A new exposé on America's Next Top Model has Tyra Banks in the hot seat. Banks hosted and executive produced the reality series from 2003 to 2018, but former contestants say her involvement in the series was misunderstood in many ways. Business Insider's Kate Taylor spoke to contestants, crew members and others involved in the production about the show's dark side and its changing legacy.
America's Next Top Model (ANTM) was a ubiquitous part of the TV landscape for a decade and a half, yet just two years after the finale it became the subject of some retrospective criticism. Simply put, the show was a popular binge-watch during the COVID-19 pandemic because there were many episodes available on Netflix. However, those watching or re-watching the show were often shocked by the insensitivity they saw. This increased interest snowballed out of control as former contestants and crew members told their stories publicly. Taylor spoke to 30 people – many of whom remained anonymous – and she also drew on recent interviews by YouTuber Oliver TwiXt.
I spent the last months speaking with 30+ contestants, producers, and judges from "America's Next Top Model," in light of backlash against "ANTM" and Tyra Banks.— Kate Taylor (@Kate_H_Taylor) April 11, 2022
Here is what I found: https://t.co/EF7OizrohX
Together, all these interviews seem to imply a pattern of intentional abuse on the set of the reality show designed to maximize drama. This is in stark contrast to the show's outward goal of uplifting models and making the fashion industry more accessible to a diverse array of people. Season 12 contestant Aminat Ayinde summed it up as plain old "psychological warfare."
Taylor's deep-dive article is full of anecdotes that help drive these points home. Viewers saw for themselves that models were subjected to physical and mental challenges, but they may not have understood that the risks of these challenges were real. Contestants reportedly signed waivers saying that ANTM producers were not responsible for injuries they sustained on set, but they were still expected to walk dangerous runways in heels. Some sustained lasting injuries and still bear scars to this day.
To make things worse, crew members said that many aspects of the competition were designed to play to contestants' weaknesses in order to make things more dramatic. Producers conducted psychological profiles on prospective contestants but then used details from those profiles against them. In the cases of different abled contestants, they did the same with physical challenges. For example, Season 22's Nyle DiMarco was expected to walk a runway in the dark despite being deaf, while Season 3's Amanda Swafford was expected to walk a dark runway despite being partially blind.
These days, social media critics are especially focused on the show's transgressions against non-white models, LBGTQ+ models, plus-sized models and disabled models. For an ostensibly progressive show, some of its biggest moments were shockingly tone-deaf and inappropriate. It's not just that these moments aged poorly, either – Season 4's Lluvy Gomez recalled how she and several other contestants tried to protest against the infamous blackface episode. The show would go on to do blackface two more times in its 24 seasons.
So far, Banks' only direct comment on this resurfaced controversy has been a tweet in May of 2020. She wrote: "Been seeing the posts about the insensitivity of some of the past ANTM moments and I agree with you. Looking back, those were some really off choices. Appreciate your honest feedback and am sending so much love and virtual hugs." Her fellow EP Ken Mok added: "I look at some of those ANTM moments and cringe." Banks deleted her Twitter account shortly after declining to comment on Insider's article.
Perhaps the most disheartening part of this retrospective is how little good seems to have come from all the painful moments. In spite of the show's apparently inclusive mission, few contestants made long-lasting careers in fashion or entertainment. Season 3's Ann Markley revealed that she actually began using a different name professionally, fearing that her connection to ANTM was turning off potential employers rather than drawing them in. On top of that, contestants are not paid royalties for re-runs of the show and they were paid only a small per diem during their time on set. They did not get paychecks in any traditional sense. Banks' estimated annual earnings were $30 million during the show's run.
Of course, contestants' criticisms were not universal and some still spoke highly of Banks or other producers in one way or another. The conversation around ANTM and its legacy continues online, and it's clear that the show still has some strange moments to answer for.