It was time for Alasia to make her way to the Judge’s table.
“I actually like this picture of you,” aid Tyra. “There’s a little bit of attitude in it.”
Alasia smiled gratefully.
“For me the picture is dramatic,” said guest judge Andre Talley with his usual Wildean aplomb. “I can see it in a double page spread in a high fashion magazine... Honeychild, for me, you created your own ragtime.”
Alasia’s smile spread from ear to ear. Then it was guest judge Rachel Roy’s turn.
“I can’t see much in your eyes,” she said, peering at Alasia’s picture. “The other thing that worries me is that kind of long drool coming off your chin....”
“Its us that should be drooling not you,” chipped in photographer Nigel Barker.
The drool was actually a droplet of water, sprayed onto Asalia the day before, while she stood on a New York rooftop, in the dead of winter, being hosed down with freezing water while Jay Manuel, the art director, dispensed the world’s least helpful advice since Iago whispered sweet nothings into Othello’s ear. “Don’t look cold,” he said, and “You’re over-thinking it.” It could be argued, of course, that responsibility for that droplet of water lay with him, or with the photographer, or wit the editor who selected the photograph, or with Isaac Newton, whose laws of gravity dictated that the water, once it had gathered on Asalia’s chin, was bound, irrevocably, to fall.
But Asalia, who at 18 is the youngest contestant on the current season of America’s Next Top Model, accepted the criticism without demur. At least she hadn’t been knocked for six during the catwalk show, as one girl was, by one of the giant pendulums swinging across the runway — a haunting evocation of the march of time and pitfalls of model obsolescence worthy of Dali himself. Critics like to point out that the show bears little resemblance to the actual world of modeling, but the show is not about grooming the next supermodel, it is an imaginative recreation of the trials and tribulations, psychic knocks and bruises that its creator, Tyra Banks, felt on her rise to the top.
Her mither made her study the industry — memorisign he names of the photographers, hairdresses,
She may not have had to walk down a runway while pendulums tried to knock her off, or been made up to look like a corpse, or a circus freak, or a vampire, but it must have felt as if she did.
When Tyra famously lost her shit with Tiffany in Season Four — “YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE THE HELL I CAME FROM! YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’VE BEEN THROUGH” — she wasn’t just reprimanding Tiffany for rolling her eyes. She was, in her molten rage, delivering the show’s pitch. It is all about the hell Tyra has been through.
Many TV shows double up as personality cults for their hosts — it’s almost a working definition of what it is to host a TV program — but in Tyra’s case the cult has gone full Waco. Americe’s Next Top Model has come to revolve around her in a way that the other cousins in the franchise do not. Elle McPherson, the host of Britain’s Next Top Model, does not present the competition as an opportunity to “friend” her, with the chosen girls invited to be part of her “fierce” page; Heidi Klum, who presents the German edition, does not decorate the models’ lodgings with vast posters of herself. Tyra presides over her show like a cross between Nefertiti and the T-1000 Terminator in Terminator 2; Judgment Day, whipping the girls into a state of suatained hysteria with “Tyra Mail” and numerous surprise visits in which she plugs in her sympathy chip and dispenses Oprahesque homilies on weight gain, or racism, or whatever topic of the day has caught her fancy. Tyra couldn’t look more bored during these segments (“You met your biological father how?”) and the girl’s couldn’t look more terrified. After reducing them to tears, Tyra will fix them with a serpentine glare and ask, with an imaculate blend of sympathy and menace, “why are you crying?” Be careful how you answer. The bulimia which won you sympathy in one episode is as likely to bring them an accusation of excuse-mongering the next.
“Man hands on misery to man,” wrote Philip Larkin, thinking of his parents, but his mom never made him walk the Parisian catwalks encased in black leather. Try the misery handed on from model to model and I don’t just mean the contestants of America’s Next Top Model, whose behind-the-scenes bitchery feels as lukewarm as the washing-up they invariably argue about. I mean the roiling lava pit that is judge’s table, where Tyra is joined by English photographer Nigel Barker (“noted Fashion photographer Nigel Barker”) whose running battle with his own lechery forms one of the show’s more engaging subplots. There is art director Jay Manuel who under cover of dispensing advice does his utmost to plant IEDs beneath the girl’s self esteem; there is runway coach Jay Alexander, who does the exact opposite; and Vogue’s editor-at-large Andre Talley, a departure from previous guest judges in that he actually knows what he is talking about and whose Vreelandish pronouncements have fast become my favorite thing about the show. “It has a drama to it but it’s a stereotypical drama — it doesn’t have the true magic,” he opines, barely looking the girl in the eye. And: “Sometimes a jutting chin can be a great thing.”
In truth, as with so many reality TV shows, the amount of time it would take a professional booker to decide the competition lies somewhere between three and five seconds. The task of telescoping that snap judgment into 13 one hour episodes places intolerable stress on the vocabulary, expertise and patience of all concerned, although Tyra’s efforts to impart her pearls of wisdom are the most reliably hilarious. “Not like this," she will say, squinting her eyes, jutting her shin, delivering a smoky little moue. “Like this,” she says, gathering herself like Olivier himself to squint her eyes, jut her shin, and deliver a smoky little moue. Meanwhile, the vamping that goes on between her and the judges — the cat-calls and whistles, the hoots of derision and glee, the spontaneous bursts of song and dance — has grown so rowdy as to obliterate the models themselves, who simply stand there, like nervous applicants for a job at the local nuthouse. In truth, they are an irrelevance, and always were. The show was never about them. In Tyra’s head, and on the show in perpetuity, it is and always will be about Tyra’s first night, that first cruel remark or catty back-swipe, now visited upon others — sucking out the poison and spitting it back out. America’s Next Top Model is pathological TV: as utterly compelling as only the wicked can be.