Catfights, explosive eliminations, buzzcuts and beard weaves: these were just some of the things that made America’s Next Top Model great. Guaranteeing viewers a drama-fuelled hour of mindless trash, ANTM was the ultimate escape from real-world troubles, a show in which a group of women were forced to “smize” (to smile with your eyes, non-ANTM watchers) aggressively and walk on catwalks that definitely didn’t pass health and safety checks (think zorbing in high heels) in order to win a contract with a modelling agency. Its cartoonish contestants (The Pageant Girl, The Goth, The Girl That Nobody Likes), plus presenter Tyra Banks, ensured viewers a constant stream of tantrums and tears.
This couldn’t be sustained for ever, however. ANTM had two drastic phases of decline – one of which began in season 18, when it messed with the formula with the so-called “British Invasion”. It saw the arrival of seven members from the far inferior UK spin-off, competing against seven American contestants. The failure of the British models to live up to their US counterparts was encapsulated in episode one when the American models go skinny-dipping, sending the British girls into a meek meltdown, not knowing where to look. It detracted from the brash, explicit American humour that often makes reality TV worth tuning in for. This is not a show you watch in order to chuckle at passive-aggressive comments and clever quips. Its appeal lies in the screaming matches and salacious gossip propagated by its attention-seeking contestants.
Many fans had hoped that this season was a blip, but things only got worse as the producers attempted to win back lost viewers (US ratings slumped to 1.34 million from a high of 6.4 million) by altering the voting process. In a bid to appeal to an audience fixated on their phones, viewers were now able to participate in the judging by rating each model based on their social media presence. Not only were contestants forced to pose semi-nude with a swarm of bees for a jewellery shoot, now they had to make sure their filter was right in order to dazzle online. The previous judges, who included model Twiggy and fashion photographer Nigel Barker, were replaced by PR experts and Twitter personalities, whose decisions, along with the public vote, would dictate who would leave each week. High-end spreads for Vogue were suddenly swapped for online challenges.
These changes quickly transformed the show from a semi-serious modelling competition into an Instagram popularity contest, a gear-shift that felt like a cheap grab for the zeitgeist. Allowing the public to decide who stayed and who left had disastrous consequences, putting too much focus on likability, a trait missing from some of the show’s best, most memorable (and sometimes meanest) contestants.
With its vacuous new format, the show struts towards its 25th season in 2020, leaving me no choice but to say: America’s Next Top Model, pack your bags – you’re no longer in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Reality Show.