Send ANTM to rehab, Tyra is drunk on craziness

Review: America's Next Top Model has strayed far from what made the reality show so popular...and good.

The fashion industry has not only joined the reality TV bandwagon, it’s adorned the canvas cover in pink sequins and feather trim.

Shows such as The Fashionista Diaries, Project Runway, Make Me a Supermodel, The Fashion Show and Running in Heels crowd the cable pipeline, all vying to tell us how it “really is” being a model, stylist or editor.

But at its start, the reality fashion flood was a solitary wave in the ocean of TV programming: Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model.

                                   America's Next Top Model

Now in its thirteenth cycle and with 170 contestants under its belt, the pioneering show is a gaudy impersonation of its former self. We miss the old ANTM. So, it’s time for an intervention.

Since premiering in 2003, ANTM has grown into a global phenomenon with spin-offs in forty countries, popping out Bolivian, Finnish and Korean top models each season.

The show’s format is repeatable because it’s simple. Fourteen amateur models compete in challenges and photo shoots, and each week a panel of judges – presided over by a supermodel, like Banks – eliminates one model. The contestant who makes it to the end is signed with a major agency, shoots a magazine cover and receives a $100,000 cosmetics contract.

This is the ANTM mold, but the special filling that’s made the show so successful isn’t really about modeling. The early cycles launched the show into fame because, ultimately, the episodes were about the models’ personal struggles.

Certainly, we all loved the crazy gargoyle, roller-disco and samurai-themed photo shoots. But away from set, we saw Banks acting as older sister, therapist and coach to the contestants as they dealt with failed relationships, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Banks simply spent time with the models, investing in their challenges.

And so, we did too. It was a dynamic combination of glitter and grit.

But in recent cycles, Banks has lost touch with that special ingredient of ANTM. The reality got less real as Banks became less herself and more of a campy character on camera. In one episode of the current cycle, Banks played “Super Smize,” the supermodel superhero whose power is to smile with her eyes. That role added to her previous character roster as a Linda Evangelista-esque diva, a heart-broken prom queen and the goddess of fierce.

Um, really?

Millions of viewers have tuned in every Wednesday night not to see ridiculous scenes of artificial interest, but to see what’s truly interesting: beautiful people who hurt just as we do. Cycle after cycle, the show cast its bucket into the well of a dozen budding models and raised up the stories of its most compelling personalities.

There was Shandi Sullivan, the Walgreens employee turned haute couture waif whose adulterous drunken fling was caught on camera; Toccara Jones, the full-figured firecracker who broke size barriers; Jade Cole, the multiracial diva with television’s most inflated sense of self importance; Lisa D’Amato, the manic wino with enough personalities to fuel her own series; Robin Manning, the curvaceous, Bible-toting super Southerner; and Isis King, the male-to-female transgendered contestant whose fledgling identity was crushed under the pressure of the show.


If the ANTM character study has taught us anything about women aged 18-25, it’s that our grandmothers’ adages are right. The people who are loudest about their attributes are the ones hiding the deepest insecurities. Beauty is intangible, transient and, in the end, merely a matter of preference.

Perpetually referring to herself as the models’ “Mama,” Banks was the source of these teaching moments. It was Mama Tyra who personally cast Amanda Harvard, the model with enormous eyes that make her look like a stupefied bird, in order to show American girls that unconventional is beautiful.

Perhaps Banks’ most memorable teaching moment is the enraged parting speech she delivered to Tiffany Richardson. The model, whose attitude personified bad, didn’t seem to grasp that her self-defeating mindset led to her elimination.

Banks released her own frustration, yelling, “You’re rolling your eyes because you act like you’ve heard it all before. You don’t know where the hell I come from. You have no idea what I’ve been through. But I’m not a victim because I learn….Take responsibility for yourself.”

Amidst the makeup challenges and petty infighting, moments like this rooted the show in meaningful realism.

Sure, Banks taught models and viewers alike how to find the light and optimize bone structure in a photo. But she was also aware that her show reaches a target audience of teenage girls, a demographic in critical need of reminding that it matters how we treat others and ourselves.

Is “Super Smize” going to teach anyone that?

It’s understandable that Banks wants to rethink and re-energize the ANTM canon after so many seasons, but she has to do it without sacrificing what audiences love about the show. We want the glamour and the pain.

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