The next big female branded self

Are modeling tips and self-obsession enough to make Tyra Banks the next Martha or Oprah? Probably.

By Page Rockwell
May 30, 2008 9:35PM (UTC)
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Has the hullabaloo over last Sunday's New York Times cover story, in which editor Emily Gould unpacked her urge to blog about her personal life, left you thirsting for more women talking about themselves? I have extremely good news for you: This weekend, the magazine profiles the reigning queen of talking about oneself: Tyra Banks.

If you've watched "America's Next Top Model" or "The Tyra Banks Show," you're probably familiar with the Tyra shtick -- overcoming adversity through hard work, the importance of an elongated neck, "fierceness" -- and this week's feature doesn't offer much in the way of new material. But that doesn't stop the Times' Lynn Hirschberg from gushing profusely. "Like a star athlete who has perfected a jump shot or a curveball, Banks has studied, honed and mastered the smile ... Banks always treated modeling as a kind of beautiful science," Hirschberg enthuses in the piece's opening paragraph. To show off Banks' scientific credentials, the profile offers an accompanying video and photo gallery, in which Banks demonstrates seven smiles from her 275-smile repertoire. We get "the smile without eyes," "the smile with eyes only" and the extremely scary "surprise smile," among others. Some of the expressions display discernible modeling skill; in others, Banks just looks nuts. (I do wish the piece shared more smile names, like those for 251-253 -- at that point, don't you get into "thinking about peanut butter" or "Mormon"?) The tutorial is potentially useful for aspiring models, and entertaining for anyone with a mirror and half an hour to kill. But there's something unintentionally "Zoolander" about Banks -- who catches a fair amount of flak for being narcissistic -- boasting about spending enough time in front of the mirror to develop several hundred distinct facial expressions.


Of course, Banks' self-interest isn't incidental to her success or to the profile; packaging herself and talking about herself are central to her job. The magazine's cover features Banks dressed up as some kind of fierce '60s fembot, and poses the nonsensical-yet-obvious question: "Martha. Oprah. Tyra: Is she the next big female branded self?" She certainly hopes to be, and that's how we wind up with a six-minute video juxtaposing assorted smiles with snippets from the Tyra success story on the Times home page.

Is this newsworthy? Not really. But as the profile points out, Banks is big with young women of various backgrounds and ethnicities, and thus is succeeding with a market segment that TV networks -- and newspapers -- have an increasingly tough time reaching. If she intersperses the personal monologues with body-acceptance bromides, educational vulva puppetry and other tactics ostensibly designed to instill self-esteem in young girls, so much the better. It would be nice if "the next big female branded self" could reach past the women's-media staples of weight issues, boyfriend problems, makeovers and the necessity of shaking one's booty. It would also be nice if the Times Magazine opted to run back-to-back cover stories about women and both stories weren't fluffy me-me-me pieces. We're not quite there yet. For now, we'll have to content ourselves with the entertainment value of 275 smiles.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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