America's Next Top Model: Cycle 5

Roger Holland

It's easy (and obligatory) to poke fun at America's Next Top Model, but important to remember that it represents the televisual tip of a gazillion dollar industry iceberg.

America's Next Top Model

Airtime: Wednesdays, 8pm ET/PT
Cast: Tyra Banks
Subtitle: Cycle 5
Network: UPN

For the fifth series of the global village gossip fest that is America's Next Top Model, the very best brains at the Tyra Banks' Center For Global Domination and Fierceness have made a few changes.

First, they've reshuffled the judging panel. Inevitably, the glorious Janice Dickinson is out like acid wash jeans and, adding insult to injury, she's been replaced by the charismatic black hole that is Twiggy. Presumably the New Oprah(TM) will find La Twig's desperate niceness, faux-cockernee charm and antique British cultural references less threatening than Dickinson, even on her best behaviour. Hands up if you've even heard of British comedian Dick Emery? His show was off the air before any of this season's aspirant models were born, but his catchphrase is the most contemporary contribution Twiggy has to offer the first three episodes of America's Next Top Model. And, almost unnoticed, top fashion gnome Nolé Marin has gone back to Zurich, to be replaced by the curious and multi-talented J Alexander, runway coach to the stars and restaurateur to the prime rib lovers of America.

Next, after four seasons of unrestrained fierceness, they've found a new catchword for Tyra. And finally, with all the cold-hearted calculation of the ecclesiastical calendar, they've drafted in A Lesbian. Just watch those ratings soar.

Tyra's brave new word is "edgy". It is now no longer enough for a model to be "fierce"; she also has to be "edgy". This means we already know who's going to win this series of America's Next Top Model. It's going to be Lisa, a 24-year-old assistant wardrobe stylist from Los Angeles, who is so fierce she scares the shit out of grizzly bears, and whose face is so full of angles there can be none more edgy.

As usual, the first hour of this season's two-hour premiere was used to reduce a pool of 36 semi-finalists to 13. A standout (and not in a good way) among the non-finalists, Krystle said she wanted to be a supermodel so she could save the world, and all the ickle children. But New Oprah(TM) knows that fashion is all about materialism, and that Krystle was wearing enough designer labels and bling to feed an Ethiopian village for a fortnight. With the Third World cheering her on, Ms. Banks invited Krystle to talk about her last community service. Following a Pinter-esque pause, Krystle was history.

This being reality TV, we know the girls we see most during this first hour are the ones we will be seeing in Episode Two. These included Cassandra, a 19-year-old student and pageant princess from Houston; Bre, a 19-year-old student from Harlem; and 21-year-old Niki, an office coordinator from Atlanta, who said, "I'm not here to win this competition. I am this competition." We can only hope Lisa didn't hear her say that.

The completely stunning Kyle is a Dairy Queen from Dexter, Michigan; Jayla, age 20, is probably the world's worst Jehovah's Witness ("I'm a fornicator, I'm a smoker, I curse like a sailor, and I don't go to church. But I still believe"); and 23-year-old Diane is this season's plus-size model. Given the judges' past performance, we can expect Kyle to place second. Jayla will do well, despite a makeover that made her look like a cross between the girl from The Ring and Ashlee Simpson. And Diane will leave the series roughly halfway through, once she's afforded New Oprah(TM) enough opportunities to wax lyrical about Diane's beautiful body and declare that modeling is not all about skinny-ass bitches on crack. Diane will then return to her life as a criminal defense investigator in Orlando, and Kate Moss will still be getting pizzaid.

The puckishly cute and smart Kim represents Tyra's second innovation this season: lesbians. Kim is out and proud. Consequently, we will see plenty of Kim right up until the moment the Covergirl representative decides the company doesn't really want a boyish lesbian model hawking its wares. At least, not an openly lesbian model. For her part, Kim has a thing for blondes. During Episode Three, the makeover show, she was utterly captivated by Cassandra, whose long, dark, traditional pageant girl locks were chopped and bleached into a style that was supposed to resemble early Mia Farrow.

Sarah, 18, is also blonde. She's already worked out that her Angelina Jolie lips and undeniable good looks will not distract the judges from the fact that she is to modeling what David Boreanaz is to acting. Sarah has trouble walking in flats, let alone rocking a runway groove. So she has a strategy for survival, and it's called giving the punters what they want: Models Gone Wild.

Early on, when a group of contestants were talking to Kim about her sexuality, Sarah offered, "I'll make out with Kim," and later commented that although she'd never even met a lesbian before, she'd be open to anything. And sure enough, at the first opportunity, acting on the pretext that Kim had called her "beautiful", Sarah dove across a limousine full of startled models and started chewing Kim's face off for the benefit of the cameras. It was hard to see what Kim thought of the experience when she was finally allowed up for air, but after a few deep breaths, she reframed the entire adventure: "One down. Eleven to go." I could say it will be "interesting" to see how the producers play this angle out, but who would I be kidding?

It's easy (and obligatory) to poke fun at America's Next Top Model, but important to remember that it represents the televisual tip of a gazillion dollar industry iceberg. Beneath the gossip, bitchiness, and narcissism, beyond the chillingly determined ambitions of the New Oprah(TM), and Lisa, there lurk some very big issues and questions. I'm going to leave you with just one of them. If Twiggy is such an ardent supporter of animal rights and welfare, and an anti-fur campaigner to boot, then how can she reconcile her beliefs with her appearance on a show that is little more than an hour long commercial for Proctor & Gamble's Covergirl -- a company that still tests on animals?





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