Slate's Culture Blog
March 18 2010 4:25 PM


America's Next Top Model is shameless, ridiculous, and consistently more entertaining than it has any right to be, especially considering that the series is currently slogging through its 14th cycle. ( ANTM  doesn't call its installments "seasons" because the show searches in vain for top models twice every year.) One thing the show has never been, though, is remotely relevant to the fashion industry. None of Top Model 's 13 winners has gone on to have a notable mainstream modeling career, although Cycle 1's second runner-up, Elyse Sewell , has had some success in Asia.

But this year, Tyra Banks is attempting to give her juggernaut genuine fashion cred by adding a new judge to her lineup: André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor-at-large best known for his signature graduation robe get-ups and his quips. (Christina Hendricks' Golden Globes gown made the Mad Men star look like " roadside-diner peach melba ," he wrote in January.) Compare Tyra's endorsement of Talley as "one of the most influential, one of the most powerful people in the entire fashion world," with her claim that fellow panelist Nigel Barker is a "noted fashion photographer."


Hyperbole (and graduation robes) aside, it's true that Talley is a legitimately important figure in the world of high fashion. And his presence has already made the show more plugged in—last night's episode featured a guest appearance by Rachel Roy, a bona fide hot designer. But a question remains: Can Talley help transform ANTM into a show that actually prioritizes fashion over trashy, manufactured drama? After all, we're talking about a program whose greatest contribution to pop culture is introducing the phrase " Bitch poured beer on my weave! " into the vernacular. Could anybody, even a Vogue editor, bring some class to a series like Top Model ?

After tonight's 90-minute episode, which contained two judging ceremonies, the answer is still unclear. It does seem as though ALT is trying to add some refinement to the proceedings, mostly by peppering his critiques with words like salon , derri è re , and étonné . (Clearly, the man is putting his master's in French Literature from Brown to good use.) Not to be outdone, Tyra has also added some Gallic inflection to her everyday speech; on last night's episode, she pronounced chameleon and advertisement in a ludicrous Pepé Le Pew accent.

Even so, like a gawky teen who's been given a blowout and an expensive new dress, ANTM 's genetic makeup remains unchanged. A good portion of yesterday's installment was devoted to documenting a screaming match between Alasia, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks—"I'm not gonna say I grew up in the hood, but I grew up in the hood," she told us in last week's premier—-and Ren, whose androgynous haircut and tattoos indicate that she's supposed to be this season's "edgy" contestant. One of the models eliminated last night, Naduah, grew up in a religious cult. Another one, Angelea, describes her personal style as "classy ghetto."

ALT undoubtedly will be one of the most entertaining aspects of the show in Cycle 14. He's already proven himself to be more of a Janice than a Twiggy, thank God: His judging style is lively and combative, and he isn't afraid to shout over the rest of the panel. But all the fancy fashion editors in the world couldn't change  ANTM  from the lowbrow train wreck it's always been into something more ... chic. And maybe it's better this way; I'd take catfights  and melodrama over a respectable but boring reality competition any day.


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