big dreams as well. “I grew up outside of Detroit in a small suburb near a lake,” Mr. Wujek recalled. “And I was the youngest out of five siblings. I was always obsessed with fashion. Not just the magazine or internet stuff, but the style shows as well. So I knew I needed to get out of there, and I originally moved to Los Angeles to become a writer for this site YourTango. Then I did some modeling, and eventually the stylists would be borrowing the clothes I brought to the set for other male models. I realized, ‘Oh, that’s what a stylist is. I want to do that.’”
The interesting comparison between BryanBoy and Mr. Wujek versus Ms. Cutrone and Ms. Banks is that while the men are invested in convincing the public that they are “real,” that they are the same person when the cameras are rolling as when they aren’t, the women are quick to acknowledge that their Cruella performances are just that—performance.
Trying to see if we could perhaps break through the niceties, we asked Ms. Banks if it is difficult to see herself parodied, as in the Family Guy clip in which she screams so long at a contestant that she eventually transforms into a giant lizard and eats the young girl.
Ms. Banks’s eyes lit up. “Oh my God, my mom loved that Family Guy video,” she exclaimed. “She called me up and told me ‘They just turned you into Godzilla!”
A while back, Ms. Banks ran into Seth MacFarlane at a dinner party and mentioned the clip. “He just started apologizing, saying ‘I’m so sorry, I’m sorry,’” she laughed. “I told him, ‘My mother loves what you did with me.’”
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