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20 Questions with Tyra Banks: Harvard, Top Model and the "Character" She Plays

When Tyra Banks re-watches old episodes of America's Next Top Model — the reality model competition show that she hosts and executive produces — she often thinks to herself, "Who is that person? I don't know who she is."

Lindsay Silberman

When Tyra Banks re-watches old episodes of America's Next Top Model — the reality model competition show that she hosts and executive produces — she often thinks to herself, "Who is that person? I don't know who she is." Banks says that the "Tyra" viewers see on the show is a "character" that's "totally not" her. And while it's made for a wildly successful television show, the 38-year-old has decided that starting with Season 19 (the "college edition," currently in the casting process), she's all about keeping it real.
"I think it's important to be more authentic," she says. "It's something I've been thinking about for a long time and finally I had the courage to be who I am."
But who exactly is she? Below, Banks "gets real" with TVGuide.com about her recent graduation from Harvard, newly-installed judge Kelly Cutrone (is she really a b----?) and the Top Model decision that has haunted her forever.
1. TVGuide.com: What can we look forward to seeing during Wednesday's Season 18 premiere?
Tyra Banks
: It's the most competitive season because we've never had teams before. So it's seven British girls versus seven American girls. And the British girls are from Britain's Next Top Model so they have a little bit of a leg up. It is literally a boxing match with seven versus seven.
2. You're a model, TV host, entrepreneur, and now Harvard grad — which do you identify yourself as first?
: I'd like to say "businesswoman." With the whole supermodel thing, even when you're not really modeling anymore people still call me that. And I'm like "...retired."
3. You just graduated from Harvard Business School. What are classes like there?
: My class was 70 percent international -- people from China, Thailand, Colombia, Brazil, India. It was amazing to bond with people from all over the world. Classes are really intense.
4. The program was three weeks long, once a year for three years. What was your schedule like?
Banks: We go to school Monday through Saturday. Only one day off a week.
5. What made you decide to enroll in the first place?
: We're going to be launching specific projects in a few years that I can't really talk about now, but I felt like I needed a strong base in the business world in order to make them successful. Plus, I just like school. I like raising my hand.

Check out photos of Tyra Banks
6. Except in finance class? I heard that was the most difficult for you.
: Yeah, I did not want to be called on in finance. That was definitely my hardest. But we had a dinner dance and I ran onto the dance floor before anyone else and pulled my finance professor on the dance floor with me. And I was like, "Finally, I can feel in control!"
7. Were you able to maintain any sort of anonymity at Harvard?
: I went to school for me — I didn't do it to make any sort of statement. So the very first year I was in school I wasn't there under my own name. It was very incognito. And then it leaked and I said, "Ok let me control this story," and that's when I started talking about it.
8. Can we assume there was some sort of tie-in with your graduation and Season 19 being the "college edition"?
: A hundred percent. After I started talking openly about it, I got a lot of feedback — particularly from girls saying how it inspired them. How they never wanted to go to college but now they want to, or how they dropped out and are going back. I had no idea that hundreds of thousands of responses would be that way. So we decided to do a college edition. Because so many people feel like you have to drop out of college to be a model and I think that there is a way to do both, actually.

The CW renews America's Next Top Model for Cycle 19: Co-Ed Edition!

9. So you're currently casting for the college edition — what can we expect?
: We'll probably have some Ivy League girls, but I also want to have girls from trade schools — beauty schools, cooking colleges. We're trying to figure out the prize now, to see if it can go to scholarships — to encourage people to stay in school and not drop out to be a model.
10. Will it be the same format as all the past seasons?
Banks: In Cycle 19 you'll see things that are a lot more intimate — we're going back to the heart of the show. I took Cycle 1 with me on vacation and dissected every second of it. I wrote notes about "what was the magic that made this show a hit in the first place?" I loved everything about Cycle 1.
11. What's something people would be surprised to know about you?
: I'm very comfortable speaking to millions of people, but not comfortable in a small, intimate social setting. Like cocktail hour. I get very panicky. Even if I know them. I know it's weird — it's just not my strength.
12. What would people would be surprised to know about the show, that we don't see on TV?
: On Top Model I created a character and unfortunately her name is "Tyra." So people think that it's me. And it's totally not. But in Cycle 19 I'm going to return to who I am as a human being, which is more like my talk show. My talk show is just me.
Check out videos and clips from America's Next Top Model
13. What sparked the need to suddenly keep it real after being "in character" for so many seasons?
: I've been saying to myself for years, "Who is that person? I don't know who she is." Obviously it made for a successful television show. But I think it's important to be authentic. It's something I've been thinking about for a long time, and finally I had the courage to be who I am for real.
14. How is that person different from who we see on the show?
: A little bit more invested. For instance, if a girl wants to quit on Top Model, I used to say "Ok. Bye." But me? I would get up from behind the desk, sit next to her, put my arm around her, take her chin in my hands and get three inches from her face and say, "What are you doing? Why are you feeling weak about this? Don't give up." That's me.


15. Speaking of characters...is new judge Kelly Cutrone really the hard-ass she's always portrayed to be?
: I think Kelly is very — she's unfiltered honesty. Whereas I have to couch things in a certain way. So she's able to just be very free, but at the same time she's like a teddy bear! So warm, so loving and soft.

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16. How exactly does judging work behind the scenes — do you vote first?Banks: I vote last because I don't want my judges to ever feel like they have to say what I say because I hired them. And a lot of times a girl will go home that I don't want to go home. But I just have to take that with the policy that I've set.17. Did that policy ever backfire for you?
: In Cycle 3 we had as plus-sized girl, Tocarra, and I felt like she was a star and could win. And I was outvoted. And that haunted me forever. And Nigel confessed about a year ago that he made a mistake by sending her home. He says it was probably one of his biggest mistakes in Top Model history.18. Has there ever been a time when the judges literally could not come to an agreement?Banks: When Tyson Beckford was our guest judge, it went on and on and on. We had to call our lawyers and legal because we were deadlocked and we didn't know what to do! Usually deliberation takes around 20 minutes, but this went on for three hours. Nobody would give in. I was like "Tyson, you're the guest judge. Don't you want to give in?" and he was like "It's your show, don't you want to give in?" I can't remember how we came to the conclusion, but we did.19. Which photo shoot would you consider your favorite to date?Banks: When we made clothes out of meat. We were actually sewing beef onto the girls. 20. What has changed since the show's inception?Banks: I was much more involved back in the day, with the girls and the mentoring. Before my life was crazy with the talk show and business and Harvard and all that stuff. So I want to try to get back to being there for the girls more personally.

America's Next Top Model: British Invasion premieres Wednesday, Feb. 29 at 9/8c on CW.