Dirt: Rewatching Tyra Banks' enterprise of benevolence
Giving "America's Next Top Model" another chance
Allegra Hobbs on bankable TV characters
America’s Next Top Model is billed on a false premise: that hot girls are being shuttled in to sit before Tyra Banks’ judgment as she searches urgently for the next underage waif who can take the industry by storm. In reality, as becomes apparent to anyone who watches the show, the point of Banks’ “modeling competition” is to create good television. Viewers and aggrieved former contestants alike have noted how none of the winners across 16 seasons have achieved anything that could accurately be described as top modelhood, to which I say: nobody cares, because it was all so fun to watch.
I can speak on the subject with great authority because I recently devoted myself to re-watching early cycles of the show, and it was very fun to do so. It is compulsively watchable, constantly surprising, full of strong characters who clash and contrast to results both riveting and hilarious. Cycle 1 revolves around a smarter-than-thou medical student who thinks she’s too good to be a model but wants to win just to prove it’s easy, a sardonic metal chick, and their alliance against a faction of Bible-thumpers who passive-aggressively pray and tearfully refuse to simulate nudity in photoshoots. It’s fantastic television, and one can’t help but feel that each contestant was cast not based on her promise as a blossoming model but on her potential to be a bankable TV character.
Bankable TV characters are identifiable mostly in their ability to initiate or attract conflict, to serve as a foil against another character, and to be vocal about wants, dislikes, grudges and scathing assessments of fellow contestants (former contestants have revealed they were goaded by producers into manufacturing drama). Or a bankable character can provide pathos — girls are often shown crying to a professionally sympathetic Tyra about their trauma — in order to aid the illusion that Banks’ whole enterprise is one of benevolence. Tiffany Richardson, recipient of Cycle 4’s infamous “we were all rooting for you” rant, has said she felt used as a narrative device to make the show more compelling — to be a poor, working class girl who Tyra was laboring to lift out of poverty.
I first watched the show as a preteen with a Livejournal, but now I’m a chronically online adult beset by the terror of a semi-public life that I’m not sure I want, so it is a different viewing experience. What I’ve found is that the early-aughts show was a precursor to the way we live now, at least in my line of work — Twitter, an essentially competitive arena central to the workings of the media industry, doesn’t incentivize you to be good at your craft, but it does incentivize you to make yourself a character that others might enjoy watching. Ultimately, the thing that will save you on elimination day won’t be your skill, but your ability to fold yourself into a persona. On ANTM, successful girls tend to get slotted into easily-understood categories of persona: Eva, winner of Cycle 3, was tough and confrontational, but masking a deep insecurity the producers did well to coax out in front of the cameras; Naima of Cycle 4 was an impossibly placid Buddhist who only became emotional when vaguely referencing a mysterious past as an unhappy party girl.
Meanwhile, the competitions and photoshoots Tyra assigns the girls to test their model potential are bits of theater, intended to provoke reactions from the contestants but otherwise completely meaningless. This becomes especially clear in Cycle 3 when Nicole Borud is eliminated. Nicole doesn’t excel, but she does consistently alright in the challenges, often outshining her peers who commit faux pas one would assume unforgivable in the eyes of Tyra. But Nicole is forgettable, persona-less, lacking in distinctive qualities that could make her a bankable character. In the end, she is eliminated for being unmemorable (Tyra even forgets she exists in a previous round of judging). A competitor who spits out the food she is supposed to be hawking in a Japanese commercial in front of an aghast client makes it to the next round. Blatant disrespect is nothing compared to the crime of being boring — neither is lack of technical skill. The only rule is Be Interesting.—Allegra Hobbs