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What’s the Best Reality Show Ever? Round 2: American Idol vs. America’s Next Top Model

Today we reach the conclusion of the second round of Vulture’s ultimate Reality Rumble, a bracket to determine the greatest season of the greatest reality-TV shows, from The Real World on. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until Vulture's Margaret Lyons judges the finals on March 25. Today, in the fourth quarterfinals matchup, the second season of American Idol, a.k.a. Clay vs. Ruben, goes up against the second cycle of America’s Next Top Model, which brought us Shandi and Jenascia.

Both Americas Next Top Model and American Idol enjoyed robustly popular first seasons that allowed us the basest of fantasies — that one could, once chosen for these shows, earn their way into stardom through their voice or beauty, that we all might be closer to fame and fortune than we dared to imagine. Along the way, both shows also entertained us immensely. So much drama, so much nearly realized talent, so much insight into the fleetingness of fame as something that can be given and taken away in something so short as a season, or as is the case for America’s Next Top Model, a cycle — a set of regular and repeated actions that are done by a machine as part of a longer process.

There was a lot weighing on the second seasons of these shows — would they be as compelling as the first seasons? Would the ratings continue to soar? Would the producers change anything we had come to know and love? Would we see or hear a contestant with a face so beautiful or a voice so clear and perfect that somehow all would finally be right with the world? Fortunately, reality television is predictable. It is based on formulas, and neither show was terribly interested in tampering with its successful formulas in the second seasons.

Both seasons revolved around cults of personality. American Idol had Simon Cowell, the arrogant but still brutishly charming Brit judge who held nothing back when critiquing contestants. Often times, Cowell said what any reasonable person might think as less than talented people desperately writhed and crooned for a ticket to “Hollywood Week” and their 15 minutes of fame.

America’s Next Top Model was, despite the façade of competition, largely about Tyra Banks, the supermodel-slash-entrepreneur who proudly decorated the models’ apartment with countless images of her likeness and never missed an opportunity to reference her struggles, successes, and many life experiences. Tyra made herself the alpha and the omega of the television modeling world. At the climax of each episode, there Tyra sat, in the middle of the judging panel, offering the young women various wisdoms about the modeling industry. She was the hand that giveth and taketh away — loving and helpful, but honest and pointed at the same time. Tyra’s self-absorption was compelling because she was so unapologetic about it. She had built her platform and she was going to take her never-ending bow, surrounded by eager young women hoping they might one day be like her.

As Idols second season began, we — or at least I — was faced with a conundrum. There was something pleasurable about the auditions, about the naked and often misplaced ambitions on display. There were the moments of pure delight when a truly talented singer stood before the judges, confident, head held high, voice clear and strong. When Carrie Hunt auditioned, even the cantankerous Cowell agreed hers was one of the best auditions thus far. Sadly, Hunt didn’t make it through Hollywood Week. Cowell mused that she “lost something” between her first and second auditions. As quickly as her star rose, it fell, and in this regard, American Idol offered us glimpses of honesty.

Mostly, though, the auditions allowed us the spectacle of truly terrible singers offering up off-key renditions of what we once knew as songs. These auditions were funny until they weren’t. The amusement of humiliation started wearing thin. The mockery was all in good fun, we were supposed to believe, because imagine the poor judges, forced to sit through so many delusional hopefuls! Those contestants were just asking for it, begging for attention, no matter the kind.

Simon Cowell gleefully tore contestants down, often with fake apologies like “don’t take this personally,” or  “I don’t mean to be unkind,” followed by a devastating barb that could only be taken personally or as unkind. Paula Abdul, resurrected from her fading career, and Randy Jackson, whom most of us never knew, tried to temper the acidity of Simon’s comments but mostly just enabled his bad behavior. It was fun, I suppose, to watch these humiliations, but there was also the sad realization that many of these terrible singers were pathetic in the truest sense of the word. That vulnerability was a lot to sit with during the interminable audition period. The point was overly belabored. 

Tyra could also offer a well-crafted barb while telling her contestants what few others might be willing to say. Where Simon was caustic, though, Tyra was often soft of voice, her face lined with concern, as if it truly, truly pained her to be the bearer of bad news. There was pageantry to those judging panels. When it came down to the final two girls still waiting to hear their fate, Tyra stood before them, holding a single picture. She offered grand pronouncements about the girls, their beauty, and their future prospects in the industry.

In a particularly memorable elimination, Tyra stood before Jenascia and Catie, her hair braided in cornrows, wearing a tank top, what appeared to be elaborate jorts, red leg warmers, and heels. Models can wear what they want; all hail our queen, Tyra. In her pronouncements, Tyra told Jenascia she lacked the ability to compensate for her flaws. Tyra told Catie she didn’t have what it takes to withstand the constant critique and rejection of the modeling industry. Alas, Jenascia was eliminated, but she was defiant in defeat. Tyra could not bring her down. “This house is totally going to suck without me … I’m going back to slinging chicken wings at Hooters and back to my friends and just being the happy person that I am,” Jenascia said, as she packed her bags and made her way off the show.

America’s Next Top Model certainly offered its own cruelties — the long, sad good-bye, letting us linger in the sorrows and sometimes bitterness of the dearly departed. When contestants were dispatched from American Idol, we were offered a brief video reel with its own soundtrack, showing the highlights of the dismissed contestant’s brief time near the sun, but it was all so carefully crafted and produced. There would never be a mournful Hooters moment.

What has kept Idol on the air and in my heart is that, every once in a while, the show proves that cream rises to the top. Idol has given us Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. As the show’s second season got underway, millions of people, myself included, watched with bated breath, wondering which diamonds the judges would pluck from the rough of American ambition. And still, American Idol season two will always be the season that let a girl get away. Amber Riley auditioned, never made it in front of the judges, and is now one of the stars of Glee. She can sing her ass off, so it’s a bit bewildering that she had so little purchase with the show’s producers, and knowing this bit of trivia has hardened my heart toward the show. If Amber Riley can’t make it into the top 12, what meaning does life hold?

Americas Next Top Model, for all its absurdities and contradictions, was efficient. In each episode, there was at least one young woman who stood out for good or bad — but mostly bad — reasons. Bethany had too much cleavage and didn’t know how to pose in ways that flattered her figure. Yoanna, who would go on to win the season, was constantly reminded that she needed to tone her body. Camille had an unpleasant personality and fell directly into the “not here to make friends” camp. We actually got to see just past the veneer of carefully crafted “reality” to witness young women as people once in a while. The ANTM contestatns were far more memorable in their human moments of, for example, Jenascia oversleeping or Mercedes dealing with the side effects of the medication she took for lupus than they ever were while striking a pose.

By the time the top 12 of American Idol were finally unveiled, it felt like we had been watching the show for so very long. Were we there yet? Not quite. The Idol producers had no compunction about bleeding every last advertising dollar possible, and then we had to sit through the group medleys each week before finally getting down to business — actual performances. I want to say the performances were worth the wait, that they were memorable, but mostly, they blur together. Only bits and pieces stand out: Kimberly Caldwell offered throaty, mature vocals until she was eliminated and was, it seems, a fan of spray-tans. Kimberley Locke put law school on hold to participate in American Idol. Alas. She was the embodiment of Simon’s ultimate conundrum — vocals versus image — an absurd and forced dilemma because Locke was lovely in voice and figure. Corey Clark was kicked off the show for having a police record. Corey then claimed to have slept with Paula. (Sadly, no video of this assignation ever surfaced, though he “wrote” a book about the sordid affair.) There was a Marine, a patriotic reminder that soldiers have dreams too. As the season unfolded, we began to see that the finalists were archetypes more than they were distinct individuals.

Really, though, American Idol season two was about two men. Clay Aiken crooned each week, his red hair spiked artfully, his body draped in suits that made him look like a little boy playing dress-up. But still, he had that voice, so deep, so soulful, so unexpected from a white boy from North Carolina. Ruben Studdard was the heir apparent to Luther Vandross — also soulful, charming, and a proud son of Alabama. He was our “velvet teddy bear” and from week to week, he seemed to know exactly what the audience wanted to hear. I would listen to his voice and think, “This man sings like butter.”

Studdard won the season by a very slender margin and has gone on to a modicum of success. He also returned to reality television in 2013 as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. Clay Aiken is also no stranger to the spotlight. He’s going to run for Congress in North Carolina this year and continue selling his wholesome schlock. He will be just fine. I will continue not to care, frankly, about either of these contestants.

There was an openness to the shallow proceedings of America’s Next Top Model. Anna, the plus-size contestant, was dispatched in the first episode even though Jenascia showed up late to the photo shoot. The plus-size contestants on ANTM, like people of color in The Bachelor franchise, are merely there for show, and we all know it. For all Simon Cowell’s comments about how certain contestants will need to lose weight to truly succeed, and despite the cultural obsession with rigid beauty standards, American Idol still crowned a plus-size man as the winner of season two, and that cannot go unmentioned.

The women of ANTM were chosen because they were beautiful, but in the fashion industry, Tyra would have us know, beauty can always be improved. There were haircuts and extensions and dye jobs and all kinds of drama, and the makeover episode alone made cycle two worth watching. Who cares about a good singer who knows how to seduce an audience when you can see the genuinely mournful look in a young woman’s eyes as her hair, her crowning glory, is shorn away at Tyra’s command? Showmanship doesn’t hold a candle to unscripted reactions. And is it a coincidence that we cannot spell tyrant without Tyra? I think not.

As the second ANTM cycle progressed, blonde and willowy Shandi emerged as the delicate fawn of the group — passing out from heat or hunger or exhaustion, offering up her painful secrets, mooning over her possessive boyfriend back home while flirting with young men she met over the course of the season. And then, Shandi offers us the centerpiece of cycle two — the models in Milan, and what happened in Milan did not stay in Milan, because it was filmed! And we saw all of it. And it was amazing. There were some male models, you see, and they were Italian and incredibly attractive and poor Shandi, our delicate fawn, she was just so lonely, so she fell on one of the male models with her vagina and they had sex and then Shandi was overcome with guilt so of course she called Eric, her boyfriend, and purged her guilt, and he had an epic meltdown over the phone, his voice pitched in such a haunting, pathetic way, I can still remember it many years later. Here, was human suffering, laid bare. I could not look away. I did not want to look away.

American Idol never had these exquisitely human and vulnerable moments. The show did not let us get to know the contestants, not really, until there were only a few left, and even then, we were treated to glossily produced packages of hometown visits, the conquering could-be hero on parade for the masses from which they rose. The Idol producers stretched out each episode with highly constructed narratives, showcasing the contestants as All-American hopefuls, from All-American families, reaching for a piece of the dream. Without a doubt, we heard some amazing singing along the way, but the spectacle was rather hollow while pretending not to be.

And, of course, there was the voting, the false impression that we, the people, were appointing music’s next star. As the results shows often proved, however, America wasn’t really voting on the best singers. We were voting in a popularity contest, and popularity was often determined by earnest tweens from Middle America who were intensely invested in dialing and redialing for the contestants who made their young hearts go pitter-pat. It’s the cravenness of the enterprise that gets under my skin, and while there is certainly cravenness to America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks never let us belabor under the impression that her show was anything but a benevolent dictatorship.

Though these shows are, on the surface, similar, in the end, one show is about propelling people into stardom with an exploitative contract, and one show is all about its creator — a showcase of her talent and moxie and hard-earned wisdom. American Idol is more like a lottery than a competition — anyone can buy a ticket but generally, only one person can win. Tyra Banks built an entire show around herself. Instead of seasons, she gave us cycles. She taught us a new word, smize, or to smile with one’s eyes. Write that down. Like the American Idol contestants, few of the young women on Americas Next Top Model have gone on to any kind of fame, but Tyra makes us okay with the instant obsolescence of her girls because really, they were always beside the point; they were not Tyra and never would be. This is reality television we’re talking about, and Americas Next Top Model season two is the clear winner because the show never tried to be something it wasn’t.

Winner: America’s Next Top Model cycle two

Photo-Illustration: FOX and CW