Eventually, America’s Next Top Model could have as many seasons as the Super Bowl. Currently, we are in the midst of America’s Next Top Model XVIII. Nothing has seemed less consequential than the outcome of XVIII. It wasn’t too surprising to learn last week that three important cogs in the Top Model machine, Noted Fashion Photographer Nigel Barker, art director Jay Manuel, and catwalk coach J. Alexander will not be returning to the show next season. This seems overdue, actually, not because they don’t contribute anything to the show but because what can the show possibly contribute to their lives, except money? Every time I see Nigel’s face, that thoughtful, patient face, I wonder.
On XVIII, with Barker, Alexander and Manuel still barely intact, we at least have Kelly Cutrone, replacing Vogue editor André Leon Talley in the position of right-hand perma-judge. Cutrone’s title, as bestowed probably ad libitum by Tyra Banks, is “legendary fashion PR maven.” Cutrone is, more specifically, the founder and head of People’s Revolution, a New York-based fashion PR firm that, among other things, produces fashion shows during New York Fashion Week. Viewers of Top Model know her as the boss and surrogate of Whitney Port on the MTV series The City and the star of the Bravo reality series Kell On Earth. How far down is America’s Next Top Model: British Invasion, which is the full title of this season, from those last two shows? Far. But for the purposes of justifying why we are still watching Top Model, let us see the move as Kelly Cutrone saving a dying enterprise, not the other way around. “She will make people laugh,” the producers may have thought.
Listening to Cutrone yell at a group of bumbling contestants early on in the season, this new bit of casting felt right. Cutrone is good at yelling at people who want something very badly but are not very good at the thing. She is also good at yelling at people who are bafflingly lucky to be in the position that they are in. Both traits are useful here. Cutrone is shocking to the women, initially, particularly the British contestants. Louise is so blindsided by Cutrone’s “rude” attitude that she storms out of judging, has a panic attack on the street, and quits the competition. In Cutrone’s impatience here, is there a hint of, “How did I wind up here?” Not really. She is used to this, being entrenched in the fashion world. America’s Next Top Model is part of the fashion world.
The notability of the subject of this article is in question, reads the top of the Wikipedia page for American’s Next Top Model, Cycle 18. Indeed. The number of people who watch British Invasion hovers at or below one million. This is nearly half the size of the trim audience that tuned into XVII, the trippy All-Stars season, at the end of which the usually wonderful Angelea Preston disqualified herself from the top prize by announcing that she had won on Facebook right after she had won, forgetting that the future hadn’t happened yet, a kind of reality TV grandmother paradox. Why the low numbers? All-Stars and British Invasion are technically spin-offs. Whether we’re talking about a snack or a television series, spin-offs have their merits, but the people profiting from spin-offs are sometimes the only ones who enjoy those merits. They can come off as lazy, poorly thought-out, money-driven. Technically there is nothing really all that spun off about British Invasion. The composition is the same: challenge, photo shoot, panel, elimination, with a makeover and an exotic trip thrown in, and one celebrity guest (or representative(s) of a celebrated idea — a few second-tier Kardashians, say) per episode. British Invasion is certainly not a way for the Top Model franchise to make a quick buck. It’s as expensive and time-consuming as each of the previous seasons. So why is it so bad?
Well, Tyra Banks got really into branding. Right around the time every celebrity decided that they had to have a Twitter account, Banks launched the All-Stars season and brought a branding consultant, Brandwashed author Martin Lindstrom, on the show for the first time. In concert with Banks, Lindstrom gave each contestant a word or phrase that defined her “brand” and gave her some tips on how to convey this narrow message via her body/ face. A model could thenceforth be penalized for photographing in a way that wasn’t representative of her brand. This season, for instance, the 18-year-old American contestant Eboni is forced to wear pigtails to every judging and is reprimanded for looking sexy in photographs because her brand is — a classically inarticulate term made up by Banks — “30-Never.”
Is this Banks’s way of sticking it to the fashion industry for oversexualizing teenagers? Not really. One of the moments of requisite Tyra bonding time this season involves Banks teaching the women to correctly booty tooch, i.e. to stick their butt out in just the right way while posing (the ass’s version of a smize). Watching this episode, I wondered, When did asses become so important? When AzMarie, whose brand is “Andro-Genia,” refuses to participate in the booty tooch exercise, there is of course no recognition from anyone that she might have a point. “You do what you have to do,” the other girls essentially say, when asked to comment. At the end of the episode, AzMarie is kicked off the show. In her closing comments, she says something about how “now the world has seen AzMarie,” which — yes, right, that’s what the point of all this is.
Tyra Banks is the type of person who would agree to do an entire TV series, or write (“write”) an entire book (Modelland), not because she really wanted to, not because the subject matter interested her, but because it would help her build her brand. The problem with this, apart from the fact that no person should be a brand, is that Tyra Banks doesn’t have a good sense of what is actually good for a person-brand, particularly a nascent one. Can you think of more than one model (Carla Bruni) who has become successful or even critically praised as a singer? (“Karen Elson,” you say, but I don’t believe you.) And yet Tyra Banks last year decided to throw a music single into the mix of Top Model prizes. Could this idea have possibly surveyed well in focus groups?
What would be good for a young aspiring model? Maybe to show her what a photo shoot is really like: not just how long hair and makeup takes, and how much standing around there is, but how many different setups there are, and outfit changes, and demands, and ogling, and debating, and talking through and around a model. Bravo’s The Rachel Zoe Project and It’s a Brad, Brad World and the new E! series Scouted do a better job at photo shoots, because the photo shoots they film are all real, or properly staged for the purposes of the show. Perhaps Banks is afraid of the mundanity of photo shoots, but watching photo shoots on reality shows is delightfully mundane. Put it this way, it is more interesting to watch Brad Goreski dart around a Details photo shoot than to watch Goreski and his boyfriend Gary Janecki sample the food they’re thinking of having catered at their anniversary party, and it is more interesting than watching the women of Top Model fight over the pool drowning of a contestant’s sentimentally valuable stuffed animal.
What Banks does give us, apart from the usual house drama, seems to increasingly have no place in the world, not that it ever really has. How often are models required to pour a substance like maple syrup on themselves, or calmly pose as insects crawl all over them, or hang upside down from a trapeze in a bikini? Jay Manuel is always complaining that somebody is getting “lost on set,” unable to focus on smizing, booty tooching, keeping her chin down, not showing us her profile again, and remembering her brand’s catchphrase. Are these photo shoots, or are they Amazing Race challenges? What is more useful: getting a model to face a phobia, or testing her patience? Does posing with bees on you make you a “fierce” woman, or does being agreeable and energized and fun to photograph after standing up for 12 hours straight?
Like an author, or another kind of person-brand, who is forced to or voluntarily decides to join every social media site under the sun, someone who wants to be hired and seen and talked about and paid well as a model must apparently be able to also act, present, endorse and sing (and join a bunch of social media sites). It’s throwing spaghetti on a wall, putting oneself out there to such a degree that one is really never not out there. This juggling act divides the attention ridiculously, but for those certain strands of spaghetti that do stick, it’s apparently worth it.
Banks is firmly in this more-is-more camp. She has been reading too many books about branding, but she has probably also been studying her growing flock of carefully cast offspring and wondering why they aren’t doing better in their careers. Or perhaps these “limited edition” iterations of Top Model, the petite season and All-Stars and British Invasion, are just giving Banks a better, more involved way to mother, to nurture young women from beneath her thumb, to make them over in a grainy version of her image. She herself is not just a model anymore, so they shouldn’t just be models either (Banks has addressed the issue of career longevity on the show before, justifiably). There are two ways the Top Model enterprise could go, theoretically. One way, the way Banks clearly has not chosen, at least yet, would be through more serious photo shoots and fewer circus auditions, less drama and more work, more inspiration for viewers, less peanut gallery fodder. But it’s virtually impossible for a show that’s been on this long to get better. And of course, despite the fact that it’s blazed a trail for its type of thing, it’s never been realistic.
The inclusion of Kelly Cutrone’s no-bullshit eye helps show us how far we’ve come. She hardly ever has anything good to say “at panel” — that is to say, nothing either constructively critical or encouraging. Some selections, from last week’s episode, in which the girls pose debauchedly at a fancy banquet, with singer Estelle there for no particular reason (except to help her brand):
“This looks like a leg of lamb that should have gone back in the freezer.”
“This is more ‘ice show’ to me.”
When Nigel Barker calls the same photo “spectacular,” Cutrone quips, “Like Fourth of July spectacular?”
Cutrone has her moments of crushing (she is particularly fond of U.S. contestant Laura, who displays some of her own rough-around-the-edges assertiveness), but for the most part she sits there, hunched forward at her seat, slack-jawed, staring at whoever is talking at that particular moment. Because there is little to love on British Invasion. Alisha is telegenic, and Annaliese will make a great TV presenter, and Sophie is destined for success as a model. But the productions that the women are thrown into verge on pantomime every week. Examples:
–The PSA for Banks’s anti-bullying campaign (the slogan of which is the highly original BEAUTY IS ON THE INSIDE AND OUT. BEAUTY IS YOU). The contestants bond with pre-teen girls about their image problems and then it’s back to sticking their asses out while crawling across a dining room table.
–The music videos, for which the girls twitch around a Los Angeles nightclub fresh off their booty tooch lesson.
–The photo shoot in which the contestants dress up as two historical figures who have nothing to do with each other and bounce up and down on adjacent trampolines.
What should make a competition between inexperienced American models and British Top Model veterans so much more watered down and amateurish than any other Top Model season? And why, given that it is, is the moralizing so heavy-handed this time around? Now that Banks’s talk show is no more, she appears to be trying to roll Tyra into Top Model. She did this on Tyra, weaving mini-Top Model contests and other Top Model-plugging spots into the talk show format, which was uninspired and lazy and probably helped give Maya Rudolph some ideas for her talk-show host character Ava on NBC’s Up All Night.
Top Model, as it stands now, is captured well in the promotional picture for the Top Model fragrance, which for some reason exists. One of the prizes this season is that the winner becomes the face of the fragrance. Lisa D’Amato, the default winner of All-Stars because of Angelea’s cock-up, is the current face. But in the image, which is shown every week during the prize reminder segment of panel, the 30-year-old D’Amato is hunched over awkwardly, as if struggling beneath the weight of the giant perfume bottle, which is the only way that perfume can be advertised now — gigantically — and she smiles in a far-off, unstudied way, as if she is leaning against a pillar at a tourist attraction on vacation, and looks to be having a good time.