More Than Meets the Smize: A Look Inside Tyra Banks's Exploitative Empire
Tyra Banks has rebranded herself as a trustworthy guide to your finances, but former employees, a financial expert, and a former "ANTM" contestant claim Banks is exploiting vulnerable young women.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown via Getty Images
Tyra Banks wants to be your boss. The 90s supermodel and 2000s camp icon has rebranded herself as a financial guru who wants to share her business acumen with young women trying to better their lives. Banks has long fashioned herself as the "relatable supermodel"—an A-lister who repeatedly referred her own "five-head" and implored the media to kiss her fat ass—and this fall she hopes to expand her brand across a variety of platforms: a new beauty venture called Tyra Beauty, which teaches girls how to become "beautytainers" who can sell Banks's makeup products to their communities; the final cycle of America's Next Top Model; and a new talk show called Tyra Presents FABLife.
With panelists like fellow "real" model Chrissy Teigen, interior designer Lauren Makk, YouTube celebrity Leah Ashley, and former Elle creative director Joe Zee, Banks's daytime show aims to help women improve their lives. The woman who once pretended to have rabies to scare her studio audience will now tell you how to live your best life. "I'm ready to come back and help share and inspire women to start their own businesses," Banks recently told New York magazine. "That's my passion, every day. I hunkered down and put my nose to the grindstone at Harvard Business School, learning more about the tools I needed to launch my business."
But Banks never attended Harvard Business School. She took a non-degree-granting certificate course at Harvard called the Owner/President Management program, which, as Jezebel points out, has "no formal educational requirements" and refers to students as "clients." Although media outlets have questioned Banks's presentation of her education, the model continues to describe herself as a Harvard-accredited businesswoman while encouraging young women to take her advice and buy her products. (The first Google result for "Tyra Banks University" is Harvard.)
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Lying to get ahead, of course, isn't new for Banks. Several of Banks's new ventures follow suspect business practices, and Banks still faces the repercussions of professional mistakes she's made in the past.
Nobody knows this better than previous ANTM contestants. It's no secret few competitors go onto fame and fortune—past stars have been sent to prison, murdered, and dated Jim Carrey—but people watch the show to see naïve young girls battle for their dream. Whereas new Real Housewives purposefully create drama so they can launch liquor lines like Bethenny Frankel, most top models lack self-awareness or even a basic understanding of show business.
Cycle 17 winner Angelea Preston was one of these girls. Growing up in the inner city, she was a wide-eyed fan of all things Tyra, but following her appearances on the show, she's now she's suing Banks for the mistreatment she allegedly suffered during her time.
"Tyra exploits women, period," Preston says. "Once she gets out what she wants from you, then you're done to her. You're nothing. She preaches on TV that she's just like you, that she helps girls, but she doesn't help girls. She exploits them."
Growing up, Preston looked up to Banks. She competed on the show three times, enamored with Banks's relatable image. After almost making it into the house on her first season, she was accepted on her second try, quickly becoming a fan favorite for her humor and lack of filter. She cursed and called herself "classy ghetto." She lost, but still expected to find success as a model after the show. She says she quickly discovered the show robbed her of those opportunities.
"Nobody wanted to work with me after the show," Preston says. "I was labeled a bitch and super ghetto, so when I would walk into agencies, a lot of them recognized me from the show. The show exploited my personality in such a negative way that it stopped my career from flourishing."
Desperate and unable to work, Preston says she took an "opportunity" that turned out to be an escorting job. When ANTM producers found out, Preston says, they offered her a spot on the show's All-Star cycle under the guise of being concerned about her well-being. She won her third cycle and the coveted Cover Girl contract. Months later, Angelea says, the CW called her back to New York for a full-scale intervention: The network had found out about her past as an escort, and despite the production's previous knowledge, they were stripping her of her title for violating a "morality clause."
"I think why they took it from me, is because it makes their show look like the crock of shit that is," Preston says. "If I had escorted before I came on the show, they would have used it to further exploit me. They would say, 'Hey, she was an escort, but we put her on America's Top Model, and we made her great.' But because it happened after, how could they say their show created such a great opportunity for me, when it didn't? It lead me into a path that I wasn't supposed to travel down, coming off a show like that."
We were pretty slaves.
Preston says other contestants endured similar experiences. She remembers producers denying girls food and water on long filming days to make them bitchy and confrontational. She says they were "put on ice," forbidden from talking when cameras weren't filming, spending hours in silence. One day, Preston recounts, an All-Star contestant led an uprising of models. The girls refused to work until they were provided with food. It worked in the moment, but Preston says the judges kicked the hero model off just a few episodes later, for suspect reasons.
"They didn't care about our health," Preston says. "I got sick overseas and had an anxiety attack [during the All-Star Cycle finale]. I was dizzy, I was throwing up, and it felt like it was taking forever for the nurse to come. I have asthma!"
According to Preston, producers filmed her health crisis. When she opened her eyes, she says she saw Banks sitting in front of her, asking if she was OK. Maybe she cares! Preston remembers thinking. Later, she says, she found out executive producer Ken Mok allegedly withheld treatment for better footage. "Tyra didn't give a shit," Preston says. "The whole time she was complaining, 'I just want to go back to my villa.'"
When I spoke to Preston, she delivered the signature attitude she was known for on the show, peppering her explanations with expletives, while remaining polite and surprisingly vulnerable. At one point, she burst into tears.
"They treated us like slaves," Preston wailed. "We were pretty slaves."
When I reached out to ANTM's representative for comment, they were initially receptive but then did not return emails. A few days later, I discovered why: After 22 cycles, the show had been canceled. Banks played the cancellation as a personal choice, tweeting at her followers:
This isn't the first time a Tyra Banks show has been accused of mistreating people in work environments, nor Banks's first cancellation. During her first talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, staff members and guests allegedly viewed Banks as stingy and ruthless. One year, Banks reportedly gave staff members McDonald's cheeseburgers in lieu of holiday bonuses at their Christmas party. Banks also reportedly alerted the media about the show's cancellation before telling her staff, many who had moved their lives across the country when production switched from Los Angeles to New York. Tabloids and gossip sites have also reported for years about alleged mistreatment of Banks's talk show guests. Take the cancer survivor who had her post-chemo weave installed on the air. She reportedly had to have her weave surgically removed after it became infected.
Banks's new talk show, Tyra Presents FABLife, comes on the heels of Tyra Beauty. The new direct-selling venture sells makeup like contouring sticks and fool-proof eyeliner, but also offers customers a product they'll never find at Sephora: the opportunity to run their own businesses. Like Mary Kay, Tyra Beauty lets women sign up to become "Beautytainers" ("I love making up words!" Banks told Fast Company), who buy Banks's beauty products and then hawk them to their own customers. Banks couches the opportunity in a thick layer of female empowerment.
"My goal is to help you be the CEO of your life! YOU can start your own business by selling TYRA Beauty products," Banks says on her website. "I am galvanizing a community of entrepreneurs called 'Beautytainers' who will sell products by throwing fierce parties at their homes and online... My TYRA Beauty team and I will train our Beautytainers in the art of fusing beauty and entertainment and rackin' up them Bank$igns!"
Banks paints the startup's goal as creating opportunity and independence for women. Selling makeup is just a byproduct of Banks's charitable ambition; Tyra Beauty is a direct-selling concept for the Instagram generation. The company's press tour has portrayed Banks as young women's personal girl boss who can guide them in the art of selling commercial products. Banks has touted her business accomplishments and once again misrepresented the course she took at Harvard.
Tyra Beauty's website inundates visitors with Banks's parodic personal brand. References about "taking the BOOTYful route" abound. Yet the website ignores the cognitive dissonance of Banks shilling lipstick for $26, the same price as department store brands, when she once espoused rubbing petroleum jelly on your face.
When I ordered a set of Banks's makeup, the email headline of my shipping notice began with "TYRA MAIL." My package came with a note from Banks telling me she hoped her products helped me "werk that hallway like a runway." I tested the makeup. It was solid, but nothing special. The plastic packaging was less expensive than that of makeup lines sold at comparable prices. If anything, the products stand out because of their branding. Banks has given her products cheeky and slightly suspect names (a blush shade called "Sexy Hot Flash," an eyeliner shade called "Once You Go Brown"), as if they had been created by an alien trying to imitate human sexiness.
Young women are targeted partly because they are more naïve about multi-level marketing.
Once you sign up to be a Beautytainer, however, the language quickly becomes more business-like. Beautytainers pay a $59 initial fee and then can purchase a $80 basic starter kit or a $139 "beyond basic" starter package, so they can begin demonstrating their products to clients. Before they start work, Beautytainers must sign a six-page contract, agreeing to the 64-page Policies and Procedures manual. The booklet includes a non-disparagement clause forbidding former Beautytainers from speaking openly for a year, effectively barring any public criticism for the one-year-old business. Tyra Beauty also supplies them with a copy of the brands compensation plan. The company's policies are open to anyone who is considering signing up to be a Beautytainer, but I had to track the compensation plan down by visiting actual Beautytainer's personal marketing pages. Beautytainers receive 25 percent of the retail selling price of items they sell either through their personalized Beautytainer websites or through in-person consultations, with a 5 percent bonus for selling $500 to $999 in a month (a whopping $27.50) and a 10 percent bonus for selling $1,000 in a month.
The real money to be made comes through recruiting new Beautytainers to your "crew." Beautytainers move up levels (called Bronzer, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, all the way up to a sixth level called Yellow Diamond) based on their sales, the amount of Beautytainers they recruit below them, and the combined sales of their team. Each level promises larger bonuses and a larger portion of the sales of those below you. A Yellow Diamond Beautytainer, the highest level, will have a team with a number of Platinum and Bronzer level members enrolled below them and bring in a total of $200,000 in combined sales from their team members. Tyra Beauty also gives high-performing Beautytainers "the Hook Up"—25 percent of the company's online retail volume not sold through Beautytainers. If a Beautytainer doesn't make her sales goals for the month, or her team doesn't bring in enough cash, she risks losing her spot in the hierarchy and having her account deactivated.
If this selling structure sounds familiar, it's probably because you've had a cousin try to sell you Herbalife. It's hard not to have had contact with one of the millions of Americans involved in a multi-level marketing scheme, also known as an MLM. These businesses bring in representatives through the promise of financial freedom and the opportunity to be their own bosses. Members focus on recruiting new members to a multi-tier selling system more than selling actual products, seeing very few actual sales or cash.
The Federal Trade commission has a website warning consumers about the business model, and advocates have spoken out against suspicious companies.
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Jon M. Taylor, for instance, runs MLM-TheTruth.com, a website reviewing MLM compensation plans and warning consumers about the dangers of MLM programs. Taylor once participated in an MLM and only left the program after his wife threatened to leave him. According to his estimates, almost 99.7 percent of participants in MLM programs wind up losing money after signing up for these "opportunities."
Tyra Beauty meets many of the red flags for exploitive MLMs that Taylor lists on his site: Beautytainers must pay to sign up for the program, they advance up the hierarchy of the business through recruitment, those further up the selling hierarchy get most of the rewards, and the business has more than five levels in its compensation plan. The company's target base of millennial women are especially susceptible to these programs.
"Women are especially vulnerable to the products most often promoted by MLM: pills, potions, and lotions," Taylor says. "Many also want extra income from home if they have children. Young women are targeted partly because they are more naïve about multi-level marketing—most older women (and men) know someone who has lost a lot of money or reputation in an MLM program."
The most famous women-focused MLM program is of Mary Kay cosmetics, an iconic brand known for the pink Cadillacs driven by its top sellers. Although harmless and retro-seeming, Mary Kay actually employs a number of exploitive business tactics. A 2012 Harper's expose found many women fell into tens of thousands of dollars of debt because they bought unsold inventory to meet monthly selling quotas. They chased the elusive and oft-made promise of earning a six-figure income through the company, although only an estimated 300 of the company's 600,000 representatives earn six figures from their businesses.
Tyra Beauty copies several of Mary Kay's disturbing business practices. Over the phone, Tyra Beauty's customer service rep either couldn't or wouldn't give me numbers on the actual number of working Beautytainers, or how much money participants could expect to make from their ventures. "TYRA Beauty does not promise or guarantee that Beautytainers will generate any income. As with any business, each Beautytainer's business results may vary. Earnings depend on a number of factors, including the area in which you live, individual effort, business experience, diligence, and leadership," reads the bottom of every page of Tyra.com. Much of Tyra Beauty's profits may come from the Beautytainers themselves, rather than consumers. Much like Mary Kay, very few—if any—Beautytainers will ever reach the Yellow Diamond level, but naïve young women will still view themselves as an exception, part of the three percent who werks hard enough to succeed, because they desperately want guidance from a rich, successful celebrity. The Tyra Beauty handbook warns against the practice of "Bonus Buying," or buying up inventory yourself to meet monthly quotas, but when I spoke to Tyra's customer service reps, they said Beautytainers must meet a certain "personal volume" for sales each month. If they needed to, the customer service rep says, they could buy themselves to meet their quotas. This could set them up for much the same debt as those involved with Mary Kay. (Tyra Beauty's handbook contradicts her customer service reps' claims, saying that activity like this will be monitored and investigated.)
Despite the evidence of shady business practices and exploitation of her employees, young and vulnerable women keep flocking to Banks for her promise of quick fame and "fierceness." I called the number Tyra provides online for the office where so much of her business occurs, but the number was disconnected. This fact may never reach the girls who watch her shows and sign up to participate in Tyra Beauty. On Instagram, plenty Beautytainers gush about their experience, praying to Banks to give them the tools to find success.
"Raise your hand if your CEO is a celebrity and advertises the product you're selling all over TV shows and magazines && does everything in her power behind the scenes to help make your business run more smoothly and efficiently," one Beautytainer wrote in an Instagram caption. "Not only does she do that, but she's also help us with PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT, so we can all grow into the best version of ourselves. #TyraHasMyBack #SoThankful"