Tonight, Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley debuts as a judge on America’s Next Top Model, giving the old CW warhorse a much-needed dose of fashion cred — and Tyra Banks a worthy partner in dramatic, unintentional clothing crimes. A.L.T. brings with him a reputation as large as his stature and a penchant for saying things that are at best hilarious, and at worst, kinda snotty. Such tendencies usually make for pretty interesting TV, so if André can live up to his billing (not to mention our imaginations), he could vault into the pantheon of great — or at least greatly amusing — reality-TV judges. Then again, in order to displace any of the top ten best that we’ve identified here, Talley has a lot of sass to sling.
The therapist from VH1’s brilliant, terrible, magical Tool Academy earns this place for several reasons. One, listening to hours of mouth-breathing fools talk about their horrible relationships cannot be easy on the ears or the stomach. Two, she keeps a straight face during therapy exercises, like the fake funeral in which one dude said to his girlfriend’s fake coffin, “You may be dead, but what’s in my pants is very much alive.” And three, she manages to get these people invested in the integrity of the Academy (no, really!) by actually trying to help, rather than encouraging them to break chairs on each others’ faces. Her cool head and good heart keep the show juuuuust north of being a sleaze-fest. Also, she was married to Mickey Dolenz, and any excuse to reference the Monkees is good enough for us.
Bravo’s Top Design, despite being an excellent concept, never quite fulfilled its potential to become anywhere near as interesting as Top Chef or Project Runway. In fact, the primary reason to tune in every week was to watch interior designer Kelly Wearstler deliver occasionally wise design critiques in a series of increasingly crazy ensembles. The woman trotted out everything from turbans to giant crimped afros to enormous leg o’ mutton sleeves to dresses that appeared to consist solely of leaves — all of which meant that the second-best reason to tune in every week was to watch the other panelists attempt to reassemble their poker faces after she entered the room.
Sure, sometimes the exuberant Dancing With the Stars judge’s comments can veer into vulgar, but he’s also responsible for likening Billy Ray Cyrus to “a crazy bear in a swamp,” which might be apt even off the dance floor. It amounts to this: If you’re on a show where people wear innumerable sequins while dancing to terrible covers of popular music that would make even an elevator queasy, and you still stand out as the most campy and fun aspect of the evening, then you’re doing your job right.
We have never fully recovered from Janice’s departure from ANTM. This is a woman who once full-body tackled Tyra (as part of a demonstration, but still) and deployed a staggering array of contemptuous facial expressions despite an equally staggering amount of plastic surgery. With no talk show to protect and no interest in winning a popularity contest, Janice didn’t pull her punches, even when her opinions verged on three-martini-lunch incoherence. We understand why Tyra didn’t want to go to work with her every day, but we miss visiting with her once a week, like a crazy aunt we love even though she scares us.
You might think it’s a cop-out to pick someone whose name is in the title of the show in question, but RuPaul deserves mention because — title aside — RuPaul’s Drag Race would not work without Ru’s signature charisma, camp, and hilarious turn-of-phrase. Our favorite: On a recent episode, he advised contestants in the midst of a photo shoot to “think Franklin Mint Collectible Plate!” Plus, Ru appears on the show both in and out of drag, manages to look fantastic in both iterations, and can utter “Sashay, away” and “Shante, you stay” with absolute conviction. We dare anyone else to do it better.
Nothing against the dishy Bald Eagle who headlines the show, but whenever we see Gail’s face at a Top Chef elimination challenge, we heave a sigh of relief. Gail comes across as unassuming, egoless, and endearingly earnest: She really is excited to try the food, she really is bummed when something is bad, she really does want the chefs to do better, and she actually tries to deliver criticism that is useful and makes sense rather than serving as a quippy button for the editors’ benefit (ahem, Toby Young). We kind of want to be her best friends, if only so we can take her to drinks and get the dirt about Padma.
“She looks like a paper brioche.” “I feel like a pope at a sex club.” “She looks like her ass is in her front.” We could go on, but you get the gist: Kors’s witticisms, delivered with a blend of regret and oh-come-on-who-are-we-kidding elan, make Project Runway’s judgings a much saucier affair. During the L.A. season, we felt his frequent absence the most, like being dumped by a cherished friend you secretly want to be when you grow up. Never leave us again, Michael. Please.
Obviously, the hair alone could land the Donald on this list, but it’s Trump’s hilarious level of self-impressed bombast that catapulted him all the way to No. 3. Never has there been a judge who was so winky about being so self-congratulatory. Every time he speaks — even when he’s firing someone — we giggle. We can’t help it. Plus, bonus points for raising Ivanka so nicely.
Would ANTM be the juggernaut it is today without the gentle guiding hand of Tyra Banks, head judge, executive producer, and lover of wacky accents? She has no shame, in the best way: Each casting episode features a more embarrassing gag; she deploys crazy made-up words like “smize” (which means “smile with your eyes,” for anyone who doesn’t speak WTF); she is unable to get through a judging without bursting into song; her makeovers are legendary for their awfulness; and yet she still casts herself as a teacher and mentor, even when doling out dopey advice, like the time she reacted to a model’s story about being homeless by chirping that she needed to “stay strong.” Tyra’s lunacy is intense, but it feels organic, and, therefore, it’s totally compelling.
Every show has tried, but none can find a panelist who equals Simon’s acid-tongued authority. But of course, his honesty casts him as the villain, when in fact he’s just the only person in that building who remembers that Idol is a talent show, not a giant pre-school class where everyone deserves a gold star just for making it through the day without wetting his or her pants. Simon is Idol’s glue; they will be hard-pressed to replace him with someone who is as fearless, witty, and wise to the industry. So when he takes his expertise and high-tails it over to his new show, The X Factor, we’ll go with him. Because there should be no coddling in Idol, and without Simon, we fear it’ll be a two-hour group hug. Plus, we kind of miss Paula.