When America’s Next Top Model landed on Vh1 last year, it was hard to imagine a version of the show without Tyra Banks and all her quirks. But Top Model 2.0, with Rita Ora as its new host, has turned out to be a lot less campy and a touch more realistic than its predecessor—and still surprisingly entertaining. True stardom has largely evaded many of the show’s past winners (try naming three of them), so the point of this remodeled edition was, in part, to improve on those statistics by crowning a top model for the social media generation.
Besides giving us one of the most important memes of our time (“We were all rooting for you!”), Tyra’s show has made mainstream legends out of its revolving panel of cutthroat judges, including fashion icons like Janice Dickinson, Miss Jay Alexander and Kelly Cutrone. Cycle 23 has introduced an entirely new panel alongside Rita Ora: supermodel Ashley Graham, Paper magazine’s Chief Creative Officer Drew Elliott, and Law Roach, a celebrity stylist (or “image architect,” as he calls it) whose clients include Zendaya, Celine Dion and Ariana Grande.
On the eve of Wednesday’s finale, down to three contestants, here’s an interview with Law Roach about how Top Model mixes the old with the new and the era of social media modeling. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Before you were on America’s Next Top Model, I know you were obsessed with the show early on. Why else did you want to be part of this new version? Did you think it would be better?
LAW ROACH: I didn’t really have any expectations going into it. I knew it would be challenging for us as the new kids on the block because America’s Next Top Model is such an institution. I always like to say I’m just living in the house that Tyra built, because she did such an amazing job of making that show a huge part of pop culture. Some people don’t like change, but I think the difference is that we were looking for a different type of girl, a girl that can do more than just take a pretty picture. Somebody who kinda falls into the whole category of the social girl, you know. Like the Gigi Hadids and the Kendall Jenners and those girls who do so much more than just model. I was really flattered and excited to get the opportunity to even take a meeting about the show. [The producers] were trying to represent a little bit of everything with the industry, like they’ve done before. So being a stylist, I guess that gave me a little credential to get in the conversation. I had a couple meetings and I spoke as a fan, and as someone who loves this industry and studies it, and it all worked out and I got the job.
Even though previous seasons have had that social media element, this one really focused on it. There’s a bigger emphasis on being an all-around star. Why was that important?
I think it’s really just the way society is, period. It’s just how we live. Our everything. You can’t live, you can’t function, I think, without social media, as hard as we sometimes try to unplug and not pay attention to it. It’s the way we get our information. It’s the way we market and brand ourselves. It’s the way we stay connected, and I think in this day and age you have to be able to master all of that in whatever business you do. If you’re a chef, if you’re a trainer, if you’re a model, if you’re a designer, hell, almost any profession, they thrive on social media.
As judges, you guys obviously have an idea what makes a top model as a group, but what were you personally looking for?
I was just looking for a star. I was looking for someone who walks in and has a presence and when you see her in photographs or when you hear her speak, or the way she carries herself, it gives you goosebumps. For me, it’s certain things you cannot learn. I’m always drawn to the girls that have that thing. Like, Ashley [Graham] is breaking down doors and barriers because when Ashley walks in a room she has that thing. She’s just a star. Ashley—this girl who is unconventionally beautiful and not what the standard of beauty was in this industry, who has redefined it almost—you can put her in a room with anybody and she is going to stand out because she is a star. It seemed like me and Ashley had a little disagreement about [one of the contestants] Tatiana. Ashley is like, “You can learn this,” and I’m very much, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Some things people are just born with.
Now that it’s down to three models, was there anyone you really wanted to make the finals who didn’t or one you really thought would be there in the end?
Just as a model, I really liked Courtney. Her face is amazing. One thing you cannot deny is that mutha has a face. It’s just undeniable. She’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful girl.
But she had an attitude problem.
She does and that’ll hold you back every single time, but Courtney was great. Who else... You know, to be honest, I think Courtney was probably my favorite girl, just looking at her pictures and even her in person, she had a really good look.
There are always a few contestants who have that around-the-way look but not the high fashion. But Tatiana did have the social media aspect you were looking for, where she was more of a self-starter than some of the others.
Yeah, absolutely. I think Tatiana as just an entity had the most presence. Just from day one, she stood out because she had so much swagger. She had that thing. When she walked in the room, you would pay attention to her. But I think with India—
Oh yeah, Gigi part two.
Which is so weird, because she doesn’t look like her in person, but in pictures she photographs like her. I didn’t believe in India because she tried modeling before and then she quit and she wanted to travel. I thought she wasn’t gonna be the girl who was really serious. I’m like, she doesn’t care, she doesn’t really want to be here. But as time went on, India started to impress me a lot and I saw her hunger. And then, Cory Anne, walking in person, walking into the room, she was the girl who looked the most like a model to me, just her physical features, her long limbs and I just thought she was the one; but she was so vacant, she was so blasé about everything. They all had a little bit of something that the other one needed.
What was the hardest part about judging? Did you ever feel bad about anything you said?
No. No, I don’t feel bad and the reason why I don’t feel bad is because it’s me being honest and living in my truth. If I don’t say how I feel, then I’m doing myself a disservice and I think I’m doing the girls a disservice. We live in this world that’s all about expression, but when you express yourself, when people don’t like what you say, it’s a problem. My mannerisms and the things I say and the way I look and my nuances, that’s who I am. Like, I’m not putting on for the cameras. I can’t sit and make that shit up. It’s what comes into my head and out my mouth at the moment. So I don’t feel bad. At the end of the day, it’s still a competition and either you’re gonna bring your A game or you’re not. It’s a competition to find America’s Next Top Model. I don’t know sometimes what people expect. There are still gonna be 13 losers and one winner.
One of the critiques of the show has been that some of the winners don’t go on and do much.
And that’s where branding comes in. Because if somebody gives you this platform and you’re naturally a self-starter and motivated, you should be able to take this platform and build some form of success for it. You have millions of people watching you every week and if you can’t capitalize on that, then you’re not the girl we were looking for.
Who do you think did that well in previous seasons? There were so many who didn’t capitalize and then just fell off. People just forgot about them.
I watched it for awhile and I was obsessed with Top Model in the early, early days. Honestly, I didn’t keep up with it when, like, it was the guys versus the girls, or the tall versus the short. I was trying to build my own career. But the bones and the DNA of the show has always remained the same. So let’s see...
Eva Marcille has been the most prominent to me.
Eva, Toccara, a couple girls in later seasons that are walking. One girl had an ad with Givenchy. There are some girls that have definitely—YaYa is another one who’s had success as far as acting. There’s definitely some girls who have taken the opportunity and gotten in with certain people to make an impact. But I think it’s all on the girl and that’s the girl we’re looking for, the girl who won’t let herself be forgotten.
There’s been some debate about whether models like Gigi and Kendall quality as supermodels and the idea that the definition has changed. What are your thoughts on that? Is there a difference now?
Okay, so I’m really a fashion purist in a way. But then again, I am a student of what the game is now. We can say that, yeah, the original supermodels were Naomi and Tyra and Helena Christensen and Claudia Schiffer. You can argue that point, but now you see a resurgence of those women due to social media. They’re all on it, Naomi and Linda, they’re all using social media to stay relevant.
So would you classify Gigi and Kendall as supermodels?
Absolutely, because the whole thing was that the term came about because you had girls doing three and four campaigns and walking in New York and Milan and Paris and I don’t think what Gigi and Kendall and all those other girls are doing is anything different.
What about so-called “Instagram models”? Do you take them any less seriously or are they now part of the game?
I think there’s a place for all types of beauty.
In the past, Tyra has done some really crazy, weird challenges and photo shoots. How do you think this season compared? It was definitely tamer.
Yeah, I think we took it back, and when I listen to what the fans say, it’s that we brought it back to the basics and I think that was refreshing. I’m sure as the seasons go on, they’ll get more complex and more interesting and more avant-garde, but I think it was almost like a rebirth of the show and we just started back at the infancy stages so it can grow again.
Which judge from the past would you have loved to work with? I’m sure you had favorites.
Oh no, I only had one favorite and it was Janice Dickinson. [Laughs] I don’t think I’m “mean.” Janice was a little mean but she was also very honest. She said exactly what she thought. I just liked her overall. She was crazy in a good way. She said, “I coined the term supermodel. I was the first supermodel.” Like, she would tell her stories about Mick Jagger buying her breast implants, being up all night partying. I have an affinity for those women, for the models of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. It was just so glamorous.
What would you change about this season moving forward?
I really, really enjoyed it and I didn’t know how I would be able to deal with seeing myself on television ’cause I hate the sound of my own voice. I was like, I’m never gonna watch this. And then my friends were like, “Oh my god, you’re so you.” I think I was traveling and watched it on my phone by myself and I’m like, oh shit, it’s really good. It was just really interesting. I did enjoy when Top Model would travel to another country because I think giving some girls who’ve never traveled or never been out of the country a chance to see new cultures, that’s important. When it got down to the last four or five girls, they would go abroad. And I remember when I was watching Top Model, I hadn’t begun traveling yet so for Tyra to take me to Japan or China or Brazil, all these places, it was aspirational. It was like, I wanna go there, I wanna do that. It made you kinda work harder. Top Model was that thing to let you see, and even introduce you to different designers. That part of it, I hope we’ll grow back into that.
Right, and Tyra would announce which country the models were going to and it would be some crazy set-up. As a stylist, did you try to share any of your tips off-camera?
I had a few moments with a couple girls, Giah. I always appreciate when someone doesn’t have any style and they’re just like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” That makes me want to embrace them more and tell them everything. It’s not about labels and it’s not about how much something costs. It’s about finding what works for you. Finding what your personal style and nurturing that and expanding on that. Once you figure that out, it’s really easy after that. Giah was like, I just don’t have any style, I don’t get it, I don’t have a lot of clothes. You don’t have to have a lot to look like you have a lot. It’s just about getting the basics and the things you need and a couple extra pieces here and there.
What’s your approach with Zendaya? She always looks amazing and does really good at pairing what you wouldn’t expect and she also does volume well, wide-legged pants and things like that.
The thing about her is that she doesn’t have any fear. She’s not scared to try anything and she’s not afraid for something not to work. Celine Dion is the exact same way. They’re so different in age and what they do but they’re so similar. It’s no fear. She [Zendaya] doesn’t care. I can literally bring one dress that’s seven times too big and like brown and we’ll talk about hair and makeup and accessories and she’ll be like, “okay that’s fine, okay let’s try it.” The good thing about critics is that people tend to, over the years, lean more toward liking what we do versus disliking it. But it was never about that, it was never about trying to please people or trying to follow the trends. It’s if we like it and we get some sort of kick out of it. I typically style off-trend. Some things I just will never do. It’s just not my aesthetic. People hire and work with me because they like my aesthetic.
Has Celine ever not liked something and been like, “I’m not wearing that”? Have you had to talk her into an outfit?
No, no, see the thing is, I’ll never try to talk my clients into something, but I will explain why I brought it and why I think it’s cool. I’m very organic with my clients. I like to know them and when I’m pulling, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience for me, I feel like when I see something, it’s automatically, that’s Zendaya or that’s Celine or that’s Ariana, and I always work from that. I think sometimes people get caught up in trends and they’re like, oh I want my girl to wear this. I don’t look at clothes like that. I’m attracted to what I’m attracted to and it’s almost like I’m looking at it from the eyes of the clients.
Tyra returns for the finale on Wednesday. Had you talked to her before then?
I had not. That was my first time meeting Tyra. We’ve talked since. I didn’t even know she was there. I was genuinely surprised when she popped up. We kinda talked after, but when she came to the show, she came to work. It was pretty much like, let’s see these girls and let’s talk about these girls and their body of work. She came and she sat in her chair and she was a judge again.
As far as Rita’s judging, what was your relationship?
She was the host of House of Style and I think Zendaya was on that, but I used to always see Rita. I’m friends with her stylist, Jason Rembert, so I would see Rita all the time on the carpet and we spoke, but I didn’t know her. I literally loved everybody on that panel with me. I think everybody brings their own little thing and I think Rita is so sensitive and she looks at them all those girls like they’re her little sisters. She really cared and she really wanted them to do well. Sometimes when I would make a comment, she’d be like, “Law!” I think she really, really, really made a connection with the girls. I had a bigger connection with some of the girls than others, but I feel like Rita had the same connection for all the girls and it was hard for her. We all took this really seriously and I know Rita did as well.
Is there a moment you’ll really remember from this season? I know there’s the shoes.
I have to use my own moment as one of the moments. I didn’t like Cody’s shoes. I just didn’t like the shoes and it has nothing to do with if they were expensive or not or what brand they were. It was just, I don’t understand why you have on those shoes with that dress. I was just like I cannot take it anymore. She had won the Phillip Plein challenge and she went to the store and she could’ve gotten anything she wanted. I’m like, you could’ve got some really sick shoes! I don’t think she capitalized on the opportunity she was given. I just kept wanting to see more and she would wear them a lot. She wore them with these green cargo pants and they were cool, but when she wore them with that dress I could not take it.
How will you remember this season?
Well, I guess I popped my TV cherry. [Laughs] I was going into it just like everyone else but Rita has done stuff before and she has a big career. And Ashley’s a model and she had done television before and Drew at Paper magazine is amazing. For me, it was really, really new and scary because I’m a behind-the-scenes guy. I’m glam, so it was an experience for me, too, and I was nervous. I probably had a lot of the same emotions that the girls had. When the show airs, I’m being judged as well and I’m being compared. And I get some love from some people, I get some hate from some people. I’m growing and learning and experiencing and having some insecurities about some things. It’s real for me, too. And I just think going into next season if that happens, if i’m blessed to go back, I’ll know more and be a little bit more experienced.
The thing for me is I’m happy when people tell me they love me for my authenticity. I’m just 100 percent who I am. But I’m also a student of the game. I only try to speak on things that I know about. So when I’m giving you advice, it’s something I’ve seen or experienced and really comes out of a place of love. I want you to be doing well because if a girl who was on my season of America’s Next Top Model goes on and does something, that’s part of my legacy and that will make me proud. I want everybody to win and be successful... But some girls just don’t have it. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding.