What hath late capitalism wrought? Apparently a pretty pointless episode of Top Model themed on social-media influence, which these eight remaining girls must constantly cultivate in order to one day represent a line of duvet ponchos. For all the self-branding evangelism that defined Cycle 23, this season seems okay with simplifying Instagram success using reductive hashtag acronyms (#hashtacronyms?), so that even us normals at home can get a blue check just by taking mirror selfies. This is very cool, because as Tyra says, “You can make a lot of money taking selfies for companies!” What a time to be a meaningless node in the world.
First, let’s check in on the house and examine the thinly painted character narratives being foisted upon us out of nowhere. Suddenly Kyla is stupid and Rio is a total bitch for calling Kyla stupid, and we’re supposed to just go with it. This all defies the overall conservation of matter as far as reality-show conflicts go, since we’ve never really seen Kyla and Rio butt heads. The only emotional tethering to any of this is Kyla recalling a volleyball injury from high school that gave her a learning disability, but otherwise there’s no real texture to this fight.
As a small coterie of girls chats downstairs about how mean Rio is, Jeana overhears and dutifully Dorit Kemsleys the situation over to Rio, whose attempt at denying her remarks is laughably transparent. “Whoa, what? I would — no … what?” Smooth, Ri. She then says in confessional, “Kyla’s doing this simply to get attention or something. I don’t even know what that’s about.” Cool. If anything, this makes us miss the real ANTM fights and villains of yore, when girls would pour each other’s Red Bulls down the drain or hog the phone for three hours or were named Eva Marcille. This new shit is weak, or as Rio would say, “stupid,” a word she will literally use to describe Kyla in a confessional moments later.
After Tyra Mail arrives and makes no bones about a social-media-based challenge around the corner, Ms. Banks herself barges into the house and clomps down the staircase, feeling salty about all the youngs today taking mirror selfies completely wrong. She then gives the models a crash course on the rules of proper selfie-taking as though they’ve been canonized in a Condé Nast boardroom years ago.
The three big lessons are #SLAY (So Look At Yourself) for making proper eye contact, #CIAO (Crop It All Out) for getting rid of phone reflections in a post, and #DipItLow, which is an underrated Christina Milian single. We’re treated to many examples of what not to do, featuring mirror selfies of set PAs who knowingly took bad ones or of unsuspecting women who signed a release form they didn’t read.
After the lesson, Jourdan Dunn, a famous person we should know, saunters into the living room and shares a moving account of not being interested in modeling until she saw Tyra Banks and thought, I could do that. The girls are then tasked with taking sponsored-content selfies while modeling Jourdan’s athleisure line under a time limit, and everyone (including the viewer) just thinks, Okay, I guess we’re doing this.
As the girls rush to put on clothes by the pool and claim a mirror, we get some quick rundowns on each model’s Instagram follower count (at the time of filming). Sandra leads the pack with 80,000 and posts a steady stream of faux-pensive portraits in which she leans against various objects (cars, yachts, palm trees, office chairs). Khrystyana trails behind with 70,000 followers, the majority of which she gained after posting photos with a body-positive bent. Everyone else falls in between them and Erin, who has 43, which is Erin’s age plus one. Everyone at home playing the “Erin Is Old” drinking game can take a shot. She doesn’t “get” social media! Russians hacked our election and destabilized our democracy using what? “Face Book?” Ugh, Erin has no time for any of this mess! She is ancient and writes on parchment!
Performances are pretty varied throughout the house: Jeana, Rio, and Sandra excel while Kyla and Erin struggle. Once the time limit ends, the girls gather in the living room and receive critique from Jourdan and Tyra, who scold Kyla for ignoring every sacrosanct mirror-selfie commandment. It is at this moment that Rio calls Kyla stupid again in confessional, which is itself stupid. Soon enough, Jourdan and Tyra declare Jeana the winner, much to Sandra’s disappointment. She was supposed to be good at phones.
Later on, Kyla and Rio sit down and talk about Rio’s indiscretions, which Kyla does an admirable job of repeating back to her tormentor. Rio backpedals the whole thing, claiming it to be a big misunderstanding as if there could be one at all. Cut to confessional, where Rio more freely states that Kyla is overreacting. We’re not even sure what we’re we supposed to be following anymore, but we guess we’re rolling our eyes anytime Rio rolls hers.
That night another Tyra Mail surprises the girls, implying that they’ll pose with male models for this week’s photo shoot. Sandra freaks out over the idea. “I can’t do this, I’m engaged!” she says, invoking her religious background and betrothal. The rest of the girls shrug while Rio snarkily anticipates posing with “fat-ass dudes,” to which Khrystyana rebuts with something to the effect of “Dadbods is models too!” Rio shames overweight people but promptly backpedals, promising everyone she’s not an insensitive bitch despite her insensitive and bitchy comments. This may or may not be true and doesn’t even really matter to us at this point. Hats off to the producers for stirring up drama that none of us could possibly care for.
At the photo shoot warehouse/off-season haunted house the next day, Tyra greets the models and tells them of her amazing, completely organic discovery of the world’s first brawny male supermodel Zach Miko, who happens to be right there! We then see the girls hold a casting call for other male models to pose with at the shoot who must also be brawny. We’ll leave the use cases of “brawny” and “plus-sized” to our gender linguistics professor we never had.
After seeing several men and also a pair of backflipping twinky twins, the girls pick the finalists the producers told them to choose and slather themselves up in gold paint for the shoot, with the editorial POV having something to do with “the unexpected,” as Drew says. Sure, okay. Erin does well with her partner and emanates a goddesslike regality while Khrystyana struggles for the first time in the cycle, feeling understandably triggered by a male stranger touching her.
Sandra is uncomfortable standing next to a man while Drew tells her to be more fierce. He demonstrates by thrusting his face in the air and growling like a dog, which is pretty great. When it’s Kyla’s turn, he remarks that she “finally looks like a true woman,” which is pretty not-great. We do get a fun moment of Kyla screaming at Tyra at the top of her lungs, “When’s Life-Size 2 coming out?!” and we happily take back all the bad things we’ve said about Kyla this season. She should win.
Elsewhere, Rio is bad and that’s the full scope of what the show presents us, so we’ll leave it at that.
At the judging panel the next day, Law is noticeably absent but is “image architecting someone right now” according to Tyra. Jourdan returns to fill in, but surely her credentials don’t include telling Céline Dion to dye her hair black, so we’re not sure she’s earned her spot here as Law’s replacement.
Kyla scores her first big win with a stunning Best Photo, showing erstwhile volleyball players everywhere that they too can be supermodels, even if they’re bad at spon-con. Jeana and Shanice perform well too, and Erin bounces back from last episode’s off week with a fourth-place finish. Rio then narrowly escapes the bottom two before Sandra and Khrystyana get called up. “Stunning is not necessarily the thing that will make you high fashion,” Tyra says to Sandra, even though we’re pretty sure being stunning is absolutely a high-fashion requirement. Khrystyana is told she might be inconsistent, which is categorically untrue given her string of wins. Ultimately, Sandra gets the boot and tearfully leaves the house, but not before declaring herself #TeamKyla and shitting on Rio before rolling off with her suitcase.
There may or may not be something admirable in the ways that Top Model has attempted to keep up with the times, but strip enough of the modernized veneer away from the franchise and what does it still have? Not much beyond one-dimensional character tropes and a few lessons on where to hold your phone in a mirror selfie. If that’s where we’re at as a society, fine, but at least get us a better yardstick than this show to measure how far we’ve spiraled out.