Only on “America’s Next Top Model” is the opportunity for a career on the runways considered an act of charity.
The show, like its gadfly godhead, Tyra Banks, is at its core about inclusion -- no one shall be denied the chance to be a model for reasons of race, sexual identity, height, weight, family history, tragedy, attitude and so on. Except that at season’s end, almost without fail, conventional bests unique.
For all its nods to unusual stripes of beauty, “ANTM” remains one of the most conservative shows on television, an almost constant reaffirmation of the old pecking order. The struggles of the eccentric make for great TV, but they do not lay the groundwork for modeling careers.
Which may explain why, in its 12th cycle, premiering Wednesday, the CW show is embracing difference with even more fierceness than usual. There is Tahlia, a childhood burn victim with scars on her stomach and thighs; Isabella, an epileptic; Allison, a 20-year-old from New Orleans with a rigid upper back and an allergy to blinking, who alerts Tyra to her obsession with nosebleeds and goes on to proclaim, “I’m really interested in hemophilia"; and Kortnie, a plus-size model, eager to shake the “pit lizard” tag she acquired while dating Dale Earnhardt Jr. Beautiful women, all, but more beautiful characters, and a reminder that “ANTM” is far less a celebration or critique of the norms of the modeling industry than an iteration of “The Real World” with fewer, and better, clothes. (Next season even more of the pretense will be stripped away: The casting call, issued last week, actively solicits candidates under 5 feet 7, improbably short for models.)
Right away, this season is peppered with typical Banksian theater of the absurd. The first hour, devoted to winnowing the semifinalists, is filmed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, with Tyra dressing as “the goddess of fierce,” or more accurately, as a drag version of Tina Turner in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”
Describing a contestant, Teyona, with angular features, Tyra announces, “Her face looks like it’s in a wind tunnel. Wind tunnel in a good way.” And then she elaborately sucks in a breath of air and pulls her face taut. Most likely, though, that wind tunnel will take Teyona only so far -- “ANTM” has never discovered a model in the mode of an Agyness Deyn or a Jenny Shimizu, women with unconventional looks who made huge splashes in the industry, largely as a correction to the standards of their day.
Promisingly, Shimizu, almost unrecognizable with a full head of hair -- in her partying heyday with Madonna and Angelina Jolie, she was perma-buzzcut -- has reemerged from the shadows as a judge on the second season of Bravo’s “Make Me a Supermodel|make+me+a+supermodel+bravo|Brand|G_MMAS2&sky;=ggl|make+me+a +supermodel+bravo|Brand|G_MMAS2,” which premieres, conveniently, on Wednesday at 10 p.m., just after the conclusion of the two-hour debut of “ANTM.”
Shimizu’s inclusion is part of a broader makeover for the show, in which co-host Niki Taylor has been replaced by Nicole Trunfio, an Australian model-reality show winner, who will mentor the female contestants. (Tyson Beckford, last year’s co-host, returns as host and mentor to the male participants.) The judging table has been overhauled as well and now includes the designer Catherine Malandrino, with a thick accent and thicker attitude; the photographer Perou (who in the first episode appears in a jumpsuit and bowler hat, looking as if he’s just escaped from a regional theater production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”); Marlon, a model scout; and Shimizu.
Otherwise, the show remains comfortably the same. It’s coed, which is refreshing and creates intriguing sexual dynamics, positive and negative. This week, Branden, who is straight, is required to pose for an intimate photo with Chris, who is not, leading Branden to lament about “the gay problem between me and him, because I’m especially not gay.”
And because it spends less time on flamboyant challenges for its contestants, “MMAS” actually allows for better storytelling, which means that even though its contestants’ stories are generally less outrageous than those on “ANTM,” they’re more fully told.
Still, a body is a body. In this week’s premiere, the owner of the modeling agency that will represent the show’s eventual winner actually sizes up the contestants with a tape measure, advising some to slim down and others to bulk up, advice that would be virtual blasphemy on “ANTM.” One of the physical standouts is Sandhurst, a ballet dancer originally from Tobago, who appears to have an initial edge. But, boy, is he pretty.
On “ANTM,” that would probably be enough. Here, though, the camera has been more interested in Salome, a former Mennonite with a sharp tongue. On “ANTM,” she might have made it only halfway, but this might be her ideal milieu.