‘America’s Next Top Model’ recap: Tyra ups the ante

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“America’s Next Top Model”—a.k.a. Tyra Banks’s patented model-making machine—has always been an exercise in dubious superlatives, and the premiere of Cycle 15 was no exception. Every season, the newest batch of would-be runway superstars gasp and croon at the prizes for those who can survive the gauntlet of “smies”-ing and posing in whatever bizarre situations the producers dream up as necessary tools for a professional model—taking a beautiful photograph while falling, freezing, being attacked by animals, or floating in a wind tunnel.

A modeling contract and a gig as CoverGirl aren’t anything to sneeze at, but they almost seem paltry compensation for undergoing that sort of ongoing torture, nor do they have seem to have turned Jaslene and Saleisha into household names. But this time, when Tyra describes cycle 15 as “Top Model elevated,” I almost believe her, thanks to a newly brokered deal that lands the winner a spot on the covers of ‘Vogue Italia’ and ‘Beauty in Vogue,’ magazines with considerably more heft in the high fashion world than ‘Seventeen.’


“I created this show because I wanted to bring modeling to the masses,” Tyra announces when she first meets her crop of hopefuls. But now, she explains, it’s time to introduce everyday people to the world of high fashion. And so Tyra whisks a busload of the girls in from LAX to that nexus of the avant-garde fashion world: Palm Springs. The contestants this cycle are the usual mixture of giggly country bumpkins and spoiled fashionistas, drama queens and bubbly freckled blondes. One by one, they’re brought in front of Tyra and the Jays to flaunt their runway walk and dish about their life hardships.

Tyra, by now a master of the leading question, seems to get the girls from star-struck to weepy in 60 seconds flat. (“I understand you had something you had to sleep in until you were 9,” she asked one contestant. “A sleeping bag!” the model proclaimed, her face crumpling on cue. “We were so poor.” Cut to the next model.)

The few models that stuck out from the crowd mostly did so by virtue of bizarre personality quirks—there was Kayla who, before a Tyra-ordered hair combing, looked like someone had glued a Dolly Parton wig to her head. There was Esther, the modern orthodox Jewish lady, unusually gifted in the chest department. And then there was Emily, the girl from West Virginia who supposedly wrote racist comments in her diary. (“I think she learned her lesson,” Tyra said after she broke down in tears.)

But frankly, this cycle lacked some of the more obvious issues-oriented contestants of previous seasons. It’s a diverse enough bunch, but there’s no one as groundbreaking for the modeling industry as Isis, the transgendered model from cycle 11, or even cycle 9’s Heather Kuznich, who struggled with Asperger’s syndrome. Is it a sign that Tyra is being less inclusive, or straying from the shock factor of bending industry standards while casting for the show? Will it mean that this season will be better or worse? We shall see.

The truth is that “ANTM” has always really been about watching Tyra. The models know it and we know it. Every cycle, Tyra and her coterie have gotten progressively more ridiculous — Miss Jay’s outfits added more spangles and ruffles, Tyra’s weave got less and less believable, and the challenges started verging on absurdist performance art. But “ANTM” got more fun to watch as it got campier, and Tyra meted out punishment and reward to her adoring modelettes.

Cycle 15 seems, already, more serious—Miss J was in beige and bandannas, and there were no bizarre themes. The only thing the models really got to do outside of bickering and their one-on-one session was mingle at a garden party with Cynthia Rowley. Pretty fun, but a far cry from the opening volley of, say, cycle 9, where the ladies boarded a cruise ship and had Miss J serenade them in a sailor suit.


At the end, I was rooting for the gangly 6-foot-plus Anna—but I always go for the awkward ones. Other promising contestants included Chris and Terra, the warring sisters, and Jane, the Ivy Leaguer. The previews promise a host of haute guest judges and hijinks, but will the bigger fashion prize take the entertainment out of “ANTM”? Or is it a return to the glory of the first few cycles, before the competition had gotten so set in its ways? Only the next episodes—and Nigel Barker—can tell us.

Quick thoughts:

--I was sad that Jordan got cut so soon. She was shaping up to be a good villain for the cycle, but she made that fatal mistake of “not wanting it enough.” Or something.

--Tyra on Rhianna’s weirdo outfit: “She lost her mind all the way into rightness”

--Other highlight: When Sara started rapping, Tyra jumped right in with the beatbox. Here’s hoping she breaks that out again soon.

--Margaret Eby

Photo: ‘America’s Next Top Model’ contestants, Cycle 15, Front row: Kayla, Chelsey, Kendal, Ann, Esther, Lexie, Liz, Jane; Back Row: Kacey, Sara, Free, Anamaria, Chris, Terra. Credit: Jessica Brooks/The CW