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Tyra Banks on 'America's Next Top Model' Overhaul: 'I Was Panicking' (Q&A)

Ahead of the cycle 19 premiere, the show's host/executive producer also talks with THR about her thoughts on its move to Fridays and reveals which challenge she thinks will spark hate mail.

Tyra Banks - P 2012
Getty Images

America's Next Top Model got a makeover for its 19th cycle.

The CW's reality competition, which returns at 8 p.m. Friday with its first "College Edition," has a new judge, a new photo shoot creative consultant and a new viewer-voting component, among other additions.

Gone are former judges Nigel Barker and J. Alexander (aka Miss Jay, also the show's runway coach) and photo director Jay Manuel. Joining the judges panel alongside host/executive producer Tyra Banks and fashion PR expert Kelly Cutrone is Rob Evans, a former boxer and model. Stylist Johnny Wujek replaces Manuel, while fashion blogger Bryanboy and dancer-choreographer Jonte also have been tapped to serve in a mentoring capacity.

STORY: 'Top Model' College-Edition Contestants Announced 

For the first time, viewers had a say in which contestant stayed and went home, voting online over the course of production to choose their favorite contestants based on photo shoots. And, in another new twist, the competitors who already had been eliminated were given the opportunity to return to the competition. 

It's a major overhaul for the show, which debuted on UPN in 2003 and formally launched at The CW in 2006. Ahead of the premiere, Banks spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about what sparked all the changes, her thoughts on the show's move to Friday nights, how long she thinks the franchise might last and which challenge could generate hate mail.

The Hollywood Reporter: What was the impetus for all the changes this cycle?

Tyra Banks: I got a call from my boss ... who said we needed to make some serious changes. It was a phone call that left me nervous and shaking. I hung up the phone -- I got pulled out of a class at Harvard [where she recently graduated from the university's executive education program] to take the call -- and went back into the class, but I couldn't focus on the professor. I was panicking. [But] yesterday we had a debut party and did a screening of the first episode, and every single reporter in New York City was there ... and they were super excited, wanting to talk about all the changes. Even though I went to business school, it was my boss that gave me a big lesson about rejuvenation and making something that's been around a long time fresh and exciting again.

THR: Who was it that called you asking for the changes?

Banks: I can't say who.

STORY: 'Top Model' Shakeup: Three Veterans Out

THR: What did you do after you got the call?

Banks: I took a break. I had to check out a little bit and realized I needed to go away. I went to Bali and took the entire first season with me on discs and studied it while I was there to understand why we are successful and what got us there in the first place and what we did in terms of being creative and what we left on the table that we shouldn't have. [I realized] it was the story of our girls. We got too much into teaching and challenges and photo shoots and eliminations. So you'll see in cycle 19 so much of the story will be getting to know the girls, whether emotional or comedic. There's a cycle one rawness to it.

THR: How has the revamp changed the vibe of the show?

Banks: It got me off of my routine. I have been doing Top Model for almost 10 years now, and I have a couple of scripted things: One is introducing the judges and the prizes, and another is I say, "There are two girls standing before me ... " [Banks quickly recites the rest of the familiar line about how one contestant will be forced to "pack their bags and go home"]. I've been saying that for 10 years and didn't even have to think about it. But now, I have a whole new thing, a new prize package, the social media fan vote. These are no longer the lines I had known. So the two girls standing in front of me crying their eyes out had no idea what I was going to say. I didn't know what I was going to say. One time I had to pause and say, "Ladies, I am so sorry and I want to let you know I am here with you emotionally. I don't know my lines." And I ran off the set. It was such a mess! It felt like season one -- so fresh and uncomfortable, but in a good way.

THR: How do you feel about the move to Friday nights?

Banks: Who's excited about that, right? But at the same time, we're confident and we feel good.

THR: How does the viewer vote work?

Banks: The fans account for 25 percent of the vote. Now each judge votes from 1 to 10 and shows their score. ... In the end, the girls get called up based on their combined score, including social media, so sometimes girls end up going home that I don't want to go home, based on social media.

THR: Was it easy incorporating the social media element?

Banks: We were scrambling and running to see what the fans were saying. It was like Laurel & Hardy and Keystone Cops and the Three Stooges all in one. But it worked out beautifully.

VIDEO: Tyra Banks Says 'America's Next Top Model' Firings Were 'Difficult'

THR: Why was it important to make viewers a part of the show this time around?

Banks: First, I'll tell you why it was important not to in the beginning. I created Top Model because I wanted to expand the definition of beauty and wanted a platform to do it. People think I just wanted to discover models, but that was secondary. I wanted to highlight atypical beauty, unique beauty, so the ugly-duckling girls at home who were not feeling beautiful could see other girls with a gap in their teeth or super pale or with big frizzy red hair being called beautiful and could feel better about themselves. We'd get [viewer] mail asking: "Why is that girl on? She needs to go home." Then two weeks later, the same restaurant waitress would get a makeover, and people would say, "I had no idea she could look like that." Over the course of the years, the audience is now not just choosing the cheerleader or the pretty girl in the mall. They realize that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes with freckles and frizz. I felt comfortable enough that the audience wouldn't just go for the cheerleader now.

THR: Which stars will be making appearances this season?

Banks: Tyler Perry will teach the girls how to act as characters, because modeling is about embodying a character. ... The winner gets a part in a Tyler Perry movie. Alicia Keys also comes on, and the girls put on a fashion show to her new album, Girl on Fire. And Shenae Grimes from 90210 is the photographer for the photo shoot in week two, [a taxidermy-themed shoot]. I still don't know how to feel about that shoot because I don't wear fur. I don't know if we'll get hate mail about it. I'm not sure where I stand.

THR: Not all of the winners have had successful careers after their season ends. Do you work with any of them afterward as they embark on their modeling careers?

Banks: I don't double dip, for ethical reasons. At one point, I was thinking about managing one of the girls, but I think that's unethical. Do you choose the one you think you will make the most money off of or the girl who you feel like deserves it the most? When a girl wins, it's up to her to work with the modeling agency she's partnering with. A lot of girls, some of them just want the crown. It's disheartening, like, "I just won and I'm about to go back to my hometown and get a boyfriend and get me a baby." But this is not a pageant. Others are hungry to work and do get jobs, mostly internationally. This is a global business. On American Idol, the guy or girl wins and their song is played on the radio around the world, whereas on Top Model, the girl may win and then book Spanish Elle or Japanese Vogue or South African Harper's Bazaar. These are huge magazines, but they are regional, so it's difficult to feel her success.

STORY: 'America's Next Top Model': Nigel Barker Says His Firing 'Wasn't a Tyra Banks Thing'

THR: How much life is left in the Top Model franchise?

Banks: I've been answering that question since cycle five, and I'm always wrong. I said maybe until eight. On the set of cycle eight, I was with [executive producer] Ken Mok, who asked me, "How much longer do you think?" and I said until 10. I don't know. I don't like to keep being wrong.