Television: America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway | “Auf Wiedersehen to the Days of Smizing”


Illustration by Samantha Dale

Illustration by Samantha Dade

Whenever I find myself watching reality television, I realize I tend to go for the ones with the most creative output. I can easily go watch people sit in a house, imbibe, then argue/fight each other, but I always much preferred the competition series where artists were challenged in some way. Whether it was watching the contestants on Top Chef make dishes for a charity event, watching make up artists on Face Off create original monster creatures, or watching drag queens square off as celebrities in The Snatch Game on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I’m often intrigued by seeing these kinds of competitions. These contestants have to creative something or do something that requires a lot of skill and talent in a short span of time, and the results were always fascinating.

In my middle and high school years, two of the shows I would often watch that fit this genre of reality competition television were America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. The former followed young aspiring models being judged by supermodel Tyra Banks and a panel of judges as they competed in challenges and photoshoots designed to find the next best fashion model.Project Runway pitted fashion designers against one another in order to see who was the next best fashion designer. Both shows had their peak years, and both have been airing for so long that they’ve shifted the field of reality competition programming.

Now, I will admit that neither show was ever truly “great.” They both had good years and weak years, and the longer they aired, the more each series faced issues. Project Runway took a big change when Bravo had to sell the show to Lifetime. America’s Next Top Model faced series redesigns as UPN became The CW and the audience for the channel became obsessed with series like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries. There were plenty of times during these years where I would take breaks from the shows, usually looking up photos of each show online in place of watching them.

Lately, I’ve dived back into each show as their new seasons aired during the summer/fall 2014 season. Project Runway aired its thirteenth season from July 24, 2014 to October 23, 2014, while America’s Next Top Model is currently in its twenty-first season (or cycle, as they arbitrarily insist on calling them). I tuned into both series in hopes that I would come to enjoy each. Sadly, I’ve come to realize that both shows are starting to spiral out of control, and at this point I’d consider ending them so we can move on.

I don’t think both shows are the worst on television, nor do I think they’re the worst of their fields. The problem is that both have suffered such a sharp dive in quality that it’s really apparent that both series are struggling to stay on and stay relevant. I feel this partly has to do with the success rate of both series and the people who compete on them. The shows tout the idea that the winner will become a big name in the fashion industry, either as the model every designer will want to wear their clothes or as the designer every magazine will want to include in their pages. Well…that’s not really how it works.

Just because a reality show judge says this person is the best does not mean the real world will accept this person. Sure, there are some girls on Top Model who have successful, if moderate, modeling careers, and some designers on Project Runway get to have celebrities wear their clothes. But no model who won Top Model has every become as noteworthy as Linda Evangelista or Kate Moss, and of the Project Runway winners, only Chrisitan Siriano has managed to really break into the fashion scene and show regularly at New York Fashion Week.

Thus, I decided to dive into the new seasons of both shows to try and see what would happen. Sadly, I’ve found myself disappointed with how both shows have progressed in their recent seasons. This isn’t because I disagree with the judges decisions (although there are some issues I do have with how some decisions are made, that’s practically guaranteed at some point), but rather because neither show is managing to be that interesting or even relate to the industry they’re trying to push the contestants into.

Project Runway‘s thirteenth season had everything that should have made it work like previous seasons. 16 designers, one of whom was voted by the fans to be on the show after having competed in a previous season, go to Parsons School of Design in New York City to compete in challenges to see who could make the best clothes based on various parameters given to them. This involved regular challenges like “make a dress for host Heidi Klum” to the popular unconventional materials challenges like “make an outfit out of stuff found in a storage locker.”

What went wrong? The time frame. The first several challenges all had the time limit of a single day. One day challenges hae happened in past seasons and does add a bit of pressure to the designers. However, these weren’t that common, and most challenges were generally two days to construct a garment and then a few hours on another day to present the outfit to the judges. This season was rushing every challenge, most of which was impractical for the standards given. A red carpet dress or a wedding gown require a lot of precision and clean details. What the judges got were very rushed and messy clothing, causing a curve where mediocre looking outfits won out.

It also didn’t help that the rushed time frame meant there wasn’t much time to get to know or like the contestants. The last season was filled with a lot of unpleasantness from the contestants, with cases of bullying and interpersonal drama that made it really hard to attach to any of them. Thus, when it came down to the final four, you come to realize that you’re looking at a cast filled with designers who reached this point through mediocre or uninteresting work or who aren’t that interesting as people. This isn’t how everyone would view the cast, but this critic found it really hard to play favorites when the contestants constantly fluctuated in quality and personality.

These same issues have also plagued America’s Next Top Model. This current season is the second season in which male models compete against female models (the first nineteen cycles were all female models), and the third where a new judging system was in play. Putting male and female models in the same house has turned the show more into The Real World than a modeling competition. This season has had many weird contestant hook ups and drama caused by models arbitrarily claiming another model as his/her partner. It’s really annoying, and at times it becomes easy to forget that they’re supposed to be models instead of random hot people.

But how do they fare as models? If I’m to compare this cycle to past cycles, this is honestly a pretty weak bunch of models. There are good ones, and some do turn out good photos, but there’s been nothing truly fantastic. A lot of it has to do with the weird standards being placed on these models. Despite the constant claims of “you have to be ready for anything in the fashion industry,” I doubt most of these models will ever have to walk a runway completely nude and covered in silly string (because when has silly string ever needed to be modeled?) or ever have do a photo shoot where they are posing with a guy in a Robocop outfit who has his ears digitally removed while the models wear random articles of clothing that refer to their heritage (and yes, they went for some really awful ethnic stereotyping with this one i.e. the one girl with Native American blood wears a feathered headdress). That excuse is more plausible when they’re posing in a tank of water or walking on a runway carrying a large teddy bear, but this is just pushing it.

ANTM also altered its judging to make the audience more engaged. Now, the models are rated on a scale from 1-10 in their challenges, how the judges rate their photoshoots, and based on social media scores. Before, it was Tyra Banks and four-five judges around a table talking about the pictures. By putting everything on score, it removes some of the drama and also makes each part kind of unnecessary. It doesn’t help that the judges scores feel really arbitrary, like the judges don’t want to be too mean (except for the times when they want to be really mean, like when Tyra gave one girl a 1/10), so even if they harshly judge a photo, they give it a 7. It’s kind of baffling, and I feel like you could remove one of those score fields and it wouldn’t really change a whole lot for the final result. This scoring also means that some models skate far into the competition with a really lousy portfolio.

So why are both of these shows failing so much lately? It pretty much all comes down to the network. Lifetime and The CW are networks with very few hit shows, so they would have to alter the shows greatly in order to pull in ratings. America’s Next Top Model has cut a lot of the expensive elements from the previous cycles, mainly through removing likable cast member with high salaries and changing sponsor contracts. Project Runway has to struggle to keep certain sponsors around, hence why the accessory wall is different each year.

It’s a real shame both series have become less fun. While never great, there used to be a lot of fun watching them. There were some really awesome creative elements in the past seasons, and you could tell there were some really creative people involved. Once in a while something neat will happen, but now both series are mostly about trying desperately to stay alive. It’s not about trying to have a competition to find an undiscovered talent, it’s about a network not wanting to give up on one of its franchises. Until they wise up, we’ll just have to deal with Tyra Banks creating meaningless lingo like “Pot Ledom” (the “Bazinga!” of reality competition catchphrases) and designers getting applauded for being the only designer who had a garment with an even hem. Sit down and enjoy!

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