On Wednesday’s episode of Tamron Hall, the titular host devoted about 10 minutes to the relitigation of America’s Next Top Model’s flaws that occurred on social media (as well as in Jay Manuel’s book) earlier this year. “ANTM started trending again this year on Twitter, putting the show under a whole new microscope in this world of cancel culture,” is how Hall groaningly set up the segment, an interview with ANTM creator and host Tyra Banks, who was on to promote Dancing with the Stars. (Banks is that show’s latest host.)
Without petulance or irritation, Banks offered some reasonable explanations as to why certain facets of ANTM have not aged well vis a vis contemporary sensitivity. “I was trying to push boundaries but was also torn to try to make sure these girls could work,” she said. “It was a balance. It was like, ‘Break beauty barriers,’ but I can break them all I want on the show, they’ll graduate from the show and then they won’t work. There was this awful push and pull that we all had.”
While Banks admitted, “We did a whole bunch of things we that we did mess up,” that was a hard “we.” She cited the input of agents, which pushed her to in turn push the young women on the show. So: Accountability...but make it spreadable.
“A lot of it was telling somebody that they need to change something. Because I had model agents right here saying, ‘Three girls could really, really work, but this must change,’” she said. “So there was a whole behind-the-scenes thing happening. But instead of me saying, ‘You must change this,’ on TV, I think what I should have said is, ‘You’re beautiful because I…the person who is championing beauty inclusivity sees the beauty in the difference.’ I talk about it all the time. Agent is doing this to me [motions at head as if someone is speaking into her ear]. I should have just said, ‘You handle that offscreen. If she needs to fix her teeth, fix her hair, whatever it is, you guys can do that after she wins.”
Banks also posited the show as a product of its time: “We have to always remember, there’s like these moments in time that diversity and inclusivity that America’s Next Top Model was at the forefront of doing, breaking those doors open, the door wasn’t open yet.” I’d add that reality TV in the ‘00s was much rougher on its talent than it is apparently now and that there’s been a bit of an ethical shift since.
Banks said what took her aback about this year’s social media controversy is that she had already explained or apologized for things people had called the show out for—namely, telling Cycle 6's Dani Evans to fix her teeth and a Hapa-inspired photo shoot that took place in Hawaii and effectively put the show’s contestants in blackface.
“I never thought it was blackface coming from a black person saying, ‘I think my skin is some of the most beautiful, I think Native American skin, deeper darker skin is beautiful and I want to show that,’” said Tyra. “So that’s what I was thinking.” She referenced an episode of her talk show in which she addressed this very shoot as well as a chapter in her 2018 book Perfect Is Boring that discussed her feedback to Evans as wrongheaded.
However, Banks gave a theory as to why something for which she felt like she already apologized would once again find itself in the court of public opinion: “That generation didn’t see me apologize.”
“That generation is benefiting from all the hard work of people even before me that are breaking down the beauty barriers,” she continued. “So now they’re saying, ‘The world does not exist like that. We are all accepting and all loving,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah us older people knocked down the door for you guys.’”