Changing Beauty

Are transgendered contestants the next big wave in reality television?

Isis strikes a pose. Couture, not commercial. Her face alone is vogue—café au lait, high cheek bones that say high-fashion. Her pouty lips prove to be the perfect accessory to her doe-eyed smile, catching the light at every turn and tilt of the head. Her long legs slice through the air with precision. She is graceful, composed; a tigress on the catwalk.

While she is not yet a supermodel—she has yet to hit the runways of Paris and Milan—Isis Tsunami is already a role model. A contestant on America’s Next Top Model, the former program assistant is a pioneer, the face of the next American “minority.” She is a woman who was once a man on a reality show featuring beautiful women.

As Top Model’s first transgendered contestant, Isis, 22, joins a budding class of transgendered pioneers on reality TV, including Alexis Arquette of The Surreal Life, Claudia Charriez of The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, Calpernia Addams of TransAmerican Love Story, and as of August, I Want to Work for Diddy contestant, Laverne Cox—a small reality-TV army attacking and dismantling negatives stereotypes about transgendered people.

Isis had been source of intense online buzz since well before the show’s season premiere on Sept. 3. Her mere inclusion in the Top Model cast generated tons of commentary on community-based Web sites like Reality TV Scoop,, BuddyTV and the BET blog, Stay Tuned. A single 50-second preview of Isis on YouTube from the show’s premiere has generated 42,873 views and 300 comments and counting. The reactions varied—some were supportive, others outraged. “I don’t doubt she can rock high-fashion, but I can’t imagine her selling CoverGirl or [doing] anything sexy to a man… because that is weird as hell…but she/he is kinda good lookin.”

She’s beautiful. God bless.”

Just because you lose your penis and acquire breasts, it doesn’t make u a woman.”

All the attention raises an obvious question: Is Isis just being used as a ratings booster? History certainly suggests that the answer is yes. Every season since its inception, Top Model has featured a cast member with a particular cause—Mercedes Yvette Scelba-Shorte of Cycle 2 had lupus, Amanda Swafford of Cycle 3 was legally blind and on-set drama ensued when Cycle 6 contestant Elyse Sewell was rumored to have an eating disorder. Many view Isis as this season’s publicity ticket—a way to increase the show’s hype, even if it means exploiting Isis in the process.

But if ratings were the ultimate goal, the show’s producers were unsuccessful. This season’s two-hour premiere was the lowest-rated since the series debuted in 2003. Despite what the actual numbers reveal, there is no denying that Isis has people talking. Being touted as a Top Model beauty is hard enough with viewers dissecting each contestant’s appearance and personality, but add questions of identity to the mix and you’ve got a sure-fire controversy:

What a joke! Either ANTM is female only or it isn’t! Isis has a penis. How can he be allowed to enter! What a freaking joke!”