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Banking on more than looks

Miles from the orchestrated spectacle that was New York Fashion Week this month, Tyra Banks was tucked away in a mansion in Mahwah, N.J., making a commercial for Victoria's Secret. Her low-rise jeans were strategically unbuttoned, her famed bosom was nestled into a $10-million bra made of diamonds, and Banks, who moments earlier had worn a crimson thong and a matching pushup number, was delivering lines to the camera. "Delight me, dazzle me, excite me," she purred. "Bring me to my knees."

This is what the public has come to expect of Banks, a onetime catwalk superstar who ascended to model heaven posing for Victoria's Secret campaigns. But Banks is eager to prove that she's more than a bodacious body pushing a line of mall-based lingerie. At 30, when most of her peers _ Linda! Naomi! Kate! _ have largely stepped back from the limelight, Banks seeks even more of it. She has signed a deal to become host of a daytime talk show, is developing a half-hour sitcom and is recording an album.

Most visibly, she has begun her third season as the host of America's Next Top Model, a hit reality series on UPN that she created. The show, broadcast on Wednesdays, is credited with breathing life into a network primarily known for Star Trek spinoffs and mediocre comedies like One on One. Among coveted viewers 18 to 34, Top Model is the best performing show in UPN's 10-year history, said Dawn Ostroff, the network's entertainment president. Although its numbers are not Apprentice numbers (3.6-million viewers vs. 14-million), and they have yet to make Banks a water cooler name on a par with Donald Trump or the Osbornes, the show continues to build.

"It has definitely done for us what Survivor did for CBS," Ostroff said.

The series is equal parts American Idol and Real World (the contestants all share a New York loft), with a dash of Fear Factor thrown into the mix. Fourteen young women compete for a modeling contract. Everything from personal style _ watch April accessorize a little black dress _ to a girl's ability to change quickly backstage is critiqued. Contestants have had to pose with reptiles, underwater or suspended 150 feet in the air.

Long hair is cut short, blond hair is dyed brown, ugly ducklings blossom into graceful swans or, in some cases, strutting peacocks. Accusations of eating disorders are lobbed more often than a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Tears are shed and claws are bared, but few contestants are nastier than Janice Dickinson, one of the on-camera judges.

A former top model, Dickinson delights in delivering withering, Simon Cowell-esque assessments. "If a girl is too short or too fat, or she is slovenly and hobbles in front of me, or if she looks like the closest she's ever gotten to a photographer is the one at the DMV, I'm going to say something," Dickinson said.

Banks said that in creating the show she wanted to demonstrate for the world that models _ sniff sniff _ have feelings, too. On the set of the Victoria's Secret shoot, she pointed to a fellow supermodel, Angela Lindvall, who was clad in black scanties and writhing suggestively for the camera. "Look at her," Banks said. "She just looks like this beautiful thing that has no emotions. But she cries, she's scared, she fights, she's a human being. I wanted to show that that girl has insecurities, too."

Ken Mok, a reality show veteran whom Banks hired as executive producer, said he was prepared for her to be a producer of the series in name only. He was pleasantly surprised. "She's not only appearing in front of the camera, but she's on set prepping the girls, styling them, putting on their makeup," he said. "It's an amazing thing to see."

Banks, who walked the runways for Chanel and Versace when she was 17, after leaving her home in Los Angeles, found that as she reached her 20s, it became more of a struggle to keep her weight down and to fit into sample sizes. Instead of starving herself _ "I tried eating salads for three days; it didn't work" _ she chose to redirect her career away from the catwalk and toward a broader audience. She won endorsement deals from Pepsi and Cover Girl and became the first African-American woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

She is the first to admit that her body is no longer runway-ready. "You know what," she said with a self-deprecating chuckle, "I've got dimples in my booty, and that's just the way it is." Banks, a teetotaler, said food is her only vice. Victoria's Secret has never asked her to lose weight, "but sometimes they should," she joked, patting her thighs. "What separates me from other models is that it's not just about my body. If it was, then I wouldn't work. It's the personality, being able to sell the product and relate to the customer that makes up for other things that aren't perfect."

UPN, however, is happy with America's Next Top Model, and Banks is in postproduction for a fourth season as the third one is being seen. She is also pursuing a singing career, despite the chilly reception for her first single, Shake Ya Body, released earlier in the year. She plans to shoot a syndicated talk show in the fall of 2005, after signing a multimillion-dollar deal with Telepictures. "I'm still working things out, but it's going to be a show that speaks to women my age," she said. Oprah Winfrey need not worry, though. "She's the queen, and I'm not even in the royal court," Banks said. "I couldn't take her audience even if I paid them."