At 11, a growth spurt turns Banks into "this tall beanpole freak all the girls would laugh at." She tells PEOPLE, "I wasn't just skinny and tall; I was sick looking. If anybody called me skinny, I would just smile, then run into my room and burst out crying. It was a really unhappy time."
A 17-year-old Banks begins making the model agency rounds while at L.A.'s Immaculate Heart High School. ''The market for black models was not very good,'' Banks' mom Carolyn, who shot her daughter's portfolio, tells PEOPLE. Banks is told her look is "too ethnic." After graduation, she plans to enroll at L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University, but weeks before the start of her freshman year, things turn around. A French modeling scout spots Banks and offers her a chance to model in the Paris couture shows.
''My ankles would shake, and I would bend my knees and stick my lips out,'' Banks tells PEOPLE of her first model walks. But within a week, she accumulates 25 bookings. Model Niki Taylor says, ''She can work a runway like you would not believe.'' Designer Todd Oldman adds, ''She reminds me of an antelope. She was just born with grace.''
Black supermodel Naomi Campbell takes notice of rising 19-year-old star Banks and reportedly persuades Karl Lagerfeld to ban the so-called new Naomi Campbell from Chanel's catwalk. "Why do I have to knock Naomi out to be successful?" Banks asks PEOPLE. "With white models, they don't do that."
Banks meets Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton, 25, through mutual friends, and they start dating. ''Tyra brings out the silly side in me, which no one else is allowed to see,'' Singleton tells PEOPLE. Banks counters, "I like that he's very intelligent but not nerdy."
In her first recurring television role, Banks plays Will Smith's sassy girlfriend Jackie on NBC's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. ''When people know me as a model, they back off," she tells PEOPLE. "They have trouble relating to the image they see in the magazines. But when they recognize me from television, they relate to me as this chill-out girl." Banks also makes guest appearances on television shows Soul Food, Felicity and American Dreams.
Banks lands the part of track runner Deja opposite Omar Epps in Higher Learning. "Tyra is good,'' says the film's director and her boyfriend John Singleton, who calms her worries of favoritism by assuring her she wouldn't have the part if she wasn't right. ''She adds a lot of flavor to what could have been a throwaway role.'' She follows up with films Love & Basketball and Coyote Ugly.
After splitting up with Singleton in spring, Banks, 22, shows up with pop singer Seal, 33, at the Essence Awards. Their low-key romance ends in October.
She has a Cover Girl makeup contract and is a regular in magazines and on runways, but the 23-year-old Banks makes history with a triple achievement in 1996. She is the first African-American woman to pose on the covers of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (with model Valeria Mazza), GQ (February 1996) and the Victoria's Secret catalogue (1996). On Feb. 21, 1997, she'll grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second year in a row – this time, by herself.
The model releases her first book, Tyra's Beauty Inside & Out, with her thoughts on self-esteem and step-by-step makeup advice. "It's not the cosmetics, not the swimsuits, not the magazine covers," makeup artist Sam Fine tells PEOPLE. "The beauty of Tyra is her natural side, the child in her." Banks is also upfront about her looks: "I'm not ugly, but my beauty is a total creation."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): COURTESY TYRA BANKS; RETNA; Erik Sampers/GLMR; Warner Bros./Shooting Star; Everett; David Fisher/London Features; amazon.com