clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America’s Next Top Model is 17 years old. And people are still mad at Tyra Banks.

Rewatching the 24-season series shows how Tyra Banks was the villain of America’s Next Top Model all along.

Tyra Banks hosts a Nine West fashion event in celebration of International Women’s Day on March 5, 2020, in West Hollywood, California.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for ABA
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Two beautiful Tyra Banks narratives stand before me, all over my Twitter timeline. One, the story of an underdog supermodel-turned-fairy godmother, who helps young women follow their modeling dreams; the other, the story of a tyrant disguised in the lingerie of a Victoria’s Secret Angel.

And only one of these narratives will go on to be the story of one of America’s all-time top models.

A swirling combination of quarantine boredom, Amazon Prime’s streaming catalog, and the internet’s power to bring us closer together has turned the blazing division between which of these two storylines could be the truth behind Tyra Banks into a phenomenon for all of us — anyone online, not just fans of her TV shows — to witness.

This week, “Tyra” became one of Twitter’s top trending topics. Yet the iconic Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model, reality competition genre pioneer, and daytime talk show host had not been part of any “new” news.

Tyra’s surge in search interest was the result of people pointing out how, in hindsight, America’s Next Top Model and The Tyra Banks Show were silly, strange, and embarrassing, at best. At worst, they perpetuated toxicity, unhealthy body image, and befuddling understandings of race and sexuality.

The common factor in these shows, beyond their problematic content, is the woman at the helm. Tyra asserted that she wanted to disrupt the fashion industry that she knew so well (with ANTM, which has run for 24 seasons) and to tackle a range of issues that were important to her (with The Tyra Banks Show, which ran from 2005 to 2011). But looking back, both of these provocative programs seemed to clumsily enforce some of the fashion and entertainment industries’ worst traits.

And if these shows that Tyra staked her reputation and career on haven’t withstood the test of time, then what about everything else Tyra told us? What happens to Tyra’s own image? How does that hold up?

Was Tyra Banks the villain all along?

Rewatching movies and television shows is a national pastime, aided by streaming. And we continue watching our old favorite shows and films because they make us feel good.

There’s also a different but equally powerful type of satisfaction derived from watching something that doesn’t quite hold up or, after the zeitgeist has fallen off, reveals a new twist.

A popular example of a rewatch revelation is The Devil Wears Prada, the 2006 movie with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. With each rewatch of that movie, it becomes clearer that the “devil” Miranda Priestly (Streep), the demanding editor of Runway, wants only the best for the magazine. Meanwhile, Nate (Adrian Grenier), Andy’s (Hathaway) put-upon potato boyfriend that we’re expected to love, is an unsupportive mope who stifles his girlfriend’s career — the true villain of the story.

That “true” reading of the movie and its real “villain” is now popular enough to become a meme:

These vindicating realizations about infamous villains throughout media are common. We as a culture have also revised our reads of famously vilified women in real life, like the six wives of Henry the Eighth, Monica Lewinsky, Taylor Swift, and Marcia Clark, because hindsight has made it possible to recognize the various prejudices that played into their public perceptions.

It says a lot about society that many prominent women are first demonized, only to end up being seen as victims of their own stories and scandals many years after the fact. Tyra Banks’s television oeuvre is undergoing the opposite kind of retrospective analysis (which may well change again in the future).

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact “why” of what spurred a deeper examination of Tyra Banks over the past week in particular, but multiple seasons of her reality competition show, America’s Top Model, have been streaming on Amazon Prime. And since the coronavirus pandemic has people stuck at home, it stands to reason that many are streaming more than usual.

Clips of ANTM and reactions to them started going viral in early May on TikTok and Twitter, like one of Tyra telling a gay contestant on the fifth season of ANTM how to make her gayness acceptable. Tyra tells the contestant, “I’m black and proud ... but I’m not, like, walking down the red carpet [saying] ‘I’m black, I’m black.”

It’s hard to watch that without cringing, especially today. Kim Stolz, the contestant Tyra is lecturing in the above clip, wrote for MTV in 2008 about her experience on the show.

“As much as we should applaud the subversive topics that ‘ANTM’ has covered in its reign thus far — physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, female circumcision, gayness (hi!!) — we must also accept that there were moments when those issues were clearly exploited for entertainment value,” Stolz wrote, ahead of a season that featured the show’s first transgender model. “Maybe we can’t blame Tyra for this — after all, it’s business, right?”

A heterosexual person telling a gay person not to emphasize their sexual orientation so they can be pleasantly received by society is not a great look. But without letting Tyra — who received a GLAAD award for LGBTQ representation and inclusion in 2009 — fully off the hook, it’s important to remember this episode of ANTM aired in 2005, and the way society talks about LGBTQ people and tolerance, as well as masculinity and femininity, has advanced in ways many hadn’t considered 15 years ago.

That said, the sudden resurfacing of clips like this one spurred people to dig further back into the archives of ANTM and Tyra’s talk show. Was this offensive moment from ANTM a one-off? Was it part of a bigger trend of prejudiced language? And if this was happening on a show where Tyra promised to help and protect future models from an exploitative industry, was she the evil stepmother of her fairy tale promise?

America’s Next Top Model hasn’t aged well. And Tyra is a big reason why.

I am not afraid to admit that I was obsessed with America’s Next Top Model. I was a fan who watched the show, searched for spoilers, rewatched episodes on YouTube, and read the FourFour recaps religiously.

I can also, without a shadow of a doubt, say that there are parts of ANTM that wouldn’t make it to air today without complaints or heavy editing. I think many of the show’s questionable or outright deplorable elements are easier to recognize, as people have learned how to better respect and talk about race and women’s sexuality. Challenging prejudiced language and promoting inclusivity is more mainstream now than when Tyra’s shows were at their peak popularity.

There were at least two instances on the show — in cycle 4 from 2005 and cycle 13 from 2009 — where the photo shoots involved darkening girls’ skin so they could portray different races than their own:

Tyra said then that she didn’t mean to offend.

“I’m sorry to anybody that watched Top Model and was offended by the pictures because they didn’t understand the real story behind them or even if you did see the whole episode and you were still offended, I truly apologize because that is not my intention,” Tyra said in an interview in 2009. “My intention is to spread beauty and break down barriers.”

Also in cycle 4, one contestant, Keenyah, complained about being touched inappropriately by a male model, and Tyra brushed it off as the contestant not being assertive enough to control the situation. Similarly, in cycle 7, another contestant said that a male model she was paired with was being racist toward her, and Tyra and her judging panel responded that it was her job to kiss him and find a way to work together.

There were also instances of weight-shaming. Keenyah was talked to about her diet during filming and encouraged to eat better to offset her weight gain. In photo shoots, she was forced to dress as the deadly sin of gluttony and an elephant, while the show played sound effects and zoomed in on her stomach. She was scolded for the amount of retouching considered necessary on her photos. In cycle 7, another contestant had a storyline devoted to her weight and had to portray a “giant lady” circus freak and Oprah in photo shoots.

Another story that’s drawn new scrutiny is the criticism of cycle 6 winner Danielle, whom Tyra chided for her accent and the gap between her front teeth.

ANTM also delved into some tacky, exploitative moments, like a shoot conducted the day after a contestant was informed a friend of theirs had died; airing the conversation between a contestant and her boyfriend after the contestant admitted to cheating on him; and a ton of makeovers that feature endless rolls of young women crying on film.

All of these snippets are currently available to stream, making them easily accessible to revisit and discuss. While Tyra herself may not have directly overlaid the sad trombone sounds on a zoomed-in shot of Keenyah’s stomach, she was one of the creators of the show and credited as the executive producer from 2003 to 2015. If she had an issue with anything, it’s likely she could have cut it from the show.

Offscreen, ANTM and Tyra have reportedly punished hopefuls for their personal life choices. Jeana, a contestant on 2018’s cycle 24, the most recent, said that Tyra and the judges shamed her for posing for Playboy. Angelea, a two-time contestant and member of the all-star season cast, filed a lawsuit against Tyra in 2014, alleging she was disqualified for revealing she worked as an escort.

Former judges on the show have said that they also had unpleasant experiences working with Tyra. When asked about their statements (below), Tyra has refused to directly answer:

On The Tyra Banks Show, Tyra conducted a variety of ill-considered social experiments. These included donning a fat suit to experience life as a fat person, bringing in teens to confront other teens about being mean girls, and putting a black man in whiteface, as seen below:

Many things that could have passed as barely acceptable 17 years ago, at least for a reality TV show, just don’t hold up in today’s world, like some of the poorly thought-out photo shoots or telling a contestant to close the gap in their teeth.

It shouldn’t be that surprising that a show about the already controversial business of modeling was problematic in discussing women’s appearances and behavior. But there was some expectation that Tyra was going to create a show that would produce an American supermodel while also challenging the industry about its views.

As Stolz later pointed out in her MTV piece, Tyra’s goal with ANTM was to be subversive. She tackled topics like race, inequality, sexuality, and gender on the show in ways that a lot of reality television and the fashion industry weren’t doing at the time.

But as much as Tyra championed her show as a disruption to the standards of beauty by featuring diverse models in age, race, gender, size, and sexual orientation, the show exploited many of them, perhaps unintentionally, for ratings. And now, after many years, it’s easier to look back and see the missteps.

In 2020, we’ve learned that Tyra’s nemesis may not have been the villain she was made out to be

With the knowledge of how awful ANTM could be to its contestants, the subsequent question is then: How real was Tyra’s image as a loving mentor and supportive host?

A huge part of her origin story as the supermodel next door was that Naomi Campbell, the world’s preeminent black supermodel in the ’90s, essentially bullied Tyra out of the high-fashion business because Tyra was the heir apparent to Naomi’s status as the main black star in a mostly white business. It should be remembered that modeling, to this day, is still reckoning with its lack of diversity, and opportunities for black models back then were slim.

Tyra’s story lined up with other stories of Naomi throwing her phone at one of her staffers and allegedly receiving blood diamonds — which painted the model as a narcissistic terror. This became the predominant story of Naomi, and it clearly favored Tyra as one of the many victims.

In 2005, Tyra held a very special episode of her talk show devoted to confronting Naomi about their rivalry and how Tyra felt Naomi had treated her. Naomi has, in this interview and ever since, maintained she never bullied Tyra.

But in context, knowing how maniacal some of the stunts Tyra pulled on ANTM contestants were, what if Tyra’s claims about Naomi’s treatment of her were more contrived than Tyra made them seem? Maybe Naomi is not completely innocent of the awful behavior she has been accused of over the years, but maybe some of the things we’ve heard about her weren’t the whole truth.

Maybe she wasn’t a bully, but rather someone who didn’t really think about Tyra as much as Tyra fixated on her. Tyra has spoken about the feud directly in interviews and obliquely, on ANTM and many other times over the years, while Naomi has hardly ever referenced it.

Naomi has also, in the last few years, been more open about her anger issues, her substance abuse, and how drugs and alcoholism run rampant in the modeling world.

“Whatever I’ve done in my life — drugs, sex, rock and roll — I’ve enjoyed my life. I’m happy where I am today. I don’t want to go back,” she said in a 2013 interview during a promotional tour for the reality competition show she starred on at the time, The Face.“I came to a realization at 29 that I didn’t like myself the way I was. And that was it.”

This doesn’t in any way excuse Naomi’s allegedly volatile and abusive behavior. But her being able to recognize her faults and her problems shows growth.

Naomi has also undergone a recent cultural reappraisal, tied to her own competitive fashion show, Making the Cut. The show had its finale two weeks ago (also on Amazon Prime), and Naomi has been touted as the best thing about it. There’s also a strong force at play in fans’ desire to push a more positive spin on Naomi’s public image, which comes at the expense of reframing the image of Tyra, her biggest detractor. (That dynamic is also part of an unfortunate mentality in culture of pitting women against each other, a topic that’s worthy of its own article.)

The yikes-worthy stuff on ANTM and Tyra’s talk show will live on and on, and cringey clips will continue to be shared and pointed at as shockingly bad form. But Tyra herself has done good offscreen, like her T-Zone Camp (which became a public charity in 2005) that provides resources for girls and young women. Tyra has also been an advocate for diversity and body positivity.

But as Stolz says, the difficult thing for Tyra is that her good intentions are part of her business.

Perhaps it’s a testament to Tyra’s ability to pitch herself as a force for good, and stay in the public eye while doing so, that this wave of backlash against her self-created unimpeachable character is happening right now. It’s 17 years since the first episode of ANTM, 15 years since Tyra’s final Victoria’s Secret runway, and several years after she’s been lauded as a hero and trailblazer. It’s a tad surprising this uproar didn’t come sooner.

As some have pointed out, Tyra is not a mere mortal who can be canceled by conventional means:

The theory is that Tyra should have already been canceled, and people who have been devout followers of her career have repeatedly called out her antics as problematic. Yet she, like the sun setting in the west and water boiling at 212°F, is one of this world’s constants. And it’s not hard to imagine that in the future, we’ll continue to reexamine who the true villain or victim is in Tyra’s story, and whether Tyra is the hero she portrays herself to be.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.