Growing up in Inglewood, CA, Tyra Banks was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed only 110 pounds, which prompted teasing from schoolmates who called her "Ethiopian."  To this day, Banks claims one of the "lowest points" in her life was when her mom Carolyn London referred to her daughter's "skinny butt."

"She heard that and broke down," London told People magazine in its February 5 issue.  "I had no idea she felt so insecure about her physical appearance."

That insecurity is something that Banks, the creator of The CW's America's Next Top Model and host of the syndicated The Tyra Banks Show, still deals with to this day.  Banks was recently "stunned" when she saw unflattering photos of herself wearing a one-piece bathing suit on a trip to Sydney, Australia and also heard reports that claimed The CW executives had pressured her to slim down.

"It was such a strange meanness and rejoicing that people had when thinking that was what my body looked like," the 33-year-old Banks told People.  "It was really hurtful to me.  I get so much mail from young girls who say, 'I look up to you, you're not as skinny as everyone else, I think you're beautiful.'  So when they say that my body is 'ugly' and 'disgusting,' what does that make those girls feel like?"

Banks said she is currently 30 lbs. heavier than when she appeared as the first African-American cover girl for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1997, but added the weight gain doesn't hinder the advice she regularly dishes out to aspiring runway walkers on Top Model.

"You have to be thin to be a model -- I don't have to live up to that model standard anymore," Banks, who quit modeling in 2005, told People.  Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for The CW, said the network "never" asked Banks to lose weight for Top Model.  "That's totally ridiculous," Ostroff told People.  "Nobody can say [Banks] has to look a certain way to lend her experience."

But aspiring models aren't the only people Banks boosts the self-esteem of.  She set-up the TZone Foundation in 1999, which funds local non-profit organizations that serves young disadvantaged girls, and also spends a week with the teens at TZone camp.

"I see myself as being a mentor, even if just a distant one," Banks told People.  "What I tell the girls is that all the insecurities we have, we can't let those defeat us.  We've got to keep on keepin' on."

When she first began modeling in Paris at the age of 18, Banks said she was "naturally thin and never had to worry," but eventually faced criticism at the age of 20 when she became more "curvy" and designers stopped booking her due to her hips.  Trying to diet against her "natural eating habits" and knowing she was being airbrushed to fit with modeling industry standards of beauty, Banks eventually had a heart-to-heart with her mom and decided to look for jobs where her "bosom and hips were seen as an asset."  What followed was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover, a job modeling for Victoria's Secret and movie roles in Coyote Ugly and Higher Learning.

"When she walked down the [Victoria's Secret] runway, she was bigger than all the other girls, but if you asked anyone who their favorite was, it was always Tyra, because she's curvy," Banks' friend and Project Runway host Heidi Klum told People.  "She has a very womanly, gorgeous body that goes up and down."

Banks said currently, she tries to do an hour of cardiovascular exercises each day to stay fit, but added she doesn't work with a personal trainer and that her exercise is "to relax" rather than lose weight.  She also admitted to not being "the healthiest eater."

"What I eat and how I live, it all shows.  [TV executives] think it's better when I'm at 155 pounds -- at 145 pounds they feel I'm not as relatable," she told People.  "I've made millions of dollars with the body I have, so where's the pain in that?  If I was in pain, I would have dieted.  The pain is not there -- the pain is someone printing a picture of me and saying those [horrible] things."

With the eight season of America's Next Top Model scheduled to premiere on The CW on Wednesday, February 28 at 8PM ET/PT, Banks said she has "resigned herself to putting on about 5 pounds a year," something that doesn't scare her.
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"I won't be rejoicing and joyful, thinking I'm the most hot thing in the world," she told People.  "But is it going to kill me and be the end of the world?  No."