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All That Glitters Ain’t Nice: On Tyra Banks, “Niceness”, and Collective Memory

Tyra Banks is facing a retroactive cultural reckoning thanks to audiences removing the veneer of her cultivated image of “niceness” and faux positivity.

2020 has been an interesting year for hindsight discoveries. Like being thrown into a pandemic and finding that we are completely unprepared and with virtually no social safety nets in place. Like finding out that celebrities are in fact annoying and have no value during potentially civilization-ending events. Or like finding out that notable “nice” celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah Winfrey weren’t very “nice” at all. Or finding out that dollar store Jennifer Lawrence impersonator, Chrissy Teigen, is, in fact, the cunt that she believed then child actor Quvenzhané Wallis to be. 

Indeed, as particularly tough as 2020 has been, it is distinguishing itself as a year where a gargantuan ass mirror is being held up to things—and people—who require some second looks into their “authenticity” and “positivity” and mainly some retroactive apologies to all the people they used to get where they are now.

One of the people who have been subject to The Great Big Mirror of 2020 is Tyra Banks.

Seeing Banks have to answer for her treatment of young women on America’s Next Top Model (ANTM), particularly young Black women, and teens, in the last week or so is particularly hilarious because she, at one point, existed in this faux-positive space with both DeGeneres and Winfrey—particularly as all of these “nice” women dabbled in the arena that is daytime television and benefited from the glossy veneer of “niceness” that it granted them to be terrible behind the scenes. But none of them have the benefit of niceness as cover in 2020 and Banks is just the latest celebrity to find this out.

And this iteration of retroactive scrutiny happened when a clip surfaced of the supermodel and host antagonizing Black ANTM cycle six contestant Danielle Evans about her refusing to close the gap in her teeth.

From there, what had settled into seasonal acknowledgments of Banks’ unhinged behavior before a return to normalcy turned into an avalanche of retroactive, cultural criticism, with some celebrities jumping in. Model Slick Woods commented about how the retroactive clip “fucked up” her sense of self-image as a younger kid, and Evans—the subject of the old clip—commented on her IG page about how Banks had set her up by not telling her (privately or otherwise) that she had wanted her to close her gap and instead confronted her on television for all to see (for ratings, I’m guessing). Allies of Banks like Mr. Jay also chimed in to soften some of the criticism and praise Evans (for what I assume is surviving the hellhole that was ANTM), but the damage was done… and prompted Tyra Banks herself to acknowledge her past, demented behavior in a way that only a Saggiterrorist like her could.

Her non-apology aside, what I found interesting—besides the fact that this was probably one of the few times Banks had acknowledged her past disgusting behavior in this public of a way—was the fact that this is not the first time that attempts to drag Tyra into accountability have happened.

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Back in 2017, Tiffany Richardson—the cycle 4 contestant who was at the center of the infamous “I was rooting for you!” tirade from Banks (which eventually went on to become its own meme)—finally got to tell her side of the story. And it wasn’t as humorous as the seconds captured in the infamous GIF implied. Nope. Richardson’s actual story from that fateful day is one that is marked by emotions like humiliation and embarrassment that all stemmed from Banks and her impromptu power trip that day, “yelling [at the] poor little Black girl” (Richardson’s words to BuzzFeed). And that her infamous rant was much longer and much more vitriolic as well. 

And it was a relatively big story too, mostly because it was the only interview Richardson herself had given of the aforementioned rant (besides those done as a part of ANTM) since it happened back in 2005. But it came… and then it went. Then in 2018, Banks was again called to the proverbial mat of cultural justice when she attempted to chime in on the celebratory rhetoric that the film Black Panther had inspired on things like “African-ness” and our connection to the motherland as Black people all over the world.

This rightfully rubbed people the wrong way, as this “Africanness” Banks was suddenly in awe of was something Banks and her co-judges—during Cycle 3—had mercilessly made fun of and ridiculed when then contestant Yaya DaCosta wanted to display her roots in a way that she was proud of… and wasn’t the stereotype of “Africa” that the judges wanted her to push. DaCosta, since then, commented on the infamous clip in a since-deleted IG post in defense of Amara La Negra, elaborated on the myth of “a post-racial society” and elaborated on the anti-Blackness that Black women in particular experience in reality TV—citing the Banks incident. 

Based on all of this, there’s a load of conclusions one could draw about the multi-hyphenate supermodel and her wild legacy.

It would be relatively easy to say that Banks clearly had some sort of issue with the Black girl contestants that dared to appear on her show, with her saving more of her unhinged/incisive behavior for them. It would be fair to assume that Banks also has some fucked up views on Blackness and multiracial people based on her weird experimentation with both on ANTM. It would also be easy to cast Banks as a victim of the business herself and state that she was merely preparing these girls for the reality of the modeling world—no matter how harsh her methods appeared and how weird she came off. But the thing I’m more interested in is wondering, aloud, why it took three of these cultural draggings and revisits to get the larger mainstream opinion—Banks included—to acknowledge that she has been a fucked up individual for a long time.

Part of me wants to credit it to the fact that COVID-19 has put a lot of things on pause and that people, in general, have more time on their hands to revisit the kind of toxic pop culture moments that figures like Tyra Banks had a hand in creating. Another part of me wants to credit this to the advent of social media and the way it has changed how we, firstly, consume media and, secondly, discuss it with the next person. 

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Part of me also wants to add that it probably took three tries because most of the earlier complaints of Banks’ shittiness was being brought up by Black audiences now old enough to mull over how harmful Banks’ previous antics were—both on her talk show and on ANTM—and that mainstream outlets tend to gloss over things like that if a notable white person happens to be absent from the conversation.

On the other side of this? Well, I view this as yet another “institution” that Miss Rona is shattering—which is celebrity worship. I want to acknowledge that this “pause” that COVID-19 has caused helped to grow an already brewing anti-celebrity sentiment that has become even more prominent in a post-COVID-19 world. And that Banks was just the latest in a series of “Kill Your Darlings” this time around. 

And it makes sense. Banks, for a couple of decades, has gotten to coast on the goodwill—the clean, “nice”, self-helping image she cultivated while morphing into a talk show fixture in her own right with The Tyra Banks Show (which was very much legitimized by her legendary run as a supermodel and the “advice” she was seen as qualified to provide to young girls as a result). But now? All that goodwill has been suspended indefinitely—as has all goodwill that was previously granted to celebrities just for merely existing—and the people who are being impacted the most by such is fake-nice celebrities like Banks.

I’m not sure if this will create some domino effect where other “fake-nice” celebrities of that same time period will get called to the mat in a similar way. But what I can say, with confidence, is that this is yet another example of the fact that the internet is indeed forever. And while this is something that plebeians like us have known since the advent of the internet, it is something that celebrities are finding out the hard way.

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