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The Girl Who Pushed Tyra Banks (And The Internet) Over The Edge

“This is a really difficult decision,” Tyra Banks said, face stoic, voice solemn. “You’ve put me in a very difficult place.” Before her stood America’s Next Top Model contestants Tiffany Richardson and Rebecca Epley, who were on the chopping block.

The Cycle 4 hopefuls were relatively motionless, aside from the sporadic subtle head nods as they waited to see whose photo Banks was holding. Whoever was pictured would be “safe” in the world’s fiercest modeling competition — at least for an additional week. But when Banks finally revealed the reflective, glossy image in her hands, it was blank: Both Richardson and Epley were going home. A shock wave rippled through the room, leaving the models who would be moving forward and Banks’s fellow judges visibly shaken.

Epley let her tears flow freely as she was comforted by her fellow contestants turned friends; Richardson, meanwhile, tried to lighten the mood, telling the other models, “Cheer up, waterheads. [What are you] lookin’ all sad for?” The contestants wiped their faces, and after saying their goodbyes, Banks called the two eliminated women back over for what would become the most memorable send-off in reality TV history.

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“Rebecca, I admire your emotion right now. It shows to me that this was something that’s very important to you,” Banks said, before turning to Richardson. “Tiffany, I’m extremely disappointed in you. This is a joke to you. … This is serious to these girls, and it should be serious to you.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” Richardson interjected. “I’m hurt. … I can’t change it, Tyra. … I’m sick of crying about stuff that I cannot change. I’m sick of being disappointed.”

“You ain’t sick of being disappointed, Tiffany,” Banks replied, her voice becoming irritated, her bright red hair following every shake of her head. “If you were sick of being disappointed, you would stand up and you would take control of your destiny. Do you know that you had a possibility to win? Do you know that all of America is rooting for you?”

Banks and Richardson began talking over each other as they tried to explain themselves, both growing more passionate with each word until Banks became completely unhinged. “I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this,” she shouted, her voice cracking. The glare in her eyes sharpened as she looked down at Richardson, who’d turned her head away amid the yelling.

“When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me. I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!”

Suddenly, the room fell silent.

For the first time, the very polished Tyra Banks had broken character. She had always been the knowledgeable big sister who carried herself with grace, someone you could count on for sound advice, someone to look up to.

But that wasn’t who audiences saw when she went in on Richardson. It left folks watching at home shook — so much that we’re not only still talking about it today, but we’ve managed to transform the unforgettable moment into a way we interact with one another.

Josh Ritchie for BuzzFeed News

It’s now been 11 years since Banks flipped the script on Richardson and showed viewers a side they hadn’t seen from the supermodel before. “I would not take anything from her career … but she’s a human,” Richardson said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News in late 2016. “I went into it thinking Tyra was fucking God. … To actually see her and the vibe is completely different. It was just weird.”

The scene has transcended the shelf life of most reality TV moments, becoming a tool that a generation attached to their phones has used to communicate with when we’re disappointed — whether it be earnest or in jest. Like when your best friend admits they slept with their terrible ex-boyfriend or when your sibling eats the leftovers you put in the fridge. “We were rooting for you. We were all rooting for you.”

Matthias Brown for BuzzFeed News

If you were to do a general search on YouTube for the scene, which aired in April 2005, you’d see a few results — “Tyra Banks Gone Wild,” “Tyra Banks Yells at Girl,” “Tyra Yells at Tiffany Extended” — totaling more than 11 million views and counting. And you probably see the continuous loop of Banks yelling her famous line in GIF form on at least one social media platform a day. The scene has been memed over and over again, tracing back to old message boards, the underbelly of the early internet. It also lives on through fan art and tweets and Vines (RIP), and it was parodied on Family Guy, on which Banks was portrayed as a model who loses her temper and transforms into a lizard, eating one of the contestants. It was even used in January 2017 as a symbol of protest during the international Women’s March in reference to President Donald Trump, the day after he was inaugurated. “None of us were rooting for you,” a protester’s sign read. “How dare you.”

Former America’s Next Top Model senior producer Heather Cocks chuckled when she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview, “I just embedded a GIF of that in a post.” Cocks left television production in 2006 to focus on her successful blog turned book Go Fug Yourself, which she began in 2004 with her friend Jessica Morgan. (On that particular day, Cocks was rooting for Idina Menzel.)

The sensational scene has undoubtedly become a staple of pop culture that most of us laugh about now, but for Richardson, the woman who unexpectedly became meme fodder, there’s still plenty of sting in the air, and an untold story.

Portraits from Richardson’s earlier modeling days.

Courtesy of Tiffany Richardson

America’s Next Top Model had already aired two “cycles,” as its seasons are called, before Richardson came into the fold. The show ushered in a new way to consume modeling. It lifted the mysterious veil off of the exclusive fashion industry and made it accessible to the masses. Contestants sent in their audition tapes with dreams of being the next Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and, of course, Tyra Banks.

Richardson and her grandmother in a clip from her audition tape.

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Richardson’s journey to Top Model began with her grandmother, Rine Bryant, who was an avid viewer. She suggested Richardson audition as an opportunity to do more with her life. At the time, the 21-year-old was stripping, doing drugs, and partying. “I needed a break. I needed to get away and try to do something better,” Richardson said. “Top Model was my way out of what I was doing before I killed myself or did some crazy shit, or ended up in jail or dead.”

When Cycle 3 premiered in the fall of 2004, Richardson’s story was given the spotlight. In her audition tape footage, she sat side-by-side with Bryant, who said, “I think this contest will help you lose some of the bad habits that you already have.” Her compelling story, which would’ve made for the sort of inspiring rags-to-riches tale that’s become a trademark of reality TV, caught the eye of producers, and she was flown from her hometown of Miami to Los Angeles as one of the 34 semifinalists who would interview with Banks, creative director Jay Manuel, and runway coach J Alexander. But soon, Richardson’s dreams of breaking free from the life she was leading back home would hit a roadblock.

During a night out at the West Hollywood location of the well-known LA bar chain Barney’s Beanery, the semifinalists decided to blow off some steam by drinking. But the evening’s festivities took a dramatic turn when a group of women began heckling the model hopefuls. After challenging them to a dance-off, Richardson took on one of the women, who then poured beer on her head, leading her to utter the much-talked-about phrase “Bitch poured beer on my weave!” — a classic Top Model moment in its own right. Richardson reacted by tossing a drink back at the woman, and from there, chaos ensued. Glasses and insults flew across the room, and eventually the contestants left the bar. “I’m going to change. … I’m not going back to the hood, I can’t,” Richardson said afterward, barely holding back tears.

The next day, Richardson was forced to process the heartbreaking fact that she wouldn’t be one of the 14 finalists moving into the Top Model home for Cycle 3. “It would’ve been a big change to go from hustling to being glamour girl,” she said in the footage at the time.

But before she returned to Miami, Richardson said that producers “hinted” that she’d be able to come back for Cycle 4 if she participated in an anger management program. According to Richardson, the suggestion came because of how she’d performed on her psych test, an assessment of the contestants’ mental stability before they’re allowed into the house with the other models. Cocks said the models are screened “extensively” and she’d be surprised if those who vet contestants “did not do their due diligence.” Though she mainly worked in postproduction and couldn’t confirm Richardson’s account, Cocks did say, “I think it’s possible. Look, she obviously made a really good impression in Season 3 if she failed whatever she said she failed. I could definitely see them reaching out to her again and being like, ‘Do you want to give this another try?’”

Richardson said she did try anger management for just “a second” and “it didn’t really change much.” She wouldn’t disclose how much time she’d spent in her program. (A representative for Ken Mok, the president of 10 by 10 Entertainment, the production company behind America’s Next Top Model, said he was unavailable to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to a further request for comments on Richardson’s statements.) “I don’t think they really cared about me going to anger management,” Richardson told BuzzFeed News. “It looked good for TV…fake-ass Cinderella story.”

Months later, just before filming for Cycle 4 of Top Model began, Richardson said she was contacted by a producer to come out to Tampa for an audition. While there, she retook the psych test and “switched the answers.” “I put what they wanted to hear,” she said.

Josh Ritchie for BuzzFeed News

Internally, Richardson cleaved to the sentiment that she didn’t have any issues with her temperament, and to those who worked on the show, she seemed to be a new and improved woman. Her so-called growth shined brightly when she met with Banks and the Jays for her semifinalist interview. She said she was no longer the woman who threw drinks in bars. She appeared to be calm, reserved, and measured — and perhaps most important, she didn’t seem like someone who would let things easily get under her skin.

“I went to my anger management class, and that really helped a lot,” Richardson told them. “Everything in my life is happy. I have a lot of help with my baby now, my boyfriend’s wonderful. … I’m a happy person.” Suddenly, she got choked up as she told them how much it meant for her to be back in Los Angeles. “Go on. Cry, baby, go on and cry,” Miss J said, fanning his hands in Richardson’s direction. She let it all out and told a story about how her grandmother had forgone paying the family’s electricity bill in order to get Richardson a bathing suit for the show.

Richardson tearfully recounting the sacrifices her grandmother made for her during her Cycle 4 audition.

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Banks and the Jays were moved. “Tiffany grabbed her problems by the reins, she got it together, came back, and I truly believed that girl wants to change her life,” Mr. Jay said after her interview.

But really, Richardson just had them all fooled. “Honestly, looking back, I was full of shit,” she said. “Like, I was still the same person. … [I was] playing the fucking role. … I fed into the crap they was telling me and I ran with it.”

With such an apparent change in demeanor, Richardson was a shoo-in as a Top Model finalist, because who doesn’t love a good redemption story? And who loves one more than Tyra Banks?

Banks had long established her brand as someone who was invested in bettering the lives of young women. In 1999, she founded a camp for girls that “consisted of a self-esteem building program that addressed battling gender stereotypes, elevating body and beauty love, and creating a sisterhood of trust.” In 2008, she told the New York Times Magazine about the doors that had been slammed in her face and the adversity she’d faced as a model before retiring in 2005. She’s always been focused on pulling herself up by the bootstraps — a person who would eventually yell at Richardson in that infamous April 2005 episode, “You don’t know where the hell I come from. You have no idea what I’ve been through. But I’m not a victim. I grow from it, and I learn.”

Banks, whose representative did not respond to multiple requests to set up an interview for or comment on this story, often used her life as a rubric for other models to follow, especially the ones she handpicked and groomed on America’s Next Top Model — and Richardson was certainly an example of that.

When production on America’s Next Top Model Cycle 4 began, cameras filmed the contestants for about 20 to 22 hours a day, according to former production crew members. Most mornings, the models would wake up around 6 a.m. and head to a photo shoot or a challenge, which would take at least 12 hours. Then, a few days later, the contestants would be critiqued by the judges: Janice Dickinson, the former supermodel and tell-it-like-it-is Simon Cowell type; Nigel Barker, the experienced and “noted,” as Banks would say, fashion photographer; Nolé Marin, the on-set stylist, who also served as a judge; and, of course, smize and tooch inventor Banks.

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