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Why Top Model, which ends tonight, mattered

After 12 years and 22 seasonsAmerica’s Next Top Model ends its run tonight. The UPN-turned-CW show is the first legacy network reality show to be cancelled. While it may not be ending with its strongest season, it deserves to be celebrated for what it once was and what it contributed to reality television.

I won’t pretend to have watched the show regularly for years now; it lost my interest mid-run, sometime after the Twiggy era, and neither casting changes nor adding male contestants drew me back. But those early years, with Janice Dickinson and J. Alexander and Jay Manuel—oh, it was must-watch reality TV.

The Tyra Banks-hosted and -produced competition established a subgenre, allowing reality TV to function as a medium for using one’s professional skills to get further in a field, making way for Project Runway and Top Chef and the shows that they spawned. It combined the live-together drama of The Real World with real-world ambition and skill. Some moguls even followed Tyra’s lead in using reality competitions as a way to bring more attention to themselves.

Yes, other series may have ultimately shown up Top Model by ratcheting up the talent and decreasing The Real World-esque drama, but Top Model showed them that a career-focused competition could work.

Top Model’s cast of crazy characters

When it debuted in 2003 on UPN, America’s Next Top Model actually shared a lot with the show that preceded it three years earlier, Survivor. They were both trend-setting shows that challenged contestants to use their strengths to win challenges, avoid elimination, and ultimately be declared the best among their peers. Both are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances being tested—by their environment, by merciless producers, by other people, and by themselves.

They were, of course, very different. To start, Top Model’s early seasons held eliminations on a set that resembled an SNL version of a talk show. It was shot less cinematically and more like the cast was being followed by camera crews from COPS. Yet what those cameras captured was equally captivating and surprising as watching police officers on patrol, starting with the unpredictable series regulars.

Janice Dickinson offered a combination of constructive criticism and utter wackiness, such as in season two when she and the charismatic Miss J. climbed on the judges’ desk to demonstrate how to arch one’s back during a photo shoot. J. Alexander and Jay Manuel’s fashion industry knowledge was coupled with their made-for-TV personalities. Meanwhile, Nigel Barker gazed upon the proceedings.

The judges could be eviscerating, sometimes disproportionately so, and even when they were focused on the work, it could come across as just cruel judgement of a young woman’s appearance. Likewise, the challenges, while often inventive, could lean towards the humiliating. This was not just a pure talent competition, but a reality show that constantly searched for, and even forced, drama.

Like Survivor host Jeff Probst, who began as an on-screen personality who was less egotistical than he’d eventually become, Tyra Banks came across as somewhat reluctant but warm. She even sometimes hung out with her girls. But Tyra was always in charge, taking personal interest in the contestants and making sure they knew she cared and that she was responsible for choosing them.

Later, as it became more about her, Tyra would resort to a lot more ego-driven shouting and screaming—kind of like Probst—which, okay, sometimes worked. Let us re-experience her epic, passionate chewing out of poor Tiffany:

The contestants add real drama

Tiffany was just one of the many contestants who also stood out as great characters. Despite being young and female, they were quite diverse, an example that reality television could have a narrow focus yet still represent many different kinds of people and experiences.

Often, especially in the early years, the contestants came across as underprepared for everything—even when they knew they should prepare for things like the traditional we’re-going-to-cut-your-hair-off makeover. They were usually cheerful until they were crying.

As a result, they—and not the judges or the challenges—delivered some of the highest drama. When Walgreens employee Shandi called her boyfriend to to confess that she’d cheated on him, the results were that kind of rare unscripted moment where you don’t want to be watching but cannot look away. While she fell to the floor, clutching the phone, much of the emotional energy came from his screaming voice: “You had sex?!” and “Oh my god!”

It was real-life consequence for behavior on reality show, one that also occasionally tackled topics larger than its competition. The show was one of the first to cast a transgender person, and recently, Tyra effectively shut down homophobic stereotyping.

In its 22 seasons, the show may not have produced a true top model, but its contestants have found success in modeling, acting, and elsewhere—including reality TV. And it was a consistent enough player for UPN and The CW to not only be the very first show to air on The CW, but to stick around for 22 seasons.

Top Model is no longer still in the running towards becoming one of America’s longest-running reality shows, but it exits having left a clear mark on the unscripted television landscape.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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