It sounds troublingly shallow, but when I saw the tweet that said “Holy shit, ANTM [America’s Next Top Model] is on Amazon Prime” my heart soared. I am not one who can pretend the pandemic isn’t still raging but, in that fleeting moment, I felt a spiritual lightness I hadn’t experienced since 2019.
I dropped everything to binge the episodes, then fell deep into a rabbit hole of detective work: where are the contestants now? Are they on Instagram? I found a whole subsection of TikTok dedicated to calling out where the show was problematic, and YouTuber Oliver Twixt has a highly viewed series of interviews with ANTM contestants levelling accusations of maltreatment at the show’s producers. Whatever the reason, ANTM is back in the cultural sphere.
For the uninitiated, ANTM premiered in 2003 and continued for 24 series or “cycles”, until its last gasp in 2018. Each season, young wannabe models competed for a modelling contract. They were mentored by supermodel Tyra Banks and her fellow judges, including runway coach Miss J Alexander who participated in 18 cycles.
Way back in 2003, we weren’t where we are now in terms of trans or non-binary representation. Cycle 1 contestant Robin Manning christened Alexander “Miss J” to differentiate them from creative director “Mr” Jay Manuel. As we’re now in 2021, I ask Miss J to clarify the pronoun situation. “Miss J answers to all and any pronouns ... Just respect me – call me what you want – but don’t forget to sign that cheque.” There’s something pleasingly quaint about the fact Miss J flip-flopped his pronouns and gender expression – often wearing self-made dresses on the judging panel – without having to label himself as trans, non-binary or a drag queen. Nowadays he would be asked to define himself; here I am, literally doing just that.
Miss J appeared in hundreds of episodes, so it’s not surprising that his decade on the show is something of a blur to him. “I look back on that time as me, doing me, being me,” he says. “Feeling fierce and fabulous. Being creative. I created my wardrobe.” But not all the memories are good ones. “I think about the girls, what they went through and how they were treated. I look at the backlash and I do wonder if we knew what we were putting them through.”
Indeed. Some moments have aged terribly. Yes, I’m thinking of the two occasions when white models donned blackface for photoshoots. The show is also guilty of cultural insensitivity - visits to overseas destinations were treated as an excuse to caricature indigenous peoples – and pressuring contestants to lose weight.
Miss J is philosophical: “I can’t speak on the photoshoots because I wasn’t on [them].” I suggest it’s slightly unfair to judge TV from 15 years ago by today’s more enlightened standards. Miss J agrees. “Did we mean harm? No. I didn’t understand it, why [the blackface] photoshoot happened. Was the idea to make them feel what it’s liked to be mixed? I would have asked them what the takeaway was. But it wouldn’t fly right now.”
Some of the former contestants have been less than complimentary about the show, since it re-entered the spotlight. “Some of the girls got upset because they didn’t make it,” says Miss J. “They were competing with other girls and only one girl can win. So now they feel they didn’t get the support they needed. But these girls watched the show. They knew the formula.”
And there definitely was a formula. Audiences came to recognise that if a contestant spoke about her home life, it was almost certainly because she was returning to it by the conclusion of that episode. You could also set your watch by the moment when a pretty prom queen-type entered the salon for “makeover week”. Nothing beats the feeling when the stylist takes that Rapunzel-length ponytail in hand and cruelly snips it off while the poor model wails. TV gold.
“It was as good for me as it was for you!” Miss J laughs. I’m always surprised that the contestants were surprised. Surely they’d seen the show before? “They knew what they were getting into. They knew we were gonna chop that shit off! Why talk shit about it online?”
A few contestants went on to greatness: Winnie Harlow and Leila Goldkuhl notably escaped the “curse” of Top Model, and worked with Calvin Klein and Chanel among others. But most (including a smattering of male models) returned to small-town obscurity. For some, their post-show destiny involved prison (Renee Alway) or addiction (Jael Strauss); one former contestant was murdered (Mirjana Puhar).
Even with the criticisms of exploitation directed at talent shows, Miss J thinks there’s still life in the old format. “The fashion world has changed,” he says. “Plus-size models on the catwalk; dark-skinned models are totally taking over. Black Lives Matter has meant everyone wants a Black girl in their campaign. There’s a lot of trans models – and no-one knows. Some are out, some aren’t.” In fairness to ANTM, they were ahead of the curve there. Trans model and actor Isis King competed on the show in 2008, one of the first prominent trans women of colour to break through into the mainstream.
But post #MeToo, and with a far greater awareness of the exploitation of young models, is it OK to portray the world of fashion as even dimly aspirational? Would it be safe even? “It can be, because right now everything is microscopically watched,” says Miss J. “We need to change our tone and language. It needs to be a safe space for all of us.”
Despite everything, I really, really hope they bring it back. I want more. I’m sorry, I can’t help it; I do. I wonder if, when we dig out the comfort blankets of our past, it’s a subconscious desire to flee back. I watched ANTM in my early 20s when I was truly free for the first time in my life. It was pre-mortgages, pre-pandemic, before my transition and all the transphobia that came with it. Truly, a simpler time. I think that’s what I’m trying to find within America’s Next Top Model, the carefree Juno I was back then.