There’s a heck of a lot of young girls at home looking at a picture and going, “I could never look like Tyra Banks,” and I’m going, “Put on a hair weave and three hours of makeup, and you can.”
—Tyra Banks, “America’s Next Top Model: Reliving the First Season”
Supermodel/executive producer Tyra Banks says that she created America’s Next Top Model to show that models are “human,” with flaws and insecurities like everyone else. She had in mind the girls who bombard her on the street, asking how they can become models like her. Now available on DVD, America’s Next Top Model: Cycle One shows the step-by-step process of one girl’s success. In the premiere episode, “The Girl Who Wants it So Bad,” we are introduced to 20 semifinalists who are quickly reduced to eight finalists. (The judges can’t agree on the ninth and 10th finalists, so Tyra conducts her own nationwide search to fill in the last two.) The contestants are trained by modeling bigwigs, with one girl eliminated after each photo shoot.
In America’s Next Top Model: Casting Call,” one of three featurettes here, Tyra explains that selecting finalists requires the appraising eye of high fashion experts. Unlike in American Idol, this task cannot be trusted to the public. As Executive Producer Ken Mok comments in “America’s Next Top Model: Reliving the First Season,” “There are very specific skills and very specific looks that the fashion world kind of wants that very much differs from mainstream, popular taste.” It is this aspect that sets ANTM apart from other reality TV: it offers an intriguing, troubling glimpse into an alien world.
Becoming part of this world requires relearning “skills,” like walking. In the second episode, “The Girl is Here to Win, Not Make Friends,” the contestants meet famed runway trainer J. Alexander, who proclaims, “Walk like it’s for sale and the rent is due tonight.” (The featurette, “The Two Jays,” celebrates him, as well as makeup artist/artistic director Jay Manuel.) J. personifies the modeling industry: exotic, flamboyant, sassy, and full of judgment. Appraising Giselle’s movement, he comments, “Dancers are always quite difficult to break in.”
“Broken in” is an apt description of the girls’ transformations. Though Banks asserts repeatedly that “personality” is as important as “looks”, both are largely manufactured here. The girls are advised to tone down what sets them apart: Shannon’s giant smile, Elyse’s intellect, Robin’s ultra-religiousness, Adrianne’s Chicago accent and tomboyishishness, and Ebony’s pissed-off determination. At the same time, they must always impress with their verve. Kesse is eliminated after a trip to Paris (in “The Girl Who Deals with a Pervert”) because she doesn’t “knock people dead” in person.
Indeed, according to this show, a model’s most important attribute is her willingness to go for broke. Adrianne, the eventual winner, throws herself into whatever is demanded of her, whether posing nude or dragging herself out of a hospital bed (where she’s suffering from food poisoning) to show up at judging. Like the contestants in other reality programs, the ANTM girls are hungry, even desperate to succeed. They cite money troubles, body image, and the need to impress family among their reasons for competing.
Like the WB’s new series The Starlet (which clearly draws from ANTM), the focus is pitting pretty girls against one another. Both shows require the usual social competition between girls: they are judged, and encouraged to be catty and arrogant. Unsurprisingly, many exhibit junior-high behavior, forming cliques, discussing who “deserves to leave,” and questioning one another’s dedication.
The competition on ANTM especially replicates girls’ experiences because it is so covert. Modeling is ostensibly passive: a model’s job is to be looked at, assessed, and photographed. However, ANTM shows that a successful model must be aggressive, even standing still. The contestants are encouraged to be “fierce,” which appears to translate to present, engaged, and aquiver with energy. (“Her eyes look dead,” the panelists say of unsuccessful photos.)
By the seventh episode, “The Girls Who Get Really Naked,” when Adrianne and Elyse model diamonds nude, the field is narrowed to four competitors: Elyse, Adrianne, Shannon, and Robin. (Shannon and Robin, both devout Christians, refuse to participate.) Elyse, a stick-thin “militant atheist,” and Robin, a “plus size” (at 5’ 10”, 165 pounds, she falls in the “normal” range of the body mass index) Bible thumper, provide most of the in-house drama. At 26, Robin is the oldest and acts as den mother for the Christians. “Half the house is under the control of Robin,” Elyse comments to Adrianne, and then quips, “and our half is under the control of the devil!”
Another source of controversy in the house is Elyse’s weight. At 114 pounds, she weighs less than the others by several pounds. Though an entire episode (“The Girl Everyone Thinks is Killing Herself”) is devoted to her alleged (firmly denied) eating disorder, her waifishness undeniably works in her favor. Panelist and 70’s supermodel Janice Dickinson announces “I love it” whenever Elyse’s thinness comes up, J. Alexander notes that Elyse’s body is “right for clothes,” and personal trainer Jon Silverman says, “Terrific!” when he first weighs her in. (“Am I the lightest?” Elyse asks innocently.) All this praise for being dramatically underweight underlines the moral indifference of the fashion world. Perhaps she is, as she asserts, “naturally” thin. In any case, she fits the current measure of beauty, even if it’s unhealthy.
America’s Next Top Model is intriguing, appealing, and grotesque, much like the fashion world itself. Depicting how ordinary (if remarkably tall and thin) girls become look-alike products, it draws attention to the differences between the girls “at home” and in their glossy photos. Elyse, a boyish Winona Ryder look-alike, becomes an exotic nymph before the camera; wholesome Shannon turns sultry and feline; and Adrianne, a self-professed “rock-n-roll tomboy” becomes America’s Next Top Model. You can see it in her final photo: she’s covered only by diamonds and her own hands, glistening with oil and sparkles, her hair greased back, baring little resemblance to the t-shirt and do-rag-wearing girl we met in the beginning. She’s undeniably breathtaking, but it’s hard to determine whether she’s triumphed or just been broken in.