Models Inc.: How Tyra Banks, Iman, and Other Black Models Transitioned From the Runway to the Boardroom - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise magazine Fall 2019 issue

“So many girls think modeling is a party. It’s not. If you think it’s a party, you’re going to have a career for one or two years and then they’re looking for the next new thing,” says supermodel Tyra Banks, who stayed one step ahead of the cutthroat industry by positioning herself to be done with modeling before it was done with her. Banks and other black models proved that they’re more than just fabulous figures and flawless faces — they are chief executives of successful businesses.

“I was the girl that on every commercial was talking to everybody: the director, the grips, even the line producer. I tried to educate myself as much as possible when I was on set,” recalls Banks, who said to herself, “Yeah, I might be walking in my underwear in this Victoria’s Secret commercial, but this is not my end, this is just a means to an end.” This mindset has paid off for Banks, host and executive producer of America’s Next Top Model, the cornerstone of the new CW Network, and The Tyra Banks Show, the freshman talk show that’s beating out The Oprah Winfrey Show among women aged 18 to 34.

Before Banks were the originators, the breakthrough black models of the 1970s. These women sashayed right through the color barrier, and when the flashbulbs faded, they used their connections and experience to make the successful transition to business ownership.

“As exceptional and unique as [they] were in their fashion careers, they were equally exceptional and unique in their careers as entrepreneurs,” says Barbara Summers, author of Black and Beautiful: How Women of Color Changed the Fashion Industry (Amistad; $35). “The most important quality they all had was vision. They saw themselves as more than pretty, anonymous cover girls. They envisioned themselves owning their name, their heritage, and their future.”

After thriving in an industry that can be brutal at best, these pioneers bucked the stereotype of the dumb model and replaced it with the picture of a savvy businesswoman. Here’s how they did it.

Audrey Smaltz: A. Smaltz Inc. dba Ground Crew. The Behind-the-Scenes Taskmaster.

Smaltz, 69, likes to say she was “born, bred, buttered, jellied, jammed, and honeyed in Harlem.” She began her career as a model in 1954, while she was still in high school, and later modeled for Bloomingdale’s and Lane Bryant. But it was her position with Ebony magazine as a fashion editor and as the coordinator and commentator of the Ebony Fashion Fair that Smaltz calls the “best job any young woman could have.”

During her stint with Ebony, Smaltz oversaw thousands of Fashion Fair shows. Backstage, she learned firsthand how the shows were put together, and the seeds of her future enterprise were planted. In 1977, she turned 40, decided it was time to hang up her microphone at Fashion Fair, and borrowed a page from her former employer. “I had a mentor, John H.Johnson. I wanted to be like Mr. Johnson and own my own business — call the shots and the buck stops with me,” Smaltz says. “He was my inspiration.”

With $60,000 in savings, Smaltz moved back to New York and bought a penthouse apartment that also serves as her office. She established her company, A. Smaltz Inc., in November 1977. Initially, Smaltz wasn’t generating much revenue but was blowing through her startup cash at an alarming rate. “It went in two months,” she says. With no job to fall back on, Smaltz did what she had to do to keep a positive cash flow. “I hocked all of my diamonds. I was determined to stay in business. And I never borrowed any money. I just hocked all of my hockables.”

Meanwhile, Smaltz continued to coordinate fashion shows for organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus. Her service, the Ground Crew — the name was inspired by a Martin Luther King Jr. speech — provides dressers, pressers, tailors, stylists, and movers (www.groundcrew.net). “Nobody else was doing it. I created something that wasn’t even there,” Smaltz says, “because the people who had been doing it were friends and family, [and they were providing their services] for free.”

But it would take five years for her fledgling service to get its foot in the door of the Seventh Avenue fashion establishment. “Nobody was waiting for me to be in business. First of all, nobody wants to know about you being in business,” she says. “They want to see if you can be in business and stay in business before they give you business.” Smaltz’s breakthrough came when she helped coordinate a special Calvin Klein show for Bergdorf Goodman in 1986. She began dressing Klein’s fall and spring shows, and other well-known clients followed.

In addition to fashion week shows, the Ground Crew works runway shows for retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue plus music video and catalog photo shoots. Today, the company has two full-time employees, two part-time employees, and a freelance staff that numbers more than 125 during market weeks. The Ground Crew earns $750,000 in revenues and handles 250 events a year for a client list that includes Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Giorgio Armani, and Oscar de la Renta. During fashion week last September, the Ground Crew had some 60 jobs in eight days, 35 of which were shows and the rest were pre-show jobs, such as fittings and stand-ins for the models.

After almost 30 years of running her own company, Smaltz is starting to look toward the next chapter in her life. She’s working on her memoir, due out next year. And she’s training others to carry on the business without her. “I’m looking to ease on out,” she says, while also working to expand her business nationwide. “It’ll be happening soon.”

Norma Jean Darden: The Accidental Chef

Darden, 65, was exposed to modeling through he rfather, who threw fashion show fundraisers in their hometown of Montclair, New Jersey, for the local NAACP. “He would transform our lawn into a long runway, and all the cars would stop, and these gorgeous black women were strutting on the runway. I just thought it was so fabulous,” Darden says.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Darden appeared on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and walked the runways of New York, Paris, Milan, and London during her seven-year career. She worked the fashion show at Versailles in 1973, where black designer Stephen Burrows sent a group of black models down the runway during the battle between French and American designers — a breakthrough in the history of black models.

Darden’s career was cut short around 1975, when she was hospitalized with acute peritonitis, an abdominal infection. “My father said ‘I don’t think there’s much future in running up and down the streets in an evening gown.’ I said, ‘You’re right. I have to do something else.’ I didn’t know what that something else was going to be,” Darden says. “And that’s when the book came along.”

At the suggestion of an editor she met at a party, Darden and her sister, Carole, co-wrote Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (Harlem Moon; $18.95), which was compiled following an extensive trip down South to collect old family recipes. As a result, the Darden sisters were often asked by friends to bring food to gatherings. On one such occasion, a producer for a local television network tasted their quiche and offered them a catering job. “That one party spawned six more parties. And that was the beginning of the business. We were doing it for a year before we even thought of ourselves as caterers,” she says.

Darden likes to say she started Spoonbread Catering (www.spoonbreadinc.com) with a $6 investment — the amount spent on the quiche — and that it was profitable from Day 1. But she didn’t realize at first that she needed a commercial kitchen and a license tolegally sell food. Darden learned on the job, took a class at the New York Restaurant School, and incorporated Harlem-based Spoonbread in 1983.

Her entrepreneurial path continued to evolve through happenstance. When Darden objected to her landlord’s plan to rent the adjoining store to another caterer, he offered her the space. She took over the lease and opened her first restaurant, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, named after her mother, in 1997. This posed a new set of challenges. “The restaurant business was hard because I couldn’t gauge how much to cook or how much not to cook. Finally we figured it out, and now we can tell that Monday and Tuesday are slow, that Friday and Saturday are going to be great, and that Sunday is going to be packed,” she says. “Now we know the rhythm of the restaurant. But just like everything else I’ve done, I had to stumble along.”

Spoonbread is now one of the hottest caterers in New York, with celebrity clients that include Bill Cosby and Hillary Clinton. It handles more than 400 events annually and has a collaborative agreement for the catering functions at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Together with its two restaurants, Miss Mamie’s and Miss Maude’s, Spoonbread generates north of $3 million in sales. Darden has an unfinished cookbook on the shelf and is scouting locations for a third New York restaurant. When asked if she’d like to expand beyond New York, she whispered, “Yes, but I don’t know how.” Then she smiles to herself and says, “But that’s never stopped me in the past.”

Barbara Smith: The One-Woman Brand

B. Smith Enterprises. Smith, 57, always loved fashion. She tried out for Ebony Fashion Fair three times in her native Pennsylvania before getting hired. Her perseverance paid off, and she soon moved to New York and enjoyed a career as an international runway, print, and commercial model. In 1976, she became the first black woman to grace the cover of Mademoiselle.

Unlike most models, who retire by the age of 30, Smith continued working. But she knew that she also wanted to pursue her other childhood passion: food. Smith learned the restaurant business by night while modeling by day. “I asked a friend if I could work in his restaurant before opening day, because I really wanted to see how it all came together,” she says.

Smith persuaded a restaurant group to partner with her on her own place, found a location, and began renovations. There were naysayers who didn’t believe she was the brains behind the operation. “Everybody kept saying it was a white-owned restaurant and I was just fronting, because models aren’t smart and they couldn’t possibly conceive of it and do it themselves,” Smith says.

Her first restaurant, B. Smith’s, opened in New York City in 1986. She opened a second location in Washington, D.C., with her partners in 1994, before buying them out in 1996. After failing to agree on a price to take over the lease for the New York City restaurant, Smith relocated a few blocks away in 2000. In the meantime, she had opened a third restaurant, B. Smith’s Long Wharf at Bay Street, in upscale Sag Harbor, New York.

Although Smith didn’t set out to create a lifestyle brand, that’s exactly what she did. Her multimedia empire includes two books, B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends (Artisan; $18.95) and B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations (Random House; $35); her television show, B. Smith With Style, seen daily on TV One; B. Smart Tips for a Better Life, which air on WBLS, a New York radio station; a column in Soap Opera Digest; and two Websites, BSmith.com and BSmithWithStyle.com.

In 2000, Smith even launched a magazine, B. Smith Style. “We were with American Express Publishing, and they were managed by Time Warner. At some point while we were there, Time Warner did the deal to buy the first 49% of Essence,” Smith says. “Then they kind of were alluding to ‘Would you like to bundle in or do something together?’ And I said no, because we’re very different magazines.” The deal fell apart after just three issues.

The last piece of the puzzle is merchandising. Smith has had a line of housewares at Bed Bath & Beyond since 2001. Before the retailer came along, she turned down numerous offers because the timing and deals weren’t right. “It’s taken me longer, but I’ve done it my way, and the business is 100% African American- owned,” Smith says.

The projects currently under development at B. Smith Enterprises are staggering. Smith’s husband and business partner, Dan Gasby, a former television executive, is in negotiations for a second TV show. They’re looking at properties in Atlanta for a fourth restaurant, with plans of opening three to four new restaurants a year. In addition, there are plans to syndicate the radio show, publish more books, relaunch the magazine, and start clothing and furniture lines.

Although Smith would not reveal her company’s revenues, its products and other offerings do a brisk $75 million in sales. “As we’re growing, we’re going to be bringing on experts in the fields that we are moving into. We’re taking it away from being a mom-and-pop operation to being a real, formal business.”

Iman: The Face of Beauty

Iman Cosmetics, Skincare and Fragrances. Iman often tells the story of her first modeling gig, for Vogue in 1976, during which the makeup artist asked if she had brought her own foundation. “I was 18 years old, I’d never worn makeup in my life, and I had no idea what he was talking about,” she says. So he used what he had, and the Somali-born beauty was shocked to see a grayish face staring back at her from the mirror.

“I remember thinking that I really have to understand and learn quite fast the art of foundation, because as a model, my currency is my image. It’s not really how I look in real life; it’s how I look in pictures,” she says.

She began mixing and matching her own foundations, becoming an expert in the process and the envy of other black women, who constantly stopped to ask her what brand of makeup she was wearing. After she retired from her 14-year modeling career, Iman decided to try her hand at cosmetics. “If I needed it and couldn’t find it in the marketplace, surely there are others who need it and can’t find it because it doesn’t exist,” she says.

Launched in 1994, the IMAN brand (www.imancosmetics.com) was an instant hit, with retail sales of approximately $20 million. Three years after its launch, the brand went international, selling an additional $10 million in the United Kingdom, Canada,and France in 1997. Since then, distribution has been extended to Brazil, Africa, and the Caribbean. A second line, I-IMAN Makeup, was introduced in 2000 but was phased out to focus on the Iman Cosmetics expansion.

Her products were originally available through the television outlet QVC and JC Penney, but Iman was forced to rethink her distribution strategy when the department store eliminated cosmetics counters. By early 2004, Iman had started moving her product into such mass-market retailers as Walgreens, Wal-Mart, and Target. In October 2004, she signed a distribution deal with Procter & Gamble to expand the brand. Since the initial entry into the mass market, the number of stores carrying the product has increased by 50%, as have sales.

The other major challenge during the development of the company was internal. “Prior to P&G, my business partners didn’t have the same vision that I had,” Iman says. “I wanted to create a cosmetics and skincare company at the same time, because as black women, we’re always shortchanged when it comes to skincare. I wanted to have the first products for us with SPF factor. And everybody thought, especially my business partners, it’s a waste of time because black women don’t care about sun protection. Well, the sun does not discriminate, and we do care.” <

Bucking another misconception, Iman wanted to be the first brand to create bronzers for women of color. It was another product she was told she didn’t need. “At the end of the day, since I’m the one whose name is on the product and it’s my legacy, I wanted to have more of the say-so,” she says, explaining why she parted ways with her original partners. The 51-year-old owns 51% of the New York-based company and oversees day-to-day operations and the creative side of the business.

In October, the paperback version of her book The Beauty of Color: The Ultimate Beauty Guide for Skin of Color (Perigee Trade; $19.95) will be released. Iman says the book sums up the philosophy of her company: “When I started in beauty, the general market usually talked about the girl next door, which meant blonde hair, blue eyes. But the neighborhoods have changed now. I wanted to celebrate the new generation of women with skin of color that has now become the norm.”

Tyra Banks: The Next Top Mogul

The list of firsts is impressive: the first black model to land the covers of GQ, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and the Victoria’s Secret catalog. But last year, Banks retired from the career that made her famous — just before she turned the ripe old age of 32.

“I felt like it was important to walk away while you’re still on top,” she says, “and not be walking down the Victoria’s Secret runway and your booty’s jiggling, and it’s like ‘What is she doing? Do something else.'”

Before her modeling career, Banks was accepted to five colleges to pursue a major in film and television production. She has known what she wanted to do since she was a 9-year-old girl in Inglewood, California. “I used to watch commercials on television and be like ‘Mama, the punch line wasn’t right.’ I would rewrite the commercials, and she would encourage me,” Banks says. “So it started with me wanting to be in advertising. And then it just developed into film and television.”

The first offering from her 10-employee, Los Angeles-based production company (www.bankableproductions.com) was the hit reality show America’s Next Top Model. Debuting in 2003, ANTM premieres its seventh cycle this month, ushering in the new CW Network. Last year, she added a talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, which has been picked up for a second season. Banks sees the show as a woman’s guide to life and says one of her gifts is knowing what the women of her generation want. Apparently, she’s right. The show draws more than 2 million women aged 18 to 34 each week, accounting for 36% of its audience and making it the No. 1 new show in first-run syndication with the sought-after demographic.

Few details escape her notice as an executive producer. She is involved in everything from casting to the marketing campaigns and keeps a “hit list” in her purse of things she is unhappy with. “I am so hands-on,” she says. “But I’m learning to delegate because sometimes it’s very overwhelming.”

Though Banks won’t release any financial details about the company or the shows, both of which she co-owns and executive produces, they must be making a mint in syndication alone: VH1 bought the exclusive syndication rights to the first six cycles of ANTM in a deal worth about $5.8 million, according to Daily Variety, while Tyra is rebroadcast on the Oxygen cable channel and on XM Satellite Radio.

Banks currently has 14 projects in development, including a Top Model spin-off and a big-screen, G-rated feature with Nickelodeon Films, staying true to Bankable’s three-pronged focus: family, women, and fantasy/fashion. In addition, she’s working on a fashion-related Internet community and entertaining a number of business pitches, including a lingerie line.

Just as important as the success of her company is the perception that she’s taking this seriously. “As a model, I had a reputation of a woman who was on time and was very businesslike and didn’t party. So now I have to build my reputation to [have others] say, ‘She works 24/7, she has tunnel vision, she doesn’t put her name on vanity projects.’ I think that is starting to be seen, but it takes time,” she says. The last thing she wants to be thought of as is the next hot thing.

“People in my industry look up to the hot actress, the hot singer. That’s cool, but I’m looking for longevity. We’re not sprinting — this is a marathon,” Banks says. “Hotness to me is so scary. I don’t want to be hot. I just want to be a staple. I want to be something that’s trusted.”

CATCHING UP WITH KIMORA

Fabulous may be the best way to describe a modeling career that started with Kimora Lee Simmons walking the runways in Paris at the tender age of 13 and led to her marriage to Russell Simmons, the force behind legendary hip-hop brands Def Jam and Phat Farm.

Even though Phat Fashions was sold to Kellwood Co. in 2004 for a reported $140 million, Simmons, 31, retains her position as president and creative director of Baby Phat. “It’s my baby. I’ve been there since its inception, since it was dust,” says Simmons.

“Selling it to Kellwood allowed us to do things in terms of manufacturing and distribution that we could have never accomplished on our own.” But Simmons admits that she is even more hands-on now. “When you bring more cooks into the kitchen, you have to watch your recipe that much tighter. You have to be sure people develop products with the same integrity.”

After a successful foray into fragrances last year with the launch of Goddess, which posted $35 million in retail sales, Simmons is introducing a new fragrance — Golden Goddess — this month. Both are through a licensing agreement with Coty Inc. Baby Phat is also venturing into home fashions this fall, with a line of bedding, bath linens, and window treatments.

Never one to rest on her heels, Simmons is building her next brand: KLS. It started with the launch of KLS Cosmetics earlier this year. The 62-product collection is available exclusively at Sephora. “I did it myself, my own dollars invested. I’m involved in every single step: the packaging, the ingredients, the testing, everything,” she says. There are also plans for a KLS fashion line.

With a self-described dominant personality, it’s no wonder Simmons has set out to dominate the market: “Baby Phat and KLS make everything — the lingerie, the jeans, the fragrance, the jewelry — every single thing that a woman needs in her life to function and to be, you know, fabulous.”