The startling nonchalance with which the sketchy behavior displayed on shows like The Apprentice, American Idol, Survivor and America’s Next Top Model is greeted is a constant source of distress in my house. Networks have funny ways of editing their shows that make it seem as if participants on these programs are more like characters in a film, but are these distortions so perverse and questionable that we have completely forgotten that we are watching “real” people, no matter how much they may play to the camera? Careful if you take insult to Simon Cowell’s rampant homophobia or American Idol’s “suspenseful” degradation of an effeminate boy across the entirety of one of the show’s episodes or you may be accused of stunting someone else’s sense of fun. It’s not that reality television has spread like a cancer but that it’s caused sensible people to lose sight of their common humanity.
ANTM is possibly the best reality show on network television. It’s consistently funny and gripping but also presents a weekly challenge to the fashion industry by host Tyra Banks. Every year at least one girl is picked by the supermodel to participate on her show not just for her good looks but for her ability to cause optimum drama. The decision is so calculated that Tyra’s admonition of the contestant during the show’s elimination round constitutes a startling hypocrisy—like inviting Tom Cruise into your home for a dinner party and acting shocked when he starts jumping on your couch. But this is Tyra’s only concession to the industry’s numbers game, which dictates from a UPN boardroom that ANTM would go belly up if it didn’t have someone like Jade Rodan scaring the other contestants.
But there’s a noble objective to Tyra’s faux alarmism. Jade is on the show first and foremost because she is striking and takes great pictures, second because she is a firecracker. Tyra understands that Jade, like Janice Dickinson, represents a very unpleasant side of the modeling industry that shouldn’t be denied representation on her show, but worries about self-absorbed girls like these getting to a point where they will treat another model the way Dickinson did Gina Choe early in the season, by manipulating her to “rat out” the girl who was giving her trouble only to callously admonish her for doing so. Tyra’s exchanges with Jade during the show’s elimination rounds are beyond pep talks—they’re interventions between a misbehaving child and a den mother. This may be hard to believe for someone who doesn’t watch this show, but ANTM doesn’t just hinge on a spectacle of fierceness and bitchiness but a corny-as-hell Tyra’s earnest belief that her show can change the industry. Bringing warmth to a cold enterprise is her affront.
ANTM is predicated on lines: when they should be crossed, how to do so, and when they shouldn’t. Some kind of line was crossed this season when big-lipped Brooke Staricha told Nnenna Agba, “Go back to Africa.” I made the mistake in my house of jokingly calling Brooke’s outburst a “Crash moment”—which was taken to mean that I thought Brooke’s outburst was racist when all I meant was that it was racially charged. I hadn’t quite figured out what the comment meant at the time, but one of my roommates decided they had. In short: it meant nothing. Brooke was reacting only to Nnenna’s phone-hogging and that she would have just as easily have said “go back to France” if the girl hailed from Paris. Except, my roommate forgets, that Nnenna isn’t from Africa but from Texas (where she was born), and no one has told Jade to go back to Philadelphia just yet. This sort of face-value reading of reality television that goes on in my home, a willful refusal to engage the implications of the behavior we see on these shows, is made permissible by reality television’s typically snide, disinterested aesthetics. ANTM, though, deserves more consideration than this because it tries to buck conventional responses.
What’s startling about Brooke’s comment to Nnenna is not so much that it’s offensive—it is—but that it’s misdirected. It’s not Nnenna she’s in disagreement with so much as the image the show has constructed around the girl that correlates her perceived essential goodness to her African heritage. Nnenna, a chemist who lived in Nigeria most of her life, has been compared to Iman by Tyra, and when asked what she would do for a living besides modeling, Nnenna said that she would like to go back to Africa and work toward finding an AIDS vaccine. “Of course,” one of my roommates humorously said at the time, responding to the way the show was fluffing her seemingly evolving faultlessness. Nnenna’s decency, though, was cast in doubt when she started having problems with her boyfriend and started lashing out against Brooke and others. Nnenna had become human, and though she’s just about the kindest girl in the house at her worst, the “new” Nnenna confounds her fellow models (and the show’s viewers) about how a girl of Nigerian descent, thankful to be alive and living in America, should behave.
Race and politics play an integral part on ANTM, which has been attracting more women of color than usual in recent seasons. Tyra has made it no secret that with representation there is power, and though I’m not sure Gina and Leslie Mancia ever really deserved to be in the running this season, their presence was Tyra’s continued attempt to confound popular notions of beauty that favor non-ethnic faces. I’m led to believe that Nnenna will win this year’s show, not because of any personal allegiance (in recent weeks, my one roommate has taken to likening me to her—”Crash moment!”) or because the show’s editing in recent shows (as pointed out by Rich Juzwiak on his blog, whose witty aesthetics could help to liven up the show even more) constitutes a rather obvious attempt to mute her early frontrunner status. She will win because, unlike Furonda Brasfield and Danielle Mahoney, her presence is as striking in person as it is in pictures, and she reveals an attitude that isn’t easily summarized: ethnic beauty that is exotic but seems to actively resist exoticization (what does it say that her worst picture to date has a faux African landscape for a backdrop?). She promises Tyra an ambassadorship only a fool would be willing to pass up.