Tyra Banks is 33 minutes late to her meeting at Demand Mediaâ€™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 â€œFa-Fa-Fa Fashionâ€â€”the siteâ€™s series of webisodes, also starring Vogue contributing editor and Americaâ€™s Next Top Model judge AndrÃ© Leon Talley, that offer how-to-wear advice on wardrobe staples. â€œI actually studied with the Groundlings,â€ says the 37-year-old, referring to the L.A. improv theater. â€œI was going to be a sketch comedian, hence the [adopts exaggerated fashionista voice] â€˜Fa-Fa-Fa Fashionâ€™â€”the characters and stuff? I was going to be a recurring star on Jamie Foxxâ€™s show. Not In Living Colorâ€”there was one he had called Deez Nuts.â€ (It was a pilot that never got picked up.)
This Banks is much more understated than the one seen on TVâ€”but still speaks as though sheâ€™s any 17-year-old girlâ€™s best friend. Is Tyra the businesswoman different from Tyra the person? I ask later. â€œTyra the businessÂwoman is very close toâ€”and I hate third person, but you said it, oh, chiiild, you said itâ€”but me the businessperson and me the person: very similar. I can be in a business meeting and be all â€˜Wooo!â€™ and â€˜Oh, child!â€™ and still be talking revenues and profits and cash flows. But whatâ€™s different is that Top Model person who sits behind that desk. I donâ€™t know who she is. That is so not me. Sometimes itâ€™s me. But when itâ€™s like, â€˜I have two photos in my handsâ€™â€”who is that? Itâ€™s a character.â€
Banks tells her colleagues sheâ€™d like to create some additional â€œFa-Fa-Fa Fashionâ€ episodes with unused and behind-the-scenes footage. (One scene that was cut from the premiere â€œFa-Fa-Fa Fashionâ€ episode on trench coats, for example, involved Banks teaching Talley the meaning of the term â€œmanscaping.â€) â€œIn terms of the whole economies-of-scale thing,â€ she continues, â€œI 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 itâ€™s not double: Itâ€™s one and a half for those two days.â€
These are the kinds of things one picks up when enrolled in the Harvard Business School executive-education divisionâ€™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 â€œcase methodâ€ 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 schoolâ€™s not in session, a Columbia University professor tutors her in accounting and finance.
â€œSo MBAs, itâ€™s like theory, theory, theory, theory,â€ says Banks. In the executive program, â€œitâ€™s like youâ€™re learning, and then you take it back to your business as homework.â€ Out of session, she and her classmates keep in touch to trade advice on subjects â€œfrom HR issues to revenue issues.â€ Sometimes she plays teacher. â€œIâ€™ve given them lessons on how to brand themselves. Iâ€™ve helped some of my classmates on how to strategize to get to the next level of their businesses. And itâ€™s interesting, because here I am sitting there from the entertainment industry and the fashion industry, and Iâ€™m giving a billionaire that has a business thatâ€™s been in his family for 300 yearsâ€”Iâ€™m giving him advice about strategy! Or how to penetrate the American market! I didnâ€™t know how much I really knew.â€
One thing Banks knows instantly is what she likes and doesnâ€™tâ€”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 â€œwheatâ€ and â€œmaybe not so fresh.â€ She cites marketing as her greatest business strengthâ€”and what sheâ€™s really marketing is herself. This is why, she quietly insists, she needs â€œa little bit more budgetâ€ for â€œFa-Fa-Fa Fashion.â€ â€œWe raided my closet for a lot of that. Did you know that?â€ Her â€œchief of staffâ€ interjects to inform the Demand people that most of the wardrobe was Banksâ€™s own. â€œIt reminded me of the first season of Top Modelâ€”the girls on the poster have on my clothes,â€ says Banks. â€œI took all this stuff from Victoriaâ€™s Secret that I had in my closetâ€”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 wouldnâ€™t have wardrobe. We shot in CBSâ€™s lobby because we had no budget, after hours, at like ten oâ€™clock at night. So I was like, â€˜Iâ€™m having a flashback. This is a start-up!â€™â€‰â€
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