America’s Next Top Model Season Premiere Recap: Always Be Branding

America’s Next Top Model

Business, Brand, Boss
Season 23 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Drew Elliott, Rita Ora, Law Roach, Ashley Graham.

America’s Next Top Model

Business, Brand, Boss
Season 23 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Drew Elliott, Rita Ora, Law Roach, Ashley Graham. Photo: Jean Claude Dhien/VH1

Do you remember the granola bar incident of cycle five? Remember when Shandi slept with a male model, followed quickly thereafter by a full-on balcony breakup with her long-term boyfriend? Remember when Tyra cut off a million inches of Cassandra’s hair, and then decided she’d take off yet another inch, so Cassandra said, Rosemary’s Baby can eat it, I’m outta here. Remember Eva? Lisa? Jade?

Of course you do. Because we were rooting for ANTM. WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR ANTM!

Despite the legendary moments of the early seasons and many a stunning photo, somewhere around the time that Saleisha and Saleisha’s mushroom-bob beat out Chantal, it became hard to ignore what I’ve come to call the Voice Paradigm: America’s Next Top Model had yet to beget any actual top models. Twenty-two seasons later, when host Tyra Banks decided to bow out gracefully (which is to say, by tweet), there were still no ANTM standouts, other than Nyle DiMarco’s abs on Dancing With the Stars and the unforgettable legend of Denzel’s beard weave.

There are a couple of good reasons for that. For one, you can’t just take a girl out of South Dakota, bleach her eyebrows, and throw her out into the modeling world with a portfolio full of photos where she’s dressed like a gazelle while eating cotton candy as a metaphor for the seven deadly sins, and expect her to become an international sensation. But even more glaringly, ANTM existed in its original state from 2003 through 2015, a time when models were just as present on runways and editorial spreads as ever, but less at the forefront of pop culture. Thanks to its host, ANTM idolized the idea of the ‘90s supermodel — recognizable by first name on the front rows of Paris Fashion Week, as well as to the average reader of Sports Illustrated — in a time when that type of supermodel no longer existed outside of Giselle.

So VH1 did a very smart thing: They realized that the exact moment Tyra Banks and the CW were putting the kibosh on TV’s most popular modeling competition was also the exact moment when models had become the most pop-culturally relevant again in decades. Like it or not, emerging models with huge social media followings and even bigger personal brands have catapulted the industry back to the first-name-only status of yesteryear. Karlie codes and makes cookies. Cara is a kook who acts and goes to Lakers games. Gigi is at the head of a nepotism empire and the top of every designer’s short list.

It’s always been important to be a Boss on ANTM, but in this second coming, it’s most imperative that each woman is ready to be a brand. Kendall Jenner won’t go down in modeling history for her runway skills, but she will go down every runway at Fashion Week thanks to her 70 million Instagram followers. If Monday night’s premiere of cycle 23 proves anything, it’s that young women who hope to become supermodels haven’t changed … but the potential to actually become one has.

Oh, and the judges — those have also changed! Gone are the days of Jay Manuel’s platinum mane, Nigel Barker’s babe-alicious face, Miss J’s ever-growing accessories, and Janice Dickinson’s roller coaster of emotions. Not even an André Leon Talley was to be found. There’s certainly no Tyra, at least not on the judges’ panel. As she explains to the 28 hopefuls at the top of the premiere, she created this empire of “beauty and badassery” so that she could one day step back and watch it live on without her. Presumably from a remote island in the Bahamas while rolling around in money.

So who, pray tell, will be taking Tyra’s place as ANTM’s supermodel host/Yoda? Let’s just get the first of cycle 23’s many confusing elements out of the way: It’s Rita Ora. “Who?” you ask. Unclear, I reply.

Listen, I know Rita is huge in the U.K., but over here in the States, she’s mostly just a beautiful question mark. She’s a singer, but maybe considers herself more of an actress, but is definitely most well-known for wearing a lot of fashionable clothes in Daily Mail posts. The one thing she’s definitely not is a supermodel. However, Rita tells the 28 hopefuls (who at least pretend to recognize her on the introductory helipad) that she’s there to teach them how to become a 25-year-old boss like she is. “I know how to sell, I know how to create a brand, and I know how to have multiple business ventures.” If you say so, Rita!

What the host of cycle 23 lacks in supermodel know-how, the rest of the judging panel makes up for, starting with Ashley Graham. She’s at the top of her game right now, and a trailblazer to boot: Twenty years after Tyra Banks became the first-ever African American model to grace the cover of Sport’s Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, Graham became the first-ever plus-size model to do so. With her lingerie line and fame both in the fashion industry and general pop culture, Graham is the definition of the “boss, brand, and businesswoman” ideal. Also, gosh, she’s just so pretty.

So why isn’t Ashley hosting this redux? Well, because Rita proves herself to be a pretty damn charming host in the premiere. As opposed to Tyra, who used to fill all rolls — host, constructive critic, dramatic performer of fainting spells — Rita is there to set the lively tone, while her fellow judges bring the credibility and fashion education. Finishing out the ranks are Drew Elliott, chief creative officer at Paper magazine, as well as Law Roach, badass stylist for Zendaya and Celine Dion (and more, but look no further than those two to see his transformative skills at play).

With the bigwigs introduced and doing their best to fill some mighty big stilettos, it’s finally time to meet the 28 modeling hopefuls who will be whittled down to just 14 by the end of the hour. Would you believe me if I told you there’s sweet Southern gal who never dreamed she’d make it to the big city, an African woman with a buzzed head who wrapped this thing up the second she stepped on set, and a sassy redhead who comes with her own catchphrases?

Cherish is the one with the catchphrase: “Cherish Waters was born to be cherished.” As a fellow redhead, I want to support her, but as a watcher of ANTM, I know that she will be intolerable not only because of her insistence on being a $@$$Y, but also because she tops that annoyance off with incredible photos. Binta is originally from Gambia and already touts herself as a model, activist, and entrepreneur. Justine and Marissa have had a little less time to fill out their CVs, as they’re only 18, but considering their stunning faces, they’ll probably be okay. Giah is our country girl, a very subtle point made by her Texas flag shirt and jean shorts. ANTM cycle 23: Always Be Branding!

These women are introduced right off the bat, so you know they’ll probably make it through the cut, but only one thing can truly determine that: the go-sees. After a quick photo shoot for their comp cards, the contestants are immediately split into two groups to go see designers Phillip Plein and LaQuan Smith, both rising fashion stars in their own right. LaQuan is a supportive sweetheart and Philip is a harsh, scary German man, but it doesn’t matter what the models think of the designers — only what the designers think of the models.

LaQuan is impressed that Tatiana, who has gorgeous natural curls, is well-versed in his work, and actually owns one of his tops. Cody and Tash — TWINS! — walk as one unit for Phillip, but are apparently competing as individuals. All this gets sorted out in the best part of any ANTM premiere: the meeting with the judges, where a bunch of 18- to 21-year-olds try to make a strong first impression before they’ve probably ever had a job interview before. Pro tip, ladies: Your weakness is that you work too hard!

Even though they’re entirely new to us (and Tyra isn’t there to pull a single fake out), this foursome works very well together. Ashley Graham is a tough critic with constructive feedback, Drew brings an editorial standpoint, Law knows how to turn unique style into a brand, and Rita is there to say things like, “That’s what this show is about — a platform for you to find yourself and give you a chance to make yourself a better person,” which, quite simply, is not even a little bit what this show is about, but bless her, she means it.

That bit of sage Rita advice is directed at Marissa, whose mom had her when she was 15 and whose father has been incarcerated for her entire life. More importantly, though, her comp card is dope, even if Ashley tells her to ditch all the makeup. Paige, who’s from Michigan (and does that thing people from Michigan do where she shows you where in Michigan on her hand), really plays up the girl-boss angle, talking up her pageants and presidential community-service awards, to which Rita says, “So you’re the girl that I would hate in school.” Rita, I literally know nothing about you, but please never change.

Kyle identifies as genderqueer, and the judges love her androgynous look in person — unfortunately her comp card is a bit of a wreck. Cory Anne sets the bar high straight away with what Law says is the best comp card all day. It’s in her DNA, after all: Her mother is ‘90s model Stephanie Roberts. Courtney is a woman about whom you must know two things: 91) Her dark bushy eyebrows looks insane, and 92) Her dark, bushy eyebrows look incredible. In addition to the rest of her face, the brows bring a high-end masculinity that Drew says is “everything that’s fresh and new.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Krislian, a former music-video dancer with 50,000 followers on Instagram, lots of sex appeal, and a seemingly endless supply of plunging-neckline bodysuits. India has a real Gigi thing going on that could probably win this competition on its own, but after she reveals that she’s been modeling abroad simply because she wanted to travel, the judges question her seriousness about the industry.

I’ve done you the service of only mentioning the 14 models who actually make the cut, but just know that there was a woman named Starr wearing a subtle black lip liner who fell in love with Kyle and couldn’t stop sobbing, “I should be in there with her!” Of course, there were oh-so-many tears and shouts while the judges weeded out the less bearable contestants out early. So there you have it: We have our final 14! It’s quite a promising group, no? Rebooting a show that ended a year ago might not make a ton of sense, but this might just possibly be the season of Top Model that finally, y’know, produces a top model. Wanna be on top?

ANTM Season Premiere Recap: Always Be Branding