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Sunday, April 21

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On September 21, Tyra Banks hosts the fifth installment of the "dramality" series that "exposes the transformation of everyday young women into potentially fierce supermodels." Fierce is one of Tyra's favorite words. She uses it often, speaking of a woman's inner power and self-determination as she tells her protégées to embrace what makes them different. Learn to love your flaws, she says. We all have them. Simultaneously, however, she gives tips on how to hide those imperfections under the harsh glare of lights, camera, action in an unrelenting business that judges every inch of one's face and body.

So goes the duality of American's Next Top Model. ANTM changed UPN from a basement netlet to an honest-to-goodness network. The first season — sorry, cycle — was a bare bones production and a surprise ratings smash. However, the series has transformed from a fairly straightforward contest to a Cinderella story, with Tyra presiding as Fairy Godmodel. It is less and less about finding a woman who will be able to earn a living as a working model and more focussed on giving the women healthy self-esteem in an industry that chews up and spits out people hourly. How "real" is that, especially since many of the models are too old or too short or too "everyday" to be taken seriously by the fashion world?

The first winner, Adrianne Curry, is an uninhibited tomboy from Joliet who had no problem speaking her mind. (She wasn't the only local talent. The first two eliminated contestants, Tessa and Katie, were from Chicago and Glenview, respectively.) Adrianne still doesn't mince words; she's has been very vocal about her disappointment with her prizes and broken promises after her victory. Adrienne's modeling "career" stalled, and she appeared on another reality show — The Surreal Life. She hooked up with housemate Christopher Knight, who is 25 years her senior and best known for his role as Peter Brady. Their new reality series, My Fair Brady, debuted yesterday. I doubt becoming a serial reality personality was in Adrienne's plans when she signed up for that modeling gig.

Another critic is first season second-runner up Elyse Sewell, who wrote a memorable article about her time on the show for Bust magazine in which she admitted she only went to the ANTM tryouts because she lived were around the corner. She and her boyfriend, both stoned at the time they saw the advertisement on television, thought it would be hilarious. On-air, she rarely bothered to hide her intelligence or her disdain for certain aspects of the industry, and it was her refusal to accept that a person needed to be smart to be a model combined with her lack of drive that got her booted. Oddly enough, Elyse's modeling career is flourishing two years later. Interesting for a woman who said, "When I leave, I'll be gone forever," and planned to finish her education and be a doctor.

Eva Pigford, the winner of Season 3, is the most obvious Cinderella of the series. In the first episode, Tyra and the other judges confronted Eva about her nastiness toward the other girls. Eva tried to bluff her way out of the situation, but she soon broke down and cried as she admitted that her family used to say nasty things to her. Tyra warned, "Remember how it felt when your daddy said horrible things to you, you don't want to be doing that to somebody else." Then they hugged it out. Eva apologized to the other contestants and transformed from an angry young woman to a Tyra-sanctioned transubstantiation. The fact that Eva is a mere 5'7" and unlikely to become the next Kate Moss doesn't really matter to the "story." Another diva "saved"!

Each season has at least one plus-size model, but these ladies are invariably sent home as they are not built for haute couture. Tyra might be trying to change the modeling world by arguing that beauty can be found in different body shapes and skin color — which is admirable and an idea in which I firmly believe — but it's not fair to the contestants who don't fit the standard mold. Rail-thin winners of ANTM have yet to make even the smallest dent in the industry. There's no way a curvy woman, even if she did win the title, would ever eke out anything more than a token shoot or two before being relegated back to the outside world. Just look at the reaction when Dove unveiled its latest "real bodies" ad campaign. Harsh but true. And speaking of brutal truths...

The major change for Season 5 is Janice Dickinson's departure as a full-time judge. Janice — the self-proclaimed "world's first supermodel" — was known for her blunt criticisms, and her claim that "I'd rather be an honest bitch than some ass-kissing, sugarcoating, namby-pamby, wiping-ass motherfucker," didn't exactly fit into Tyra's new media image and fledgling empire, which includes a new talk show. Dickinson told Radar magazine she was fired because she told "the truth and I was saving these girls from going out there and being told that they're too short, too fat, their skin's not good enough." She has been replaced by '60s model Twiggy, who is probably nowhere near as volatile as Miss Janice.

However, Tyra has been known to lose her temper as well. Season 3 semifinalist Tiffany — who described herself as "ghetto" and gained infamy for getting in a barfight on camera with a woman who was not an ATMN contestant and saying, "Bitch poured beer in my weave! " — was brought back for a second chance the next season. She claimed she had changed, but when Tiffany was eliminated in Season 4, she didn't show the proper respect for the contest or for Miss Banks. Tyra exploded. (Go here and scroll down to see the video clip.) "I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this! When my mother yells like this, it's because she loves me!" After she screamed, "HOW DARE YOU?!" and "You don't know where the hell I come from," Tyra told Tiffany to learn from her experiences and take responsibility for herself. Good advice in general, but I don't understand how verbally attacking a woman who refused to act the way Tyra wanted her to is "fierce" in anything but a negative way.

One might say this over-the-top reaction stemmed from Tyra being too personally invested with some of the more "downtrodden" girls. Or one could argue that it's less about the women themselves and more about Tyra's image as a person who cares so much she has to shout at them. Obviously, it's for their own good.

ANTM is a very odd combination of "You go, girl!" and "Here's how to hide your flab." Helping others build true self-confidence is a wonderful goal (one Tyra's first topics on her talk show is better body image). But this all reminds me of a comedienne who said there were only two kinds of articles in women's magazines: "Men suck!" and "Here's how to get one!" It's the odd whiplash most women deal with each day, just glitzed up and glammed for television. "I'm every woman... now help me pick out jeans that make my ass look great." Fierce.

American's Next Top Model, UPN, 7pm Wednesdays (2-hour season premiere September 21)
The Tyra Banks Show, UPN, 4pm Monday through Friday (premieres September 12)

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at

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