Tyra Banks is a fascinating and iconic figure: a model, talk show host, and entrepreneur allegedly worth $90 million dollars. A woman who may or may not have gone to Harvard Business School. A woman with her own emojis (TyTyMojis), a YA novel, a MLM-esque makeup line, a short-lived music career—a woman of many skills, talents, and side hustles, none of which seem to make any cohesive sense.
Unsurprisingly, Tyra Banks has had a remarkably busy quarantine. As new generations have discovered America’s Next Top Model on streaming platforms, the show’s more uncomfortable moments have recently gone viral—like contestants being forced to participate in various blackface-centric photoshoots and forced to fix their flaws against their will—all of which forced Tyra to issue an apology. Last September, Tyra took on a new gig as the host of Dancing with the Stars, a move she claims bumped the show’s ratings up 38 percent. Not to mention architecting ModelLand, her planned model-themed amusement park in Los Angeles, described as a “fantastical world” where anyone can pay to live out their “ultimate modeling fantasy.” COVID forced ModelLand to postpone its May 2020 opening date, a devastation to which Tyra responded with a heartbreaking spoken word poem. But her latest and perhaps most significant quarantine project? Tyra’s very own ice cream company, Smize Cream, announced last June on Instagram.
For those unfamiliar, the term “Smize” is a portmanteau (invented by Tyra, natch) of the words “smile” and “eyes,” to refer to the act of “smiling with your eyes.” It’s a bankable phrase that has become an integral part of Tyra’s brand, a term Tyra has shouted at ANTM contestants, milked in instructional internet videos and referring to on daytime talk shows for years. Tyra, ever the businesswoman and wordsmith, must have realized that “Smize Cream” kind of rhymes with “ice cream,” and a sweaty half-rhyme is as good a reason as any to start an entire ice cream brand!
In her announcement post, Tyra self identifies “as an avid entrepreneur” who’s “always wanted to create an ice cream company with amazing flavors,” and points to an early fall release date. She alludes to what makes Smize Cream different from other ice creams, touting its “sweet savory and scrumptious” flavors and referring to something called a “Smize surprize” (more on that later).
As a fellow multihyphenate entrepreneurial woman from the entertainment industry with no formal culinary experience who started a food company during the pandemic (check out my sustainable tinned fish brand Fishwife here), I felt particularly drawn to Tyra’s Smize Cream project. I swiftly followed the Smize Cream Instagram account, excited to learn more. Little did I know that smashing follow on @SmizeCream would be the first step into my dark descent into Smize Cream-induced madness, sparking an obsession that has consumed me and whatever remains of my sanity.
Smize Cream has had a…confusing rollout. For a while there, it felt impossible to understand what Smize Cream actually was. Was it a store? Would the pints be available to purchase at the grocery store? I had no idea.
For much of last year, instead of communicating any helpful information about the product, the Smize Cream social media presence was a cacophonous, confusing maelstrom of riddles and clues.
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Instead of launch dates, there were stock photos of random babies. Instead of flavor announcements, there were photos of Pinterest-esque neon signs, and posts that asked complicated and invasive questions like, “If you could wear your favorite flavor as a fashion fit what would it be,” and demands like, “Share this post if ice cream has made a positive impact on your life.” Peak insanity was achieved with this post trying to explain the etymology of the term whipped cream, a term whose definition we can all agree is remarkably self evident?
The Smize Cream Instagram started to resemble an Angelfire message board for ice cream addicts rather than a social media page for a food company. And needless to say, I couldn’t look away. My friends and I spent the summer obsessively sending confusing posts back and forth to each other. It became a comforting and much-needed source of enjoyment during quarantine.
The fall launch date came and went with barely any explanation. Instead, Smize Cream doubled down on the chaos, and introduced a cast of inexplicable characters that had no seeming connection to ice cream. The spokesperson for Smize Cream was, confusingly enough, not Tyra herself but an elderly woman named DJ Splitz, billed as “the world’s coolest grandma,” a fictional animated character who’s purported to be cofounder and head chief of Smize Cream. DJ Splitz is specific enough that you’d imagine she’s based on a real person (a sexagenarian female DJ!), but she’s entirely invented, and possibly a figment of Tyra’s imagination. It comes as no surprise that she has her own Instagram and elaborate backstory (loves EDM, has a daughter named LeeLee and a grandson named Lil Y, her favorite shows to binge are Real Housewives of Atlanta and Cobra Kai…). It’s a lot info for a fictional elderly spokeswoman.
Naturally, Tyra herself leaves effusive comments on DJ Splitz’s Instagram that further the narrative that they’re business partners, like this one: “As I look at your warm and loving eyes, I can truly feel the love you have for people. You are so selfless and give so much of yourself. It’s beautiful. I’ve read the advice you are giving people on this post and it’s so loving and real. I’m so happy to be your business partner.” My brain is shattering trying to understand the the fictional multiverse that is the Smize Cream universe. To add insult to injury, Smize Cream/DJSplitz even announced a theme song that would be recorded by the man behind the “Cha Cha Slide,” DJ Casper, a theme song that I have not been able to find anywhere.
Tyra is an icon, a champion of beauty inclusivity, a woman of color who has opened doors for Black and brown girls in the modeling industry and beyond. But, as aptly pointed out by Tracy Clayton and Josh Gwynn, hosts of the wonderful podcast Back Issue, Tyra is also a “stunt queen with good intentions.” Smize Cream embodies the extra-ness that is Tyra, and provides a portal into her gleefully un-self-aware existence.
Tyra’s stunt queen antics are legendary: in order to draw attention to the struggle of obesity, she Klump cosplayed in a fatsuit on her talk show. While Top Model purported to embody Tyra’s vision of inclusivity in the beauty industry, its message was often obscured by moments that now seem deeply problematic. Tyra’s intention with Smize Cream may have been to bring joy to the world through ice cream, yet its message is hidden under layers of full-blown chaos.
At long last, Smize Cream’s arrival was announced in February 2021 via a series of short films and spoken-word poems. I preordered the only flavor available at the time, “Best Vanilla I’ve Ever Had,” which is a deeply bold claim you simply have to respect. A friend and I braved 45 minutes of crosstown rush-hour traffic, with absolutely no idea what to expect. All we had was a cryptic confirmation email that had shady drug deal energy, telling us to walk into an outdoor Santa Monica mall and follow these instructions: “You’ll see the cutest BIG yellow construction digger at our CONE-struction site. We call him Mister Diggie. Then Spot the ‘Smize Cream Squad’ pickup sign to skip the line and get your Smize Cream!”
I was flabbergasted at the introduction of yet another player in the ever-expanding Smize Cream universe, “Mister Diggie,” a bright yellow backhoe with absolutely zero anthropomorphized features, a metaphor meant to symbolize the “digging” you do to get to the “Smize surprize.”
We passed the ModelLand husk that has sat completely empty in the Santa Monica Mall for nearly a year, and happened upon the Smize Cream stand. As promised, “Mister Diggie” was a helpful landmark. There was even a step and repeat that no one seemed to use. I asked a Smize Cream employee to explain why the backhoe had a name and backstory even though it was, seemingly, an inanimate object, a question that they were not able to answer. I also asked the employees to explain why Tyra wasn’t the face of Smize Cream, but DJ Splitz was. Their explanation left a lot to be desired: “DJ Splitz is a fictional character, except she’s kind of based on Tyra’s mom.”
As for the ice cream, was it the best vanilla I’ve ever had? I’m not sure. It wasn’t even a full pint, which felt like a slap in the face after months of anticipation. The proprietary “Smize surprize,” a white chocolate covered cookie dough nugget at the bottom of the ice cream, made me feel like a truffle pig digging for a wet, fossilized rock.
After finishing half a pint, I felt a profound comedown. Two hours of my life were gone and so were nine dollars. My friend and I were speechless, disgusted with ourselves, our hands and mouths covered in ice cream as we stood at a planter outside of a Bloomingdale’s because, at that point in the pandemic, Smize Cream didn’t provide napkins or outdoor seating. My months-long obsession following the Smize Cream saga had come to an end and all I had was some wet cookie dough to show for it.
But I realized something—maybe Smize Cream wasn’t about the ice cream at all. Maybe the Smize Surprise hidden at the bottom of that container wasn’t just cookie dough, but what I’d discovered about myself along the way. By embarking on that chaotic journey, I’d channeled a little bit of Tyra—and that knowledge couldn’t help but make me smize.
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