Is there something in the ANTM water? Does Tyra line the pipes of each cycle’s gutted brownstone with some sort of Harry Potter paranoia serum so that by the time the finalists get to the end, they’re pouring energy drinks down drains and rendered incapable of reading a city map to get through a simple go-see?
If so, new host Rita Ora might have been a little off in her measurements, because the ladies of cycle 23 are spitting stone-cold crazy straight from the jump. They really don’t make ‘em like America’s Next Top Model anymore. Can you imagine the cast of any other reality show being this earnest in the sharing of their (frightening) views, their (doomed) hopes and dreams? Sure, on ANTM’s contemporaries — say, your Vanderpump Rules or MTV’s The Challenge — the kids are also out there embarrassing themselves. But for the most part, they’re doing it on purpose, for the attention and the occasional skinny margarita at the Watch What Happens Live clubhouse.
On ANTM, however, these are just a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old girls screaming, “I don’t come from Africa! I am African-American!” and weeping about their anxieties in front of the people who hold their fate in their hands because they don’t know any better yet. This world will eat you alive, and it all starts right here! Now featuring Rita Ora and a writhing mass of male models, ready to catch you when you fall spread eagle into your demise.
The second episode of ANTM’s reboot is super weird in the personality department, but it’s also a pretty fun time, starting with the new GIF-style intro credits. Among the 14 finalists, I’d categorize the immediate standouts from the new intro as Cherish, whose red hair really does set her apart; Cody, serving some O.G. YaYa DaCosta realness; Courtney, giving face (and Courtney’s face, giving brows); Justine, if only due to her major lewk of blue eye shadow, braids, and a high-cut leotard with a sternum keyhole the size of California; and Paige’s playfulness (what we’ll come to find out later is a signature playfulness).
Officially established as the Final 14, and settled into their very expensive sorority house of horrors, it’s time for cycle 23’s first
Tyra Mail RitAlert. Hey, guess what? It’s Rita with side-swept bangs! She’s holding her own camera (be your own boss, y’all) and telling America’s potential next top models that she’s sending them to runway coach Miss J. Alexander Stacey McKenzie to prepare for their first task.
Stacey McKenzie starts right in strutting her stuff when the women meet her in Harlem and, in true ANTM fashion, lets no cycle pass without an official education from a troop of voguers. Unfortunately, instead of learning what this art form means to modeling, we mostly get a quick flash of arms and legs from the House of Mugler voguers, then it’s time for the top 14 to be split into squads.
As the two squads face off, we’re reminded that Binta has the look and confidence of a model, Tash and Cody are each other’s biggest competition because they “share a face,” Cherish serves attitude despite what her questionable outfit choice of khakis and a leather vest might suggest, and though Krislian is petite and commercial, Stacey says she can rock a runway like a fashion model.
But it’s squad one who will learn how to rock a runway like Stacey, as their prize is a personal coaching session. She sends the top 14 back to the house to practice on the built-in runway until she arrives for their lesson. Instead of doing that, they talk about Black Lives Matter and get in a screaming match about who does or does not come from Africa.
Listen, I support any beneficial and educational conversation about Black Lives Matter. I really do. But I still cringed a bit when it came at the hands of Paige, whose narrative boils down to being the sheltered white girl who wants more. “I wanna know more, I wanna ask questions,” she says with a distinct “this is the year of, like, realizing stuff” vibe. “Like, black lives do matter. They matter to ME!” Paige really channels ANTM’s classic brand of disconcerting sincerity, doesn’t she?
Surrounded by her more diverse fellow finalists, Paige is a little out of her element on where the conversation ultimately lands. As the camera zooms around to anxious faces, and the ANTM editors begin playing distinctly tribal music in the background, Binta takes the platform. She starts off by saying that we need to “learn how to share the wealth of this world together,” and gets as far as, “Black lives matter 100 percent, but the history of this country … ” before Giah shouts back, “Our history is a lie!”
At this point, it becomes difficult to figure out what’s happening because the music just keeps getting louder as Binta screams, “You come from Africa!” while Giah and the twins scream back, “We don’t know who we are — that’s why we’re African-American!” Giah makes an additional point in her confessional by saying, “We don’t talk African, we’re not Nigerian … we’re the only people who don’t know where we come from.”
Thank goodness Stacey McKenzie shows up — there’s nothing like a visit from the cool teacher to calm down drama in the hallway. She tells the women that it wasn’t easy becoming a top model. She was turned down by agencies all over the world, talked down to, and told she would never make it in the industry before finally booking her first runway show with the designer and superstar who sparked her passion for modeling in the first place: Jean-Paul Gaultier and Madonna, respectively. It’s so heartwarming, it’s almost like everyone wasn’t screaming at each other about Africa in the courtyard not five minutes ago.
The runway lesson commences, but as it turns out, the next day’s task isn’t just a runway challenge. New judge Drew Elliot is there to inform the contestants that they’ll be walking right off the runway and into their first photo shoot … literally. A group of be-tank-topped men will catch them in a sexy trust fall as they pose for photographer Pieter Henket up above. Naturally, Law Roach’s muse Zendaya will be there to judge it all.
The ladies are loving it: Zendaya is a capital-b Brand that Rita — hey, where is Rita? — has been preaching about nonstop. The moment the prize for winning Zendaya’s attention on the runway is announced, I started salivating to tell you about it. Why? Because the winner of the runway show gets to take a selfie with Zendaya that will be posted to her social media so, as Zendaya says, “We can get those numbers up.”
I’m not kidding. I’m not leaving anything out. It is even sillier in execution than it is in description. Spoiler alert: Kyle wins (notably not for having the best runway walk, but for being … bossiest?), and as her prize, she’s pulled to a dark corner to take a selfie with Zendaya as her loser competitors look on in awe, thinking about the “couple hundred thousand followers” she’ll get on Instagram. Now, as a committed ANTM journalist, I’ve been tracking this story live and can report: Zendaya posted the selfie to her 7 million followers on Twitter — not Instagram — and as of Tuesday morning, Kyle’s follower count has grown from 502 to a solid 744. Behold your riches, Kyle.
As for the rest of the runway walk and subsequent photo shoot, let’s take it to our esteemed panel of non-Zendaya judges behind their intimidating marble table. I’m suspicious that VH1 hired Rita Ora for her accent alone, and I don’t blame them. Having a sexy Mary Poppins in the building really does spice up the “I love your face!” or “I don’t love your face!” commentary.
We start with India, whose face the judges love, but since one of her eyes is smaller than the other, actual top model Ashley Graham advises that she learn her face’s angles. Binta is told once again that she exudes confidence and it shows through in her explosive photo. Drew says all of Kyle’s pictures were fantastic, which is a big improvement from last week’s comp card.
But it can’t all be positive. Justine is called forward, and we know by her distinctive giggle that she’s feeling confident. Wrong. In the photo shoot, she had face for days, but she couldn’t get her body right. By that I mean, she could not close her legs. Just spread eagle the whole time. Drew says it was very difficult to direct her and she wasn’t connecting with the photographer at all. Justine accepts her criticism quietly, unlike Krislian, who’s told that she played up the sexpot too much, then shoots back that she couldn’t understand the photographer’s direction. Have you ever watched this show? You never blame the photographer. Blame yourself, blame the elements, hell, even blame Rita Ora, but never insult the person buttering your bread.
The judges don’t like that at all, but they do like Giah, Paige, and Tatiana. They tell Cherish just a small twist would have majorly improved her angles, and advise Marissa that the worst part of her shoot was having to decide which great photo to use. Coryanne’s photo isn’t sending any sort of message, and Law advises her not to melt under the pressure of her supermodel mom. Courtney gets raves for her signature masculinity, and Tash’s fierce, man-grabbing photo looks like a Versace campaign. That just leaves her twin sister, Cody, who’s a nervous wreck the minute she steps off the risers.
Cody is emotional even before Dr. Rita, MD, asks if she’s always felt overshadowed by her twin sister. Indeed, she has … but she shouldn’t. Her photo is incredible: skin glowing, collarbone popping, face fiercing. Law says she evokes the likes of Beverly Peele and Naomi Sims. With all that praise and personal triumph, it’s no wonder Cody wins Best Photo.
But which hopeful will be sent home? The judges choose to send Justine packing. Seems like a mistake, no? In my opinion, she’s just the social-media star/high-end-fashion-model hybrid they’re looking for.
Justine crouches down to the ground in tears, and Rita sweetly gets right down there with her. She asks, “Do you know what it means to be 18?” Presumably, she’s suggesting that Justine has a whole lot of life ahead of her to make her dreams a reality. Rita leaves us all with this: “When I was 18, I was selling sneakers. Now … I’m hosting America’s Next Top Model.” What a world!