March 26, 2004

A Model Minority Mess: Race & Beauty in America’s Next Top Model

By Tammy Johnson

I’ve been having that dream again.

Every movement of the form fitting fire engine red Christian Dior has them mesmerized. Sashaying down the runway, a sister with attitude to spare swings her ample hips from side to side, taking out the waif passing on her right. While striking a pose for the eager photographers crowding the stage, she tosses her long nappy dreadlocks, only to blind the paper doll on her left. Miss Banks, you better recognize: America’s New and Improved Top Model is on the scene.

My subconscious invented this runway massacre fantasy since I started watching Tyra Banks’ hit reality show on UPN, America’s Next Top Model. The dream is a self-esteem safeguard that I desperately need against the ghastly allure of the reality show. For the second season, Banks has recruited a group of twenty-something aspiring models to compete for a lucrative contract and at least half an hour of fame. She stages ridiculous, but entertaining weekly challenges (such as posing while suspended in mid-air) that are designed to pick off contestants one-by-one, hoping they will stir up enough petty dramas to hook a viewing audience. Just how far will these women go to secure a deal with IMG Models, which represents Heidi Klum and Giselle Bundchen? How much skin will they bare to seize a fashion spread in Jane magazine and the Sephora catalogue cover? I want to know, so I watch.

Even though it’s obviously a setup-one of the skinny white girls won last night, just like her counterpart did last season-this show has been my Tuesday night mind candy. After a punishing day of intellectual combat over budget deficits or education reform, it’s all too easy to fall prey to the empty calories brought to me by super-model and wannabe recording artist Tyra Banks and executive producer Ken Mok (Making the Band).

Women aged 18-34 have made Model a record breaker for its time slot. The fact that a progressive, intellectual black feminist like me counts herself in that number speaks to the show’s appeal. On the one hand, the show gives the impression that any pretty bank teller in America can become a supermodel. On the other hand, there is a strong voyeuristic appeal to watching the silly spats and inflated egos. But I can’t help but be jarred back into reality by the sexual racism of the fashion industry.

When “full-figured’ Anna, 5’8" and 138 pounds, was the first to be booted after she refused to pose nude with body art for one of the challenges, it was clear where this show was going. But I still wanted to give a sister the benefit of the doubt. Week after week, I hoped that Tyra’s creation would rise above the plastic empire with a bit of substance and a dash of sister flavor. Initially, things look promising. Six of the twelve competitors are women of color. But they get no favors. In addition to the tried and true issues of weight and height that most are forced to face, the women of color have to deal with industry bias about their look. Tyra even goes so far as to acknowledge that, “the fashion industry is all about race.”

From the show, I learn that an aspiring model can make race work for her. Take 23-year-old April, a Miami Beach corporate accountant. Born to a Japanese mother and white father, April lets us know that “Before I decided to enter into the industry, I never really thought about my ethnicity.” Up to that point she had lived a pretty white life. But since the industry will continually peg her as the Asian girl, she decides to use “ethnicity” to her benefit. In the first episode, the producers painted a dragon across April’s chest and stuck Chinese lanterns on her head. That’s one way to embrace her identity in the new millennium-commercialize it!

If the attitudes that the Black women bring are any measure of progress, then models have a long way to go, regardless of who the Head Black Barbie In Charge is. Take Camille, a sister from the right side of the tracks who takes the diva role to a whole new level. From challenging the judges’ fashion critique, to rewriting the script for her acting assignment, Camille unyieldingly asserts her will, making the show a real must see. But Camille falls willing victim to the trend of reality shows resuscitating the Black bitch. In a post-show interview with she brags that the bitch image has brought her network offers for roles that depict her as ‘the sista with an attitude’. “As they say, I’m the girl you love to hate,” remarks Camille “and if it works to my benefit, it’s absolutely fine.” To hell with the rest of us sisters, who have to deal with real-world racism the day after the TV fantasy.

There’s also Xiomora, a 25-year-old New Jersey bartender who protested being made up to look like a flawless Grace Jones for the centerfold makeover exercise. Xiomora was not pleased with having to wear darker makeup to nail the photo. Why couldn’t she be someone glamorous, like another model’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe? To her credit, Tyra took Xiomora’s reluctance as an insult and told her so.

But Tyra’s outrage makes little difference. The fantasy that a Walgreen’s clerk could become America’s next top model is too seductive and yet painful. Seductive enough to keep me enduring the pain of seeing beautiful women tear themselves and each other down each week. Painful because if Xiomara is too black to be beautiful, and if Anna is too round to strut the runway, what does that say about me and we work-a-day sisters? I know damn well that if these women can’t cut it, I-considerably shorter than the required 5’7" and fitting no one’s image of a waif-don’t have a chance. Hopefully my recurring dream will remind me that I too am beautiful, hips, sweatpants and all.

Tammy Johnson is the Director of the Race and Public Policy Program at the Oakland-based Applied Research Center.

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