She was the first African American woman to appear on the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue having started an acting career at age 15 on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She went on to create, host and produce the popular reality series America’s Next Top Model and her novel Modelland topped the New York Times bestseller list in 2010. For Tyra Banks, it all started with three scoops of coffee ice cream.
Her business maneuvers are as strategic as her steps on the catwalk and her latest labor of love has been 15 years in the making – a line of SMiZE Cream frozen custard and a newly opened whimsical sweet shop on the ground level of Santa Monica Place.
Buried inside each container of the seven signature flavors – which include Strawberry BirthYAY! Cake, Brownies, I Love You, Purple Cookie Mon-STAR & Me, Salted Caramel King, Cookie Caramel Queen and Chocolate Barbeque – is a huge cookie dough truffle covered in sprinkles. Each ice cream flavor comes in limited-edition individually packaged servings, complete with a unique AR activation per ice cream flavor that happens right on your cup.
The crazy mixed-up flavors are all inspired by ice cream memories of family members and friends over the years, including a major driving force in the Inglewood native’s life – her mother Carolyn London, who is immortalized on the front of the shop as the fictional DJ Splitz character. The name comes from the model technique of “smiling with your eyes.”
“Ice cream has been an obsession with my family and my mom and we have bonded over ice cream to this day still,” the former Dancing With The Stars host tells L.A. Weekly at the opening of her store in Santa Monica. “Friday night after school was our thing – homework done, dinner done, we’d get into the car and drive to Hollywood. I’d always have three scoops of coffee ice cream and we’d sit in the car and talk about anything and everything – boys, my friend who was starting to drink alcohol. It just became a ritual and we talked about dreaming big.”
London worked as a medical photographer at the time and later, when Banks was 17, started working for Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and went from doing anatomical dissection and surgical photography of deformities to pictures of outer space.
“I have happy memories of growing up in Inglewood,” says Banks. “Holidays were barbeque days with my dad at the grill. I wanted that in an ice cream.”
The obsession never subsided, even when she began modeling after graduating from Immaculate Heart High School in Los Feliz and more recently when she graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2019, 22 years after being the first black model to make the issue’s cover.
“When I was modeling in Paris after graduating from high school, before technology, I had all of my auditions and castings in a book,” says Banks. “You’d call your agency and they’d give the addresses of everywhere you had to go over the phone – about 15 a day. In the front of that book I had the address and Metro stop of every Haagen Daz in Paris.”
From the creative side to the business side, Banks has been hands-on during the process of development, often waking up at 3 a.m. to make sketches of what the Willy Wonka-inspired shop should look like. She enlisted the help of Dr. Maya Warren, an Ice Cream Scientist with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Food Science, specializing in the microstructure, sensorial and behavioral properties of frozen aerated desserts. She is also part of the winning duo from season 25 of the Emmy Award-winning reality show, The Amazing Race (alongside her friend and former lab mate, Dr. Amy DeJong). She worked in research and development for Cold Stone Creamery as well.
Between the two, there is enough energy to keep the wheels churning all night long.
“Tyra and I are like two peas in a pod when it comes to creating a new flavor,” says Warren. “We bounce ideas off each other while I’m in the test kitchen and she’s tasting everything I make. We were tasting ice cream samples last night until 11 p.m. She is taste buds on and has traveled to all the factories where we’ve produced SMiZE Cream as well as the cookie dough surprise inside. It took us a while to get the texture just right.”
Banks also credits the nuns at Immaculate Heart for her drive and fearlessness. A documentary on the order came out in June. Rebel Hearts takes a look back at 1960s Los Angeles, where the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary fight for equality, their livelihoods, and freedom against a powerful cardinal who tries to keep them in their place. Banks gave the commencement address at this year’s graduation at the Hollywood Bowl, where the students from the all-girls school ascend the stairs in white gowns holding single red roses to accept their diplomas.
“That school has so much to do with my girl power – I know I can do anything. Our nuns were rebels and they instilled that in us. They said you’re going to hear this and that, but you have to fight. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am if it wasn’t for that school,” she says of her alma mater, which also counts Megan Markle, Duchess of Sussex as an alumnus, who Banks respectfully refers to as “a badass.”
A lot has changed for the better and the worse since Banks broke all boundaries and ceilings before #MeToo and BLM. She didn’t fret about weighing 40-50 pounds more in her latest SI cover and hopes that the next generation of black women and girls embrace their body images.
So, is it harder or better for this next generation of girls? Both.
“When it comes to beauty, models were these things that were put on a pedestal. They made you feel insecure because they were cast and all looked the same. Even me being cast, I was black and maybe a little thicker, but I was still tall and had this look that was extremely aspirational that made people feel insecure,” she says. “I felt like I had a responsibility to pull back the layers, to tell the truth. I remember back in the day me and Toni Braxton were some of the only celebrities saying that our hair was fake. Nobody ever said that. We couldn’t understand why nobody could tell the truth.
“So when girls looked at a magazine, they would feel insecure. The difference is, then you could close the magazine and put it away. Even though it made you feel like crap, it was this thing over here in the drawer. Now, it’s in their faces every single second of the day with social media and it’s not just this famous person, but your friend that has more likes. It’s your friend whose body is just so cute who’s doing all these fun things. It’s something that you can’t get away from. So when they talk about mental health and all that, I get it. And even with me on social media, I may be feeling like crap, gained some weight during covid and I look at this person and that person and wonder what does a 16-year-old girl feel like? I think they have it way worse when it comes to self-esteem in terms of physicality.”
Where they have it better is with social justice, says The Tyra Banks Show Emmy winner.
“Me, I had to fight and talk to the press to demand change and equal wages,” Banks tells us. “I was just one little voice and it was difficult. Also, speaking out was terrifying, because you didn’t know if there was going to be retaliation for speaking out. It was a lot harder to speak out then because you didn’t have the support of an army to back you up.
“With today’s social justice, you can speak out, you can yell, you can scream. Corporations are scared to say something back to you or a boss because a mob is going to come for them. This generation is more vocal and has more protection to be more vocal. They’re very protected, which makes you even stronger. I’m going to say this and I’m not going to lose my job or get kicked out of school because they have so much support behind them. It’s a beautiful revolution that is happening right now.”
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