Tyra Banks Stands Accused of Terrorizing an ‘America’s Got Talent’ Contestant

A new lawsuit alleges that Banks “manipulated and verbally abused” a minor auditioning for the reality TV series.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When NBC announced that Tyra Banks would be joining the America’s Got Talent team, we were rooting for her. We were all rooting for her. On paper, Banks, a woman who has modeled, hosted, smized, and been photographed on the Harvard campus, is the perfect multi-hyphenate to suss out talent in all of its various forms. Banks might not know the difference between a supermodel and an Instagram influencer, but she can spot a star when she sees one. Unfortunately, like a 5’7” America’s Next Top Model contestant, Banks is already on thin ice.

Just in time for AGT’s May 30th premiere, a new suit is alleging that Banks caused the underage daughter of a would-be contestant “severe emotional distress.” Whoever said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity has never been accused of verbally abusing a minor and insinuating that she “was accidentally conceived.”

Any reader who takes a casual gander at these court docs will likely be shocked and scandalized by Banks’ alleged misconduct. But any Tyra Banks fan and/or millennial who was raised on ANTM reruns will not be surprised to “learn” that the supermodel’s behavior can border on verbally abusive. If you’re a ‘90s kid, you’re probably still subjected to the occasional ANTM fever dream in which you awake in a pool of sweat, screaming, absolutely convinced that Tyra Banks has ordered a stylist to give you a buzz cut.

During her downright despotic reign as the host of America’s Next Top Model, Banks taught us all that no matter your age, race, or bone structure, you can and will wear a gigantic weave. While steering the ANTM ship, Banks pushed such beauty procedures/torture tactics as sewn-in extensions, the mohawk/mullet, the beard weave and, in one particularly cruel cycle, the tooth file. That special honor was awarded to a contestant named Chelsey, who Banks ordered to have her natural tooth gap widened so that she would look more like Lauren Hutton. Of course, all of these elective (if not entirely consensual) procedures were a small price to pay to be in the running to become America’s Next Top Model, listening to Tyra Banks utter those five magic words: “Noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker.”

While Banks has since relinquished and then re-seized her ANTM hosting gig (more on that later), she’s allegedly continued to terrorize reality TV contestants. Only now, she stands accused of crimes of the non-fashion variety. According to the May 22 complaint, “Jane Doe” is insisting that Banks “willfully and with malicious intent initiated a harmful and offensive physical contact” with Doe’s daughter, who is referred to as “Mary Doe.” The suit chronicles Jane Doe’s audition process for America’s Got Talent. After she and her husband auditioned for the show, they were asked to fly to Los Angeles for filming. While in L.A., the claim alleges, the defendants “attempted to enter into a contractual relationship with Mary, a minor, all without the consent and/or supervision of her parents.” Jane Doe claims that the producers coached her daughter “to act embarrassed and annoyed by her parents’ performance.”

After AGT allegedly humiliated Doe and her husband on-camera, Banks allegedly “physically manipulated and verbally abused Mary. Banks shook Mary’s shoulder, pulled Mary’s hair back and physically manipulated Mary. Mary became nervous when she realizes that Banks is planning to physically manipulate her. Mary did not stop Banks’s conduct because Mary was fearful. Banks also insinuated that Mary was accidentally conceived, made fun of the performance and ridiculed [the song] in front of Mary.”

While public ridicule is sort of par for the reality TV course, physically and/or verbally abusing a minor is, obviously, not OK. The suit further insists that the incident “caused [Mary] to undergo humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, and emotional distress,” and that, “As a result of her negative experience from AGT and defendants’ abusive treatment, Mary was traumatized, and became deeply depressed.” The filing claims that AGT agreed not to televise any footage of Mary, and that the “defendants acknowledged Mary’s emotional distress in their reply.” Additionally, Jane Doe and her husband want AGT to pull their appearance altogether, because airing the performance may serve to further traumatize their daughter.

In a retrospectively ill-advised Today interview on Monday, fellow judge Simon Cowell described Banks as “a little bit of a diva.” “I mean it as a compliment, by the way,” he continued. “It’s that sort of presence when you walk into a room.” Whether Tyra Banks is a verbally abusive monster or just an ex-model with an abundance of star quality remains to be seen. However, there are several examples from the America's Next Top Model era that can and should be used to shed a little more light on Tyra Banks’ one-of-a-kind reality TV methods. The most iconic footage of Tyra Banks losing all of her shit comes from ANTM cycle four, aka the top model elimination heard ‘round the world.

The elimination scene, which, in GIF form, is destined to survive the apocalypse and outlive us all, pits contestants Rebecca and Tiffany against each other. But in a twist, Banks pulls a blank picture, indicating that she is going to send both of the aspiring models home. While Rebecca starts sobbing, Tiffany is smiling and joking with her fellow contestants. Instead of letting the losers leave in peace, Banks calls the women back over. Her ensuing speech, about how Tiffany ought to have taken this opportunity more seriously, culminates in Banks full-on shouting: “When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me. I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!” According to Rebecca Epley, the other eliminated contestant, Banks “went above and beyond to break Tiffany down.” In Tiffany Richardson’s own words, “It was just, like, bullshit. It was so over-the-top for no reason,” adding that Banks must have “needed them ratings to go up or something.”

In 2015, cycle 17 winner Angelea Preston sued Tyra Banks for $3 million after she was stripped of her title. Preston, who was ultimately demoted after it was revealed that she had done work as an escort, claimed that Banks “cynically exploits” the ANTM contestants and is “a stranger” the second the camera stops rolling. “Sometimes we would work 20 hours straight of filming. We couldn’t talk unless the cameras were on. We had to be put on a thing called ‘ice,’” she recalled. “That means if the camera’s not rolling we cannot say anything because they don’t want to miss something potentially good…So we’d be on ice for hours. Not eating, not drinking, not talking…You’re guarded [by members of the crew]. It’s like top model prison. That’s exactly what it is.”

Preston further claimed that the producers refused to get her medical help in the midst of a panic attack, instead choosing to film the incident and milk it for drama. “I remember the producers telling me, ‘This show is going to change your life,’” Preston continued. “When you hear that you think all of your dreams are going to come true. Well it changed my life. But it changed it for the worse.”