“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.
“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.
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."
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
According to Cycle 4 contestants, the judging room was located in another area of the Top Model house where they would assemble for that week's critiques. One by one, each model would walk down a runway-like plank to find out how she performed that week. Her photos would be displayed on a giant screen for everyone to see, and her critiques would be said for everyone to hear. By the time everyone received their feedback, the women had been standing for hours; sometimes they would need to take a break, eat, and then come back in for more critiques. “We’d get picked apart for like 15, 20 minutes each," Richardson recalled. "If you say something back, you’re going to be up there for a minute — and sometimes they’d be going at it, like roasting the fuck out of us. Back to back to back.”
After they received their feedback, they'd then be sent out of the room to let the judges deliberate, a process that took six to eight hours in its entirety. Eventually, the contestants would stand before the judges again and Banks would call each "safe" woman by name until there were only two left standing, one of whom would be eliminated.
The schedule would leave the women physically and mentally exhausted, on top of being largely separated from the world outside of Top Model.
“It’s not quite like Big Brother, where they strip them of everything,” said Cocks. The contestants weren’t “getting a lot of pop culture, but they were aware of stuff,” she explained, because they’d walk around LA during challenges and shoots.
Richardson struggled to settle into her new reality. “I was there but I wasn’t there. It was so different for me,” she said. “I don’t know anything about designer clothes, and it was kinda like I had to try to fit in and figure it out. Even with makeup, I felt really out of place.”
“We were all out of our comfort zone,” said Cycle 4 contestant Brittany Brower. But Richardson, she noted, "even more so." "I remember we went and had sushi one night and she’d never had sushi. She thought it was, like, crazy … so she was just feeling really alienated.”
On top of feeling like an outsider, Richardson was getting feedback about her photos looking "a little stripper-ish," according to guest judge Mathu Andersen, who was the contestants’ makeup artist. And in the episode in which Richardson was famously sent home, she struggled through a challenge where the contestants were tasked with memorizing a short script and performing it using a cockney English accent. It was yet another blow to Richardson's confidence when the women were instructed to read designer names from a teleprompter for a mini red carpet challenge during judging. Many of the models had trouble with names like Hermès and Christian Lacroix, but Richardson gave up after fumbling over words. “I can’t do this,” she said. “Tiffany, the other girls did not know these words,” Banks said softly, with the other judges backing her up. “If you don’t do this, you’re going to go home.”
"Tiffany was humiliated by a lot of the stuff that was going on in the show," Cycle 4 contestant Keenyah Hill told BuzzFeed News. "She felt alienated and she felt targeted a lot."
With the pressure of the competition getting to her, Richardson was at a crossroads: Continue to bear the blows — critiques from judges, draining challenges and photo shoots, etc. — or simply give up and go home. “Every time I did something wrong, I’d shut down a little bit more, and it just got to the point where I was over it. I felt like we were just there to be humiliated," Richardson said. "It was like, 'What the fuck [else] could we do to them?'”
Richardson said her issue wasn’t exactly with the harshness of the critiques, it was more that she felt they weren't at all constructive. “I don’t really care if you go in hard on me — go in on me, but help me,” she said. “Going in, we thought we were going to get modeling help.” Richardson said she thought the judges would’ve been more “sincere” in developing the women into models, but instead she felt like the contestants were only ridiculed from week to week.
Cocks, who worked on Top Model starting in Cycle 2, said Cycle 4 was probably when Banks was most helpful to the contestants, because the season filmed around the same time she was beginning her brand-new talk show. According to Cocks, Banks was even more nurturing to the contestants in order to set the tone for the talk show, which was built on the pristine image she’d spent years crafting.
Marin told BuzzFeed News he wished he had more time to talk to the models about the comments he’d make as a judge. “I feel like some of the girls feel like things I said came out of nowhere,” he said. According to Marin, the judges "were quarantined to not really deal with the girls.” Both Richardson and Epley said there was minimal interaction with the judges, except during judging. According to Cocks, that was largely for proprietary reasons, in an attempt to keep judges and contestants from forming relationships and biases from coming into play at judging.
Ultimately, Barker said, the critiques in the actual world of modeling would be harsher than what the Top Model judges had to say. “A big part of it was surviving the pressure of week after week. Can you handle it ... regardless of whether you’re the prettiest and you’ve done really well so far throughout the show?" he said. "The business is ruthless and relentless, and if you can’t stay with it and handle it, then it’s going to bite you up and spit you out.”
After weeks of judging, challenges, and photo shoots, Richardson had particularly struggled throughout that ill-fated week, and she was hardly confident going into the elimination. “I didn’t think it was gonna be me, because I was up against Rebecca, cute little white girl,” Richardson said. But she also didn't think it'd be a double elimination, or that Banks would disclose deeply personal information about Richardson’s less-than-perfect life back home in Florida. "You’ve been through anger management," Banks screamed once things escalated. "You’ve been through your grandmother getting her lights turned off to buy you a swimsuit for this competition." But that was only what viewers saw.
According to Richardson, the argument was “1,000 times worse" in reality. She was hesitant to elaborate, but when pressed for more details, Richardson said she recalled Banks yelling at her, “You can go back to your house and sleep on your mattress on the floor with your baby,” in front of the other judges, contestants, and crew members. Richardson wouldn’t reveal further information about what may have been edited out of Banks’s tirade, but that particular comment, she said, “stayed in the back of my mind." Cocks said that though she wasn’t there during the elimination, she was heavily involved in the editing process, and she couldn’t remember Banks saying that in any of the transcripts. She did, however, confirm that the tirade was trimmed, mainly due to time constraints.
As Richardson left the judging room to pack up her things, she remembers yelling “fuck Tyra” and “fuck Top Model.” In the episode, the cameras continued to roll as Richardson and Epley packed their bags. During a quick exit interview, in which she wore the same long black slip dress she wore during the elimination, Richardson said, “I’m not finna break down for you or nobody else. You ain’t did shit for me but bring me here and put me through hell these weeks.”
Epley didn’t remember the “entire wrath of Tyra,” but she said it seemed like Banks “went above and beyond to break Tiffany down.” Brower agreed, saying more bluntly, "It was definitely harsh … almost like Tyra wanted her to be devastated when she got eliminated, and when Tiffany was not acting that way, it’s like she just lost it. … There was a lot more anger there, especially in the beginning.” Hill said she remembered that "financially [Richardson] and her family, they weren’t doing really well at the time." She added that Richardson had a "lackadaisical" attitude. "She made it seem like she was unbothered, unaffected, did not care," according to Hill. "And Tiffany’s my girl, but in that moment, I could definitely see where Tyra was coming from. She had some truth to what she was saying, but [Banks] probably did go in.”
While it may have been a case of extreme tough love, that’s not how Richardson felt about it. “Why are you yelling at me, because I’m grown as fuck,” Richardson recalled thinking as Banks got heated. “It was just, like, bullshit. It was so over-the-top for no reason.” In Richardson's view, Banks “needed them ratings to go up or something."
The producer and three judges (Marin, Barker, and Dickinson) who spoke to BuzzFeed News all noted that the blowup was a deviation from how Banks normally interacted with the contestants, but some said it came from a place of Banks wanting Richardson to succeed. Barker called the moment “shell-shocking,” but said there was “never anything vitriolic about it, ever.” “It was much more maternal than anything else,” he said.
After Richardson and Epley packed their bags, they were sent to a hotel room, where they stayed for the next few days. During production on Top Model, contestants didn’t actually go straight home. They were essentially sequestered for almost 24 hours a day in hotel rooms, only able to leave to get food. Cocks told BuzzFeed News the goal was to prevent the public from finding out which contestant was eliminated and when. These contestants were referred to as “bogies,” a play on the word “bogus.” Producers also didn't want eliminated contestants — at least in the early days of the show — to know who was eliminated after them.
Cocks told BuzzFeed News that producers did another exit interview with Richardson as a way of “buttoning up” her storyline. According to Cocks's recollection of the decision, Banks "basically drove that train.” The concern was that the story was essentially “unfinished” without showing that Banks and Richardson had made amends.
So Banks, along with her mother, Carolyn London, visited Richardson while she was in her hotel room, which Epley confirmed, though she wasn’t present for the conversation. Richardson said that the contestants had met London earlier in the competition and that she loved how “warm her spirit was” because it reminded Richardson of her grandmother. In hindsight, Richardson saw London's presence in her hotel room as a way for Banks and the producers to make her feel more comfortable for the closing interview they had planned. According to Richardson, Banks recognized that they had a “moment,” said she saw a lot of herself in Richardson, and said she would continue to act as her mentor. “You would think that if you cared that much, you would’ve been there more," Richardson said. "I didn’t think she cared. I don’t think she gave a fuck about none of us, except for the ones who made it big. But hey, it is what it is.”
Richardson said the second exit interview was conducted just a few minutes after Banks and her mother left her hotel room. Richardson sported a bright pink tube top, dangling earrings, and a black baseball cap that covered her hair, making it obvious that the interview wasn’t from the same night as the elimination, where Richardson wore the black getup. She seemed happier and more hopeful in that footage because she’d been “juiced up,” as she said, in a sense, by Banks. "Part of me did give up. I was being very disrespectful," Richardson's voice is heard saying in the episode as she's shown, in that black elimination night dress, packing up her suitcase. Then, the camera cuts to Richardson in her pink tube top saying, "Tyra really did care about me, her yelling at me. I have the utmost respect for her, 'cause she could've easily said, 'OK, whatever.' And, you know, 'Bye.' That showed me that she saw deeply into me and she cared about me.
"And that's cool knowing that, you know, Tyra cares about you," Richardson said with a smile across her face, as the camera faded to her in that black dress again, rolling her suitcase out of the Top Model house.
Once Richardson was back in Florida, she said Banks, as well as her assistant, contacted her “maybe three or four times” via phone in the months leading up to the airing of her infamous elimination episode, aptly titled “The Girl Who Pushes Tyra Over the Edge.” She said that Banks would ask her how she was doing, but that the conversations were superficial.
Cocks, who had recently been promoted to overseeing the story department on Cycle 4, said Banks was in full support of using the footage in the final episode. “Tyra always understood the power of story,” she said. In the editing process, according to Cocks, "one of the story producers pulled back on a bunch of it because I think she was concerned it made Tyra look aggressive and angry.” But Banks, Cocks said, "really wanted it [in the show]. She really believed in it.” "That was borne out of love and worry for this person," Cocks said, referring to Richardson. "Ultimately, only Tyra knows why she wanted it in the show.”
In 2012, Banks dramatically acted out a portion of the well-known scene during Cycle 19, and in 2015, she referenced the classic moment while live-tweeting Cycle 22 of the show. The now-retired supermodel also went the Kardashian route in January 2017, opting to capitalize on the constantly quoted moment by turning it — as well as a few of her other catchphrases — into an emoji as part of her TyTyMoji collection. But other than that, Banks hasn’t said much on the subject.
After watching the episode — and with a decade having passed — Richardson said she understands that it made for good TV. “It was deep, it was passionate…the music’s going, Tyra’s beautiful self yelling [at the] poor little black girl," she said. "It was beautiful for TV. They love to see black girls struggling and somebody coming to save her … and that just didn’t work out that way this time.”
Richardson said one of her last interactions with Banks was when Hill came down to Miami in the months after filming had wrapped on Cycle 4 and Banks just happened to call as the former contestants stayed in a hotel for a weekend, planning to scout agencies. She said Banks offered them advice on how to dress while they were looking for a potential agency, which Richardson said she appreciated.
In September 2005, Banks invited Richardson onto The Tyra Banks Show for a Top Model reunion special, but it was during a second visit to Banks’s talk show in January 2006 for a tell-all episode when Richardson felt like their relationship was over. (Telepictures was unable to provide BuzzFeed News with a review copy of the Tyra Banks Show episode in question.) In the interview, Richardson said, she opened up about her issues with Banks, saying Banks always focused on the negatives in her life. After the taping, Richardson’s grandmother wrote a letter to Banks, calling the talk show host out for always portraying Richardson in a bad light, and sent it to The Tyra Banks Show. Richardson couldn’t confirm if Banks herself ever received the letter, but she said she never heard from her again.
These days, Richardson said, she rarely thinks about Banks. “I’m a completely different person,” she said. “She don’t owe me nothing, I’m good.” Richardson described her relationship with the show as “love-hate.” “If I would’ve took advantage of the situation, it was worth it … but I knew nothing about [modeling]," she said. "I was just like in a whole new world ... I was young and crazy, I didn’t get it.”
Richardson’s son, Chaddrick, whom she frequently talked about on Top Model, is now 14 years old. She has also since had a daughter named Chaz, who’s 9. She works a normal 9-to-5 job at a group home in Miami assisting people with mental disabilities. “It’s pretty cool, though, I’m not complaining about it,” she said. But, she said multiple times, she’s “famous-broke," in that her notoriety reaps no financial benefits. “Every fucking day somebody is coming up to me about this show and how I could’ve won and Tyra said this and it’s like, really? It’s been 10 years. Could y’all not?” she said.
While the in-person interactions have worn on her, the persistence of the moment online doesn't get to Richardson. “Oh, I don’t give a fuck, people are gonna laugh anyway,” she said. “People ain’t shit. Humans are not shit, okay? They’re gonna laugh, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t bother me.”
Today Richardson does occasionally find time to work with a local photographer, but modeling isn't something she's prioritizing. “I’ve been doing a couple of different photo shoots, and it’s like a learning process too,” she said happily, noting she has gone to some networking events. “And then I’m just getting my body fit … but I work, I live in the real world.”
Although she’s kept her tough-as-nails personality, she doesn’t look back on the show with ill feelings. "I still didn’t take advantage of the situation like I should’ve, but you know, you live and you learn," she said. "I can’t regret that, because it made me who I am right now. And I needed all of that.” ●