Why America’s Next Top Model Was Never Better Than Its First Cycle

Elyse Sewell. Photo: UPN

Tonight America’s Next Top Model will crown its 22nd and final winner. It’s been 12 years, 300 contestants, countless tears, and one face merkin since Tyra Banks started her humble modeling competition on the UPN network in the summer of 2003. It was a surprise hit at the start of the reality-television boom, and since then, ANTM has skillfully repackaged itself, doubling down on its popularity with multiple “cycles” a year, produced at a relatively cheap cost. But as the show went through various iterations — the British invasion, the short season, and, most wisely, the inclusion of men — its essence never really changed. It was forever and always a show about Tyra Banks, and when you realize this incontrovertible truth, there’s only one season that transcended Tyra: the first cycle. It was a rough draft of a show, a moment before Tyra had repurposed it as a vehicle for herself and her life philosophy. It actually felt like it was about modeling, and the only time the show followed Tyra’s own advice: “Human is beautiful, perfect is boring.”  

I can hear your furious tweets now. But Shandi’s affaire de coeur! But “We were all rooting for you!” But Eva’s tarantula photo! (We practiced that one in the mirror for days.) Yes, the other cycles had higher points of drama. They were better produced, more complete seasons with increasingly hysterical challenges that eventually became the show’s trademark. The first season — and I’m going to call it a season because that’s what it was then — is stunningly humble in comparison. It was rough and unwieldy; the judging panel took place in a room so cramped the camera couldn’t properly zoom back far enough to include the wall hanging of Tyra Banks behind the judges. There was no soundstage, and the challenges were remarkably straightforward: Walk down the catwalk, do a press interview, strike a pose. When the wannabe-models go to Paris, they’re penned into a small one-bedroom hotel room where there aren’t even enough beds for them. Tyra says that this is because she wanted to reflect the reality of life as a working model (a principle she would quickly discard once the show got a larger budget). And whether or not you buy her reasoning, she was right. Modeling can be deeply unglamorous, and there was something about the low production value that reflected that simple truth.

At its best, ANTM’s first season felt like a glimpse into how fashion actually worked: infuriatingly idiosyncratic, wildly subjective, and at its core, misogynist. The judges were Janice Dickinson, the acidic, self-proclaimed first supermodel, Marie Claire editor Beau Quillian, Kimora Lee Simmons, and, of course, Tyra Banks. When they looked at photos, there wasn’t a manufactured rubric to use. They either liked it or they didn’t, and their suggestions produced a Sisyphean logic: Your foot’s gigantic, you’re too old, you need to lose weight, you’re too skinny, you look like a boy. Over time, ANTM tried to excise the inherent subjectivity of assessing physical beauty by arguing that it’s a skill that can be honed (thus the introduction of a numerical scoring system beginning in Cycle 19).

In this way, ANTM was a show that teetered between two very different kinds of reality television: the skills-based competition shows, like Top Chef, Project Runway, and The Great British Baking Show, which favored merit over personality; and those that function on a purer schadenfreude, like Dance Moms or the Real Housewives franchise. And as much as the show paid lip service to individuality, ANTM wasn’t about being the best model, but about manufacturing women in Tyra’s likeness: Strivers, women of industry, who would do anything to be like her — yank out their teeth, shave their heads, shave their teeth, or hop on one leg while laughing. Eventually, Tyra developed her own set of rules with its own argot. Smiling with your eyes — smizing — naturally filtered into our language. More followed: booty tooch (sticking your butt out), boom boom boom (a six-pack), H2T (head to toe). What was important wasn’t so much what you were doing but that you mouthed the words.

Remarkably, in season one, the women didn’t readily submit to the logic of the show. When it came down to the final four, for instance, zealous Evangelicals Robin and Shannon both refused to do a photo shoot at Buddha Bar where they would have to simulate nudity in a fake ad campaign for diamonds. They said that they believed the act would compromise their values. They said no, and surprisingly, their decisions were respected. In the future, this would simply be non-negotiable: You wouldn’t be able to say no.  

Then there was Elyse, the aspiring medical student and militant atheist who regularly rolled her eyes at the entire prospect of modeling. She criticized the other contestants, mentors, and challenges — something that would be unheard of in the future — and the producers gave her the space to do so. As the fates would have it, Elyse was also the most natural model of the group, the favorite of photographers for her lithe, androgynous frame and Kewpie features. During one of the final judging panels, Tyra reminded Elyse of how she thought modeling was purely physical. Did she still think that? Elyse launched into an explanation of how lots of estrogen produces desirably “feminine” features, like a small brow ridge and fuller lips. While she didn’t disagree with Tyra, she also didn’t concede. Beauty was physical, too.

But this was never Tyra’s logic. She tried to argue modeling was more about character than it was about physicality. On her personal blog back in 2007, NPR's Ann Powers wrote that Tyra Banks was the new Ayn Rand. "Tyra's not just giving fashion tips; she is building an ontology. In fashion, she sees the human endeavor — the struggle to transcend one's fate, the tension between one's limits and one's dreams, the demands set upon those who would live in harmony with their chosen community. It's just so deep." As the show wore on, Tyra Banks only became more exacting in her vision. She wasn't just about scouting talent, but rather enforcing an ideology of hard work and individuality. Nominally, models could come in a variety of ethnicities, skin tones, and sizes, but the winners were all, for the most part, very skinny and light-complexioned. Instead of submitting to the whims of fashion, contestants would have to submit to Tyra’s ideology on how to live a successful life. When a contestant was sent home, it was because she somehow failed to live up to the potential that Tyra saw inside of her.

As the show wore on, moments of insubordination would become less common and more memorable. Even though she was arguably the strongest model in Cycle 18, Azmarie (whom you may recognize as a member of Hakeem’s crew from Empire) was eliminated because she refused to wear booty shorts that read “Booty Tooch” for a master class on how to shake your ass. Then there’s the most infamous moment of Top Model history when Tyra unleashed a tirade against Cycle 4 contestant Tiffany Richardson. Tiffany’s resistance wasn’t even brazen. Demoralized by the demands of the show, she simply didn’t want to do it anymore. And within that, Tyra saw true failure, because not trying, giving up, losing hope, was the greatest flaw of all.

The truth about America’s Next Top Model is that it’s horrifying to watch. What’s interesting about the first cycle is how that horror manifests itself in plain sight. While the contestants are in Paris, one of their challenges is to wear a piece of couture and go out to dinner and drinks with four European men. Why? So they can judge them on whether they embody the spirit of a woman who would wear haute couture. This is insane. That horror, which is so bare in the first season, only gets more disguised later on: The show became campier, more ludicrous, and vaguely surreal, like smizing until your eyes bleed in front of a fun-house mirror. Contestants put on their makeup without mirrors, they walk down the side of a building as a catwalk in the rain, they dress up as different ethnicities for a photo shoot, but the extreme appeal only distracts from the fact that at the end of the day, someone is going home because they’re just not pretty enough.  

What was important about season one was it had a self-critical voice in Elyse, and, to a certain extent, Robin and Shannon; it was the only season where the contestants didn’t readily buy into the project. They voiced their opinions. They had reservations. They said no. By the end, though, ANTM set the template for the following 21 cycles by choosing the girl who wanted it the most: Adrianne Curry. When you watch the first season, it is impossible not to love her. She was the awkward tomboy with a thick Chicago accent whose mother got scammed by modeling agencies promising to help her daughter's career. When her mom comes to visit her, she tells her that she’s going to earn that money they lost. Adrianne was the best contestant, even though she wasn’t the best model.

In the finale, you could see the gears turning: Tyra was deciding what this show was about. Would it be about the daily grind of the modeling industry — about its whims, egos, and drudgery? Or would it be about the American Dream of pulling yourself up by your four-inch heels? "You were the biggest transformation,” Tyra told Adrianne when she anointed her the winner. And Adrianne tearfully told the camera, “I'm going to have a good life now. My family's going to have a good life now. A lot is going to change."