An Oprah-lite Media Empire Built on Smugness

Media Reviews for Media People: Tyra Banks

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Here's what little I know about Tyra Banks: She used to model swimsuits and she utters the word "empower" more than any being on this or any other planet. She's also a public nuisance: If you happen upon something half-trendy and months-dated in or around New York City -- a flash mob reenacting the "Mickey" video, a parade of gals making a statement about ethno-hetero-patriarchal notions of body image by donning fat suits and howling "whooooo!" -- she's probably behind it. You see, Tyra is your super-fun big sister! And she's totally accepting of you, no matter how daffy, sweaty, slack-jawed, temperamental, queer or bulimic you may be!

Tyra's 'magaline,' a term that rolls off the tongue much easier than 'webablogazine.'
Tyra's 'magaline,' a term that rolls off the tongue much easier than 'webablogazine.'
She's also full of it.* After careful and soul-numbing analysis of her oeuvre, I'm hard-pressed to identify a single cross-genre personality who comes across as less sincere and more careerist. Forget for a second that anyone who pops off about "keepin' it real" usually proves as authentic as a cleft implant. Banks has somehow built an Oprah-lite media empire on the premise that she truly, deeply cares about her empowerable fangirls and would no sooner steer them wrong than date an uggo. Alas, only a tiny percentage of the content that spews from the Banks factory transcends typical daytime trash. It's love-thyself piffle masquerading as something loftier -- Jerry Springer-ish pulp submerged in a torrent of girl-power bluster and prettified by a killer weave.

What prompted my attention was the hype surrounding "Tyra: Beauty Inside & Out," an online magazine (a "magaline," in Tyra parlance) that went live a fortnight ago. Don't get me wrong: I commend all parties involved for their savvy coinage of a new buzzword -- clearly, "magaline" rolls off the tongue more easily than "webablogazine" or "Internet destination with pictures, words and video" -- and I laud Team Tyra for having the brains not to burden our nation's newsstands with another doomed-to-die vanity title. At the same time, one can only multipurpose content so much, and "Beauty Inside & Out" simply regurgitates the yay-for-you! staples of the Banks canon.

The first "issue" arrives four features strong. The stories, which span the earthquaking decision to exclude women over 5'7" from the upcoming season of "America's Next Top Model" to sober deconstructions of Tyra's hair, are mostly written/spoken in the first person. This affords Banks the opportunity to weigh in on...well, pretty much everything. She has lots of ideas about "society's misperceptions" and ties each one to her bold, brave stroke to pursue a career in modeling.

It doesn't help that the "Beauty Inside & Out" site -- excuse me, the magasite -- is as challenging to navigate as a hedge maze. One small tip to any ambitious content producer: include a big honkin' "click here" button so that techno-luddites don't get lost in the Flash wilderness. Its organizational framework multiplies the annoyance factor tenfold.

As for Banks' eponymous talk show, it recently became the centerpiece of the CW's daytime block, a shift which gives the Girls! Girls! Girls! network a death grip on all things Tyra. While this is a smart idea from a branding perspective -- they can cross-promote the dickens out of "America's Next Top Model" and forge all sorts of across-the-board partnerships with marketers -- it doesn't change the fact that the show lacks anything resembling a creative pulse.

The onscreen-guide blurbs for this week's episodes tell you pretty much everything you need to know about "The Tyra Show": "guests must choose between staying with their current partners or returning to their exes," "a teenager claims he is no longer a cross-dresser or homosexual after participating in an exorcism," "questions about the first year of parenthood; mothers get makeovers." That last one sounds almost sanguine and useful; you'll be relieved to learn that it featured much lively banter about infant erections and "boob explosions."

At least Tyra's audiences are game, as we can discern from the close-up reaction shots in which transfixed 20-somethings solemnly mouth "oh my God!" to nobody in particular. The hooligan in me would prefer to see a few more metal folding chairs in flight and more aspersions cast upon guests who totally think they're all that but totally aren't, but the individuals who seize the mic have pluck in abundance. I also dig the illustrative out-of-studio montages, which flip willy-nilly between color and black-and-white, speed up and slow down as if the editor is just getting the hang of his new software suite, and are occasionally set inside Dave & Buster's. Overall, though, the topics and 'tude might as well have been poached from Sally Jessy Raphael.

Last Friday, I had the bad fortune of taking my daily trot around Central Park at the precise moment the mom-jeans throng was assembling for an "Oprah" taping. What struck me about the scene, and by extension the woman that lorded over it, was the rigidity. No matter how many hands she slaps or Pontiacs she bestows, Oprah never, ever cozies up too close to her audience. The security detail that accompanied her entrance was straight out of a funeral populated by multiple heads of state.

Tyra Banks could learn a lot from Oprah. In her tireless quest to empower the meek and comfort the loveless, Banks comes across more smug and superior than affirming. For the life of me, I can't see how anybody could derive a smidgen of solace from her platitudes.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story used a coarse word that, upon reflection, was deemed unnecessary. We regret any offense it caused and have removed it from this column.
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