Tyra Banks Discovers Inspiring Stories In Her Family’s Past

29 December 2014
Photo by ruffrootcreative

Tyra Banks is known for being a top supermodel, a successful talk-show host, and the co-creator and host of America’s Next Top Model. But when she delved into her ancestry on a recent episode of the show, she discovered she’s not the first in her family to make her own tracks.

On ANTM this season, Tyra said that while she’s proud of what she’s achieved as a black woman in the industry, she’s always been “super curious as to what else is running through my veins.” In addition to taking the AncestryDNA test on the show — which revealed that she’s 79 percent African, 14 percent British, and 6 percent Native American — Banks asked Ancestry’s ProGenealogists to look into her family history.

By searching through records of births, deaths, military service and other documents, they discovered at least two men in Tyra’s past who made their own mark in the world.

Ken Chahine of AncestryDNA sat down with Tyra and told her about her 4x great-grandfather James Chesley, who enlisted with the U.S. Colored Troops and fought in the Civil War. “He was shot not once, but twice, and guess what he did when he recovered? He went back and fought some more,” Chahine told Banks. She also comes from a long line of “go-getters,” including her great-great-grandfather Walter Taylor, who went from being a simple laborer on the railroad to “owning his own farm free and clear,” Chahine revealed.

“People have been asking me my entire life, what’s my family history?” Banks explained. “I don’t know. I’m a black woman who was born in America, and that’s all I know.” Finding out things she never knew about the struggles and successes of her own ancestors left Banks feeling “connected to my past” in a way she hadn’t been before.

Born in Inglewood, California, to medical photographer Carolyn London and computer consultant Don Banks, Tyra was an awkward “ugly duckling” (by her own recollection) whose growth spurt at age 11 eventually led her to a brilliant career in modeling. She was the first black woman to grace the covers of GQ, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Not content with just posing in front of the cameras, she’s become an influential TV producer, host, and even a novelist.

Want to find out more about your own family history? It’s simple. Get started with a free trial on Ancestry.com, enter the information you already know about your ancestors, and we’ll help you with the rest. Or get your own AncestryDNA test and discover your own ethnicity and family history today.


—Sabrina Rojas Weiss