If you were a contestant on America’s Next Top Model for the show’s first 16 seasons, your life looked something like this: The show’s host, former supermodel Tyra Banks, would be your idol, mentor, and new best friend. You’d live with your fellow contestants, typically 12 to 15 other women, in an open-plan house featuring almost no doors. Your week would revolve around a photo shoot, an extravagant affair with some sort of twist: bejeweled tarantulas, wind tunnels, no makeup. The judges—a photographer, a former supermodel, a diva—would scrutinize you, your photo, and your performance on the weekly challenge using some mysterious calculus. Then Tyra would announce, one by one, Bachelor-style, whether had it in you to move forward, or whether it was time for you to go home.
But things have changed—there hasn’t been a “normal” cycle of ANTM since Cycle 16. Cycle 22, which premieres on August 5, features, for the third time in a row, women and men. Each season has a theme (“British Invasion,” “College”), so the competition isn’t just about who’s the best model, it’s about who best captures a certain type. While drama has always been been part of the show’s DNA, it’s been amped up exponentially. The judging structure has become transparent, with panelists putting up their scores like Olympic judges rating figure skaters. And to top it all off, in the past few seasons the show has invited its avid fans to help decide the champion using social media, by voting for their favorite shoots via Facebook likes.
In short, ANTM went from an industry competition to a branding pageant—from a more straightforward contest that promised the winner a modeling career to one that promised the winner a large Internet following. The prize still includes a modeling contract with an agency (for Cycle 22, it’s NEXT Model Management) and a spread in a fashion magazine (now Nylon, rather than Vogue Italia). But gone are the camp and self-awareness that once characterized the show—now, it’s a hashtag-heavy, emoji-laden battle of the brands. On the one hand, this departure mirrors a realistic shift that’s taken place in an industry that increasingly rewards familiar faces with built-in fanbases. On the other it detracts from the fun, insular fantasy world ANTM worked so hard to create.
Even in its new incarnation, ANTM is huge today: It airs in over 150 countries and has spawned more than 40 international spinoffs, in countries from Australia to Cambodia. Upon the premiere of the show’s 20th cycle in 2013, the Glamour blogger Phoebe Robinson added ANTM to “cockroaches and Cher” as the things that would survive after the apocalypse. ANTM may have achieved immortality, but that doesn’t mean the show has aged well. The series held relatively stable at about 5 million viewers for seasons one through nine, but ratings have steadily tanked since. Cycle 20, in 2013, only had 1.7 million viewers.
ANTM’s ratings drop has coincided with other logistical changes for the reality-TV juggernaut. Beginning in Cycle 19, the show fired its regular judges and mentor figures—the photographer Nigel Barker, the photoshoot director Jay Manuel, and the runway coach J. Alexander—replacing them with PR experts and Twitter personalities. At the time, fans mourned the changing of the guard, lamenting that Tyra had driven the show off the rails. “When ratings dip despite your most valiant efforts to chase them, maybe it’s time to look under the weave for your show’s perfectly nice, apple pie roots,” Lucy Stehlik wrote on Hollywood.com in 2013.
The show had lost almost a million viewers between Cycles 17 and 18, prompting the overhaul. For Cycle 19, in fall 2012, ANTM gave itself its own makeover, or "Ty-over": To engage fans American Idol-style, viewers could rank their favorite photos on social media, and the fan vote would count for 25 percent of the model's score that week. But viewers were skeptical. Critics lambasted the shift, fans lamented the change on Reddit threads and discussion boards, and ratings continued to sink. The move may not have made many people happy, but when ANTM popped its bubble of cultivated exclusivity to let fans in, it made itself even more reflective of the modeling industry today.
Several of the most successful models working now, including Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevigne, have developed enormous followings via social media, which catapults them from fame to celebrity (it helps to have friends like Taylor Swift). Unlike in the past, ANTM’s contestants aren’t necessarily raw beginners anymore; since Tyra often finds people through their blogs or Facebook pages, cultivating a strong Internet presence will help an aspiring competitor get on the show. The two-time ANTM contestant Allison Harvard capitalized on her success as an online personality to launch an international modeling career. Chantelle Brown-Young, an ANTM alumna with the chronic skin condition vitiligo, had a devoted Internet following before she appeared in Cycle 21, and has used her publicity from the show to land international gigs.
Oddly enough, it’s the foreign Top Model spinoffs that are in the more direct business of producing working models, like Ksenia Kahtovitch and Alice Burdeu, not the beautytainment (but often still-successful) queens of ANTM. Slate’s Torie Bosch points out that the international versions “have retained what works best about ANTM—the in-house drama, the torturous makeovers, the ridiculous assignments—while skipping what’s worst about it: hokey judge antics, outlandish veneration of Tyra, and sob-story contestants.”
Even other American shows have a greater sense of the modeling world than the current incarnation of ANTM. Barker, a former male supermodel-turned-photographer, worked with ANTM for 18 cycles before leaving to become the host of The Face, a competition in which three supermodels mentor a team of aspiring models. “The Face is much more true-to-the-business,” Barker told DuJour in a 2013 interview. “Top Model is all about the craziness.”
ANTM’s embrace of social media makes sense from the perspective of the real-world modeling industry. But the real world has never really been the point: Tyra-land is most compelling when it’s total fantasy. ANTM is about a model world, not models in the world. Everyone who arrives on ANTM is, more or less, a beginner; Tyra brags about plucking the girl from a shopping mall, or the boy from the ice cream truck. With the exception of a single week in Cycle One in an underwhelming Parisian flat, the contestants live in outrageously slick, tricked-out mansions and penthouses with hot tubs and catwalks snaking through their living rooms—hardly the likely quarters of an aspiring model. The art on the walls consists exclusively of enormous portraits of Tyra. Later in the show’s tenure, portraits of contestants from prior seasons would get to join Tyra’s on the walls. ANTM exists in its own world—the winner of ANTM isn’t America’s next most booked model, she’s ANTM’s next top model.
Everything has to be done by the rules, even if Tyra’s making up those rules on the spot. ANTM is a rigorous exercise in nonsense: Anything can happen in this world, as long as there’s a rule that’s making it happen. Models fly in wind tunnels, slump over windmills, dangle through warehouse ceilings like chandeliers, fight bulls, writhe in coffins, impersonate celebrity couples, wear snakes, wear human hair dresses, wear each other.
And so the actual threat to the show’s foundation is the breakdown of this nonsense world. As long as the show operates under its own rules, in its own reality, it thrives. There are signs that ANTM knows this. Cycle 22 will eliminate the social-media scoring system, so fans can be as judge-y as they like without having an actual impact on the show’s outcome. And that’s a good thing. The more the show reaches out to social media, and the more it tries to penetrate reality, the shakier it becomes. If the viewers are made to be part of the show, then they can’t project themselves into it: By making the fans part of the show, ANTM takes away the intoxicating fantasy that brought them there.