Tyra Banks is 33 minutes late to her meeting at Demand Media’s modest New York office. She is needed to brainstorm ideas for her new website, TypeF.com, which launches in less than twelve hours.
She leaves the chair at the head of the table empty and takes the one next to it. Banks wants to start by discussing “Fa-Fa-Fa Fashion”—the site’s series of webisodes, also starring Vogue contributing editor and America’s Next Top Model judge André Leon Talley, that offer how-to-wear advice on wardrobe staples. “I actually studied with the Groundlings,” says the 37-year-old, referring to the L.A. improv theater. “I was going to be a sketch comedian, hence the [adopts exaggerated fashionista voice] ‘Fa-Fa-Fa Fashion’—the characters and stuff? I was going to be a recurring star on Jamie Foxx’s show. Not In Living Color—there was one he had called Deez Nuts.” (It was a pilot that never got picked up.)
This Banks is much more understated than the one seen on TV—but still speaks as though she’s any 17-year-old girl’s best friend. Is Tyra the businesswoman different from Tyra the person? I ask later. “Tyra the businesswoman is very close to—and I hate third person, but you said it, oh, chiiild, you said it—but me the businessperson and me the person: very similar. I can be in a business meeting and be all ‘Wooo!’ and ‘Oh, child!’ and still be talking revenues and profits and cash flows. But what’s different is that Top Model person who sits behind that desk. I don’t know who she is. That is so not me. Sometimes it’s me. But when it’s like, ‘I have two photos in my hands’—who is that? It’s a character.”
Banks tells her colleagues she’d like to create some additional “Fa-Fa-Fa Fashion” episodes with unused and behind-the-scenes footage. (One scene that was cut from the premiere “Fa-Fa-Fa Fashion” episode on trench coats, for example, involved Banks teaching Talley the meaning of the term “manscaping.”) “In terms of the whole economies-of-scale thing,” she continues, “I think next time we should try to maybe shoot for two days and maybe get like fourteen to sixteen episodes and just condense the budget so it’s not double: It’s one and a half for those two days.”
These are the kinds of things one picks up when enrolled in the Harvard Business School executive-education division’s Owner/President Management program, as Banks presently is. Separate from the MBA program (and with a different admissions process), it consists of three three-week sessions over three years, costing $31,000 per year. Like MBA students, Banks uses the “case method” to study, reading much of the same material they do. Just like them, she rises daily for 7:30 a.m. mandatory study sessions with her fellow students. She lives in the dorms, eats in the HBS cafeteria, and works out in the HBS gym. When school’s not in session, a Columbia University professor tutors her in accounting and finance.
“So MBAs, it’s like theory, theory, theory, theory,” says Banks. In the executive program, “it’s like you’re learning, and then you take it back to your business as homework.” Out of session, she and her classmates keep in touch to trade advice on subjects “from HR issues to revenue issues.” Sometimes she plays teacher. “I’ve given them lessons on how to brand themselves. I’ve helped some of my classmates on how to strategize to get to the next level of their businesses. And it’s interesting, because here I am sitting there from the entertainment industry and the fashion industry, and I’m giving a billionaire that has a business that’s been in his family for 300 years—I’m giving him advice about strategy! Or how to penetrate the American market! I didn’t know how much I really knew.”
One thing Banks knows instantly is what she likes and doesn’t—such as the croutons in the chicken Caesar salad that is delivered to her during the meeting, which she picks out with her fingers, nibbles, and sets in her empty salad-dressing cup with a few rejected Parmesan-cheese shavings, since they are “wheat” and “maybe not so fresh.” She cites marketing as her greatest business strength—and what she’s really marketing is herself. This is why, she quietly insists, she needs “a little bit more budget” for “Fa-Fa-Fa Fashion.” “We raided my closet for a lot of that. Did you know that?” Her “chief of staff” interjects to inform the Demand people that most of the wardrobe was Banks’s own. “It reminded me of the first season of Top Model—the girls on the poster have on my clothes,” says Banks. “I took all this stuff from Victoria’s Secret that I had in my closet—bandeau dresses, bandeau tops, bandeau skirts. I put them in a trash bag on my back on the plane because I was scared that if I checked it, it would get lost and we wouldn’t have wardrobe. We shot in CBS’s lobby because we had no budget, after hours, at like ten o’clock at night. So I was like, ‘I’m having a flashback. This is a start-up!’ ”