Later this year, Tyra Banks will present her 21st cycle of America’s Next Top Model, or, more specifically, her 21st attempt at finding a top model. The show carried some legitimacy in its first few seasons, but after more than ten years on the air without a single success story, it looks as though America’s Next Top Model has well and truly passed its expiration date. If we refer to the CFDA’s guidelines regarding 16 as the appropriate starting age for aspiring models, together with the fact that very few working models were older than 26 when they ascended to “top model” status, it seems that a decade is just enough time for a model to establish herself. But it hasn’t happened for any of the Top Model girls. I’m trying to figure out why.
Tyra Banks has endured much criticism since Top Model premiered in 2003. As a TV program that relies on ratings and advertising to stay afloat, it is only in the interest of business to showcase the most “dramatic” behavior to keep the show as entertaining as possible. Tantrums, catfights, “lesbian” kisses and on-set fainting spells have all been used to propel otherwise tedious episodes. Others have criticized Banks for her perfunctory inclusion of transgender contestants—namely Isis, who first appeared in cycle 11, and Virgg, who made a brief appearance last season before quitting—and “plus size” or “fiercely real” models, simply for brownie points and a boost in ratings.
The main concern, however, is that the models are so ill-equipped to enter the real world of modelling that Tyra Banks is ultimately doing a disservice to her contestants. This sentiment was shared by Kirstie Clements, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, who made a number of appearances on the Australian edition of the show. In her tell-all book, The Vogue Factor, Clements decried the activities that were involved, including an “imbecilic” round of trivia in which the contestants were asked to match the magazine cover to the supermodel. “Of course any exercise on the show is completely irrelevant to the real world of modelling,” she wrote. “Models don’t need to know anything about anything. They don’t even need to speak. They just need to be beautiful and show up on time.”
Is Tyra Banks performing a disservice to her models by airing their dirty laundry on national television? It has been said over and over that a good model should be able to walk into a room and command your attention without even speaking. They should glow. Sadly, taciturnity does not exist in the Top Model house, and the contestants are really only interesting because they are so loud and obnoxious, two traits that complement their increasingly large egos. The competition would be utterly boring if it weren’t for the drama, and the producers know that. It’s good for ratings, but a person who can’t control their mouth in front of an audience is not model material, if we’re looking through the casting directors’ eyes. Acting like a fool on television is akin to picking your nose on the runway: it seems like a good idea, and it may give you instant satisfaction, but there are cameras everywhere and you will be caught. And it will haunt you.
Speaking to some model scouts, who have requested to have their name and agency withheld, has given me some insight into the industry. One scout, who is based in London, agrees that appearing on Top Model can generate exposure—for better or for worse—but there is a stigma surrounding reality television as a means to propel fame. Most of the Top Model winners have moved on to other projects, including acting or television hosting, while others have gone back to school and their regular lives. The only real “success” story to come out of Top Model has been Fatima Siad, a gorgeous Somali-Ethiopian model whose first major runway jobs were for Dries Van Noten and Hermès. Since then, she has worked sporadically, most recently appearing in advertising campaigns for Hervé Léger and Ralph Lauren. But for this model scout, it’s the thrill of discovering silent, anonymous faces that is like striking genetic gold: “I once scouted a guy without even seeing his face. He had shoulder-length hair over his face when I noticed him, and when he shifted his hair I was, like, Oh my god! That is the best feeling.”
At this very moment, Tyra Banks and her team are putting together the latest cycle of Top Model; cycle, rather than season, to reflect the tediousness and monotony of what this show has become. Elsewhere, Naomi Campbell and her team are launching the latest season of The Face in America, with The Face Australia launching later in the month.
Marketing slogans and model mantras aside (“I know what it takes to find a great model”), these shows are about discovering what it takes to make great television, not great talent.