[27 February 2007]
On the two-hour eighth season premiere of America’s Next Top Model, Tyra and her tastemakers again set out to mold one of the hopefuls into a runway success. They start with a trip to “model boot camp.” The girls’ collective positive attitude is adorable, yet another rendition of the hope that comes at the beginning of every season of every reality show. In her head, each girl is already the next top model.
Yet again, 13 pretty, petty girls are crammed into a house and allowed to “duke it out” for a chance to be the next Cindy, Giselle or Tyra. But modeling is different from other sorts of performing. On American Idol, participants can make huge strides if they attend to the advice of their vocal coaches and the judges. Modeling, on the other hand, is all about the look and the attitude. You can make minor changes to a woman’s walk or her facial expression, but the camera offers harsh judgment. It doesn’t help that none of the girls on Top Model is ever exceptionally beautiful. When they stand next to Tyra, it’s like watching LeBron play basketball in high school. No winners from the previous seven seasons have gone anywhere in modeling. They can’t hold Tyra’s jock strap.
This season’s victor will be no different. She’ll get a spread in some obscure magazine looking for the free publicity, then disappear. At least the winners of other reality shows have a chance to succeed. Top Models have a legacy of failure, and from the outset of this season’s premier, you’re reminded why.
First, the judges—Banks, Nigel Baker and J. Alexander—appear to be the nicest people alive. In the season premiere, they don’t say an unflattering thing about any of the contestants, even behind their backs. One girl has “a beautiful smile,” another “stunning eyes.” The judges refrain from destroying the girls’ self-esteem, instead gushing about any body part that could be considered model-worthy. Watching this unrelenting flattery is painful. We’re talking about fashion, people: get mean. Tell a girl she’s too fat, too ugly, too ungainly. Take out the Sharpies and circle some excess flab. It’s all in the name of “personal development.”
The models seem to think that personality plays an important part in winning the competition. In the first three minutes of the show, two of them tell the camera they are going to win because “I have a great personality.” Spare me. On the runway, no one cares if you’re bubbly or willing to help a friend through a tough time. We only care how you look. Judging by the expressionless faces of girls on the catwalk, having a “great personality” is actually a negative. Models need to show up and look great. Nothing more. These Top Model aspirants will do the first part (smiling the whole time!), but without the second, they are worthless.
While models exist to make clothes beautiful, the rest be damned, the fashion industry itself is beginning to show a little conscience, and Top Model is on top of this trend. In September, Madrid Fashion Week banned models who were “too skinny,” pushing the debate about too-thin models into the international spotlight. Cycle Eight sees a focus on plus-sized models, who receive ample air-time to elucidate upon the difficulties of being a bigger girl in a world of stick-thin beauties. One tells Tyra that she has “no doubt that a plus-size model can walk the runway with Naomi Campbell.” Pretty to think so, but that will never happen. Plus-sized models will always be second-, or even third-class citizens.
Coincidentally, in recent weeks, Tyra herself has come under fire for gaining weight. In response to some unflattering pictures of her printed in the tabloids, she told People that she weighs about 30 pounds more (around 160) than she did when she was a model. She also admitted that TV execs “think it’s better when I’m at 155 lbs. At 145, they feel I’m not as relatable.” Sorry, Tyra, the producers can try to make you into a normal person, but even 30 pounds over your fighting weight, your beauty makes the 13 women dying to be you look like Cinderella’s stepsisters. Cycle Eight isn’t about skinny models vs. plus-size models, blondes vs. the brunettes, or Caucasians vs. African Americans. It’s about Banks vs. the world, and we already know who’s going to win.