The Sad Eyes of Ken Mok

A string of terrible production decisions has left America’s Next Top Model swinging in the wind, while its overseas clones seem – thus far – immune. Ricky Young risks The Wrath Of Tyra and investigates the sudden dearth of smizing.  

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If you’re a fan of America’s Next Top Model, you’re used to being messed around with.

As a reality format, it has often lurched from fabulous pillar to bling-drenched post, ruthlessly jettisoning aspects that invoked the displeasure of its producers. Judges have come and gone, rules have been bent shamelessly, and whole episodes have been subjected to on-the-fly retooling to ensure the narrative continues in the directed manner. But that’s okay, because the show survives based on two basic elements – the diamond-hard core format, and the willingness of the audience to lap this shit up.

But if the underwhelming nineteenth ‘cycle’ (‘season’ being too boring a word for ANTM), coasted by on goodwill, then the most recent 20th run seemed to go out of its way to antagonise even the show’s most  ardent apologists. Every single production decision appeared to have been made to create the most hateful version of Top Model possible. As we’re fans here at Europe’s Best Website, we’re going to take a look at just what went wrong. We’re also going to look further afield in the Top Model universe, too, as hope may yet lie in the colonies.

SPOILER ALERT

In ‘The Rains Of Castamere’ episode of Game Of Thrones, Robb Stark and his family are brutally slaughtered by Walder Frey, on the orders of Tywin Lannister.

END SPOILER ALERT

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Collusion. Every version of Top Model can only exist due the unspoken contract between producers and the viewers. They are going to lie their asses off to us, and we’re going to sit here and let them. The format is this: a gaggle of modelling wannabes are corralled by resident lunatic Tyra Banks and a cabal of judges, put through various fashion-industry trials & a weekly photo-shoot, and then whittled down using paper-thin criteria until there’s a ‘winner’. “So what?”, you might be thinking, “all reality shows bend the truth to tell their stories”, and of course you’d be right. But what sets Top Model apart is the Big Lie that nobody can question or the entire enterprise would fall apart. And it’s called “Here’s Your Best Shot”.

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Tyra illustrates precisely how much thought has gone into this year’s show.

Nearly all of the judging is based on the one photo per contestant that the producers deem their ‘best’. Out of the many dozens taken, just one is put forward for judging: this is how the narrative is quite blatantly manipulated, and we’re fine with that. We have to be fine with that. Is there someone they want to boost? – put some effort into picking a great shot. Someone needs taken down a peg? – pick a photo where it looks like she’s frenching a ghost. As long as it’s done entertainingly, and without too much gear-crunching, then that’s cool. We bought it ten years ago, and we’re still buying it – as long as you have interesting judges saying generally appropriate things about fun, pretty people in nice clothes, we’ll tune in.

This year, we had revolting judges being barely-interested cunts to horrible, ugly people in rags. And if everything is rubbish and boring, who can be bothered putting up with the Big Lie? Not me, Tyra!

Because it’s pretty easy to take my business elsewhere.

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And we’re not even going to mention direct competition The Face, in which Naomi Campbell stars as a glistening shard of purest mental illness.

Top Model sure can travel. The format’s been tried in over fifty other territories, to greater or lesser degrees of success – the heady days of Malta’s Next Top Model are regrettably behind us – but the basic structure and the judging panel set-up (Glamorous mother-hen, beefcake eye-candy, twinkly/stern sister-figure and industry ‘character’) adhere closely to the standard template.

Some countries do it better than others. Estonia’s Next Top Model’s controversial decision to have an angry turkey as their head judge raised some eyebrows, as did Colombia’s Next Top Model’s habit of executing their finalists once booted, but sadly they didn’t make it to the torrent sites. It’s strictly English-speaking for us this year.

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Dannii and Tyson exude blissful happiness at being back with Elle.

Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model stuck rigidly to The Things That Make Top Model Work, and was none the worse for it. Elle McPherson is the host, and despite her black shark eyes turning every smile into a hideous rictus grin, she was softened by professional big-sister Dannii Minogue and cat-faced doofus Tyson Beckford as her lieutenants. Witty editing, amusing tasks and a good mix of self-aware popsies meant this year was solid, entertaining fun. There was a moment near the end of the run where they realised that the remaining few contained slightly too many moneyed Sloanes, and since a moneyed Sloane won last year, they had to cull their number in a slightly cruel way.  But it’s hard to feel too bad for moneyed Sloanes, which was probably why they did it.

One thing a Top Model judge learns fairly quickly, it’s clear, is that they’re eminently disposable. If the Executive Producers back on the mothership turn against you, it’s P45 time, and as noted crazy-person Tyra Banks is among their number, you’ll find you’ll bring up the finer points of local employment law at your peril.

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Tyra phones every judge, every evening, telling them if they’ve got a job the next day.

Australia’s Next Top Model returned this year after replacing its Head Judge (for being useless, it seems) and new recruit Jennifer Hawkins proved saner than Tyra and warmer than Elle. Both not difficult, natch. The remoteness of Australia’s cultural footprint meant the whole show was pleasingly exotic (judges and brands you’ve never heard of, matter-of-factly brazen product placement, the word ‘wog’ being used as a term of endearment in everyday conversation etc) but the genuinely good-natured ribbing between judges Didier Cohen (adorable pretty-boy), Charlotte Dawson (potty-gobbed traditional Sheila) and Alex Perry (gruff, puffy-eyed sweetheart), combined with the seriousness with which they took their responsibility towards their young charges was hugely refreshing.

In Strine they start early, it’s true. Unusually for Top Model, the entry age is 16 rather than 18, but any potential ickiness for the viewer is undercut by the sheer niceness of everyone onscreen. One unfortunate enthusiasm-based strangling incident aside, nearly every single contestant was a total delight, and by the time the thrilling Grand Live Final arrived, with all three finalists being worthy of the crown, you had to step back to appreciate how rare this was. It was how this programme should be done.

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Genuinely nice girls.

Because, unsurprisingly, it’s usually entirely possible to do well in Top Model by being a bitch. Or a beyotch, even. And before you have pop at me for sexism, this year’s America’s Next Top Model distinguished itself by having the worst beyotches on it be – wait for it – men.

You see, after 20 ‘cycles’, and the gradual decline of ratings which naturally occurs, the Yank show has been chasing gimmicks like they’re, er, going out of fashion. Last cycle was College-based. The one before that was half-Yank, half-Brit. For cycle 20, which Tyra had declared to be a reboot of sorts, the theme was declared to be ‘Guys vs Gals’, with all the dismal battle-of-the-sexes hoopla such a thing would entail. But for the viewer, the strapline was simply ‘Doubling Down On Previous Terrible Choices’.

Judges? The revolving door was at full-whirl. Gone was hunky photographer Nigel Barker, and in was dim-witted male model Rob Evans, a man who’d lose a charisma competition with a bowl of mixed nuts. The Jays and the weekly guests judges were ditched in favour of social media (of which more later) expert Bryanboy – essentially a living cringe. And the very worst decision in Top Model history, namely replacing ludicrous fun-typhoon André Leon Talley with poison-gobbed bag-lady Kelly Cutrone, was stuck with beyond any sense or reason.

The Girl Whose Walk is TOO Good
One of those ‘death panels’ yanks get so upset about.

The show SLAMS to a halt whenever the camera moves across to Cutrone. Glumly slumped on a stool, hair like eels drowned in chip-fat and a coupon that couldn’t do ‘animated’ if it was connected to a car-battery, Kelly Cutrone occasionally barks and flails and insults someone randomly for reasons only she can see or hear. It’s not pretty.

But this year, neither are the contestants. Instead of the usual parade of fresh-faced farm-girls, attitude-drenched sistas and sculpted Valley princesses, the production team appears to have driven round Hollywood, scooped up as many grubby club-kids as they could tempt into the van with a bag of meth, arranged for a temp to hose them down and then shoved them onscreen.

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Let’s play ‘Guess the STI’!

I’m not sure quite what the addition of men to the show was meant to achieve. Certainly not glamour – most if forced to live on their looks would be picking burger-gherkins out of bins within three weeks. Certainly not the potential for intra-sex rivalry – nearly all the guys were such preening wankers around the girls that they were at risk of cock-blocking each other into orbit.

(We have to give a shout-out here to Marvin, a glassy-eyed dimwit whose forlorn, looking-for-love persona peeled away week by week until he was revealed to be the nastiest, most self-regarding potential sex-criminal on television. He came second.)

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, the whole endeavour was fatally sunk by another truly terrible idea – the pandering to a thing you may have heard of called ‘Social Media’. *We* were the Fourth Judge, we were constantly told, but Top Model’s comfort with the internet is less OMGhashtag! and more Sandra Bullock in The Net. Instead of episodes settled by Judges Having Opinions And That’s That, each judge hands down an arbitrary and obviously pre-arranged score, which is then topped up by a Social Media Score accumulated from – well, fuck knows where. Twitter? Facebook? Youtube? It’s never made clear, the whole enterprise just reeks of flim-flam, and in actual fact the few onscreen comments from identifiable @Addresses turned out to be fakes – did they think we wouldn’t check? –  so that stopped pretty damn sharpish too, without comment.  Unhappily, Bryanboy sells this evasion with all the natural talent of an addict hawking batteries in a pub.

Thus instead of the show then being more accountable to its viewers, which is the stated intent, it actually would have been more honest for Tyra to squat down and roll a pair of dice. At least the contestants’ endless, bleating, filler-material about getting an eight when they needed a seven might have had some basis in identifiable reality, rather than boring us all senseless acting suicidal over their place on an imaginary squash ladder.

Nobody tunes in to Top Model to see meaningless numbers bouncing round the screen in an incredibly dull and irritating manner (we’ve got Pointless for that) – we tune in to see a pretty person in a stupid hat telling another slightly-less pretty person that they’ve got a stupid face. Because they *want* to tell them that, and not because some completely made-up person in Bumfuck, Idaho told them to.

We swallowed the Big Lie a decade ago, Tyra. It used to taste good.

Don’t make us puke it back up.

Ricky posts on The Tweeter.

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