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Runway rivalries roiling on 'Top Model'

With fashion queen Tyra Banks presiding over the silly but stylish contest, America's babe pipeline is secure.

February 27, 2005|Choire Sicha | Special to The Times

Surprisingly for an hour of television that regularly features 115-pound women who are not yet of drinking age wearing outfits made from less than a baseball hat's worth of material, UPN's "America's Next Top Model" may have exactly zero heterosexual male viewers. But, of course, the care, feeding, and brutalizing of models has always been a gay pastime.

The franchise's dishy and catty fourth season, the first one shot in L.A., will begin next week -- fast on the heels of Season 3, which ended in December -- and it's big-haired and wasp-waisted appeal endures.

In the first episode, a clear-skinned crop of 35 eager beavers arrives to strut their stuff and their neuroses for host and producer-creator Tyra Banks and her crack team of fashionista homosexual assistants in the hopes of becoming one of them-there real-life fashion models.

It begins with tiresome, standard-issue reality-TV, heavy with the fake drama of the upcoming elimination of strangers. But "America's Next Top Model" goes on to make more than you could have imagined of the thin premise of models hellbent on victory. A day of makeovers in one upcoming episode, for example, reveals a deep-rooted defiance in some contestants; no model, we are informed, can afford to turn her nose up at a hairdresser's demand for extensions or a painful bleach job, and those who do are in for a short walk off a catwalk gangplank. Modeling, the show will convince the doubter, is actually hard, distressing, exhausting work.

And there is, of course, Ms. Tyra, the show's glamazon heroine. Banks is truly an awesome presence; alternately imperious and warm, both motherly and cruel, she can sell feel-good psychology and set boundaries like a stacked Dr. Phil in a chest-plunging catsuit -- but, like they said of Ginger Rogers, she does it backward and in high heels. When she meets the 30 contestants in a hotel room at the start of this new season, she makes a breathless pronouncement: "I'm looking for girls with pizazz, I'm looking for girls who are beautiful on the outside, but, duh, most models are beautiful on the outside. But I'm looking for the beauty on the inside, something that is rare, something that is extra special. Just be on, but be yourselves, but don't fake it. I can see through the fake, OK? So just be real." By the end of this speech she has snapped her fingers seven times.

Furthermore, she has mad model skills. In the first show this season, as each of the contestants appears for her personal interview with Banks and her assistants, Banks takes one look at a contestant named Lluvi and says, "Lluvi, is that your dress?" Lluvi confesses that it's her sister's. "I knew it!" says Banks. "I knew it wasn't yours."

Banks sends Lluvi right out to change; she reappears in jeans, looking a million times sexier and more comfortable. "There she is," says Banks with a satisfied smile. Seated next to her helpers, famed "runway coach" J. Alexander and the bleached-blond art director Jay Manuel in one of his chest-displaying faux-Versace clingy tops, she's the all-knowing fashion queen bee.

The show's third season didn't have the zip and zing of the second. In Season 2, a mini-scandal erupted when a contestant was booted for refusing to pose nude. Another girl collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. Contestant (and Walgreens clerk) Shandi betrayed her boyfriend. That season's last few episodes burned with an awesome ugliness and ferocity that reality TV so rarely achieves.

But in the end, there is of course the question of whether the sniffy fashion world wants these TV-minted models. The crushing truth may be this: None of these girls will go on to become America's next top anything. While "American Idol" manages to create a famous personage, albeit one whose entire output and image is owned by Rupert Murdoch, these girls may only cater-waiter at Milan or in New York's Bryant Park tents.

Sadly, the Ford agency "contract" they win doesn't guarantee actual work. Season 2 winner Yoanna House, for instance, has already gone missing from the Ford website.

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