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Tyra Banks

CEO, Producer & Model

Los Angeles, CA

Life is funny. You think you have one plan and something comes up that changes everything in an instant. But true passion never dies – if you have a passion for something don’t be afraid to pursue it.

I didn’t set out to be in front of the camera. My goal in high school was to get into film school, where I would hopefully start my career as a producer and writer—behind the camera. Modeling was the last thing on my mind; I felt awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin most of the time.

My freshman year, a classmate approached me and told me I looked like I could be a model. I’m not sure how she could see past my awkwardness, but she got the wheels turning, and for the first time, modeling was a potential option in my mind. Two years later, I was finally convinced to give it a try.

I signed with an agent who eventually began booking me local gigs.  My agent doubted that my “look” could result in a career in photographs and told me I should stick to runway because I wasn’t photogenic enough. My modeling “career” consisted of doing catalog work and local ads for Macy’s in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, I applied to several universities and film schools around the Los Angeles area and was accepted to them all, from UCLA to USC.  I chose to attend Loyola Marymount; I was beyond excited!

A few weeks later, a French modeling agent came to town scouting for talent for the upcoming Paris fashion week. She reviewed the modeling agency’s comp wall (which was covered with photos of models represented by the agency) and pulled one card down.

That card was mine.

I was two weeks away from starting college. If I went to Paris, I would have to defer my admission and possibly lose my chance to become a part of a coveted film program. If I stayed in L.A., I might miss out on the chance of a lifetime.

In the end, my mother, who is one of my closest friends and mentors said, “It’s your decision and your life. You’ve graduated from high school and are old enough to make this decision for yourself.” Even though I was only 17 at the time, I felt much older as I weighed the pros and cons of such a life-changing decision.

At the suggestion of my mother, I went to Loyola Marymount to discuss my options with the admissions office. When they heard about the opportunity I had been given, it was agreed that I could come back in one year to start the program; if I took the time to learn French, they would even give me college credit.

I went back to my mom to share the good news. She was supportive of my decision and had more advice to share. She told me: “You studied for the SATs and ACT, you wrote a kick ass college essay and got into every school you applied to.  Now, use that same determination to gain knowledge of the modeling industry. Go figure out what you need to know to give yourself the competitive advantage and make this amazing opportunity a success.”

So I went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising library in downtown Los Angeles. I asked the librarian for every French fashion magazine she could dig up. Once she realized my goal, over the course of 2 weeks, she sat me down and showed me the right way to look at the photos to determine the aesthetic of each designer. She also dug up tapes from every major designer that had presented their lines in Paris the previous year. She taught me to focus not just on the style of the clothing, but also the ways each designer differentiated through the use of hair and makeup. As I watched, I noticed the same models appearing over and over again; each had a signature walk (though they didn’t call it that back then). Some walked aggressively. Others were on their tippy toes, like princesses. Determined to figure out my own way of doing things, I designed my walk alongside the world’s most helpful librarian, right there in the middle of the FIDM library.

Two weeks later, I found myself pounding the pavement in Paris meeting designer after designer; clothes stuffed in my school backpack and makeup in my pocket. Before each go-see (these are auditions that models go on), I would change things up: For Chanel, it was flat-ironed hair and smoky eyes. For Yves Saint Laurent, it was hair slicked back in a bun and bright red lipstick. I walked into each go-see and bam! I had the gig. I booked 25 shows that season as a no-name; the first and last time that has ever happened. My career as a supermodel was suddenly on its way…

I’ve learned many valuable lessons on my journey that have carried me through the rough times but here is the most important: There will always be people who doubt you. Laser-focus your energy on the task at hand and do your research. No matter the field, you can always know more.  Remember, your biggest competitive advantage is always preparation. I strongly believe in the intersection of hard work and opportunity; I’ve seen it happen in my own life time and again.

Life is funny. You think you have one plan and something comes up that changes everything in an instant. But true passion never dies – if you have a passion for something don’t be afraid to pursue it. My journey has included a successful and long career as a supermodel, creating one of the longest running and most successful global reality television shows in history, and my most proud title: a CEO and a business woman in control, with a strong voice for women and beauty. I didn’t end up going the route I had intended, but I did wind up exactly where I wanted to be.