There’s an infinitesimally fine line between reality TV that elicits the occasional tear and reality TV that emotionally manipulates its audience and subject, and this episode of Top Model embodies what’s so deceptively powerful and deeply troubling about the show. At no point does it let up from taking psychological potshots. At no point is it fun to watch, though that clearly isn’t the point. It’s a painful episode in both beautiful and gross ways, and by the end it reveals what a contrived, produced farce it truly is. And we say this as people who watch too much reality TV.
Almost every remaining contestant gets some kind of psychological excavation in the first 20 minutes when Tyra visits the house. There are major emotional admissions from the girls, including Erin discussing leaving her son’s late father as he got sicker and sicker with cancer, and Khrystyana revealing that she was molested by a friend of her father’s when she was only 11 years old. These are deeply affecting stories both in their subject matter and their vulnerability. Even ice queen Christina gets a moment to discuss her father’s wavering health in an attempt to connect with the girls.
But while parts of the episode are very moving, and it is absolutely true that there is power in sharing these experiences with those watching the show, ANTM still reveals its interesting case of double identity: This is a show that wants to prop these girls up, but it’s also one that manipulates them for entertainment.
Case in point, Erin. She makes herself incredibly vulnerable throughout the episode, especially in revealing the history behind her son’s father. We see that in her no-makeup photo shoot with Tyra she brings that vulnerability to the set. We see, with our own eyes, that Tyra photographs Erin without hair in her face. So then, why on God’s Christina’s-hair-green earth is her “best shot” at panel an unflattering photo of her hair blanketing her face? It’s a transparent moment of the show dumbing itself down for an audience that it doesn’t respect, and Erin is at risk for elimination because of a bad photo that a group of producers chose in hushed tones over a corkboard of index cards. It sucks.
Top Model is a show built on qualitative discretion, and very often success or failure in the competition is completely subjective (we still have no idea what “next-level fierce” means). We rarely feel like the judges are making critiques based on the modeling alone, but rather on what completes the cleanest narrative. Liberty was by no means the worst in last week’s Pride-themed episode, but she went home because it was poetically delicious for a Trump voter to leave, given the theme. The same is true this week. Torturing Christina, who has been clocked for her dour personality since day one, in an episode where the contestants are forced to be “raw” and “real” and “stripped down to their core” is a strong narrative choice, and so that’s what the producers go with. That it has nothing to do with the modeling is irrelevant.
In an attempt to be as objective as possible, we’ll say that Kyla is by far the contestant who is capable of the least. She skates by with a photo in which you can’t even see half of her face, but whether she had better photos that were deliberately buried, we’ll never know. In the anti-bullying PSA, she expresses next to no emotion during a challenge that demands it as the objective, yet she wins because she is grouped with Khrystyana.
Brendi’s photo is gorgeous — the judges are right, it could be a Calvin Klein ad — but so are all of her other photos. That’s because she is doing almost exactly the same thing in nearly every one. The difference here is that the judges choose to praise it because of how it suits Brendi’s acceptance narrative on this episode. It’s a neat fit for her to get a good critique. Any other week, they could exchange a signal to each other at the judges’ table and decide to hate this photo. It makes us feel bad for these girls, who are so clearly in desperate need of approval. Watching this episode, we get the feeling the producers have delighted themselves in selecting the most easily produced, edited, and exploited people they could find.
This week’s panel is unremarkable enough, until Tyra slowly reveals the seven-way tie for best photo. As egregiously lazy as that sounds, it is what happens. Everyone but Erin and Christina is a winner. And this episode, about bullying of all things, ends with Tyra Banks, a rich, famous supermodel, telling Christina, someone we’re assuming looks up to Tyra, that she is a bad person. She only stops telling Christina what a bad person she is when Christina can’t take it anymore and literally pulls herself away. If you’re looking for the trigger in this episode, voila: It’s the supermodel telling the girl with no friends in the house that she’s not beautiful enough on the inside to be worthy of staying, and that she’s a bad person, despite the fact that they have barely interacted.
It’s worth noting that Khrystyana has won so many challenges at this point that, barring a last-minute finale in which they have to lip-sync against each other for the crown, she will win. This show is trying hard enough to be RuPaul’s Drag Race that you believe it could happen. In that case, look out for Jeana, who looks like Sasha Velour. But we hope Khrystyana does win. She feels like the only real element of this nonsense, and she’s good at what she does. Kudos to the show for empowering Khrystyana to tell her story, which will help people. Wow, are we agreeing with Tyra? We guess so, but there’s very little common ground otherwise.