TV to See

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Tyra Banks

TV to See: America’s Next Top Model

September 01, 2008
by Liz Colville
On September 3, “America’s Next Top Model” begins its 11th season, hoping to feed off the success of the 10th season and its first full-figured winner, Whitney.

“America’s Next Top Model” launched in 2003, a pioneer of the model-themed reality series. It has an impressive following, even if it doesn’t churn out the kinds of models described in its title. The show has grown from its rather fantastical premise into, in many cases, a career-starter with a positive message. A steady stream of promising contestants has meant, as for the long-running shows “Project Runway” and “American Idol,” the strength of the show has not faded over time. Moving to the CW network in 2007 after the WB merged with UPN, “ANTM” became a centerpiece of the teen-targeted station, and along with shows like “Gossip Girl” and mainstays like “One Tree Hill” and “Smallville,” it has helped keep the fledging network afloat.

Since starting the show five years ago, Banks has simultaneously been working on other projects, the biggest of which is her daytime talk show, “The Tyra Banks Show.” The talk show reflects her admiration of Oprah Winfrey; both have production companies with similar programming. It caters to girls and women, and deals with topics like self-esteem, friendship, school, sexual health, family and more. There has been some overlap between Banks’s two shows, with Banks holding informal group discussions with the girls on “ANTM”—particularly when they aren’t getting along. Her talk show has also featured past contestants and judges, and included episodes devoted to the modeling industry and makeovers.

A Slice of “Reality”

Like most reality TV series that force a group of strangers to live together, “ANTM” is full of drama: cattiness, physical fights, jealousy, incendiary commentary and an unwillingness to do the dishes. It’s unclear what part of the show draws the most viewers: the glammed-up photo shoots that let young viewers (and contestants) live vicariously through the supermodel lifestyle, or the off hours, when the girls tour foreign cities, grumpily rise before dawn, fight over lifestyle differences and shower schedules, and hold dramatic discussions in the kitchen of their souped-up makeshift model house. It must be a combination of the two. But unlike a lot of present-day reality shows, there is a viable competition involved in “ANTM” with money and careers at stake. This is an undeniable part of the show’s stickiness.

The Boundaries of Beauty

Whitney Thompson is a plus-size model with bone structure that immediately captivated Tyra Banks and the other Season 10 judges. She pushed the envelope for the show, exuding confidence and proving that the camera loved her with photos that ranged from grungy to classic. Thompson beat out Anya, whom the judges believed to have more of an “in” look—pale, Eastern European features—and suddenly the show had raised the bar. It had included plus-size models in past competitions, but none had ever reached the final. Like other past winners, Whitney was featured on the cover of Seventeen and won a contract with a top agency, Elite Model Management. The New York Post, the first publication to interview Thompson, called the result a “shocker.” Thompson told the Post, “People always say you have to be stick-skinny, emaciated and unhealthy and I've kind of stood up for [being full-figured] my whole life.”

Thompson added in that interview that she believed Tyra Banks, who has dealt with weight gain during her successful career as a model, related to Thompson and was “pulling for” Thompson “deep down.” The finalist is decided by Banks and other panelists: last season, they included long-time “ANTM” judge and photographer Nigel Barker and supermodel Paulina Porizkova, who replaced British icon Twiggy for Cycle 10.

The new season of “ANTM” has been creating buzz since the early summer, when it was revealed that one of the contestants is transgendered. The show has been welcoming of openly lesbian and bisexual contestants, but this is the first time a transgendered audition made the final cut. Reality TV World, a news source for dozens of reality shows, recaps the news on its site. The show’s executive producer, Ken Mok, told the press that Isis, 22, will help “redefine what beauty is” on the show, just as Whitney did in Cycle 10. Isis was “born physically male,” she explains, but “mentally, everything else, I was going female.”

Tuning into “Top Model”

“America’s Next Top Model” Cycle 11 premiers on the CW at 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday, September 3. Video highlights and streaming episodes can be found on the CW’s Video Web site, and the full season and episodes can be purchased on iTunes.

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