America’s Next Top Model wrapped its finale Friday after 12 years and 22 seasons (or “cycles,” as the series preferred), and Entertainment Weekly wants us to “pay our respects” to a show that gave us some of the “most iconic” moments in reality TV history. Number one on EW’s list: ANTM’s judge/star/executive producer Tyra Banks ripping into a young, black single mom named Tiffany. In my 2010 book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, I deconstructed that unfortunate episode, along with other ugly, misogynist and racist tropes the series codified in the name of beauty—and more hypocritically, under the guise of Banks empowering girls to achieve their dreams. That section of the book is excerpted below.
Race, Beauty and the Tyranny of Tyra Banks
Debuting in 2003, America’s Next Top Model set many templates for racial typecasting on network reality TV.
Only six of the first 170 contestants were East or South Asian. The first, April Wilkner, half-Japanese and half-white, said that before she decided to model, “I never really thought about my ethnicity.” ANTM made sure viewers could think of little else. They framed her as uncomfortable with her cultural identity, while confusing that identity by adorning her with symbols from a country unconnected to her heritage (for example, Chinese lanterns placed on her head, a dragon painted on her chest).
Cut to the cycle-six audition of Gina Choe, who told us, “I’m not into Asian guys.” From then until her elimination five weeks later, Gina was edited as if she was struggling with “an identity crisis,” and stereotyped as an “exotic” fading flower who couldn’t stand up for herself when attacked by her competitors. She was vilified on the show, on fan sites, and by culture critics as being a poor representative of her race for making statements such as the following: “As a Korean person and as an American person, I’m just a little bit of both, and I don’t know which one I am more of.” What went unexplored was why Top Model thought it appropriate to make Gina feel she had to choose whether she was “more” tied to her ethnicity or her nationality—the subtext of which implies that a Korean American is not a “real” American, just as Indian American contestant Anchal was asked about attitudes in her “own country” during cycle seven.
Top Model mixed and matched from various long-held stereotypes about Asian women in American movies, described in The Asian Mystique as including the cold and calculating “Dragon Lady” (traits assigned to ambivalent April) and the submissive “China Doll” (docile Gina). When we were first introduced to cycle 11’s Sheena Sakai, a half-Japanese, half-Korean go-go dancer with a large rack and an even bigger swagger, she announced, “I’m gonna show you, America. You ain’t ready for this yellow fever. One time for the Asians!”
Sheena was recruited by a casting director who saw her working as a stuntwoman for the movie Tropic Thunder. But as is often the case on reality television, producers revealed only those details that reinforced the frame they’d chosen for her character—the clichéd “Vixen/Sex Nymph.” Her stunt work wasn’t discussed on the show or mentioned on her CW bio. Instead, she was criticized as too sexy in every episode—by a show that intentionally hyper-sexualized her. Early on a judge sneered, “You look like Victoria’s Secretions.” Later, during a challenge in Amsterdam’s red light district, where prostitutes pose in storefronts to entice customers, she was told she looked like she should be selling herself in that window, rather than modeling clothes.
Likewise, Latina Top Model hopefuls were consistently typecast as promiscuous sluts, “naturally” good dancers, or bursting with machisma and ready to throw down. Semifinalist Angelea didn’t make cycle 12’s final cut after she got into a fight and was written off as hot-tempered, “ghettofied,” and easily provoked to violence.
Cycle eight winner Jaslene “Cha Cha Diva” Gonzalez, who spoke Spanish in her CoverGirl commercial, was called “spicy” and portrayed as a cross between a “drag queen” and Carmen Miranda. High school dropout Felicia “Fo” Porter, half-Mexican and half-black, was used to reinforce the “Latinos are lazy” trope.
Other Latina models throughout the series were called “fiery” as a compliment and “hootchie” as an insult. Yet second-cycle winner Yoanna House, named one of Latina magazine’s “It Girls,” notably avoided such typecasting. Since she is fair-skinned enough to pass for white, the show chose to erase her ethnicity, playing into the standard Hollywood convention that positions Caucasians as the default American. Most viewers were unaware that she was half-Mexican. Instead, media outlets from NPR and Time Out Chicago to International Cosmetic News refer to Jaslene as “the first Latina” to win the series, an assumption echoed by ANTM’s fans.
African Americans were pigeonholed into similar categories on ANTM, which introduced the Angry Black Woman trope to reality TV before The Apprentice’s infamous Omarosa was a glint in producer Mark Burnett’s eye. Cycle one brought us self-indulgent, catty Camille, the black model everyone loved to hate. By cycle three, Tyra took to pretending she’s not an executive producer who casts for type. She warned eventual winner “Eva the Diva” to act sweet, because “I don’t want to cast another black bitch.” But of course she did cast and edit Eva as the bitch du jour—until week eight, when two white image consultants instructed her to doff the diva label by “showing your best possible manners.”
Lighter-skinned African American and biracial women such as cycle four winner Naima Mora and cycle two finalist Mercedes Yvette escaped this frame, reinforcing painful intra-racial beauty hierarchies in media, advertising, and political history, colorism positing that the darker a woman’s complexion, the nastier her personality.
The Violent Ghetto Girl (or as one model was described, the “ghetto Black Barbie”) also loomed large. During her third-season tryout, low-income single mom Tiffany Richardson, who got kicked out of high school for acting like “the Devil,” said she wanted to be on ANTM to “soften up” because “I don’t want to fight no mo’.” Uh-oh. The semifinalists went out to a bar, where a local “skank” poured a drink over Tiffany’s head. She freaked out, yelled, “Bitch poured beer on my weave!” and hurled a glass at her. Bottles started flying, and they hightailed it out of there. A white model condemned violence; Tiffany retorted, “That’s great, Martin Luther King. But I’m with Malcolm.” Violence is “all I know,” because “nobody ever taught me to handle my problems without fighting.”
Though she was “trying to change for the better,” she got sent home to “the hood” by the end of the episode, calling herself a failure. But because she always wanted to feature “another black bitch”—especially of the ratings-generating “ghetto” variety—Tyra Banks brought Tiffany back for the fourth season, after she’d been through anger management classes. She made it to the seventh episode, where she couldn’t read from a teleprompter, grumbled, “This is humiliating more and more each week,” and was eliminated. This time, instead of calling herself a failure, she remained calm, smiled, hugged the other models, and told them she’d be okay.
This didn’t sit well with Tyra, who preferred self-flagellation and depression from rejectees, especially when they’re poor and black. So, she took it upon herself to remind the girl of her place: “This should be serious to you!” Tiffany replied that looks can be deceiving, but she was “sick of crying about stuff that I cannot change. I’m sick of being disappointed, I’m sick of all of it.” Now apparently clairvoyant, Tyra yelled that Tiffany wasn’t really sick of disappointment, because if she were, “you would stand up and take control of your destiny!” A convenient lie from an executive producer with 100 percent control over the show’s framing and editing, especially since Tiffany never really had a chance of winning ANTM, lacking the “girl next door” image demanded by the program’s product placement sponsors CoverGirl and Seventeen, which use the winner in their ads.
Producers raised Tiffany’s hopes for nothing; they only had her return because they knew she’d be a ratings draw, since she was one of the most talked-about contestants on the third season. “Bitch poured beer on my weave!” became an iconic quote, repeated on hundreds of fan sites and used as a Vanity Fair headline.
Tyra continued to criticize her “defeatist attitude” until Tiffany got choked up, saying, “I don’t have a bad attitude. Maybe I am angry inside, I’ve been through stuff, so I’m angry, but—” But she couldn’t finish, because Tyra cut her off with a neck-rolling, finger-pointing, top-of-her-lungs tirade:
Be quiet, Tiffany! BE QUIET! STOP IT! I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this! When my mother yells like this it’s because she loves me. I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you! Learn something from this! When you go to bed at night, you lay there and you take responsibility for yourself, because nobody’s going to take responsibility for you. You rollin’ your eyes and you act like it’s because you’ve heard it all before—you’ve heard it all before—you don’t know where the hell I come from, you have no idea what I’ve been through. But I’m not a victim. I grow from it and I learn. Take responsibility for yourself!
And with that, Tiffany was turned into ANTM’s symbol of the irresponsible ghetto chick who isn’t willing to work hard to care for herself or her child. Such pop culture imagery builds on decades of inaccurate, scapegoating news reports dating back to the 1980s, which blamed so-called “welfare queens” (a phrase that became code for poor women of color, often young mothers) for the poverty, educational inequity, and violence that plagued their communities. According to this media mantra, these weren’t systemic problems requiring institutional solutions, they simply stemmed from laziness, greed, and lack of discipline inherent among poor youth of color. (Black and Latina girls bore the added burden of being branded promiscuous and immoral, while young men of color were pathologized as “Super Predators.”)
Widely considered one of the most infamous moments in ANTM history, Tyra’s disingenuous hissy fit about Tiffany’s supposed “victim” mentality and “defeatist attitude” was a coded revival of that sorry script. That she issued this verbal beatdown in the name of “love”—and treated the 22-year-old as “ungrateful” for the chance to be used and shamed on national television—was deeply manipulative. That Top Model affects viewers’ perceptions of young women of color was even worse. Parroting Tyra’s rhetoric, a Television Without Pity commenter wrote, “Tiff and others like her can’t be bothered to pick up a book? Read. Learn. Get good grades… Tyra was right. Get off your ass Tiff and accept responsibility for yourself. Her granmama put a roof over her head and food on the table and yet Tiff can’t be bothered to study and get good grades and pull herself out of poverty? Slackers disgust me.”