IS JOHN SINGLETON'S main squeeze in more ways than one. Moments after the green-eyed, 5'11" beauty enters the director's L.A. home, she begins her affectionate ritual of squeezing bumps on his shaved head. Instantly the macho man melts, becoming giggly and tender as they snuggle together on his black leather couch. The model turned actress and the director of 1991's Boyz N the Hood have been inseparable for a year now. "Usually when you are with a girl, you begin to want to have your own space," says Singleton, 27. "It's not like that with Tyra."
Clearly not. In addition to spending most of their off time in each other's company, they're working together now too. This month, Banks, 21, makes her big-screen debut as Deja, a college track star, in Singleton's Higher Learning. The director, who earned two Oscar nominations for Boyz, admits that the making of this movie had a few snags. For one thing, he says, studio executives at Columbia tried to distort his vision of Learning, a film about campus racial tensions. "I was dealing with people who were totally conservative, and my forte is being different," he says. "I was coming close to punching folks out." Even worse, he says, was directing Banks's steamy love scene with costar Omar Epps. "It was the hardest thing for me," says Singleton.
He and Banks met through mutual friends and began dating in 1993. Soon afterward, Singleton told Banks, a top model who appears regularly in magazines and walks fashion runways in Paris and New York City, that he wanted them to see each other exclusively. She demurred. "I didn't want to rush things," she explains. Finally, during a long stroll in Manhattan, where Banks lives part-time, she felt an overwhelming sense of commitment to him. "In front of the Empire State Building, I told him I wanted to be his girl," says Banks. "It sounds so corny," says Singleton. "But it's real."
Becoming the director's girl made auditioning for his movie a sticky situation for Banks, whose only prior acting experience was as Will Smith's girlfriend in NBC's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for one season last year. "They'll say I got this because I'm your girlfriend," she told him. But Singleton told her that a) if she weren't right for the part, she wouldn't get it, and b) if people didn't understand, that was their problem. "To not care what people thought was a new experience for me," says Banks.
Singleton came by his sense of independence early. Growing up in the "hood" in South Central L.A., he was raised alternately by his separated parents—Sheila Ward, 45, a pharmaceutical salesperson, and Danny Singleton, 45, a financial planner who has six children from other relationships. With strong parental encouragement, Singleton stayed focused on his childhood filmmaking dreams (at 9, he saw Star Wars and, he says, "was overwhelmed—I knew I wanted to make films when I left the theater") and graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television in 1990.
Banks, meanwhile, was raised just 12 miles away, in middle-class Inglewood. Her parents—Carolyn London Johnson, 46, now her manager, and Don Banks, 48, a computer consultant who also manages his daughter's finances—divorced when she was 6, but she is close to them both, and to her brother Devin, 27, a firefighter in the Air Force. "She never waited no tables," says Singleton, teasingly, of Banks, who was accepted at Loyola Marymount University but decided not to enroll after her modeling career began to take off while she was a high school senior. "I worked my a—off my whole life," he adds.
Singleton may posture and poke fun, but Banks says he's a "lavish romantic" at heart. For her 21st birthday, he gave her a large sapphire-and-diamond "friendship" ring. (For her 20th, he threw a surprise party on a chartered yacht.) Meanwhile the mere sight of her transforms him into a soft and cuddly fellow. "She brings that out in him," says Laurence Fishburne, an old friend of Singleton's who plays a college professor in Learning. "What can I tell you? It's the power of the feminine."
Still, they draw the line at living together. "Not until I get married. I am old-fashioned," says Banks, who recently bought a luxurious five-bedroom home in the Hollywood Hills. And marriage? "We are both pretty young to consider that," says Singleton. "We are just taking it as we go along. I know Tyra loves me for me. Sometimes I feel we're two sane people in the midst of all the craziness."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles