Culture Pick | Tyra Banks both made and ruined ‘America’s Next Top Model’

Banks parlayed her modeling success into a reality competition dynasty. But looking back, the show may be a little too of its era.

Courtesy+of+Rotten+Tomatoes

Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

In the early 2000s, world-famous supermodel Tyra Banks had an idea. She wanted to create a show that would take a group of girls with a passion for fashion, and over the course of three months, turn one of them into the next big thing in the modeling world. 

Banks told the Hollywood Reporter that her inspiration for the show was the lack of diversity in the industry around her. 

“’America’s Next Top Model’ was created — I created it — to introduce diversity and inclusion into a world that was pretty much not representing that or representing it in the most minute ways,” Banks said.

So for 24 cycles, young women – and, beginning in cycle 20, young men – from all around the country have flocked to malls, camera phones and more recently the internet to let Tyra and viewers know why they deserve to be “America’s Next Top Model.” 

After its extreme popularity for nearly two decades, the CW made the decision to end the show in April of 2018. But the break was brief. VH1 brought the show back less than a year later, with Banks replaced as host by singer Rita Ora before she returned for Cycle 24.

In the midst of quarantine boredom, the relic from the early 2000s was released on multiple streaming platforms, and people began watching again. 

A Not-So-Triumphant Return

#TyraBanks quickly became a trending topic on Twitter in the late spring of 2020. But the thousands of mentions weren’t all praise for the modeling mogul. People were shocked by many of the show’s segments that did not seem to age well. 

https://twitter.com/whewchillay/status/1257685671621177346

From racially themed photo shoots to strange and laughably difficult modelling challenges, the viewers had a lot to say.

Banks issued an apology on Twitter, saying she never meant to offend anyone. 

This past spring is not the first time Banks has faced harsh criticism for her behavior on the show. Past contestants have made entire podcasts or TikTok channels dedicated to relaying what really happened when the cameras weren’t rolling.  

Cycle six winner Dani Evans said she was told conflicting information about whether or not she had to get her tooth gap closed to continue competing.

Fifth cycle contestant and All Star Cycle winner Lisa D’Amato has also come forward this past week in a video alleging that Banks and the other judges used past trauma she disclosed with them during casting week to pick at her and get a reaction. 

Beside psychological torment, the show has handled medical crises questionably at best. 

Pushing Contestants to the Brink

[America’s Next Top Model] didn’t really do anything for my career. It doesn’t really do anything for anyone’s career, realistically.

— Winnie Harlow, model, activist and former contestant

In Cycle 3, a young contestant named Cassie Grisham was open with Banks and a nutritionist about being bulimic, even though she said she would never label herself as that because she did not throw up after ‘every’ meal. 

After a halfhearted attempt at offering therapy, Banks never addressed the issue again

After measuring her thighs, fashion designer Mark Bauer was quick to tell her she would not work for his line because her thighs were too big.

“She’s not exactly a size 2,” Bauer said.

Later that episode, Grisham was eliminated because the judges felt she “didn’t want to be there.”

The next episode shows a brief clip of Banks being consoled by her mother because of her apparent guilt over sending Grisham home. Beside this incident, there have been several occurrences of contestants going to photoshoots while sick, sometimes against the advice of medical professionals. 

These contestants are often commended by Banks for their strength, while contestants like Monique Calhoun, who opted to not walk in a runway show when she fell ill, are chastised, or in her case, sent home for once again “not wanting it enough.” 

After all of the turmoil, one would think that the prizes, usually including a lucrative beauty company contract and getting signed with a modeling agency, would be worth it. 

Broken Promises and Empty Earnings

Winnie Harlow, cycle 21 contestant-turned fashion model and vitiligo spokesperson, was one of the first to speak on the show’s lack of real benefits in an interview with Andy Cohen in 2018.

“[America’s Next Top Model] didn’t really do anything for my career. It doesn’t really do anything for anyone’s career, realistically,” Harlow said. 

Even if a contestant wins their season, the road to success is not guaranteed. All Stars contestant Angelea Preston is said to have placed third, when in reality, she won the competition. 

When producers found out about Preston’s past as a legal escort, they stripped her of the title and prizes. Preston later asserted that her escort career had already been discussed and was known to the producers and Banks, and she guessed that they assumed she wouldn’t make it as far as she did. 

The very first winner of the show, Adrianne Curry, was promised a Revlon contract she never received, and her modeling contract with Wilhelmina was cut short when ANTM decided to partner with a different company. 

And… More Body Shaming

Possibly the most problematic behavior that can be observed on the show is the way they handle body positivity. 

Banks often hails her show as ahead of the curve for even deigning to allow plus-sized models to compete, without acknowledging the fact that within the first 13 seasons, only ten included a plus-size model.

These models also receive very different treatment from the other contestants. 

Cycle 3 contestant Tocarra Jones got emotional when she realized her wardrobe was far less diverse or attractive than the other straight-sized contestants. She was berated by a wardrobe specialist, who told her it was ridiculous to think her clothes would be as nice as the other girls’. Jones then broke down and revealed that behind the scenes, she was constantly being asked if she was trying to lose weight. 

Every time the show has a plus-sized contestant, Banks and the other judges are quick to remind them that they are different and how much harder they have to work than the “skinny girls” just to be treated the same. 

In addition, plus sized models are usually only given a place if they have over-the-top personalities, while the smaller models range from stereotypically bubbly to painfully awkward. If the plus-sized models began to lose their entertaining personas due to the stress of the competition or personal matters, they were quickly eliminated.  

By contrast, models with the lowest body mass indexes during the questionable weigh-ins that took place in earlier cycles were often showered in praise from the judges. They were often told that they had that “high-fashion look.” Even after the show discontinued the weigh-ins, judges showed a clear preference for willow-thin girls.

Turning a Corner?

For someone who claims to feel so strongly about young women, diversity, inclusion, and body positivity, Banks severely undermined all of those missions in her tenure with America’s Next Top Model. 

Show producer Ken Mok has come forward to defend Banks and take responsibility for some of the more cringe-inducing moments on the show. 

But Mok will never be able to take credit for Banks’ famous meltdown on cycle four, when Banks screams the ever-giffable line, “We were rooting for you, we were all rooting for you!” at contestant Tiffany Richardson, whom Banks felt was not invested enough in the competition. 

A 25th cycle has not been confirmed, but with the move to VH1, America’s Next Top Model seems to be stepping into a more modern era of fashion by including world famous plus-sized model Ashley Graham on their brand new panel of judges. 

The world can only hope that if another cycle does air, Banks will take the harsh criticisms of this past year and make some improvements. We’re all, I guess, rooting for her.