aughts nostalgia

In Praise of Cycle 1 of America’s Next Top Model

Photo: Bravo

America’s Next Top Model is gearing up for a new season, its first co-ed “cycle” to date, although it’s tough to imagine Tyra Banks and pals coming up with anything truly new. This will be the show’s twentieth cycle! That’s a lot of people getting lost on go-sees, a lot of teetering on too-tight heels, a lot of weepy makeovers and grouchy in-fighting, and a lot of photo shoots where people have to confront fears (of bugs, heights, drowning). This all started ten years ago, though, in one of the best seasons, debut or otherwise, that any reality show has ever had. That first season of Top Model is unimpeachable.

ANTM helped usher in the era of profession-based reality contest shows, and plenty of good ones followed: Project Runway on Bravo, Dream Job on ESPN (I am the only person who liked this show, but I loved it enough for all of us), Design Star on HGTV — hell, even The Apprentice. But Top Model still feels like the gold standard, partially because it stayed good for so long. Season two gave us the amazing Shandi phone fight (“You had sex!?“). Season three had Yaya’s “respeito” T-shirt. Season six had Jade claiming that elephants were part of the “dinosaur family.” CariDee, Jaslene, Saleisha — even up through season ten’s winner, Whitney, things were going okay.

But nothing has ever quite lived up to the perfection of season one. The majesty of Elyse’s hyperarticulate griping. The wonder of Adrianne’s weird, snoozy monotone. The agony of Robin’s exaggerated facial expressions and proselytizing. The ridiculousness of Ebony getting her lotion all over the doorknobs in the house. This was only ten years ago, yet the reality-TV landscape is so very different now. In cycle one, many of the contestants didn’t seem to know how to do the “confessionals,” which is something today’s reality-show contestants learn to do in the womb. The editing was pretty straight-forward, unlike the super-choppy and dishonest patchwork storytelling we’ve come to expect from this kind of show. Cycle one of ANTM had conflicts about Christianity and atheism, for crying out loud. Tyra Banks seemed earnest back then. Jay Manuel seemed like an actual human creature. Janice Dickinson had an ostensibly stable iteration of her face. Kimora Lee Simons was impossible to impress. Were we ever so young?

So, happy ten-year anniversary, Top Model. While the revolving door at the judges’ table, the grossness of Tyra’s constant idiotic catchphrases, and the repetitiveness of the challenges eventually eroded my passion for the series, my devotion to season one remains pure and true — even though I am still a little miffed that Elyse didn’t win.