why 'america’s next top model' is more than just a reality show about modeling

For fifteen years, Tyra has inspired people to follow their dream — whether that dream was to be a model or not.

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May 23 2018, 2:25pm

Collage: Georgie Wright

America’s Next Top Model: when it landed on our screens 15 years ago, it was at the cutting edge of reality TV — competitive and camp in equal measure. It had everything we wanted from a TV series (or at least in the early 00s): beautiful people, minor celebrity judges, and savage behind-the-scenes bitching. It was the younger, hotter cousin of Big Brother (the models were trapped in a house full of cameras between challenges, their phones taken off them) and the prototype for RuPaul’s Drag Race. Plus it’s still going strong 24 whole “cycles” later.

For these reasons, we couldn’t pass up the 15th anniversary as an opportunity to stop and ask: Why was the show so popular? What is its legacy? And did it teach us anything other than how to smize?

“I was about 14 when I started watching it,” says fashion photographer and i-D contributor Thurstan Redding. “It was long before I knew I wanted to work in fashion and it shaped my impression of what the industry would be like — super catty, with unbelievably literal photoshoots. Of course it’s not actually like that, but I was kind of into it anyway.”

When I ask about his favorite parts of the show, Thurstan remembers two things: “The makeovers: how they gave models unnecessarily radical looks for the purpose of creating good reality TV. And Miss Jay. Miss Jay carried ANTM with her exuberance, and I think her presence — especially in such a mass, mainstream show — was an important introduction to a certain kind of queerness.”

For me, the show was all about Tyra, who as executive producer, host, and modeling mentor, imparted wisdom received from her own momager, and kept us on the edge of our seats, mostly because just as you were warming to her she would say something so mean to a model that it would leave your jaw hanging open. Tyra claims that her host persona wasn’t quite the real her: “I created a character and unfortunately her name was Tyra,” she has confusingly told the press, perhaps because of some of the accusations she’s received about the show. Former models have claimed that they were deprived of sleep, subjected to numerous psychological test, and weren’t allowed to talk unless the camera was rolling. Most recently, former contestant and supermodel Winnie Harlow controversially said that the show “did nothing” for her career.

Isis King, who became a contestant on Cycle 11, disagrees with Harlow, and argues that there’s a lot we ought to respect about Top Model. King says she grew up watching ANTM but, in her own words, until she made it onto the show she didn’t think she could ever become a model, particularly as someone who was transgender and 5”7. At the time that she was cast, fashion was a lot less diverse than it is now, and Isis was homeless and living in the Ali Forney Center. She had heard about an opportunity for homeless youth to be background extras on a shoot in Cycle 10, where the models had to pretend to be homeless. When I asked her whether this concept was problematic, Isis says she was not personally offended, but grateful for the opportunity.

Once on set, Isis stood out immediately and Miss Jay quickly learned her name, warning each model to ‘Watch out, or Isis will steal your light!’ She remembers this, laughing: “It only gave me more momentum to continue to do extreme posing.” They asked her to come back and be on the show, and “then it all happened very quickly.”

She didn’t think about what it might mean to be the show’s first trans contestant: “I had just started taking hormones. I wasn’t going on there to educate people but to be my authentic self so people could love me for that,” she responds. “It was only after the show, when I got a message on MySpace from a young guy who told me he was going to commit suicide until he saw me on Top Model that I thought: ‘Oh shit, my story really matters.’

Being trans on the show wasn’t exactly easy, Isis explains now. “I didn’t think it would turn into a big spectacle, like when I got outed and all the girls asked me questions. I had transitioned in ballroom scenes where everybody was LGBT, and even at my job people knew but were respectful, so being surrounded by all these girls looking at you like a caged animal and asking you about your genitals was a really shocking experience… It was intense.” Were the judges sensitive enough, I ask? “They made me feel like I was wanted. I didn’t go there for special privilege; I wanted to feel like every other girl, and that’s how they made me feel.”

According to Isis, the best part of the show was the makeover (because she went in open-minded they gave her a nice new weave, rather than something awful, like they might for a more nervous girl), as well as the photoshoots and the friends she made. “I learned so much from our makeup artist Sutan, who became Raja on Drag Race. Very early on, he was like, ‘I’m your mom!’”

The worst part, she says, was elimination, because that five minute section of the show in reality took eight or nine hours to film. “Standing in high heels all that time we’d get dizzy so they’d say, ‘Let us know if you want to sit down.’ And they film you with different expressions just in case they want to create a story like there’s a girl you don’t like. The elimination itself is literally one of the most stressful things I’ve ever had to go through. We’re all in there shaking, we really want it, and when they’re calling out the names you feel ice cold.”

The eliminated girl’s image might slowly dissolve out of the group shot (you know, the one where the models are all superimposed together wearing black bandeau tops) but that doesn’t mean they disappear forever. Isis maintains that after her elimination the show helped her achieve a modeling career she might not have otherwise had: “It taught me a lot about branding and who I am as a personality. It taught me to keep my head up and always be battle ready.” She modeled for American Apparel and walked for one of her favorite designers, Betsey Johnson, returning to Top Model for Cycle 17’s 'All Stars.' But modeling isn’t the only route ANTM has sent contestants down — finalists like Yaya DaCosta and Analeigh Tipton have enjoyed acting careers.

As for where the show itself is at today, approximately 325 contestants in, ratings have reportedly dropped significantly. The show has moved from over 6 million viewers per episode in Cycle 1 to just over 1.5 by Cycle 22, although it’s worth noting that big brands still sponsor the winners, like Guess for Cycle 20, and that there have been spin offs in over 40 countries worldwide. In Cycle 23, Tyra took time out to let Rita Ora host the show, returning the next season, apparently by popular demand. And in later seasons ANTM has still pulled in impressive judges, including Drew Elliott, editor of Paper magazine, Andre Leon Talley, and the inimitable fashion PR Kelly Cutrone.

For those who no longer tune in, the iconic moments from the earlier series live on in our cultural memory, as well as in memes and on YouTube. Who can forget when Tyra screamed at contestant Tiffany Richardson – “I WAS ROOTING FOR YOU, WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU!” – or the time former judge and “the world’s first supermodel” Janice Dickinson made out with Tyra, or the time a girl inexplicably disappeared without being eliminated. Thurstan believes that the memeification and longevity of the show can be attributed to the fact that it built the early foundations of what reality TV could be, with larger than life characters and brilliant slapstick moments. “It’s like The Simple Life – it was such a novelty in its day, when there was so much less choice in reality TV, that it has truly stuck with us,” says the photographer.

Memes aside, Isis believes the show claims a much more important legacy: “The main question people ask me is what was Tyra like in real life,” says the former contestant. “The reality about Tyra is that she really inspired a lot of people to become photographers or makeup artists or models based on Top Model alone, and Tyra opened up the conversation around plus size models too,’ says Isis. “With Whitney winning as a plus size model, standing up and beating all the other girls, or a girl with vitiligo or a girl going blind or a girl who was a burns victim becoming models, Tyra really set the bar,” Isis concludes. “Tyra inspired people who felt like they were different to follow their dreams, whether that dream was to be a model or not.”

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.