We lost a good one this week, as The CW finally told America's Next Top Model to pack its things and go home.
Okay, to be more accurate: We lost a good example of how reality shows used to work, due to the official end of America's Next Top Model. The show aired its series finale on Friday, following its cancellation in October.
While it never enjoyed the monster ratings of a Survivor or an American Idol, the Tyra Banks–helmed reality series was a standard competition show combined with elements of The Real World. The challenges mattered, but the drama that unfolded back at the mansion during the contestants' downtime is what kept viewers coming back for more.
In fact, after 22 "cycles" (the show insists on using this term instead of "seasons"), it's almost a joke to point out just how few of the show's winners have gone on to achieve actual modeling fame. For all of Banks's big talk and insistence that a successful Top Model must have both high-fashion and commercial appeal, the show's winners were incidental.
With every passing season — sorry, cycle — the shine started to fade. The prizes grew less impressive, the infamous makeover episodes fell into paint-by-numbers territory (spoiler alert: someone always cries over a short haircut), and the judges spit out rote criticisms as if they were already bored by the words coming out of their mouths.
But in its prime, America's Next Top Model produced some of the more bizarre and revealing moments in reality TV history, at a time when the genre was still figuring itself out. Here are eight of them.
1) Tyra Banks: host, storyteller, lover of television tropes
One aspect of the show that never changed was how very seriously Banks took it. Oh, sure, she'd bust out some kooky prank every now and then (her hilarious go-to was convincing contestants she'd just had a heart attack), but for the most part, Banks treated America's Next Top Model as if the stakes were life or death.
Her preferred relationship with the contestants was maternal, in the sense that she tried to mentor and nurture them while simultaneously doling out harsh discipline when they disappointed her. She injected sporadic doses of Oprah Winfrey's tearjerking interview style into her talks, the better to convince a contestant that Banks was personally, deeply invested — even if it wasn't true.
The best example of Banks's philosophy can be seen in arguably the most infamous moment in Top Model's history. When she thought a contestant wasn't taking her elimination seriously enough, Banks called the contestant back and delivered what was to be the incendiary reality show speech of the decade:
There is a lot to unpack here, but the main takeaway isn't that Tiffany squandered her chance on America's Next Top Model. It's that Banks's fury came from Tiffany refusing to play her assigned part in the story. (Also, that Banks really doesn't know when to quit.)
See, Top Model's editing played into reality show tropes as aggressively and overtly as possible. Every season had a villain, a wide-eyed new kid who never thought she'd be on America's Next Top Model, a fixer-upper, and a hot mess, among others.
Tiffany was supposed to be Cycle 4's "most improved," but instead she petered out. Her elimination was supposed to be a devastating moment in which she realized how much potential she'd squandered, but instead, she seemed to take it in stride. Banks, who was counting on a teachable moment about wasting opportunities, couldn't take it — or at least saw a chance to take back her control of the Top Model narrative.
Banks intertwined the show's disappointment in a contestant with her own; she approached every elimination as her own personal crossroads. If you failed America's Next Top Model, you failed Tyra Banks, and in her mind, there was no worse sin imaginable.
2) The first, "lost" cycle
When America's Next Top Model premiered in 2003, it wasn't quite sure what it wanted to be.
There is nothing slick about cycle one. The girls lived in a hotel, the judging took place in what was essentially a supply closet, the photo shoots were amateur, and Jay Manuel hadn't even bleached his hair yet. As obvious as the edits became later on, they were even starker in the early going, when Top Model hadn't yet hammered down its contestant tropes and Banks hadn't yet determined how harsh she wanted the judging to be.
So the first cycle looks nothing like the rest of the series. But even though it was a bit frayed around the edges, it became one of the more fascinating self-contained reality experiments to come out of that frantic aughts era. When the producers successfully created drama with a nude photo shoot, you could see them working out the kinks of exactly how hard they could come down on the contestants, how much they could push them, and how to elicit an entertaining reaction:
Looking back at it now, it's easy to imagine a behind-the-scenes environment not unlike the one we saw on Lifetime's scripted summer drama UnReal, on which reality TV producers constantly manipulated their subjects' emotions to reach their desired outcome.
3) Shandi's (apparently shameful) sex
One of Banks's favorite tropes was to find a diamond in the rough and transform her into a model. Shandi from cycle two was the original. According to Top Model folklore, Banks and former supermodel Janice Dickinson ventured out into Middle America with a canary and a lantern. They found Shandi stocking the shelves of a supermarket with Old Spice deodorant, and lured her to New York City with the promise of string cheese.
Shandi had her hair dyed blonde on the show and, as the cycle progressed, became one of the best competitors in the game. She had a shirt that said "Shanthrax." She took one of the best photos of the season. And then, one fateful night in Milan, Shandi got drunk and had sex with a handsome Italian man.
The rest is history:
Shandi's sloppiness was an iconic moment, both for America's Next Top Model and for reality television as a whole. Her breakdown chronicled the realization that what she'd done was caught on tape and that her boyfriend would eventually see it. There was also a realization that she might have lost her chance to win the show.
While most people don't care whom models sleep with, America's Next Top Model did. Shandi's final pictures were better than those of the other two finalists, but it didn't matter. A winner on America's Next Top Model was more of a representation of the show and Tyra Banks than he or she was a model. And it was brutally clear that Shandi's shagging of a hot Italian guy wasn't something the show or Banks wanted.
4) Banks's obsession with blackface and race bending
If you watch America's Next Top Model for a while, you start to pick up on the show's various rhythms. Patterns start coming into focus (the girl who needs more personality, the makeover episode, the dreaded commercial challenge), and you begin picking up on Banks's favorite themes. One of these is race bending.
During Top Model's second cycle, she had the models styled as famous celebrities for a photo shoot. She made a contestant named Xiomara take on Grace Jones, and painted her several shades darker:
"I feel like ethnic women never want to be darker," Banks says during the judges' deliberation. Banks complains that Xiomara felt uncomfortable that she had her skin painted to match Jones's skin tone.
Banks's race bending didn't stop with Xiomara. In cycle four, she had contestants assume the qualities of an ethnicity different from their own for a photo shoot inspired by the Got Milk? ad campaign. Brittany, a Caucasian woman, was given an Afro and had her skin darkened to portray a black woman:
And in cycle 13, Banks painted her contestants' skin to portray biracial women:
Her intentions here were good. Banks wanted to show that beauty comes in all colors. But many people were offended that Banks boiled down ethnicity and race into generalizations about skin color, hair, and stereotypes regarding someone's personality (Asian women are quiet, Italian women are loud, Latinas are fiery, etc.).
She later apologized for the cycle 13 shoot on her talk show:
[If anyone was offended], I apologize because that was not my intent… It's my number one passion in my life to stretch the definition of beauty. I listen to many heartbreaking stories of women who thought they would be happier if they looked different. I want every girl to appreciate the skin she's in.
5) Bree's missing granola bars
Sometimes when you're watching a reality show, you get so caught up in the minutiae of its rules and drama that you don't realize it's making something out of nothing (a.k.a. 80 percent of reality television). America's Next Top Model took this idea to the extreme as it hung half a season's worth of resentment on a handful of missing granola bars:
Yep, one contestant got mad at another contestant for stealing her granola bars, when really a producer probably took them to drum up drama, or else it was just an accident. Who knows? Who cares?
But there is hardly a better example of how draining it can be to appear on a reality competition show — where every second of the day is about playing to the cameras — than a group of exhausted wannabe models pouring out each other's energy drinks over granola.
6) Furonda's attempt at Thai dancing
The majority of the contestants on America's Next Top Model had no shot of ever becoming models. This does not mean we enjoyed them any less. Furonda, described on the show as "E.T. in a wig," was one such contestant.
Each time the contestants traveled overseas with the show, they were made to do something "cultural." It was always unclear if any real models had ever done the same things. Nevertheless, during a trip to Thailand, the girls had to learn a traditional Thai dance. Furonda didn't exactly learn it so much as make it drastically better:
God bless Furonda.
7) The makeover episodes
Early in every cycle, each wannabe model underwent a Top Model–sanctioned makeover. People were given terrible weaves. They had their hair dyed ridiculous colors, chopped way shorter, or shaved off completely. Someone always cried:
The makeovers were great.
She might not have had a shot in hell of winning America's Next Top Model, but she was, at the very least, one hell of contestant.