Shannon, a young blond American woman, stood uneasily before the panel of five judges on America's Next Top Model (Tuesdays, UPN). She'd spent the afternoon visiting fashion houses in Paris, and was awaiting feedback on how she'd been received.
"Our clients describe you as beautiful," Shannon was told. "Big smile. Maybe too obvious." Hearing this, Tyra Banks, a top model herself and one of the judges on this reality show, interjected. "Too obvious means too pretty," she explained. "In America, it's fine to be safe and pretty and waaaaaa" -- waaaaaa was uttered in a high-pitched voice, with Tyra's head tilted sharply to one side, and I'm pretty sure it meant "wholesome" or "feminine," or possibly that she'd recently been fitted with a car alarm. Banks continued: "But (in Paris) you gotta" -- here Tyra winked seductively, made a weird little clicky sound with her tongue and did a sassy kind of thing with her head, moving it smoothly from side to side and back again -- "just freak it up a little."
Shannon nodded politely. She is 18 years old, a devout Christian from Franklin, Ohio, and, quite plainly, congenitally incapable of "freaking it up." One senses she would also struggle with "working it," "flaunting it" and most forms of "shaking her thang." Still, Shannon was one of just five contestants remaining on what is proving to be the only new reality show worth watching this summer -- and not just because the producers are steadfast in their pursuit of novel ways to oblige the women to prance about in their underpants.
There is much theatrical, girlish weeping on America's Next Top Model. There are conflicts and crises, a few of which don't even involve blow-dryers. There is a chubby, bespectacled man named Pink. There are snooty people with snooty accents whose sole job appears to be informing potential models that their breasts are too big or too small or just the right size but, dammit all, insufficiently perky or too perky or just right perky-wise but kind of, like, weirdly shaped or something. And there is intellectually invigorating conversation.
Elyse: I was laughing at your ugly tits.
Adrianne: I have beautiful tits. Almost everyone who looks at my boobs is like, "God, they're just so jiggly and beautiful."
Um, you know back there, where I said "intellectually"? Could you go and substitute "libido"? That's what I meant: Libido-invigorating conversation.
America's Next Top Model, on which the winner will receive a modelling and management contract, works in part because it avoids the three most annoying conventions of the reality genre: the interminable "dramatic" pauses, the gimmicky plot twists and Ryan Seacrest. Yes, each episode concludes with the Obligatory Elimination Round, but there are stretches during which the show feels more like a documentary about young women trying to make it in the modelling industry (motto: More Ruthless, Fetid and Odious Than Even the Music Business Since 1985!).
On America's Next Top Model, you at least get the feeling that there's something more at stake than three minutes of corporeal hydraulics. As this week's show ended, Shannon was spared, even though one judge gravely lamented: "Her hair is looking a little banged-up Barbie doll to me." (Meow!) Instead, the judges dispatched Kesse, a 21-year-old student from Arkansas. Kesse cried. That made Robin cry. Then everyone started crying. Then they moved on to all-out, voice-cracking, cheeks-coated-in-mascara bawling.
Paradise Hotel concluded with rump-shaking dance moves, the threat of fisticuffs and some simulated mooning. Not exactly the sort of behaviour that Tyra Banks would call waaaaaa.