Jonathan May grew up in Zimbabwe as a child of missionaries and missed a lot of “important” American things along the way. He chronicles his journey to catch up in a feature called “Johnny-Come-Lately.”
Over the past three weekends, I’ve watched cycles 9-14 of the CW’s America’s Next Top Model, and by God if I haven’t tried to smile with my eyes (“smize”) in the mirror at least a few times during the process. I’ve practiced using my space and being fierce and throwing shade with the very best, Ms. Tyra Banks, in my head. This show would quite literally be nothing without her; she’s never afraid to be goofy and fierce and smoldering, sometimes all in the same five minutes. But that, as she points out, is the essence of being a supermodel: being able to be memorable, yet a chameleon. She emphasizes the three C’s of modeling: catalogue, commercial, and couture. And the girls worship her. Who wouldn’t, with that flawless skin and that bravado?
The show focuses on different types of beauty (plus-size, petite, alien, masculine, strong bone structure) through the different girls picked to enter the competition; every cycle is usually “fair” in its makeup, although that’s a hard task when you’re literally trying to find the most beautiful girl out there. Luckily Tyra and the judges emphasize personality and inner beauty throughout; the girls have to interview and make conversation. They must participate in social graces, sometimes in totally different countries for those girls lucky enough to make it that far. This is very attractive as a quality in the show; rarely does a complete bitch make it to the top two. While being fair to the reality format, the show consistently delivers the message that in order to win in the fashion industry, people need to like you; ergo, don’t be a bitch.
So, we have 13-14 girls who learn about modeling and walking and posing, who get makeovers (there are inevitable tears), who are winnowed down week by week for their participation in challenges, overall attitude and appearance, and weekly photograph challenges. During the course of this madness, the viewer becomes endearingly acquainted with Jay Manuel (creative director of photo shoots) and “Ms. J” Alexander, a fierce modeling coach who works it with the best of the ladies; these two help the girls along to the best of their abilities, but ultimately the girls must want it for themselves the most.
Why do I watch so obsessively? First of all, the judges and coaches show in their own behavior that having a genuine personality is what makes a real top model; girls of all looks and sizes have won the coveted top prize, but they all share the same warmness of a real girl shining through the model. Second, the transformations of the girls are remarkable, both mental and physical; by the end, the girls look and act totally foreign to themselves just weeks prior. The house drama among that many girls of course has its dramatic appeal, but for me, the winners usually aren’t the instigators or the participants in the whole she-said, she-said. Third, girls can literally come from nothing and become something; even the girls who don’t win often receive contracts after appearing on the show. Who doesn’t love a good American Dream story, complete with pretty women? In the end, I like a show that emphasizes the positive aspects of one’s emotional character. I don’t think the show promotes a typical standard of beauty, but rather many types of beauty.
My advice if you want to audition: Know your designers, photographers, and top models. Practice in front of a mirror. Take a look at your wardrobe to see if it’s fresh. And be fierce.
Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org