Ever since former supermodel Tyra Banks launched America's Next Top Model in 2003, the show has been many things—addictive, entertaining, popular—but it has not been very good at finding America's next top model. Of the more than 100 women who have competed in the 12 seasons (or "cycles") thus far, a few—like Mollie Sue Steenis and Elyse Sewell —have made careers for themselves. But you're more likely to find the show's alumnae in Chili's ads or on Celebrity Rehab than stomping the runways.
The show has, however, had one unusual success: It has generated more than 40 international spinoffs, in countries from Austria to South Africa to New Zealand. The number of global versions of NTM nearly matches the number of Idol spinoffs worldwide. These Next Top Model spawn, many of which are available on YouTube, BitTorrent, or other downloading sites, make for some of the world's best reality-TV watching. I haven't watched America's Next Top Model consistently in several seasons, but I regularly curl up with my laptop to take in the Next Top Model shows of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, and Germany, which some kind-hearted soul with a lot of free time posts online with English subtitles. (I minored in Latin in college, so unless The Vatican's Next Top Model is in the works, I'm limited to English-language versions of the show.) In many cases, these adaptations have retained what works best about America's Next Top Model—the in-house drama, the torturous makeovers, the ridiculous assignments—while skipping what's worst about it: hokey judge antics, outlandish veneration of Tyra, and sob-story contestants. What's more, each show offers surprisingly revealing glimpses of its nation's aesthetic and outlook.
The Top Model spinoffs all follow the same basic format: Wannabe models live together; study posing, walking, acting, and representing a brand; and take part in challenges, fashion shows, and photo shoots. At the end of each episode, the girls face a stern panel of judges who pick them apart before kicking one or more out of the competition. Beyond this framework, the shows have some freedom—and, for the most part, they've used it to their advantage.
ANTM viewers fall into two categories: There are the ones who bemoan the fact that the show's contestants are too heavy, too old, or too short to model in real life, and wish it provided a more accurate portrait of the modeling world. And then there are those who couldn't care less about realism and prefer to savor Tyra's histrionics and the contestant cat fights (among them the "bitch poured beer on my weave" fracas of Cycle 3). With the possible exception of Australia's Next Top Model, which will gloriously satisfy both viewers, the international versions are best for the first type of fan. The international shows have found some genuinely successful models, particularly Ksenia Kahnovich, who won Russia's You Are a Supermodel and has since walked the runways for Dior, Versace, and Louis Vuitton. Alice Burdeu, who won the third installment of Australia's Next Top Model, has also met with some international success. Had she been on America's Next Top Model, the passive Burdeu—who showed passion only once in the series, when she spoke with gusto about how much she hates it when her bathing suit is wet—would have gotten the boot from Tyra for not showing adequate spark.
Show:Australia's Next Top Model
Host: Sarah Murdoch, daughter-in-law of Rupert
Watch this spinoff if: You want to brush up on your Aussie slang.
Sarah Murdoch scrambles to keep a batch of Aussie brats under control. The show is bloated with between-shoot spats, including some downright cruel bullying, and it has introduced me to the delightful words bogan (the Aussie equivalent of redneck) and moll (bitch or slut). In Cycle 4, a group of girls, including the eventual winner, Demelza, were nicknamed the "bitchketeers" for their cruel torment of the spacey Alamela. AusNTM has also featured some of the most difficult-to-watch challenges in the Next Top Model catalog, including a runway show in front of leering male workers at a fruit market and a brutal assignment in the Australian Outback with masses of flies swarming the girls midshoot and flying in their mouths midinterview.
Show: Germany's Next Topmodel
Host: Heidi Klum
Watch this spinoff if: You watch Project Runway for Heidi Klum and the models.
Watching Germany's Next Topmodel is a commitment: The episodes, subtitled by a German with a good but decidedly not great grasp of English, are scattered across various Web sites, and each is about an hour and a half long. While previous cycles' models—uniformly tall and slim—have been yawn-inducing when not at a shoot, this season amped up the conflict quotient by throwing an interloper, the winner of Austria's Next Top Model, into the competition. Klum is more endearing here than she is on Project Runway. Unlike Tyra, she shows up to every photo shoot and most of the challenges, where she dispenses constructive advice that sounds a lot more helpful than Banks' perpetual "smile with your eyes." This makes her judging seem more fair. She actually watches the girls in action—in one case directing an underwater shoot from a submarine—so she bases her verdicts on more than just the final picture.
Show: Britain's Next Top Model
Host: Lisa Snowdon
Watch this spinoff if: Don't.
It's dreadful. It also highlights the one downside of watching international NTMs: It can be difficult to pick up on the cultural cues. When Tia Mowry shows up on America's Next Top Model, you know the contestants' enthusiasm about meeting this "star" is to some degree feigned, sarcastic, or producer-mandated. But it's more challenging to make those distinctions if you aren't familiar with a country's D list. Is Louise Redknapp actually a big deal in the United Kingdom? Who knows! In any event, skip the British version. In five seasons, the best moment I've seen was a riotous casting for an Imodium commercial.
Show: New Zealand's Next Top Model
Host: Sara Tetro, model-turned-agent
Watch this spinoff if: You wish Flight of the Conchords had more Kiwi women in it.
New Zealand's Next Top Model is downright patriotic. Host Sara Tetro and the photographers love to encourage the girls to embrace the Kiwi spirit, forever presenting New Zealand as the tiny country that could. During an overseas trip to Los Angeles, where they're photographed on a California beach by America's Next Top Model's"noted fashion photographer" Nigel Barker, the girls charmingly point across the ocean and remind one another that "New Zealand is that way!" The best part of each episode is the girls' open-mouthed excitement when they're reminded that the winner's prize includes a trip to New York.
Show: Canada's Next Top Model
Host: Jay Manuel, aka Mr. Jay
Watch this spinoff if: You adore America's Next Top Model—but can't stand Tyra.
Canada's Next Top Model is so faithful to the original that it's hosted by Jay Manuel, the orange-skinned photo director on America's Next Top Model. Nolé Marin, a former Elle fashion editor who appeared as an early ANTM judge, has also turned up in the Great White North as a member of the judging panel, andNigel Barker has been known to show up to take some pictures. The show apes the original in virtually every way.
"Special guest" appearances are among the highlights of the international versions of ANTM, due mostly to the overly enthusiastic receptions they receive. The most infamous such cameo came when former ANTM judgeJanice Dickinson stopped by to advise the contestants of Finland's Next Top Model, only to fall down the stairs in what she later admitted was a pill-and-booze-induced stupor, calling out: "Do something, you stupid models! Call a fucking ambulance! You're so stupid! Call a fucking ambulance! Figure something out! All you do is pose. You're all so fucking dumb!"
The Finnish models took Dickinson's abuse in stride, demonstrating a high pain threshold that may serve them well if they hope to make it big on the runway. If America's Next Top Model wants to keep hunting for fashion superstars, it's time Tyra looked overseas for ways to reinvigorate the tired show without getting gimmicky. Of course, it's probably too late: Cycle 13, which launches this week, features only contestants under 5-foot-7.