Vulture is holding the ultimate Reality Rumble to determine the greatest season of the greatest reality-TV shows, from The Real World on. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until Vulture’s Margaret Lyons judges the finals on March 25. As round one continues, Rachel Shukert pits Top Chef’s sixth season (in Vegas, with Michael emerging as the greatest Voltaggio) against the second season of America’s Next Top Model, which, contestants aside, brought us Tyra’s music video.
In one corner, we have the mighty Top Chef, spawner of countless shows in which the heavily tattooed and unnervingly mallet-handy prepare artistically presented feasts of sweetbreads, geoduck, and other slimy delicacies most Americans wouldn’t have touched with Miley Cyrus’s tongue before Anthony Bourdain shamed us into it. We’ve deemed its much-praised sixth season as its greatest, most delectable incarnation, as it manifested some of the greatest culinary achievements ever seen on a TV show where a perfectly seared scallop can win you a Toyota Prius.
In the other corner, we’ve got the no less mighty — but much hungrier and therefore more unhinged — America’s Next Top Model. Tyra Banks made a comeback vehicle of her cultish finishing school for feral young lovelies, who, Nell-like, must be taught how to use cutlery and speak a known language before the fairest among them is crowned Queen of Persia and bravely saves her people from slaughter at the hands of a genocidal and all-powerful Miss J. (Seriously, did they ever do a Purim-themed photo shoot on ANTM? Because if not, they really missed the boat.) It may have only one direct reality descendant, but that one — RuPaul’s Drag Race — is arguably the greatest act of cultural reappropriation since Christianity. After all, God only had one kid, too. We’ll be looking at the second “cycle” (the show’s intriguingly menstrual terminology for what would otherwise be known as its seasons), in which, after an unfortunate debut with Kimora Lee Simmons and that girl who would up marrying Peter Brady, ANTM began to morph into the fractured fairy tale it would become.
But how do these two iconic seasons of these two iconic shows measure up? And what will make one emerge victorious? Do we go for pinnacle or potential? Competent professionalism or histrionic entertainment value? Food or anti-food? Tom … or Tyra?
I’m hungry, so let’s do food first. At its best, Top Chef was one of the chief jewels in Bravo’s pre–Real Housewives crown: A competition show that celebrated people who were actually talented, judged by people who actually seemed to know what they were talking about in a manner commensurate with their stated experience (no inscrutable idiocies like “Yo, a little pitchy, dawg,” here), Top Chef took up its predecessor Project Runway’s mantle as acceptable reality viewing for the creative class and broadened its appeal to all four quadrants. Instead of temperamental fashion designers fussing prettily over a square inch of ruched chiffon, we got burly mountain men, austere, sleek-haired perfectionists, and hard-living punk-rock types able to haul a side of beef across a kitchen and dissect it with the alacrity of a surgeon. The kitchen is a battlefield, and cooks are soldiers. Feelings, creative ambitions, interpersonal dynamics: worthy dramatic fodder, for sure, but ultimately sublimated to an unerring ability to achieve a perfect char on a slab of animal protein. The food always comes first.
The Top Chef formula of compelling personalities overshadowed only by exquisite cooking reached its apex in season six. In the finals, we had the Brothers Voltaggio, the Cain and Abel of suburban Maryland. We had Eric Ripert protégée Jennifer Carroll, a chef whose preternatural ability with seafood went hand-in-hand with a psyche as delicate as the shell of a langoustine. And we had the delightful fan favorite Kevin Gillespie, a jolly, stocky, thick-bearded delight who, with his enormous pig tattoo, appeared to have defied his father’s wishes to go into the family business overseeing holiday toy production at the North Pole to instead follow his dreams of grilling barbecue in the Deep South. Michael Voltaggio, the eventual winner, did pay some boilerplate reality lip service to his 2-year-old daughter and wanting to make a better life for her, but it was clear from the beginning that any benefits little Olivia or Emma or Sophia would reap from her father’s talents were incidental to his getting to show them in the first place, thereby giving himself a leg-up “story.” His true driving urge was to beat his brother, to beat everyone, to make food that the judges unanimously agreed was the hands-down best of any they have ever eaten during the course of the show. If seasons of Top Chef were rated thus, season six was the one with the Michelin stars.
And then there’s ANTM. Cycle two introduced us to a colorful cast of implausible glamour girls: Mercedes, who had to overcome the horrible disease of lupus; Yoanna, the eventual winner, who had to overcome the horrible disease of being slightly overweight; Jenascia, who had to overcome the horrible disease of being really fucking short — like Kate Moss short; Sara and Bethany, both of whom attempted, and failed to overcome, the horrible disease of being “too sexy for fashion”; and finally Shandi, who had to overcome the horrible disease of being a semi-weird-looking Walgreen’s employee from Kansas City. (Shandi’s tearful phone confession to her boyfriend back home, confessing she had been flirtatious with a male model, elicited one of my favorite reality-show moments of all time: said boyfriend’s immediate response, “Did he touch your butt?”)
From the beginning, it was clear that none of them were going to be remotely successful in the fashion industry. Being a 23-year-old aspiring model — or even an 18-year-old aspiring model — is sort of like being a 32-year-old aspiring Olympic figure skater. (Hi! Did you like that triple lutz I just did? In my living room, without skates, and with only .5 rotations?) Real top models, the kind who do “high fashion” shoots — i.e., the kind that aren’t “too sexy” — and walk the runway at the couture shows in Paris, get scouted out of yurts in Siberia and hollow logs in deepest Appalachia. If you’ve ever been to a mall or an airport, let alone made the rounds of agents in New York with a head shot in hand, and you still haven’t booked a print ad, it’s not because you haven’t been discovered: It’s because nobody is looking for you.
But in the world of ANTM, none of this matters. It’s not like Top Chef, which is basically a serious cooking competition disguised as a reality show — never more so than in season six, when most of the ridiculous arbitrariness of previous seasons (cooking on a beach with no pots or pans, or out of a vending machine, or in an airplane galley) were scuppered in favor of thoughtful concepts designed to inspire creativity and to show off skill: a dish based on a “vice,” for example, or a designated cut of pork. America’s Next Top Model, regardless of season, has always been the inverse: reality show disguised as a model search. It’s no coincidence that ANTM’s challenges have always seemed less like genuine personal conundrums than arbitrarily designed obstacle courses, or trials from a particularly sadistic folk tale that can only be completed by the truly pure of heart. Why else, short of being a little too obsessed with 1984, would you force a girl who is terrified of heights to dangle from a 100-foot ceiling? (That girl being Catie, who you may also remember sobbing hysterically when they cut her hair off against her will in the makeover episode.) Or to pressure newbie models with self-esteem issues into posing nude (apart, of course, from fluorescent body paint and contact lenses, which are definitionally invisible) in their very first photo shoot?
The point isn’t to succeed in the sense of achieving quality results. The point is to try to ultimately be found wanting. And perhaps that’s as it should be. The inherent flaw in the machinery of Top Chef, never so apparent than in its most food-porn-y season, is that we have to take their word for it. We can’t taste the sublimity of Kevin Gillespie’s poached lamb or understand why Jennifer Carroll’s duck confit got her sent home. But on a show about the creation of images, we participate fully. We get why Sara’s boobs are too big, and we take acerbic judge Nole Marin’s point that Xiomaria looks like a “walrus in chiffon.” We watch the models attempt to smize and get it; we watch someone attempt to degum their mushroom risotto and figure we have to assume that whatever the judges tell us is the truth.
The ability to correctly find flaw is key here. Unlike Top Chef, with its raft of highly feasible talent, when we watch America’s Next Top Model, we are gleefully complicit in the purposeful futility of the exercise. America will never have a next top model, because America’s top model is still very much alive, standing before nine beautiful girls with only eight photos in her hands. For all its drama, manufactured and otherwise, ANTM is at heart the story of Tyra’s triumph over adversity: over age, over time, over racism, over irrelevance. Her image is everywhere, on every surface of the house in which they live, on ever communiqué they receive.
Which brings me to my final, and most important point: On a show in which the contestants are eliminated weekly, the face of the show — its ruler, so to speak — is its defining factor, the well from which all water springs. Top Chef has Tom Colicchio, snide in his denim — denim! — chef’s coat, smirking knowingly at the cheftestants’ questionable flavor profiles and lamb chops slowly overcooking their way to doom; he sits in judgment, as those who are about to die salute him with a chirpy “Yes, chef,” as sure and unflinching as if he were their commanding officer directing them into a cloud of napalm. The mentor becomes the executioner: it’s like something out of a Stalinist show trial.
Not bad, but hardly competition for Tyra Banks. Tyra can do anything to those girls. She can chop off their hair, ridicule their clothes, make them pose with poisonous snakes or nude on ice floes or bury them in graves, or as she did awesomely in season two, make them to compete to appear in her own imaginary music video while forcing them to congratulate/reassure her of her incredible bravery on embarking on a new career as a solo artist. (This was before the talk show. And the YA novel. And the stint at “Harvard” business school.) She can berate them into realizing their best selves, knowing that whatever they become will only be a pale reflection of her own glory, a Xerox of a Xerox of the real thing. She is both protagonist and antagonist, ingenue and villain. Yoanna House may be serving some Snow White realness with that black hair and those green eyes, but Tyra will look fierce — yet virginal! Young! — as she sinks her teeth into her still-beating heart. Which is also an apple. Because she’s everyone.
And that’s exactly how she should be. Reality television, in the end, isn’t about competence, or even excellence; it’s about how we as a culture expose the monsters in our midst. Once we told stories of murderous countesses or hideous vampires and took precautions not to be among their victims; now we watch others build shrines to their own narcissism and take precautions not to become them. Deep down, this isn’t season six Top Chef vs. cycle 2 ANTM. This is the Brothers Voltaggio vs. the Brothers Grimm. Can there be any question?
Winner: America’s Next Top Model, cycle two
Rachel Shukert is a frequent Vulture contributor. Her latest book, Love Me, the sequel to Starstruck in her YA series set in 1930’s Hollywood, has just been published by Random House.