Tonya Renee Banks says she grew up in an average-sized house with an average family in Carson. She was born to Herbert Lee Banks and Phyllis Harriet Peace at Harbor UCLA General Hospital. She graduated from Banning High School and went on to Harbor College in Harbor City.
But her fingerprint and the entrepreneurial path she forged from there can only be described as well above average.
The star of Lifetime TV’s Little Women L.A. and its franchise, Banks has created her own athletic clothing line called Boss Body and, most recently, a high-end blend of red wine, L’Tonya Renee. Inspired by her mother, who died in 2000, the wine is a blend of 48 percent merlot, 32 percent syrah and 23 percent zinfandel; it's produced by Longevity Wines in Livermore.
“I really didn’t start drinking wine until 2011,” Banks tells L.A. Weekly as she leans back into a booth at the Lavender Blue Club in Inglewood. “I started off with a sweet blend. I’m going to do a moscato, too, but wanted to start off with a red first because my mom loved red wine.”
Marcia Jones of Urban Connoisseurs, a collective of about 70 black vintners in the United States and abroad, introduced Banks to Phil Long of Longevity Wines. Even though Banks has just started her wine business, Jones says she's already made an impact on the community.
“The wine industry is a very white male–dominated industry,” Jones says. “Selling wine is not that easy. Gallo owns about 300 brands in the retail space. Tanya wanted her wine to be made by an African-American. She is the only celebrity who has chosen an award-winning black winemaker.”
After six months of tasting and mixing, Banks came up with a smooth red blend that’s not really sweet, but it isn’t too dry either.
“Tanya was looking for something with a little residual sugar to leave a sweetness on the palate,” Long, who grew up in Inglewood, explains of working through the process with Banks. “That led me to using a zin blend and the other two varietals to help balance it out. Then it was just about working out the proportions. She’s a perfectionist but quite delightful to work with.”
“I also have an activewear line,” Banks says. “The activewear you use to work out and the wine you use to wind down. They kind of go together — good for the blood and good for the soul.”
Bank attributes her entrepreneur’s spirit to her dad. “I lost my father at the age of 13, just as I was entering middle school,” Banks says. “I was a daddy’s girl and he was an entrepreneur who built businesses and sold them for profit. I’m just like him — business is in my blood.”
Banks is the only little person in her family on either side. She says she was treated equally to her sisters, who were average-sized. Phyllis Harriet taught Tonya from an early age that the world wasn’t going to conform to her; she had to conform to the world and adapt.
“My mother was a real strong woman who had three daughters and raised us all to be strong, independent women,” Banks tells L.A. Weekly. “She made no allowances for my height. I used to climb up and get up whatever I needed, I didn’t have a special stool. I’d just pull over a chair to cook or wash dishes.”
Banks says that Little Women of L.A. has become an important platform to educate people and answer questions: “'Girl, do we only have little children? Do we date only little people? Do we live in a little community? Do you have a little house? How do we have sex with average-sized people?' We’re the same size lying down and the answers to all the other questions is no,” she says.
“I’ve never dated a little person in my entire life. Not by so much of a choice but that’s just how it happened,” Banks says. “You can’t control where your heart goes.”
It was that determination that made Banks fearless and able to tackle any challenge she was up for, a trait she passed along to her daughter, Angelique, who has a master's degree in social work and is a behavioral therapist for autistic children and old enough to enjoy a glass of L’Tonya Renee.
“I was determined that she be an asset to society,” says Banks, who raised Angelique as a single mom.
The label on her red blend pretty much sums up the Banks brand: “Built on Self Success.”
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