"Smize" as America's Next Top Model show ends

Host Tyra Banks (centre) was the real winner of each season of America's Next Top Model.
Host Tyra Banks (centre) was the real winner of each season of America's Next Top Model.PHOTO: CBS ENTERTAINMENT

NEW YORK • After 289 episodes, 22 seasons and 12 years; after airing in 100 countries and inspiring 20 spin-offs from Brazil to Finland to Taiwan; after acquiring 7,903,827 likes for its Facebook page and 254,000 Instagram followers; after providing the Urban Dictionary with new words, including "smize" (smile with your eyes), after last Friday night, America's Next Top Model was done.

Why should you - anyone not among the dedicated fans of ANTM, as it was known - care?

Should we not celebrate the end of a major chapter in the dehumanising era of reality TV instead of mourning a histrionic competition showcasing the most base emotions - jealousy, antagonism and insecurity?

Those are characteristics of all reality TV shows, to be fair, but the feelings often seemed heightened in ANTM because the stakes involved tricky judgment of physical beauty. Anyway, the answer is: No, we should not be celebrating. We should be reflecting.

Because ANTM was arguably among the most successful fashion shows made. It was certainly the longest running. That means ANTM was the conduit to the fashion world for a generation of viewers.

Lots of people pointed out that the show never actually produced any supermodels and criticised its propagation of model cliches - the group apartments new girls share and the pursed-lips-up-from-under- the-eyebrows-stare adopted by many of the show's contestants.

But you cannot deny its influence or its lessons, starting with the idea that a brief dabble in supermodel-dom could be parlayed into a new and potentially more lucrative career as a reality TV host.

The real winner, after all, was not each season's winner but the host, Tyra Banks, who succeeded in branding not only herself but an entire lexicon, thanks to her use of such phrases as "Tyra mail" and "Ty tips" and "Ty-over". Her attitude and ability to simultaneously castigate and praise the contestants gave her a viral reach far beyond her fashion career.

It propelled her into a simultaneous five-year run as the host of an eponymous chat show, and a talk- show venture, FABLife, which she began in September and will leave this month.

Given Tyra as a role model and coach, and the fact that personality plays on TV better, it is probably not a coincidence that the most successful alumnae made their names post- show not in modelling, but in acting.

Fatima Siad was one of the few to make the leap to the ready-to-wear catwalks, working for Dries Van Noten and Ralph Lauren, but in general, the message was masstige at best.

Which, while often cited as one of the show's flaws, itself proved a fashion truth - there is a gap between "accessible" models (who appeal to brands such as Old Navy, Target and Guess, all of which booked ANTM alumnae) and high-fashion models, who often look weird in real life. The pecking order of style places a premium on the undiscovered, the unusual and the unpopular. For 22 cycles, the show proved it. Learn it now or forever hold your peace.

Indeed, as nutty as it often seemed and as desperate as some of the recent themes sounded - Brits vs Americans! Models who go to college! - in many ways, it proved oddly prescient about fashion- world modelling trends.

It featured a transgender model, Isis King before Andreja Pejic became a runway favourite; has been determinedly diverse before runway diversity became a part of the conversation; and featured buzz-cut Bianca Golden before Ruth Bell took the last ready-to- wear season by storm.

And though in later cycles, when it opened the judging to Facebook voting, ANTM was accused of going off track, in many ways it was simply foreshadowing what has come to pass in the fashion world. Models are increasingly adding their social media numbers to their physical measurements when it comes to job applications.

Which simply shows, that in fashion's case, truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it is sometimes hard to tell one from the other.

Still, it is possible that the show's single most powerful legacy has to do with the power of the model myth - the dream that a girl (or guy) will be walking down the street or stepping onto a set, and will be discovered and propelled to fame.

At the end of Cycle 22, one of the finalists, Mame, said: "I have been dreaming of this since I was six." And whether or not the line was scripted, it was striking.

You would think the experience of constantly being judged for your physical flaws would turn off not only viewers but also potential contestants, but for over a decade, they came, they were criticised and viewers watched. The model fairy tale is an enduring one.

And that is why, if I were a betting person, I would bet on this show having a long afterlife, continuing to inspire drinking games and becoming a pop culture artefact. Smize and bear it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline '"Smize" as America's Next Top Model show ends'. Subscribe