Model Citizens

12.03.07: Tyra + pizza + couch = perfect Wednesday


I'm not eating as much pizza as I used to (for obvious reasons), but I do have it every Wednesday night. In fact, I've turned my weekly pie into a weekly TV-viewing ritual. After I tuck Truman into bed, I order a large supreme, pour myself a cold one (Diet Rite, of course), and then snuggle back onto my wide-with-pride ass to view with equal parts supercilious cynicism and voyeuristic delight what must surely be the most entertaining hour of television currently playing: America's Next Top Model.

If you're not familiar with this little slice of reality TV heaven, let me bring you up to speed: Supermodel Tyra Banks hand selects 14 model-material girls from around the country, puts them up in a house in Los Angeles, runs them through a series of photo shoots and silly challenges, eliminates one each week, and at the end of the season declares the last woman standing-you guessed it-America's Next Top Model!

The girls are, as you might suspect, genetically gifted freaks of nature-whippet-thin, fine-boned, impossibly tall, very young (generally 18 to 22) living marionettes. They arrive on set with nothing but their hopes and dreams (and suitcases full of skeezy size 1 clothes). Tyra and her panel of fashion judges-which includes "fashion icon" Twiggy," "runway diva" J. Alexander, and "noted fashion photographer" Nigel Barker-proceed to build them up and break them down, week after week after week.

The girls will undergo dramatic makeovers in which blondes mostly go blonder and extensions mostly get longer-but in which someone's hair will also inevitably get completely chopped off, resulting in high drama and lots of tears. They will be made to hang from wires or dangle from the side of a building or kiss a tarantula. They will participate in an arty concept shoot that only Tyra will understand, such as donning an elephant nose or portraying a neck wound. They will be subjected to ridicule, abandonment, and extreme heat and/or cold. They will be forced to work while sick (the sicker the better), and be told to like it. They will be treated like soulless mannequins-which is, of course, the job they're signing up for.

Along the way, there's a lot of teeth-gnashing and high drama, which makes some very fun viewing. The best part, I must confess, is that just this one time, the tables are turned-I get to feel superior to these ditzy dimwits, girls who are physically speaking in every way superior to me. The show is in its ninth season, and with very few exceptions, these girls are less than swift-they are vain and shallow, just as you'd expect them to be. They're doing their best to take it all seriously, but it's just so lightweight-they are just so lightweight-that it's hard not to mock them and gleefully throw pepperoni at the screen.

In personal interviews, they'll face the camera in all seriousness (sometimes tearfully) and say, "I know I was born to be America's Next Top Model! I've wanted this my whole life. I'll work hard, I'll do whatever it takes."

This makes me giggle, but it makes me sad, too. Somehow, I think, such a statement is what you might expect to hear from a young person who wanted to be an astronaut some day, or maybe president. But these girls are basically talking about lining up to have their picture taken, throwing on some clothes and taking a short walk. It ain't rocket science.

But Tyra seems hell-bent on making sure that everybody knows that modeling is a lot more complicated than people (like me) might think. Part of the show's format each episode is to set up a shoot so difficult and convoluted that it takes a tremendous amount of balance/coordination/bravery/chutzpah to pull it off at all. In general, these contrivances are ridiculous (shoot in a wind tunnel upside down, beside a burning car, in a grave, etc.). But tsk-tsking each little model's failure, Tyra likes to say, "It's not as easy as you thought, is it?"

Of course, she's not saying that to them; she's saying that to us. She's no washed-up Victoria's Secret model with an oversized outboard; no, she's a smart cookie with two TV shows of her own (America's Next Top Model and The Tyra Banks Show) and an eye toward Oprahdom.

Perhaps that's why she regularly bangs another drum on America's Next Top Model: Hard work pays off, hard work pays off, hard work pays off. The American dream dictates that you can be anything when you grow up if you work hard enough, and Tyra likes to cast herself as the realization of that very up-by-the-boot-straps work ethic. And she likes to reward hard work on her show-for a while. But watch for more than a few weeks-as the competition gets tighter, the hard workers inevitable fall by the wayside. In the end, good genes are what makes a model, and effort has little, if anything to do with it. (To drive that point home, each season seems to offer one or two beauties who just don't care-they don't even want to be there. Tyra does her best to tough love them into line, and they go almost all the way before finally they leave on their own or do something egregious to get themselves kicked off.) What's left are the beautiful girls who will cluelessly dictate what our cultural body image should be for the next five to ten years (before they're replaced).

As a woman who's dealt with a lifetime of relative dumpiness, I'd always felt a certain antipathy toward models-I thought of them as these evil creatures, conspiring to make average women feel bad about themselves. America's Next Top Model has revealed them for what they are: very silly, very vapid little girls with very little life experience or perspective. Seeing them, caught up in such idiotic vanity, makes me feel better about myself somehow. It makes me want to order my pizza with extra cheese.

Hillari Dowdle is now resigned to the fact that she will never get that contract with Elite Model Management, and-in fact-may never have her own fashion spread in Seventeen magazine.