"America's Next Top Model," Tyra Banks's show, appears for a sixth round on UPN tonight, indicating that for half the audience it's still a goof and a novelty, and for the other half — the preteens, who are its fan base — it's an old classic, one that has offered inspiration and heartbreak to pretty girls since 2003.
It may be time to take stock of the series that gave some passable vibrancy to UPN, the network that will soon be merged with WB to form CW. "Top Model" started out sleazy — featuring the louche model-creatures Janice Dickinson and Kimora Lee Simmons, along with an androgyne runway coach called Miss Jay — but rather than tame its burlesque side, the program insisted on it, ultimately turning the fashion world's gender- and race-bending "Paris Is Burning" universe into an intelligible fantasy for the Greyhound bus girls of Middle America.
That's a serious accomplishment. (Remember the first go-round, when one model quit rather than post semi-nude? Now they do lesbian scenes and hoot for drag.) However churchy or corny the candidates on "Top Model" seem to be, they all end up snapping, posturing and whooping like fly girls for Miss Jay.
Tonight brings a new kind of contestant, however: a proud Texan named Dani, who instantly starts scoffing at the black and gay sensibilities of Ms. Banks's world.
"My entire life has been a dream," she says, sounding genuinely self-satisfied. "I cheerlead at football games, and I have so many friends." In her audition video she's pushier: "I am the most über-conservative Republican hardcore Baptist you can ever imagine in your whole life. I don't like gay people. I don't like Muslims. I don't like abortions. I don't like anything liberal."
The persona of Dani suggests that cute young red-state girls might actually aspire to the Ann Coulter siren role, and that liberal-baiting is still a decent way to get noticed. Among Ms. Banks's staff, Dani's right-wing strut is impressive: it's evidence of personality, and no one seems to take it very seriously. The other contestants, however, are put out, especially as Dani refuses to be intimidated. Unfortunately, she's not — as even the poster for the show reveals — much of a model, and we're not going to get to see her make mischief for the whole cycle.
("Cycle" is the word for "season" here, as rounds come up so frequently they cannot be said to correspond to any particular season.)
Other standouts tonight include Yvonne, an emergency-room doctor — "I love medicine, but modeling is a passion for me" — and Nnenna, a beautiful Nigerian with a sad family story. Both of these women have dignity, but that doesn't stop them from acting like "Top Model" characters when they're expected to. They join in the terrified-thrilled screams when Ms. Banks appears at last. This really must be the only show where the routine appearance of the host and her deputies elicits floored astonishment and shrieks of awe.
In the second episode, things get serious, and the would-be models do a photo shoot — bald. It looks like a lively enough group, and Miss Jay (as opposed to Mr. Jay, the boring bleach-blond who has unaccountably become a star as a stylist on the show) takes on an ever-expanding role as arbiter of beauty. That's a good thing. True, a lovely Korean woman named Gina seems dangerously unstable — let's hope someone's keeping an eye on her — and the contestants here may include one too many super-boastful black girls and one too many indistinguishable white girls. But the formula is intact, and the show will cycle smoothly into its next life on the new network.
- Gina pulls a Margaret Cho, doing an impression of her mother's broken English. Her mom was, like, really happy.
- Joanie is from a town called Beaver Falls, which makes the 13 year old boy inside of me laugh.
- Leslie overuses (misuses?) the word "ironically" at least twice.
- Nnenna wins a spot as the one everyone will be rooting for. She came to America from Africa with one purpose-- to model.
- Sara claims she is a fan of the show, yet calls the cycles "seasons". Clearly, she is not a real fan.
The girls were asked who they see standing next to them in the final two. Kari and Wendy did not answer this question. Nnenna and Sara avoided answering it...
- 4/9 said Mollie Sue
- 3/9 said Nnenna
- 2/9 said Jade
- 1/9 said Danielle or Sara
"Wanna be on top?" takes on really weird sexual connotations when signing off of this post,