Tech reporting allows for its fair share of celebrity run-ins these days. We met The Hills starlet Kristin Cavallari, fresh off the Bing challenge, and there was the time Alicia Keys showed us her favorite photo apps. But nothing has felt quite as surreal as Skyping with Tyra Banks (and eight other reporters) about her new paid iPhone app Smize Yourself!, which launches later today. Fans (or "fams" as Ms. Banks calls her social media family) were introduced to the concept of "smizing," or smiling with one's eyes, through "America's Next Top Model."
"I’m known for inventing words," Ms. Banks, who also brought the world the 'booty tooch,' told the beauty, tech, and culture bloogers awkwardly assembled for a technologically-challenged group video chat. Luckily, the connection worked long enough to watch her school one male reporter in the art of the smize: "Pierce the lens. Look into the lens on your computer and, like, really put the energy through it. Bore through it, like you're trying to hypnotize me. Are you doing it?"
The $1.99 app, which the press release says features a "sassy video tutorial" by Ms. Banks, uses the "the latest morphing technology," to stretch and elongates the top of your face. As Ms. Banks' 945,000-some Instagram followers have noted, the end result is something like a Bratz doll or alien emoji.
"It’s very similar to facial manipulation technology like FatBooth, or Oldbooth," Ms. Banks said. "It uses that type of technology by morphing the face based on putting certain pointers on certain parts of your face."
She was quick to acknowledge that her first foray into the app economy was only built as a fun distraction. "I thought it was important to do something that my audience already knows," she said. "That show, that really popular show on MTV it’s called 'Awkward.' There’s an episode recently where--we’re watching it--and the girl is taking a picture and goes, ‘Say Smize!" she said. "It’s becoming part of pop culture."
During the interview, Ms. Banks seemed particularly taken by the "connection with humans beings" facilitated by modern social media. A couple months ago, she asked her followers what theme they would like to see in the next season of her model training reality show. "So many people were like, 'I want to see boys! Boys and girls! Boys!' And so I was able to bring that to the network. I’ve been asking the network to include boys for five years. I took that back to the network and they were like, 'Wow!" she said proudly. "Free and real time marketing!"
When Betabeat's turn to ask a pre-approved question came up, naturally we wanted to know if Ms. Banks--like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga--had her own Scooter Braun or Troy Carter guiding her through the startup world. Besides some advice from the CEO of her company, no help necessary, it seems. "About five years ago, I went to Silicon Valley and hosted a think tank," she said. At this point, our connection oh-so-cruelly cut out, so all we could make out was "hybrid" and what sounded like "getting iteration."
Ms. Banks, who was sporting gold-glitter nail polish, popped back in in time for us to hear her say, "We spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley. A lot of time. I was just there a couple of weeks ago and there was a dinner that was hosted for me with the top female venture capitalist in the Bay Area as well as some top female entrepreneurs because we are looking to use capital and land capital to take companies that have high potential growth and take them to the next level. Particularly businesses that are started by a woman or for the female consumer."
Her interest in the tech industry, is not a "a celebrity bandwagon thing," she assured us. "Connecting to the Tyra Banks Company is not just using my name, but it’s using business acumen, the strategy marketing," she adding, pointing to her academic training. "I’m really proud to have gratuated from the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School. It was a course over three years. I would go to school for three to four weeks at a time and really intensive study from 7am to midnight, Monday to Saturday, for about a month--lived in the dorms."
Considering her interest in tech investing, what does her dream portfolio look like? "I think the list is the same for everybody," she said. "I would have love to have invested in Uber, I use that service, it’s amazing. I would have loved to have invested in Airbnb. There’s tons. But hindsight is 20/20. The key is getting in and seeing the future. Looking into that crystal ball, that globe and going what’s going to the next big thing." Not that she considers herself a traditional VC. "With us it’s a social enterprise, it’s not just about making money. It’s a specifc focus, so as I said, for female run businesses or businesses that are really transformational for females."
Ms. Banks was a little more guarded when it came to the long-term goals of her empire. "I don't want to give away all of our strategies," she said. But decades and decades hence, "possibly even half a century," Ms. Banks would like for a young girl to benefit from the beauty and empowerment lessons of the Tyra Banks Company "and for her to have no idea that I was a human being."
"WOAH," responded the faceless reporter. "I want her grandmother to know it was a human being," but for her future granddaughter, it will merely be the lessons of the brand. The reporter eagerly followed up, asking whether Ms. Banks ever thinks of herself as more of a brand than a human. "Gosh, no," she said, "I always see myself as a human."