Mar 20, 2010

America's Next Top Model: cycle 14

"Man hands on misery to man," wrote Philip Larkin. He was thinking of his parents in particular and parents in general, but then he never got to watch America's Next Top Model. Model hands misery onto model in ceaseless roundelay on the show, now in its 14th cycle, which at the risk of appearing ungallant, is beginning to show its age. There are a lot of retread contestants in the current cycle, while the format of the program has now settled into a reassuringly familiar form, like pantomime. First, the skittish hopefuls are called before the judges to cough up their pre-assigned Oprah bio-points: the difficult childhoods, the unwanted pregnancies, the lapsed religious affiliations. Then they are sent on their first photo-shoot, aimed not at making them look better, but at making them look as awful as possible: they are forced to dress up as circus freaks, or corpses, or buried beneath seven layer cakes of carnivalesque make-up. On hand is plasticoated astroboy Jay Emanuel dispensing the least helpful advice since Iago whispered sweet nothings in Othella's ear. "Don't look cold," he instructs them. And: "This lack of self confidence is crippling you." Then they are recalled to the studio where they are critiqued for every pose, lozenge of light and stray hair — one girl last week was even taken to task for the way a single droplet of water, sprayed onto her from a hose, dangled ignominiously from her chin — and if they dare push back, bam. Down comes the guillotine. They are making excuses. Top Models do not make excuses. Top Models are "fierce." They "want it." The show has much less to do with the job of being a model, and everything to do with simulating an exact physiological recreation of the injustices Tyra felt she had to negotiate to make it to the top. The show is wholly fashioned in her image, to her specifications, around her peccadillos, in illustration of her issues, in a way that the franchise equivalents abroad are not. She presides over it like a cross between Naomi Campbell and Neferiti, inducing hysteria in he girls with her by now entirely predictable surprise visits, alighting in their midst like a visiting Goddess, before gutting them neatly with a smile. "Why are you crying?" she asks, having reduced one of them to tears, in a tone halfway between sympathy and threat. She occasionally plugs in her sympathy chip for a nice sit-down chat with the girls, a la Oprah, but she is to her predecessor what the Terminator T-1000 was to Arnie in Termintor 2: a meaner, leaner, more beautiful version, her sights trained on the radical extermination of all opposition. One girl is even a refugee from a cult, which makes perfect sense: America's Next Top Model is the most vivid personality cult on TV.

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