'America's Next Top Model': Still Worth Watching
by Stephanie Earp, posted Feb 22nd 2011 2:00PM
It is a universally-acknowledged truth that Tyra Banks is crazy -- certainly by those of us who watch 'America's Next Top Model.' It is a truth universally mentioned by the people we live with and who are forced sometimes to watch it with us, that it's a pretty stupid show.
There really isn't a criticism I can level at the show that hasn't been covered, ad infinitum, by other critics, and even by me in previous columns. Tyra is a diva. The challenges are cruel. It's probably rigged.
And yet, the show continues to appeal -- on a fairly serious level -- to those of us interested in fashion, in television and in feminism.
I've always been amazed and admiring of the sheer wattage of some of the talent on 'Top Model' -- Janice Dickinson, Paulina Porizkova, Twiggy, André Leon Talley -- and impressed by how absolutely queer-positive the show has been on some levels. I can't think of another show (reality or not) where the sexuality, no matter how flamboyant, of the character, actor or real person is less commented on. The show tells these girls -- and the ones watching them at home -- that these are the faces of the fashion industry. Embrace it or get lost. I wish the show could take the same tack on those occasions where one of the models reveals she isn't straight, but even that has caused less on-camera drama than issues of race, class and double-dipping.
What I find interesting about 'ANTM' is that despite how ridiculous it is, it continues to turn up in serious discussions about the fashion world. Over on feminist blog Jezebel, coverage of erstwhile 'ANTM' expert Nolé Marin's alleged sexual assault of a male model led me to fascinating discussions about how frequently photographers and stylists on photo shoots take advantage of models, and how the industry keeps that quiet. The show's name also cropped up in a recent 'New York' magazine piece on racism in the fashion world. For once, the show wasn't being bashed -- it just came up, thanks to Tyra's significant place in modelling history.
Maybe that's where the show's continued relevance is rooted. No matter how insane we think Tyra is, there's no denying she made a genuine mark on this world, and has real expertise. And the show's guest experts are often still working in the industry -- from new judge André Leon Talley, who's worked with Andy Warhol, Diana Vreeland and Michelle Obama, to designers like Zac Posen and Diane Von Furstenberg and working models like Erin Wasson and Alek Wek. Tyra, the Jays and Nigel may be completely out of touch with what's happening in the fashion world, but these fresh voices are in the thick of it and as a viewer, you can feel that authenticity.
Yes, I'm aware that I just called a show about 5'9" 23-year-old aspiring models authentic.
And it's possible that those cruel challenges and the way the judges react to them may be authentic too. I mentioned Nolé Marin's legal troubles -- reading about them led me to revelations about photographer Terry Richardson -- who you may remember from that controversial GQ 'Glee' cover. To sum up, this very successful photographer is either a creep, a pedophile or rapist depending on your point of view, and he plies his trade in his photographer's studio, which makes Tyra's mixed-message reaction to Cycle 7 winner CariDee English more understandable. If you don't recall, CariDee nearly got hypothermia from posing in a pool. She was simultaneously dumped on for quitting (models have to be tough!) and for not quitting (you have to stand up for yourself!). Now, imagine the cold water is a powerful, connected and predatory photographer who wants you to perform fellatio on him while he snaps your picture. Say no, and you'll never work again. Say yes, and you'll get the job, which will pay for all the therapy you're going to need.
Of course, for the vast majority of 'ANTM' contestants, that particular Sophie's Choice is unlikely to present itself. I doubt Richardson would work with a model over 19 anyway.
'America's Next Top Model' Cycle 16 debuts Wednesday February 23, 8PM ET/PT, A/CW