In a memorable Cycle Seven episode of America’s Next Top Model, 19-year-old contestant Jaeda Young confides in host Tyra Banks that her male model scene partner for an upcoming CoverGirl commercial said he wasn’t looking forward to kissing her because he doesn’t like Black girls. It’s clear Young is worried that this will affect her performance and may, in fact, lead to her elimination. But Banks doesn’t sympathize. Instead, she says Young should kiss him to make him realize how great kissing a Black woman can be. Rather than offer help, Banks chides Young for not knowing — as a teen — how to navigate racism in the workplace.
Cringeworthy moments like these weren’t uncommon on the 24-cycle show. Like the young models it cast, ANTM was super-eager when it began in 2003. It dove headfirst into deep conversations about race with a neutral moral stance of “bothsidesism” that reflected the morale of earlier reality shows like The Real World, even though it espoused the progressive viewpoint that the modeling world needed change. Its penchant for tough conversations about race often forced young Black women to face racist situations head-on with little support from the show itself, which would simply encourage models to develop a thicker skin.
Now, despite years of undying loyalty, longtime fans have begun to air out long-standing grievances. They’re ready to go beneath the surface and find the rotten pulp in the show’s teeth. And at the top of the list is its unfair, exploitative and downright antagonistic attitude toward many of the models, especially the young Black ones.
Just as ANTM served as a blueprint for much of the current reality-TV landscape, the 2020 discourse around ANTM has served as a blueprint for a widespread move toward greater accountability for media that employs racist tropes. This summer alone, 30 Rock, Community and other shows have pulled episodes featuring the use of blackface from streaming services. An episode of Golden Girls featuring Blanche and Rose wearing mud masks was also removed, courting a minor controversy. Most of this happened after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter, as well as after several media companies, including Condé Nast, were forced to answer for a longstanding history of racism in their workplace.
To understand the criticism levied against ANTM, it’s important to understand the myriad ways in which it broke new ground. It debuted on May 20, 2003, directly after the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy’s finale (17-year-later spoiler alert!) saw every young girl in the world unlock her slayer potential, rise up and become a slayer. America’s Next Top Model espoused a similar thesis: that young women across the world had potential that just needed to be unlocked and nurtured. But instead of slaying vampires, these young girls could be taught to slay the runway.
Acting as a counterpoint to the whitewashed heroin-chic aesthetic of the 1990s fashion world, the show embraced women of color, especially Black women, and offered them access to big-name designers, photographers and industry insiders that so many up-and-coming models of color sorely lack. In the process, the show frequently patted itself on the back for celebrating Black beauty in all shades — even while often sacrificing young Black women to the reality-TV gods.
At the time, there was no show on TV that sold the fantasy as well as ANTM that any girl from small-town America could be plucked from obscurity, taught to walk and smile with her eyes and end up on a Milan runway. “By watching even the clumsiest girl master a catwalk strut or the plainest girl win a modeling challenge,” Stacia L. Brown wrote in the Washington Post, “we grew to understand just how much grace is a strategy (rather than an innate and unteachable gift).” ANTM proved that beauty — the kind the fashion industry extolls at least — is learned. What we lack is what the show gives each cycle of contestants — the know-how (lessons in smizing and runway walks); the look (a makeover); and feedback (a weekly critique).
The love for the show is clear in its longevity (there are more than 300 hour-long ANTM episodes). It built a franchise that outlasted every one of its 2003 reality TV classmates, including Joe Millionaire, Punk’d, The Surreal Life, the original Queer Eye, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica and The Simple Life. At the center of ANTM’s success is its creator, executive producer, host and star, Tyra Banks. Though Banks had another show named after her at the time — her daytime talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, which netted her a Daytime Emmy — there’s no denying that it’s ANTM that she will always be synonymous with.
The show adopted a decidedly queer aesthetic, too, both in its concept and its execution. Banks performed a camp version of herself that became only more bombastic as the series progressed. While it celebrated Black and Brown women, it also centered Black and Brown queer people and featured an extensive cast of QPOC professionals. It proved that the modeling industry, while extolling white-supremacist beauty ideals, got its flair from the beauty and grace of Black and Brown queerness. To that end, it featured creative director Jay Manuel, runway diva coach extraordinaire J. Alexander, posing coach Benny Ninja, makeup artist Sutan Amrull, judges Nolé Marin and André Leon Talley and more.
ANTM ingrained itself in so many young people of color because it offered us so many possibilities — both in its contestants and its judges. But that doesn’t mean the show should be immune from criticism. As we’ve seen in the wake of #MeToo and the ongoing BLM movement, many people and institutions are capable of both help and harm.
Case in point: RuPaul’s Drag Race features more Black and Brown queer people than any other reality show on TV, yet receives near-constant critique for the ways it favors its white contestants. And, of course, its host, RuPaul, is almost universally maligned for his position on transgender cast members and for allegedly hosting a fracking rig on his Wyoming ranch. (The same goes for many of our other queer heroes: Ellen DeGeneres tied her career to the train tracks to force Americans to confront their homophobia, but that doesn’t mean she’s above being held accountable for her own behavior.)
America’s Next Top Model is no different. As a show, it exalted the tenets of diversity, acceptance and beauty in all shapes and sizes. But it was also a television show backed by a major network. It was meant, ultimately, to make TV execs money. And to do so, it had to entertain, which often meant creating situations that threw young Black women under the bus.
In Cycle Six, judges pressured eventual winner Dani Evans, who is Black, to close the gap in her front teeth even though they later encouraged a white contestant to widen hers by shaving a millimeter off each tooth. In Cycle Three, runner-up Yaya DaCosta faced a judges’ firing squad for being “defensive” about the pride she had in her Blackness. DaCosta spoke about the experience in 2018, when Love & Hip Hop: Miami star Amara La Negra struggled to talk about Afro-Latinx identity on reality TV. At the time, DaCosta said, “Unfortunately, 14 years later, nothing has changed. Same ignorance, new show. It took a lot of work to heal from that experience, and looking back, I feel so much for that eager, vulnerable young version of myself.”
The list doesn’t end there. Banks criticized an out lesbian contestant, Cycle Five’s Kim Stolz, for being a bit too gay. The show also infamously put the models in Blackface multiple times, most famously in Cycle Four when they shot a “Got Milk?” ad while switching ethnicities. Banks later told one white contestant, Brittany Brower, that a photo of her in Blackface holding a Black baby reminded her of a picture of her mother holding her when she was a child.
These grievances might seem old — Cycle Three aired in 2004, cycles four and five in 2005 and cycles six and seven in 2006 — but the backlash grew loud enough recently that Banks herself stepped in to offer a statement on May 8, 2020. “Been seeing the posts about the insensitivity of some past ANTM moments, and I agree with you,” she wrote. “Looking back, those were some really off choices. Appreciate your honest feedback and am sending so much love and virtual hugs.”
Her non-apology was seemingly in response to the slew of questions fans have raised to a couple of its biggest stars, Mr. and Ms. Jay (Jay Manuel and J. Alexander respectively), on Jays Chat, an Instagram show meant to answer fan questions. For unknown reasons, Alexander exited the show shortly after it launched, leaving Manuel to host alongside guests from different seasons, including Cycle Three contestant Toccara Jones and aforementioned makeup artist Sutan Amrull (better known as Drag Race winner Raja).
During the Season Three Jays Chat, Manuel glosses over DaCosta’s incident, emphasizing instead that she’s had an extensive career since, implying that the show wasn’t a stumbling block for the young model and actress. When discussing Evans and the push to close the gap between her teeth, Manuel again defends ANTM, saying the show often judged the models the way the industry would judge them and that they were doing what was best for Evans.
How, then, do we balance all the good ANTM has done with the hurt it may have caused, both to its contestants and viewers? How can a show that did so much to change America’s idea of who should wear couture also perpetuate so many of the worst Eurocentric ideas of beauty? And why would a show that celebrates Black beauty and women also be guilty of tearing them down?
That tension makes the criticism surrounding the show feel extra heavy. It’s criticized because it’s loved. Its fans hold it to a higher standard because ANTM itself called for a higher standard in the fashion industry.
Yves de Shon, whose tweet threads evaluating the show have earned thousands of retweets, is a longtime ANTM fan who watched it when it aired and continues to comment on it today, especially when old clips resurface on Twitter. “Tyra kept trying to play both sides, and that’s where I feel like this backlash comes in,” de Shon tells me. “She sold a lot of false hopes and then tried to rally it back to, ‘Well, this is how the industry is.’ Sometimes, it felt like I didn’t know which one was real. Is this an excuse for when the girls are being mistreated, so you can say, ‘Well, I didn’t create the industry!’”
When it comes to the issues that DaCosta faced on the show, de Shon explains they didn’t happen only because it aired in a “different time.” “DaCosta said, ‘I’m constantly being criticized for my Afro-centricity, but I never hear you say to Ann or Amanda, ‘You’re too European.’ That stuck with me. Even then that hit me hard,” de Shon says. “Those things were happening, and Yaya said this wasn’t okay. Even in 2003 or 2004 she had that lens.”
The answer isn’t as simple as saying that, finally, many of ANTM’s viewers have caught up to DaCosta’s early-aughts critique of the show and Banks. DaCosta and the average viewer had a very different experience of the show. For many fans like me who put ANTM on a pedestal, it was hard to take a discerning look at its rough, ugly truths. From the mantle, the show sparkled. But as time progressed — and viewers took the show down from the shelf — the cracks on its surface became clear.
In a recent Vulture piece, journalist and professor Steven Thrasher wrote about how Hulu pulled an alleged “blackface” episode of one of his favorite shows, The Golden Girls. The episode didn’t feature blackface, as ANTM does, but as mentioned earlier, Blanche and Rose wear mud masks, saying they’re not in blackface. Though that episode was the one that was pulled, Thrasher points to the long list of egregious racist, misogynist and steeped-in-rape-culture jokes that the series traded in. Ultimately, he says that he still watches the series, but not uncritically. Rather than dismissing old media wholesale, he argues, it’s far more important that we unpack the messages we received from it in order to reduce the potential harm.
ANTM can never escape its origins in the exploitative world of early-aughts reality TV, which operated as a Roman arena fueled by embarrassment and shame. There were loogies hocked, tables flipped and William Hungs trotted out for our entertainment. And through it all, TV execs threw regular Americans (people with dreams of fame and stardom) to us viewers (i.e., the lions). In the fever dream of it all, there’s no doubt that people’s pain, and in ANTM’s case, young Black women’s pain, became commodified.
So again, what is ANTM: a show that offered representation and a haven for young queer and trans people, and young Black and Brown people, or a show that denigrated us and put us up for laughs? To paraphrase Banks in many a deliberation, each critique of the show has what the other one lacks.
As many reactions exist to ANTM’s shenanigans as there are ANTM fans. Some, in the moment, didn’t see any issue with how these young women were treated. Some saw and said nothing, forgiving a show that was, in other aspects, extremely generous to its Black audiences. Some saw, and in the absence of a robust social media landscape like we have today, spoke only to their friends about it.
To the latter point, to say that the internet is now reconsidering ANTM would be a misunderstanding of the situation. Many Black women who identified closely with the discrimination these contestants faced — and who long felt uncomfortable about the show’s treatment of budding Black models — finally have the outlet to share their critique. Banks may have taught us all a timeless lesson in how to smile with our eyes, but the Black-women-led discourse to the ANTM of yesteryear is an important lesson in how not to watch without our brains.