5 Times 'America’s Next Top Model' Was Just The Shadiest Show On TV
America's Next Top Model was a show that was almost impossible to look away from. On the surface, it was an incredibly standard "become the next big X" reality show. When looking deeper, though, it had enough bizarre moments to draw the attention of even the biggest reality skeptic. It's like an iceberg, and the further down a viewer went, the wilder things got.
Yes, a show about modeling was that insane. America's Next Top Model, or ANTM as it's often called, premiered in 2003. Hosted by supermodel Tyra Banks, ANTM's mission was to turn contestants into fashion icons who would walk runways and grace magazine covers around the world. But, the modeling competition show often felt like it was organized by a Jigsaw Killer-type figure of the fashion world whose sole purpose was to make contestants as physically and emotionally uncomfortable as possible.
Oh, and blackface. There was way too much blackface. Cause any amount of blackface is too much blackface ...
They Dropped The Ball With The First Winner
It's no secret that reality and game show prizes come with caveats. That big million-dollar prize is going to be a lot less after taxes. That new car is now reflected on your income, even if you couldn't afford to buy it otherwise. These are at least somewhat expected, though. In the first season of America's Next Top Model, the prize caveats might have been much worse.
This is all alleged, but season 1 winner Adrianne Curry has been outspoken about what contestants were told vs. what they received. The winner of Top Model season 1 was supposed to get a contract with modeling agency Wilhelmina and a deal with Revlon cosmetics. But, according to Curry, these deals either didn't happen at all or happened with bold asterisks.
Allegedly, Revlon was uninterested in using the ANTM winner for any ad campaigns. This likely had something to do with the stigma of reality TV. The infamously hard to break into fashion world struggled to take a reality show winner seriously, and the goofy tone of Top Model did little to ease these fears. For an up-and-coming model, a campaign like this could help book future deals. Instead, according to Curry, Revlon offered her $15,000 for a small amount of makeup modeling that would never be in an ad. And then she didn't get the money. That was it.
As for the Wilhelmina deal, Curry says that she was signed to them, which makes that situation a bit better than the Revlon debacle. However, behind-the-scenes politics allegedly affected how the agency treated her. The people at Wilhelmina were told that the agency would be involved in future seasons of the show, but when a competing agency was selected for season 2, Wilhelmina, in Curry's view, took out their frustrations by limiting her opportunities.
Curry's situation was not how every contestant was treated. You can take almost any season of the show and find contestants who were able to leverage their participation in the show into long and successful modeling careers. But it also shows a problem. The show is called America's Next Top Model, but contestants were often treated more like reality show contestants than models. This was true both in the show and in the real world once they were off-camera.
The Death Shoot(s)
Okay, so Adrianne Curry's potential lack of promised prizes shows that, much like every other reality show, there may have been some lies or bent truths. Other incidents in the show would leave viewers scratching their heads at what seemed to be personalized torment for contestants. For an example, look no further than the two occasions where a contestant learned that a friend died ... only to have to pose as a corpse for a photoshoot.
For our first dead friend/dead photoshoot case, turn your attention to season 4 and contestant Kahlen Rondot. She received the news that her best friend died, and then she had to pose dead in a coffin for a shoot based on the Seven Deadly Sins. The timing was odd, meaning that either it was a complete coincidence, a manufactured moment for the cameras, or a bit of a cruel joke from the producers.
Naturally, they did the same thing a few years later in season 8. Jael Strauss learned that a close friend died from a drug overdose. She then had to pose in a shoot where the contestants were victims in a crime scene.
Now, someone who is too trusting of Tyra Banks and reality TV might say that these were just coincidences, and they may be right. It sure feels strange, though. For a show that often felt like it was designed to be a personal purgatory for contestants, having two death-themed events happening at the times they did just comes off as too off suspicious.
That Time They Made Everyone “Biracial”
In Hawaiian, "hapa" literally means "part" or "half." It has grown to refer to people who are part Hawaiian, Asian, or Pacific Islander. Now, there is a fair degree of controversy over who should be able to call themselves "hapa" since it is a specifically Hawaiian word, and there is no single universally accepted answer. Everyone could probably agree that the ANTM version of hapa is not correct, though.
The Top Model version, which viewers got to experience during a season 13 trip to Hawaii, involved contestants being dressed up as combinations of two different races … yeah. Highlights include Japanese and Malagasy, Native American and Indian, and Botswana and Polynesian. This resulted in a lot of blackface.
In rewatching ANTM, a lot of the more uncomfortable moments can be brushed off as products of their time. Season 13 aired in 2009, and it wasn't as common for everyone and everything to be viewed under a microscope as it is today. Plus, the fashion world is notorious for being, to put it nicely, insensitive in racial matters. However, even at the time, there were still critics of the photoshoot.
Regardless of if you want to argue that it's offensive or not, though, the photos are some of the most cringey of the entire series. Vague ideas of what cultures look like mashed together onto someone who embodies neither just appeared not good.
And as with any moment involving this show, it got the conspiracy gears turning. Was this done to intentionally make the models look bad? Was Tyra Banks legitimately that delusional that she thought this would look good? If the show actually wanted to turn contestants into top models, putting them in situations where they could only fail is a bad way to do it.
The Phantom All-Stars Winner
If you find yourself deep enough in the ANTM rabbit hole, you might start watching season 17, the All-Stars season. By this time, the illusion of this being a modeling contest was pretty much entirely gone, and Tyra was getting contestants to do all sorts of non-modeling shenanigans. One episode saw the All-Stars having to record cringe music videos for songs they wrote themselves. This gave us the instant classic "Go, Go, Go" by Alexandria Everett.
No, No, No
Even more of a yikes moment, though, is what happened with the finale. The season narrowed the field of models down until three remained: Allison Harvard, Lisa D'Amato, and Angelea Preston. They then competed in a final series of challenges, which normally would take the contestants immediately to a final judging session where a winner was declared.
Instead, judging took place seemingly much later, and only Allison Harvard and Lisa D'Amato were present. Tyra Banks said that Angelea Preston had been disqualified for undisclosed reasons, and D'Amato was declared the winner. The entire finale has this surreal tone like it was rushed into filming as a last-second replacement.
This is because, according to Preston, it was a last-second replacement. Preston claims that she was initially the All-Stars winner, but she was later disqualified. Preston admits that she had been an escort before appearing on America's Next Top Model. She claims she told producers this before the season, but they did not take any action about it until after the season had wrapped.
When you see moments like this, it makes it too easy to go deeper into conspiracy mode. What other oddities occurred throughout the show? Were there other phantom winners? How deep does this go? Either way, though, the Angelea Preston situation just leaves a melancholic taste due to just how poor she claims her treatment on the show was
As someone with no understanding of fashion and modeling outside of the world of America's Next Top Model, the standards of what is considered "beautiful" in fashion seem arbitrary. That, or it was run by sociopaths doing social experiments on unsuspecting young women. Either way.
This is, of course, a segue into the makeover part of the show. As presented, the makeovers were intended to turn "average girls" into supermodels. What these moments look like, though, are Tyra Banks' fashion experiments, and some of them looked bafflingly bad. Complaining about one's new look was seen as a major no-no in ANTM as well, and doing so led to more than a few contestants getting axed.
The experiences of two contestants show how seemingly random (or not…) Tyra's fashion transformations could be. Season 6's eventual winner, Dani Evans, had a gap between her two front teeth. She liked the gap and thought it was charming in photos. Tyra Banks disagreed and wanted it to be closed. Again, arguing with Tyra on something like this seemed like a good way to get yourself eliminated, so Evans reluctantly agreed. She got to keep a slight gap, but her teeth were more resembling Tyra's image.
Okay, that sounds a bit strange and controlling on its own. It gets worse when you learn that in season 15, Tyra Banks had a dentist file a contestant's teeth down to widen a similar gap. Yes, Chelsey Hersley had a slight gap, but Tyra thought she could be more noteworthy as a model if the gap was more prominent. Having one's teeth filed like that could not be anyone's favorite activity, but again, if the decision was argued, Hersey would likely be off the show.
It's hard to know what to do with the tooth gap controversies. It looks bad that an African American contestant needed to have perfect teeth while the white contestant could do with worse teeth. Or maybe Tyra Banks' whims are just random. It's hard to know, but it's uncomfortable to watch.
This is how the America's Next Top Model iceberg goes. Each season is filled with these little moments that seem borderline cruel, and then even more surreal things happen to distract you enough to get your mind off what you just saw. Sorry to modern reality shows, but the odds of matching ANTM in terms of insanity are very low.
But to end on a lighter note, they eventually brought guys on the show, and Tyra thought it would be a good idea to give this dude a beard weave.
America's Next Top Image: CBS Studios