Goodbye To All That: A Farewell To “America’s Next Top Model”

We love a train wreck. There are few things more satisfying as a viewer and consumer of culture than watching the most hapless of humanity enter situations that most certainly will not end well. Call it perverse, or call it good television — reality TV as a giant, gaping industry predicates itself on the fact that if you put decent enough people into situations so ridiculous that they have nothing else to do but adapt, you will create beautiful, addictive television. America’s Next Top Model, that beloved institution of competition-based reality television, is coming to an end.

Tyra Banks, former Victoria’s Secret angel and supermodel darling of the nineties, falls on the scale of lunacy somewhere between all of the Real Housewives and Tom Cruise jumping on that couch for Oprah.  When “ANTM” started in 2003, we were still naive enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, some of these women that Tyra picked from their cornfields in Iowa could’ve actually been models. As the seasons progressed and Tyra’s lovable insanity raged on, it became clear that what she was teaching them wasn’t the elusive art of modeling — it was how to be a person, good, bad or otherwise.

There have been missteps. As a dedicated viewer of this show from its inception, I fell off somewhere around the eleventh season. For a while, I forgot the show was even on.  There was a strange short girls only season and a college edition. I missed these episodes because despite my love for the formula — pretty girls in a giant house with “challenges” designed to test their skills as models — the drama had fallen off. As a viewer, the stakes were low. But, two seasons ago, Tyra, my booty tooching smizing queen, had the temerity and the genius to do the one thing her show was missing the entire time: men.

Rarely will I ever say that adding men to a situation makes anything better, but the cycle that introduced men to the “Top Model” pantheon injected the formula — staid, tired, a little rundown — with a newfound life. Think of the joy you get from watching a really classic season of “The Real World.” Adding the men added drama, hormones, and a whole host of questionable makeovers, and heaping spoonfuls of conflict, drama and sexual intrigue took the show to a whole other level.  A lot of it was probably manufactured, but as a savvy reality television consumer, you already know that that’s what you’re getting when you sign up for this. It doesn’t matter. Watching Mikey, a flaxen-haired Floridian with long blonde hair and catfish-like facial hair play almost every single girl on the show against each other is horrible, but it is really compelling television.

The stakes, for the contestants, don’t seem too high. As twenty-somethings raised with the spectre of American reality television looming, they innately understand how to be in a situation like this. They know their angles. They can give good television confessional. They understand their roles and why they were cast, and play them to a hilt. I’m not suggesting that nothing on this show is genuine — the relationship this season between Mamé and Justin, two of the most beautiful people to exist on this earth felt as real as any relationship does in your early twenties — but there’s a hint of knowingness. They know how to play their parts.

I’m not sure why I watched the show for so long. It’s objectively not good, a dirty secret told in confidence to people that, upon showing their hand, end up being kindred spirits. There’s no actual modeling in it, and the challenges became ways for Tyra to manufacture spectacle. At the beginning of this current season, Tyra winnowed down the competition by having the models stomp down a “runway” made of shipping containers, each attached to a harness. If they made it to the end of the runway and across to the waiting arms of Miss Jay, they made the cut. If they reached the end of the runway and felt themselves being lowered gently to the ground, they were sent home.  Later in this season, she yells at Nyle, a devastatingly handsome deaf man with bright blue eyes, telling him that he needs to sign sexier. It’s a ridiculous circus, but it was a beautiful ride.