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.