I conducted an informal poll of trusted homies about the state of America’s Next Top Model by asking one simple question: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I mention Top Model? Most answered “Tyra Banks,” while a few mentioned infamous phrases from the show, like, “We were rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!!” However, there was another response that was as astute as the first: “Is that still on?”
For those who missed the news, after a 12-year, 22-season run on the CW, the show was relaunched on VH1 with a new host in Rita Ora. Although many struggled to understand how Ora, a singer-actress person with a solid stylist, became the host of a modeling competition, America’s New Top Model opened season 23 with 1.7 million viewers—a five-year high for the series—and enjoyed a slight rise in the ratings in the following weeks. By all accounts, minus the matter of a Top Model contestant accusing Ora of bias because she dated Ora’s ex Calvin Harris, Ora was a success.
Still, while the show has been renewed by VH1 for another season, Ora is out and Tyra Banks is back in. In a statement, Banks said:
I’m overwhelmed and humbled by the intensity of the ANTM fan base whose deep affection for the show led me to have a change of heart. After giving it a lot of thought, I realized that remaining behind the camera wasn’t enough because ANTM is woven into my DNA.
Sure, but it also doesn’t hurt that Banks is on a bit of a TV comeback as she takes over for Nick Cannon as host of America’s Got Talent. Couple that with a show that’s now safe to return to, and it’s like FABLife never happened. Although Banks’ return to the show is welcome, it alone doesn’t address all the reasons viewers fled the show in droves to begin with. The show needs its nucleus, but it also might want to two-step back into the basics of what made it a hit in the first place.
When Top Model’s cancellation was announced in October 2015, a number of writers analyzed the show’s longtime success and, subsequently, what variables helped give way to its erosion. Noting that Top Model hadn’t enjoyed a traditional cycle/season since No. 16, Adrienne Raphael wrote at The Atlantic:
In short, ANTM went from an industry competition to a branding pageant—from a more straightforward contest that promised the winner a modeling career to one that promised the winner a large Internet following. The prize still includes a modeling contract with an agency (for Cycle 22, it’s NEXT Model Management) and a spread in a fashion magazine (now Nylon, rather than Vogue Italia). But gone are the camp and self-awareness that once characterized the show—now, it’s a hashtag-heavy, emoji-laden battle of the brands. On the one hand, this departure mirrors a realistic shift that’s taken place in an industry that increasingly rewards familiar faces with built-in fanbases. On the other it detracts from the fun, insular fantasy world ANTM worked so hard to create.
Also make note that by cycle 22, it had been the third time that women and men were competing against each other. Worse, the show had started relying a whole lot more on themes such as “British Invasion.” Some found the over-the-top theatrics of the show still enjoyable, though.
In “Why Are We Still Watching America’s Next Top Model? An Investigation,” Jezebel’s Clover Hope explained:
Most recently in Cycle 21—the same cycle as Lacefront McBeard—our impeccably flamboyant host Tyra Banks blessed a female model with a half-black, half-blonde “skunk” hair dye job, thinking it edgy. But the lace front beard, or beard weave as Tyra called it—and what it stands for—is the sole reason I continue to indulge in Tyra’s immaculate circus.
Nothing tops it, and yet the beauty of Top Model is that millions of similar examples exist (Tyra once had the male models dress up in women’s clothing and vice versa for a pointless role reversal challenge). The lace front beard is a symbol of everything magical and horrible about this show. I cannot stop watching or else I’ll die. I’m sure of it.
I’m so glad Hope is alive, but by cycle 21, I, along with other formerly avid Top Model viewers, had long since checked out.
Top Model may never have broken a supermodel like Naomi Campbell, but for several years into the show’s run, it did manage to produce many working models. Models like Bre Scullark and Whitney Thompson were seen in multiple national advertisements for fashion and beauty brands; Danielle Evans and Jaslene Gonzalez have secured consistent runway work; Anya Rozova, among others, enjoyed great success in international markets; and past contestants managed to become legitimate high-fashion models, including Fatima Siad, who appeared in shows for brands like Hermès.
Of course, others, including Yaya DaCosta, Eva Marcille and Analeigh Tipton, became working actresses. There are also the many, many former contestants who continued to appear on reality shows, although Isis King deserves the biggest kudos for appearing on Oxygen’s Strut, which centered on the experience of transgender models.
And yet most of these contestants are from much earlier seasons. (Also: Insert a prayer for the former stars with not amazing luck postshow.) The only newer ANTM contestant to make a big impact in the modeling world that the show touts is Givenchy campaign star Leila Goldkuhl, who was in cycle 19, aka the “College Edition.”
Like American Idol, Top Model is a show that started off strong, then produced actual successes, only to fall flat on its face after allowing age and gimmicks to rip at its past luster. However, unlike American Idol, Top Model is in the unique position of having a much stronger chance of repairing its cultural capital, thanks to the current climate. In the age of Gigi Hadid and fake freedom fighter for sugar water Kendall Jenner, a reality-TV stint can actually serve as a catalyst for a major career. The same goes for social media popularity.
Even so, the show has to rely far less on gimmicks and more on, uh, model-making. The show doesn’t need male competitors crowding the field and lace-front wigs distracting us in the goofiest ways imaginable. Likewise, although Banks has announced a new casting call that removes age limits, if ANTM is to include older contestants, may the show genuinely try to help curb ageism in the modeling world, as opposed to creating a “twist” that ultimately just takes away from what the show is supposed to be about. In other words, don’t be Trump University with this, Tyra.
If this show is really to succeed, it ought to work aggressively to live up to its original premise better and go back to creating working models. Otherwise, Top Model will be like other reality shows that don’t know when to let go. I want Tyra Banks to make ANTM great again, but if she’s thinking skunk hair-meets-Big Brother for season 24, please, let it be the last. It will be too embarrassing—like the reality-TV equivalent of the last season of Martin, when Gina clearly wanted to go to the secret room hiding Family Matters’ Judy Winslow and the original Harriet instead of filming with the Marty Mar.