When I first set out to investigate why an intelligent person like myself continues to watch a goofy program like America’s Next Top Model, I knew the obvious reason was that it’s dumb, fun TV. But there has to be more. While watching the previous season, there was a point—several points—when I vowed to put my foot down and quit this silly mess. We’re now three episodes into Cycle 22 and it’s only gotten worse. Wednesday night’s episode featured Tyra Banks making animal noises while giving the models a tutorial on how to pose their necks to avoid the “no neck monster” in photos.

How are we still watching this lowly modeling competition, week by week, and calling ourselves adults? I wondered this for a long time until I saw it: the beard weave.

Every season, Top Model includes an infamous makeover sequence, episodes that make for the type of television not even a heavily contoured Jesus Christ could create. Any Top Model enthusiast, for instance, knows about Cassandra, the model who cried and quit over a bad haircut.

Most recently in Cycle 21—the same cycle as Lacefront McBeard—our impeccably flamboyant host Tyra Banks blessed a female model with a half-black, half-blonde “skunk” hair dye job, thinking it edgy. But the lace front beard, or beard weave as Tyra called it—and what it stands for—is the sole reason I continue to indulge in Tyra’s immaculate circus.

Nothing tops it, and yet the beauty of Top Model is that millions of similar examples exist (Tyra once had the male models dress up in women’s clothing and vice versa for a pointless role reversal challenge). The lace front beard is a symbol of everything magical and horrible about this show. I cannot stop watching or else I’ll die. I’m sure of it.

When you wonder how Top Model has made it to 22 seasons, consider the fact that it’s on CW, which means not that many people watch it, but enough to fuel its existence. But also consider that this model factory was built by a wacky black woman who’s free to be as wacky as she wants to be, just wacky enough to casually lie about graduating from Harvard.

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Still, why do I continue to watch this crap? Again, “You dummy, it’s just a dumb good show” may be a good enough answer. But there’s more. It’s the garish format, the makeovers, the Go-Sees, the offensiveness and the silliness. Mostly, it’s the unconventionality of it all, the TYRA-ness of it all.

Tyra Banks invented smizing and the booty tooch. She’s had a whole season dedicated to short models and continually gives plus-size models a platform. It’s blatant stunt casting, sure (because Tyra always wants to produce the “first” someone), but also clear progress. A feat in itself, also, is that she’s convinced influential fashion figures to buy into her half-baked ideas, including current judge PR maven Kelly Cutrone, and ex Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley and noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker (both former judges).

Just a couple seasons into ANTM, it was clear that unlike the similar industry-insider series Project Runway—which maintains a level of professionalism while still showing drama—Top Model was destined to be reality defined by inanity.

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Let’s take a look at the first episode of Cycle 22, which premiered on August 5. Much like most Top Model premieres, it features a bunch of determined amateur models vying for a few select spots in the Top Model house. This cycle’s house was designed by Tyra in collaboration with HGTV’s Property Brothers, who guested on episode one. The design is once again Tyra-sanctioned gaudiness.

In episode one, the contestants are tasked with something simple: walking down a runway on Hollywood & Highland Boulevard while being bum-rushed by a random person. The point is for the judges to make the first cut and see if the models can maintain their composure and model through it, which is a running theme on Top Model—extreme challenges and sometimes wildly offensive photo shoots (i.e. having the models pose as “bi-racial beauties”) that are almost always completely unnecessary (location: wind tunnel).

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As always, the models are introduced randomly, but you can always tell who’ll make it through based on who gets the most confessional time. Most of them end up sharing their sob stories, only a smattering of which are legitimately disheartening. Others’ tragic tales are merely the crocodile tears of average American teens dealing with sad but normal American situations like divorce and low-income living.

Ninety percent of the contestants are as utterly ridiculous and game as Tyra. They’re weirdo/pageant/asshole spawns of reality TV who go along with her plans to find myriad ways to top her previous craziness. They’re also incredibly diverse.

This season, there’s a deaf model whom Tyra teaches how to do sign language in a sexier way. “Oh my God, Nyle, that’s so not sexy,” she says, before approaching him to demonstrate in episode one, well-intentioned and poorly executed as usual. “Do you know what I’m saying? Like, sex, Nyle.”

There’s a daughter of a diplomat who says she “lived a reverse Cinderella story.” There’s a model from a town called Cardiff-by-the-Sea who quits by the second episode. There’s a male model of color named Bello with frightening blue eyes that you’re supposed to think are contacts, except that a blue-eyed baby picture of him flashes on screen later as proof. He wears a crown. His arch nemesis is Devin, who keeps notifying us that he’s signed to six agencies.

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“I’m signed to six agencies,” he says. “I’m signed to San Francisco, Denmark, Germany and Canada.”

“I’m from [fucking is bleeped out] Elite Model Management. No one talks to me like that,” he says.

“I’m signed to six agencies around the world,” he says again.

Bello: “If his personality matches his modeling skills, I’m not worried.”

And so we meet a new set of crazies, and just when I feel like tapping out of this round, Tyra’s pulled me back. The models’ first challenge (after the outdoor runway): An in-house pose-off to see who gets to stay in the Tyra suite.

As the backbone of the show, the models, in effect, force us to think differently about beauty, as was Tyra’s original intention.

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The fashion industry’s limited standards will always restrict the definition of what’s pretty or runway worthy. Models are still mostly thin and tall. But ANTM has in small ways changed how the average person might view an unconventionally good-looking person. Tyra told The Hollywood Reporter in a 2012 interview:

“I created Top Model because I wanted to expand the definition of beauty and wanted a platform to do it. People think I just wanted to discover models, but that was secondary. I wanted to highlight atypical beauty, unique beauty, so the ugly-duckling girls at home who were not feeling beautiful could see other girls with a gap in their teeth or super pale or with big frizzy red hair being called beautiful and could feel better about themselves.”

“Over the course of the years, the audience is now not just choosing the cheerleader or the pretty girl in the mall. They realize that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes with freckles and frizz.”

That may be overstating the show’s realistic influence. But occasionally, I’ll find myself ogling a stranger’s odd or angular face and thinking, “That’s a face Tyra would love,” which is, if nothing else, a cool real-life side effect of a silly television show. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll last, but for now ANTM still has a soft spot in my DVR queue, even as it’s gone through multiple judges (Rob Evans will not be missed) and format revamps (social media vote counts were nixed this season). The past three Cycles have smartly been co-ed battles. In last night’s episode, Tyra said part of that was her wanting to fight against “the male model as accessory.” It’s also a way to exploit beautiful, horny young people who’ll do anything to win a competition that will ultimately do little for their careers.

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Because we know by now that most of these winners and runners-up rarely succeed beyond reality show recognition. Really, we’re watching future nobodies in the making. They’re sacrificial pawns on a show where fashion is more entertainment than occupation and at this point, they must all know it, but do it anyway. Around this time last year, I ranked the most successful Top Model contestants and had a hard time figuring out how to define “success” in this case. I posted a screenshot of the story on Instagram and in classic Top Model fashion, Cycle 9’s Bianca Golden—who was left off the list—wrote a salty comment under the photo. She later deleted it. But for a minute, I felt honored to be part of the circus.


Contact the author at clover@jezebel.com.

Images via CW/Facebook/Tumblr