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Like world swimming records and the length of days in November, the time between when every season of America's Next Top Model asserts itself as a serious authority on the world of fashion and when it makes its inevitable devolution into catfights and Andre Leon Talley's abject boredom keeps getting shorter each season. Two cycles ago, Tyra ramped up the respectability of her well-oiled model-maker by partnering with Vogue Italia and crowning the most couture-friendly (read: gauntly thin) contestant with the title. This cycle, Top Model didn't even bother with the whole "no really, we're about high fashion" thing. It took less than 15 minutes before someone was sulking about a weave, and the first tears arrived only 23 minutes in.


You see, this is the All-Star season, where the craziest contestants of yore stepped out of Tyra's tumultuous dreams and back onto our television screens. There's Lisa "Peed in diaper for no reason" D'Amato, Bianca "Punched Nikki Blonsky over an airport seat" Golden, and Allison "Amanda Seyfried meets Miss Havisham" Harvard, not to mention an assortment of other girls whose main memorable trait was how awfully they treated their cast mates. Sure, some of them have agents and magazine campaigns, but the truth is that almost all of them are now too long-of-tooth and crazy-of-face to have an actual shot at a modeling career, if they ever did. (Note, for example, that where the titles would usually put age and hometown, there was only the cycle number.) So the strategy this season is simple: Stoke some inter-cycle feuds, coin some dubious Tyra-isms ("pot ledom" or "Top Model" backwards is apparently one we have to look forward to), and make everyone pose in ridiculously dangerous or uncomfortable ways. At the end, someone gets a spot as a "celebrity correspondent" on Extra. Done and done.

There were, of course, montages of the contestants' finest pre-cycle moments‚ÄĒBianca whining, Laura acting like a country bumpkin, a mash-up of finger-waggings and weeping at judges' panels. All of the ladies arrived a little more polished and a little more confident of their roles than in seasons past, except for Lisa, whose crazed, pink-pinstriped spandex jumpsuit and vest combination made her look like she had come straight to the house from a production of Newsies: Back to the 1980s. I was waiting for the first knock-down, drag-out fight to happen before everyone found their beds, but, alas, the process was relatively peaceful, despite Bianca's weird freak-out that Bre hadn't told her she was coming.

In fact, the whole episode was disappointing. Taking Tyra at her word that this season would be "bigger than ever" is foolish, of course‚ÄĒwhen would she ever promise smaller and the same‚ÄĒbut for a cycle that promised so explicitly to be about the concentrated crazy of Top Model past, the photoshoot was, frankly, boring. Last season, the contestants' premiere challenge was to walk across a pool in an enormous hamster bubble. In the show's history, models have been lit on fire, covered in bees, thrown into wind tunnels, and made to ride and/or handle wild animals with scarcely a bat of the eye from Tyra over their personal safety. So to kick the season off with a shoot of the girls posing as their model stereotypes‚ÄĒall along the lines of "party girl" or "Harlem but not hoochie"‚ÄĒseemed like a cop-out. The only amusement of the whole ordeal was when confusingly conservative Shannon refused to wear lace underwear for a shoot, because of qualms about wearing underwear outside. Instead, with true Top Model logic, she opted for a skimpier pair of bathing suit bottoms. Even Mr. Jay seemed baffled.


Apparently the "bigger than ever" portion of the episode was having the ladies face the judges' gauntlet in front of a live, screaming audience. Oh, and Nicki Minaj was there.  Andre Leon Talley, sporting a straw hat worthy of a 1940s barbershop quartet, declared the "ghetto but classy" shot of Angelea to be "Beverly Hood" and had mild paroxysms of delight over Sheena's shiny, shiny 1970s jumpsuit and Allison's stolen-Bo Peep costume outfit. The newly be-haired Nigel Barker was mostly quiet but had the unsettling air of a used car salesman the whole time. Unlike most celebrity guests, Nicki Minaj seemed to both know what she was talking about and to not be afraid to disagree with the other judges, even if she occasionally slipped into an odd, faux-British accent.

The whole "we're doing it live!" thing was a poor fit for the show. The idea was some combination of making the photo and the model's fan popularity matter equally. What it actually amounted to was the feeling that everyone was yelling a lot more than normal. Isis King, the transgendered contestant from cycle 11, swept the popularity contest and got first photo. Alexandria, California surfer villain from the last cycle, got booed on the catwalk, mostly because she was the only bitchy contestant recent enough to provoke actually enmity from the audience. But if there's a Tyra-patented moral to that story, it's that being hated is better than being forgotten. Brittany Brower, from 13 cycles ago, got no reaction from the audience at all. So when Brittany and Alexandria ended up in the bottom, there was no question about who was going to get axed. As Tyra handed Alexandria her photo, she complimented her on her "polarity," reminding Alexandria "the opposite of love is indifference." Translation: In Tyra-land, villains make it to at least the top seven.

Stray observations:

  • I basically can't wait to see what Lisa wears every show. That tie-dyed Victorian look at the elimination was almost as amazing as her jumpsuit.
  • Now that Tyra's spiel ends with "All-Stars" the rhythm of her whole "Congratulations" speech seems to me a little off. Anyone else think so?
  • Seriously, Nigel's hair. What.