‘America’s Next Top Model’ exploiting models isn’t a shock

Poor pay for models on ‘America’s Next Top Model’ further proves the show’s problematic history.

America's Top Model host Tyra Banks with chosen model Naima at the UPN Upfront event in New York Cit...
Brian ZAK/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

To those who didn’t grow up with it, America’s Next Top Model is just another brain-melting reality show that went on far longer than it ever should have. But to those of us who were in our formative years when the show splashed onto television, it was a revelation. It was our Allure and Cosmo magazines brought to life, with an undertone of early girlboss-ness. And while young people now worship at the alter of the internet, and the girlboss has been proven to be just a female manifestation of the same patriarchal man boss — we had little idea at the time that we were watching one of the last bright blazes of the generation’s zeitgeist that would continue on to eventually stain our memories of its shine.

ANTM was finally cancelled in 2018, after becoming one of the longest-running shows of all time — it seems that some had no problem ignoring its tangled, problematic roots for 16 years. There was clearly a culture of glossing over glaring issues that propelled the show to its superlative status. But some former contestants are now coming out of the woodwork to air the dirty laundry—reminding us that the show’s business practices, as well as its fundamentals were out of tune. Sarah Hartshorne, former cycle nine contestant, revealed this week that models, “were not paid at all for being on the show...We were given a $38 daily cash stipend that we had to use to pay for our own food. And they didn’t even give us a microwave to heat the food up.” This information does not look good alongside Forbes reporting that Tyra Banks made $30 million in just one 12-month period from the show alone.

I have to say it feels almost blasphemous to say negative things about Tyra Banks — but that speaks to just how powerful she and the show were at the time. In 2003, at ANTM’s dawn, Tyra Banks was to us what Oprah had been to our mothers (not to say Oprah isn’t timelessly everything to all of us). Tyra was chic, smart, and an unabashed entrepreneur. She wasn’t just a super model; she was building an empire. I remember seeing the logo for her production company, Bankable Productions, at the end of the ANTM credits (you couldn’t skip them back in the day), and thinking to my barely teenaged self, “I want to own my own company.” She was a guru, and she was beautiful — there was a godly quality about her, and she wielded it with savvy business cunning. And so, we all tunnel-visioned in to the TV every week to watch her emotionally abuse young women.

Part of what made ANTM so compulsively watchable was the sanctimonious tone it took. Between the various seasons’s monolithic tribunal of judges with characters like the always potentially inebriated Janice Dickinson, the hot, British Nigel Barker, the commanding goddess Miss J. Alexander, and her creative director counterpart Mr. Jay Manuel who could be just as icy as his hair color — there was an air of ancient secrets. These people knew something about the elusive, bitchy, untouchable world of fashion, and they’d come onto television to let us in on it. The viewer was talked down to just as much as the contestants, and we lined up for it just like they did. But none of us could have imagined how utterly irrelevant it all was. Not only did none of the America’s Next Top Model winners ever make it to the zenith of the fashion world that the show promised to propel them up to; for us as viewers, all it did was reinforce our inadequacy as well.

Body positivity has come a long way as a societal philosophy, and yet we still collectively suffer from a continued hangover around body shaming — so back in the days of early ANTM it was a hell hole of reinforcing unhealthy standards around size. So much so that I don’t even have to look up which contestant and what season it was that made me feel weird about my own body in a visceral way: it was a storyline with Keenyah on cycle four. At the time I was just hitting puberty and my body was changing, and I was absolutely shook by the what happened to Keenyah. Over the season the show started to stress that she had been gaining weight—12 pounds to be exact, as it was discussed with the judges who admonished her for not eating properly. As they vilified her for this subtle weight gain being a moral failing proving her unworthy of fashion, they went on to theme humiliating photo shoots that would underline the issue. They did a “seven deadly sins” shoot; Keenyah was gluttony. They did an “animal safari” shoot; Keenya was the elephant. They did a shoot where models had to make their own costumes from nature, and painstakingly followed Keenyah while she tried to cover her belly with sticks. It was brutal. And that’s just one person, from one season. It’s a tried and true theme through them all, trust.

Early ANTM also shamed contestants for having bad skin, being too thin, and often tried to drag their traumas out of the closet for entertainment purposes. Those aren’t cardinal sins by reality television standards by any means, but it’s the fact that mother Tyra — who no matter what the plot of an episode always presented as part martyr and part savior — was the perpetrator, that stings. And it especially hits different to now know that even behind the scenes, her business practices were shady. Tyra, who taught us that if we could just learn to do a perfect lip in the back of a moving vehicle, we could be anything we wanted to be, was only paying models $40 a day, while also expecting them to pay for expenses? Tyra, who planted seeds of young entrepreneurship, was cruel on screen and off? Of course she was. We always should have expected that — because America’s Next Top Model was never meant to be anything but problematic, our mindset has only shifted over the years to be able to see it more clearly. In the infamous words of Tyra, “We were rooting for you.”