'Top Model': A Teetery Runway to Fame
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2003; Page C01
In the spirit of Fox's "American Idol," in which contestants are rewarded for a God-given talent, well-honed through practice, UPN offers "America's Next Top Model." And as one watches the finalists -- once 10, now only six -- struggle with makeup, stilettos, quick clothing changes and Brazilian bikini waxes, some facet of their humanity is revealed.
When did a few moments of fame become worth the price of one's dignity?
"America's Next Top Model," created by model Tyra Banks, who is also the host, promises to select the next high-priced mannequin to walk the runway, pose as a cover girl or win a contract to hawk long-lasting lipstick.
The finalists live together in a New York penthouse. Each week they must pass a modeling test. They have endured a swimsuit shoot outdoors in freezing temperatures. (Spring swimwear typically is photographed in the winter, although magazines with a budget have the wherewithal to travel south for the project.) They received instructions on how to walk on a runway in four-inch heels from J. Alexander, the go-to man for a new model who needs to develop her own strut -- or at least learn how not to fall down.
The finalists have gone to makeup classes, practiced changing clothes quickly, mingled at an industry party and read for a mock commercial. These are, of course, all skills that a model should have and yet . . . is there anything as ridiculous and heartbreaking as watching 24-year-old Ebony Haith practice her runway strut in her temporary home, alone, in front of a mirror? Perhaps only the sight of a young man working on his layup, at home, alone, long after everyone else has gone to bed.
Haith was by far the most aggressive of the competitors. After experts voiced concern about the condition of her skin, she began slathering herself in so much moisturizer that she left a trail of oily slime on door knobs. But she was cut on the latest episode.
"America's Next Top Model" is truthful about the skills required by the industry. It's important to be able to change clothes quickly. But the contestants are being judged on skills that most models learn on the job. And these are skills that don't apply to any other industry. How fast do you type? Are you comfortable with spreadsheets? How quickly can you change from a duchess satin evening gown with a corset into a double-face cashmere suit with over-the-knee boots?
The contestants are being asked to do their best imitation of a professional model. And therein lies the absurdity.
Their knowledge of the industry is based on local pageants and talent shows. Robin Manning is from Tennessee, formerly Miss Soybean and a veteran of church fashion shows. She has a tendency toward exaggerated poses and overly wide smiles.
Elyse Sewell has degrees in biology and Spanish, lists Jonas Salk as her hero and plans on going to medical school. Her role on the show is to prove that modeling attracts a range of IQs. In on-camera confessionals she is prone to lamenting the quality of the household conversations, which tend to revolve around topics such as pore size.
Sewell is also an atheist who was not amused when, in the middle of a household argument regarding a photo shoot, Manning launched into a hymn, orchestrated a prayer circle and then prayed loudly and tearfully. Manning, at 5 feet 9 inches and 160 pounds, is quite pretty and mostly suitable for the plus-size market. She is the show's nod to political correctness -- and perhaps to the Bible Belt.
Each week, one of the women is eliminated in a dramatic fashion. They are all made to face a panel of judges who critique their performances in that week's events. Former '70s model Janice Dickinson takes on the Simon Cowell role of the viciously honest judge, but goes a step further and positions herself as the sort of fashion industry henchwoman who would tell a young girl that her feet were too big and expect her to do something to remedy the problem.
Other regular judges include Kimora Lee Simmons, creative director of Baby Phat -- who is also described on the show's Web site as a "hip-hop socialite," which implies that she's a party girl for charity rather than just for fun. Beau Quillian, a fashion editor from Marie Claire magazine, is also a judge. His magazine has committed to featuring the winner in its pages and presumably, it's his job to make sure that the victor can at least remember to keep her eyes open when she's photographed. And of course, there's Banks, who announces each week's loser.
Before sending one of the women home, Banks delivers the typical speech indicating how difficult the choice was, although one could argue that the decision was tough only because all of the contestants are so unappealing. Unlike a show in which the contestants have been singing or dancing or telling jokes, there is no definitive measure of skill such as pitch, timing or the sheer volume of laughter. It's all subjective. And rather than having judges who spend their days looking for the next big thing -- folks such as photographers, stylists, model scouts, bookers -- the contestants are being critiqued by models who once were big but have moved on to other endeavors.
Ultimately though, it doesn't seem like debating the quality of the judging would matter much. After all, how important is the outcome of a competition when the winning criteria includes one's ability to smile while wearing a bikini in the snow. But it only takes the memory of desperate prayers burbling up on national television, to remind one that for some folks, it matters a great deal.