Tyra, Tell Us Again How ‘Top Model’ Empowered Girls?

“Wait, was that still on?”

If you’re like most TV viewers, that was probably your response to America’s Next Top Model’s series finale last week after 22 seasons and 12 years. Yet even though the show’s ratings had long since plummeted — kept on life support by cheap production costs and lucrative product placement revenue — entertainment writers were beside themselves. To Vulture, ANTM was “brilliant” and “will be missed” because “it was the only reality show that ever understood camp.” Vox ran an ode to the best and worst moments of this “glorious mess of a show,” and Entertainment Weekly encouraged us to “pay our respects.”

Lost among this misplaced media nostalgia is the ugly misogyny and racism ANTM codified in the name of beauty (some of which I discussed at The Nation) — and, more hypocritically, under the guise of star, judge, and Executive Producer Tyra Banks helping girls achieve their dreams. Fans got one last dose of Tyra’s dubious definitions of empowerment via this Entertainment Weekly Q&A in honor of the finale. Chock full of revisionist history about the ways gender, race, class, and beauty biases were framed and edited throughout the show’s tenure, Tyra’s answers offer a case study in the need for media literacy.

So here, dear readers, is what happens when you apply a critical media literacy lens to one of reality TV’s longest-running (and, to young women, most culturally influential) series. This annotated translation from Tyra-speak is adapted from my book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you have a favorite season that you look back on fondly?

TYRA BANKS: Season 1 really touched my heart just because it was new and fresh. I never thought that we would get such a strong story in the first season — it turned into religious girls versus the kind of anti-religion girls, and it was interesting to watch. I was like, “I cannot believe this is real.” And this was before people would start thinking that they’re going to be the crazy one because they’re going to be on reality television. These girls were just truly being themselves and forgetting the cameras were there.

Oh, hey, Tyra, since we’re talking about how the first season was super close to your heart and all, did you ❤️ that time in the first season when model Adrianne Curry got sexually assaulted by a stranger on the street in Paris on the way to a “go-see” (fashion industry speak for a meeting with designers), and the cameras kept rolling, no one thought to help her, and then you allowed her to be called unprofessional and be blamed for the incident?

Picture this, for a moment: you’re wandering, lost, in a foreign country. You don’t speak the language, you’re trying to get to a business meeting, and a random man approaches you on the street, clutches your leg, and tries to shove his hand up your skirt. Though you’re traveling with an entourage, not one person makes any effort to come to your aid as you attempt to fend him off.

Now, imagine that when you finally get to your gig (having been delayed by the attempted sexual assault), your bosses berate you as irresponsible for being late, rather than offering to call the police, get you a counselor, or even give you the afternoon off to compose yourself.

Worse, Top Model chose to run the footage on-air without any critical context, never once calling the incident an assault. In fact, the entire event was never even discussed beyond one brief comment from the shaken model, who missed one of her four required go-sees because, “I was really upset — I was right there by the agency, but I couldn’t go in.”

Come evaluation time, one judge after another rebuked her for being tardy, warning that they wouldn’t tolerate any “excuses” for her lateness. In the end, Top Model depicted attempted sexual assault as nothing more than a trivial, unremarkable annoyance, making them complicit in the crime.

Such is life in reality TV, where manufactured drama reigns, but bona fide reality — like the dangerous prevalence of unwanted sexual harassment and assault — is a little too messy, a little too ugly, and a little too, well, real to deal with.

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EW: Do you have favorite contestants?

Tyra: One that comes to mind is Whitney Thompson from Cycle 10. She was our first plus-size — or what I call “fiercely real” — winner, so that was really special to me because we were, in hindsight, way ahead of the curve. What I’m really proud of is the show extending the definition of beauty physically and even emotionally. We had a girl with retinitis pigmentosa in Cycle 3 [Amanda Swafford] — she was legally blind and took the most gorgeous photos. We had a girl named Heather [Kuzmich] who had autism, we had a girl Tahlia [Brookins] that was burned as an infant, and also Mercedes [Scelba-Shorte] from Cycle 2 who had lupus. There was CariDee [English], who won, who had psoriasis. The list goes on and on, and I’m really proud of that because I really wanted to show girls that beauty is not cookie-cutter. So when I’m talking to that girl that’s standing in front of me, and she’s got big freaking red hair and alabaster skin and freckles all over her face, and I’m saying she’s still in the running, yes, I’m talking to her but I’m really talking to the millions of girls that look like her that are at home watching.

On Tuesday, The Nation ran an excerpt of Reality Bites Back from a section of my book sub-headed “Race, Beauty, and the Tyranny Tyra Banks,” offering extensive analysis of the varied forms of racial bigotry to which ANTM subjected Black, Latina, and Asian young women, so I won’t belabor that here.

Instead, I’ll note that it is true that the series sometimes relaxed traditional modeling industry strictures to embrace the appeal of the contestants Tyra mentions above, as well as a transgender woman named Isis. Yet those were exceptions to the show’s general reinforcement of age-old industry beauty hierarchies that are as exclusive as they are unhealthy. I have no doubt that Tyra truly believes her own empowerment hype, but her sincerity in wanting to say something good to the millions of girls watching at home was in stark contrast to the choices she made as the show-runner of a series whose content can be found as explicit “thinspiration” on thousands of “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) websites and blogs where young women trade tips on how to starve themselves to become as skeletal as their favorite ANTM models. An excerpt from my book offers just a small glimpse into the dangerous messages Tyra sent to the many tween, teen, and young adult women who watched every week for the better part of a decade.

Read an in-depth analysis of ANTM and body image in my book excerpt here.

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EW: Are there any challenges or photo shoots from the show that you are most proud of?

Tyra: I photographed the girls maybe about 80 percent of the season. My mom was a photographer, and I grew up with a dark room in the back porch of our house on the washer and dryer — she would turn it into a dark room with the red light. So a lot of me conceptualizing these shoots and coming up with these ideas really started when I was a little girl. I tended to strip it down and maybe do a photo shoot that was all about shadows where we hold the lace to the sun and then the lace would be all over the girl’s face in a pattern. I really feel like when I would photograph them, they would relax and give me their best.

As Top Model’s creative mastermind, every over-the-top modeling challenge and photo shoot was conceptualized or approved by Tyra Banks, from making white contestants don blackface, to styling models as fetishized representations of various ethnicities other than their own, to using poor children playing on garbage-strewn streets as background props for contestants’ pictures in a Brazilian favela (homeless American youth were used for the same purpose in another shoot).

Perhaps most dangerous was Tyra’s glamorization of violence against women in the name of beauty, especially in light of the show’s core audience of tween, teen, and young adult women. In 2010, Jezebel ran this Reality Bites Back excerpt analyzing how the series routinely placed women in danger, sometimes imaginary and sometimes all too real, for photo shoots and challenges, manufacturing moments that would inevitably result in pain or injury to the contestants . . . pain and injury that was supposed to appear beautiful and naturally feminine.

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Courtesy of Flickr / Insert Magazine

And in 2007, I wrote about what I called Top Model’s “beautiful corpses” episode for Women In Media & News, which eventually inspired the title of the book’s chapter on violence. In the ep, Tyra made the contestants pose as bloodied, bruised, and brutally murdered homicide victims, while the judges offered praise like, “Death becomes you, young lady!”

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EW: Was there a contestant that you regretted sending home?

Tyra: So many. Back in the day, before we used a numeric voting system, judges would choose a photo of who they wanted to go home, and I would always vote last, because I did not want them to think, “Oh my gosh, my boss chose that person so I need to follow her.” So maybe about 30 percent of the time someone would go home and I would just wince. I remember that happened with Toccara [Jones] in Cycle 3. I got outvoted and I was really heartbroken about that.

Whether or not Tyra, a notoriously hands-on executive producer, was truly heartbroken over Toccara Jones being eliminated, that doesn’t explain why her show systematically broke this fan favorite’s spirit.

Toccara Jones literally ran into her cycle 3 audition bursting with humor, energy, and pride. “I’m Toccara, and I’m big, Black, beautiful, and loving it!” she told the judges with a snap. On her home video, she said she wanted “to encourage full-figured women to appreciate their bodies and know that they’re beautiful.” With evocative eyes, bold curves, and personality to match, Toccara was a rare exception: a Top Model contestant who actually fit her “plus-size” label, complete with a natural 38DDD bust that actually respected the laws of gravity. In a bathing suit at a pool party for semifinalists, the 5'9" pinup-in-the-making announced that if the show was looking for “something juicy, then here I am. I’m 180 pounds, and I’m carrying it well, and I’m loving it,” she laughed. “They shouldn’t be scared. Don’t be scared, America!”

The audience wasn’t scared at all — they were enthralled. Viewers voted her “CoverGirl of the Week” four times in a row (including the episode in which she was eliminated). It’s likely that fans appreciated Toccara not only for her great looks and vivacious attitude, but for her uncompromising faith in herself. In a sea of frail waifs obsessing over nonexistent “flab” on their washboard stomachs, here, finally, was a woman who felt at home in her own skin. “I love myself. I love my shape. I love my curves,” she declared. “Some people think that America’s not ‘ready’ for a plus-size model. I’m here to break that norm. I’m gonna be the first Black plus-size model to be on the cover of twenty magazines!” She believed in her beauty, and it was hard to watch her and not share in that belief. Even her rail-thin competitors were envious. “I wish I was more like Toccara. She’s fabulous. She has a confidence in herself,” mused skinny, 19-year-old Norelle.

No plus-size model on ANTM had a fraction of Toccara’s sexy swagger or posing talent (not even winner Whitney Thompson, whose performance was sometimes lackluster, but whose blond hair and white skin made her a “safe” choice to grace the cover of show sponsor Seventeen). Judge Nolé Marin glowed about her progress: “She photographs absolutely amazing week after week.” Studying the proofs of her topless pose for Lee One True Fit jeans, photo shoot director Jay Manuel (Mr. J) raved, “Toccara looks so perfect!” A wardrobe assistant agreed: “Not even one bad picture.”

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Toccara Jones, Credit: Wikimedia

She performed consistently well even when she was set up to fail. Producers often didn’t provide clothing in her size. There were no bras to fit her and only a medium-size robe when the girls had to become living lingerie mannequins in a La Perla store window. When her competitors wore gorgeous designer gowns and fantasy getups such as “glamazon” or “seventeenth-century courtesan” for a Ford photo shoot, Toccara was thrown into the frumpy button-down shirt and slacks of a parking garage attendant. She knew the deal, and she wasn’t having it. “I wanna know why all the girls were so nice looking and here I am looking like I work at Home Depot?” she asked the wardrobe director.

As if a size 14 dress is as elusive as a unicorn, the snotty stylist barked back, “Do you think I’m going to be able get a rack . . . loaded with clothes in your size?” Toccara refused to take the blame for the stylist’s lazy approach to her job. “You can’t find something in my size, so I’m supposed to feel bad?”

Yes, unfortunately. On ANTM, plus-size models were set up for psychological manipulation. Off the bat, Tyra would make sure to say during each audition episode that she’s casting the plus-size girl for “her personality” and “her strength” (i.e., not for her looks), and that she’ll have to be “better than” the “normal” girls. A familiar script unfolded season after season: the few Rubenesque hopefuls who made the cut would handle the first rounds of fire with confidence and aplomb, eventually falling apart after being systematically ripped to shreds by judges, photographers, designers, and marketing execs.

This deliberation about Toccara was typical:

Judge Janice Dickinson: The car looks better than she does. If the body could just slim down 150 pounds, that would be good.
Tyra Banks: Then she’d be 30 pounds.
Dickinson: That would be better.
Designer and guest judge Marc Bouwer: She’s not America’s Next Top Model. It’s ludicrous to think that she would be.
Dickinson: It will never be Top Model.

Eventually, this separate-and-unequal treatment finally began to crack her armor. “I’m just trying to stay positive, but it’s hard . . . it hurts,” Toccara cried on a friend’s shoulder after the Ford shoot. This was the first moment of weakness she showed in seven weeks (unlike most tearful ANTM contestants). She admitted that they “made me feel so bad and ashamed.” That week, she landed in the bottom two for the first time. She took it in stride. “I never let it break my spirit,” she said the following week. And that’s precisely why they sent her home at the end of the episode (she certainly hadn’t “lost her drive” or “checked out,” as Tyra claimed).

Toccara’s self-confident truth ran counter to Top Model’s script for plus-size participants, who were set up to be broken down. Once they became sufficiently self-loathing, they were eliminated — supposedly for “losing their fire” or not believing in themselves enough. Underneath these bogus clichés, the judges meant, “We worked as hard as we could to erode your self-esteem, and now that you’ve finally internalized our nagging voices: sayonara, sister!”

This didn’t work on Toccara. But producers held true to their alternative reality and, through Selective Editing Theater, led viewers to believe she was ousted because she had “become a ghost of her original self.”

Try as they might, Top Model didn’t break Toccara. Instead, she is one of the series’ most successful alums. Between 2005 and 2009, she signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina agency, graced the covers of numerous women’s and men’s magazines, and appeared in Vogue Italia, Ebony, Essence, Vibe, and Smooth. She walked runways for BET, Hot 97, Alice & Olivia, and others. High-profile companies such as Target, Avon, Torrid, and Rocawear have hired her; Hennessy made her one of six celebrity “brand ambassadors.” She shares a manager with hip-hop stars Missy Elliott and 50 Cent, and has been a correspondent and cohost on three BET shows and had cameos on the UPN sitcoms Girlfriends and All of Us.

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EW: The makeover episodes are always intense for some of the contestants. Were there any makeovers that you chose that you later regretted?

Tyra: The one thing that is really bad is that I will say what I want to happen, but then it depends on the interpretation of that hairdresser. So, I can be like “I want this to happen,” and then see it be like “Ooooh.” But in the end I have to accept the fact that my name is on the door; that’s what comes with leadership, and I understand that. The interesting thing is a lot of girls freak out when they get their hair cut, but if you do an analysis of the winners of America’s Next Top Model, a high percentage of them got their hair cut. Cycle 2, Yoanna [House] had long hair and got it cut, Cycle 3 Eva [Marcille​]’s hair was medium-ish long and we cut it very short, Cycle 4 Naima [Mora]’s hair was long and we cut it short; it goes on and on. So do if you do your research, the odds of you winning go up if your hair is cut.

Tyra’s name’s on the door, all right. Which makes it all the more disappointing that for the first 14 seasons, the show made the majority of African American contestants relax their hair, get weaves, or shave their heads. With very few exceptions, Black models were rarely allowed to compete with their hair kinky, curly, nappy, or otherwise natural. Yes, makeovers for white contestants were often drama-inducing, but shortening a redhead’s long tresses or making a brunette go blonde doesn’t bear the sociological significance of policing Black hair.

One major tenet of media literacy is the ability to separate text (stated message) from subtext (implicit meaning). ANTM was extremely canny about creating text that seemed to be about fun, campy drama and encouraging young women of many stripes to own their beauty and go after their dreams of success in the modeling industry. But as the above (and more examples in my book) can attest, the subtext was often culturally and psychologically destructive.

Because we don’t teach media literacy in any significant way in the United States — and, in fact, we encourage media consumers to “turn our brains off” when seeking entertainment — it can be extremely difficult for viewers to distinguish between text and subtext. So yes, I know that some ANTM fans will likely be angry that I’m critiquing this show, and will insist that Tyra Banks is a well-intentioned and accomplished Black women who wants to help girls achieve as much as she has. But as Tyra told Entertainment Weekly, her name is on the door, and with leadership must come accountability.

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Lead image credit: Wikimedia

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