The Rise and Fall of America’s Next Top Model

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America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) was a popular reality show created and presented by supermodel Tyra Banks 17 years ago. In it, 12 aspiring models were pitted against each other to compete for a range of modelling opportunities ranging from Covergirl contracts, to photo shoots and even TV show appearances.

Many contestants applied hoping to find modelling fame and success – but according to recent reports, there was a far more sinister side to the show that some contestants still struggle with today.

Let’s take a look at the rise and fall of America’s Next Top Model.

The Popularity of ANTM

Back in the 2000s, America’s Next Top Model was one of the most popular TV shows around. The 24-season series had it all; makeovers, arguments, drama, glamour and life-changing prizes. Tyra Banks was the presenter and executive producer for the majority of the show’s run, when she was later replaced by singer Rita Ora.

At the time, the show was one of a kind; nothing like it had been seen before and it soon amassed a huge fanbase, becoming the network’s most popular show. Initially joined on the judging panel by photoshoot and creative director Jay Manuel, runway expert J. Alexander and photographer Nigel Barker along with regular celebrity guests, it’s not difficult to see why the show did so well.

But recent news and accusations have come to light that are changing fan perceptions of the show. Toxicity, unhealthy body image, bullying, not to mention confused understandings of sex and race have made the show a talking point after all these years. News articles slamming the treatment of the aspiring models are not uncommon, and the contestants themselves have started speaking out about the negative experiences they had on the show.

Take a look at some of the worst America’s Next Top Model moments:

Contestants Speak Out

Toccara Jones

Tyra claimed she wanted to “disrupt the fashion industry”, but it can be argued that all she really did with America’s Next Top Model was enforce some of the industry’s worst traits. Take contestant Toccara Jones. She was one of the first “plus-size” models to appear on the show. Throughout her time on the show, Toccara was constantly mocked and insulted for being “fat” by none other than the show’s stylists and even the panel of judges. Janice Dickinson – a past top model – was particularly brutal to Toccara, stating she would never be a high fashion model and continuously targeting her with cruel statements. Toccara ended up coming 7th on the show, and had a great career – even going on to feature in Italian Vogue, proving once and for all that curvier models can indeed work in high fashion. But watching the show back, it’s difficult to witness the incessant bullying that Toccara endures. We see her in tears multiple times as she talks to other contestants about her harsh treatment.

This blatant body shaming has always been prevalent in the modelling industry, and Tyra’s claims to “disrupt” this type of behaviour can be seen in two ways. Firstly, Tyra does stand up for Toccara on multiple occasions, insisting that Kate Moss was once considered too short for the industry, yet succeeded in having a great career. On the other hand, Tyra does nothing to prevent her fellow colleagues from making cruel, continuous jibes to Toccara about her size. Toccara is by no means big – but the fat-shaming is constant and brutal. While it’s obviously going to be difficult to change this sort of industry behaviour overnight, it would have been better to see Tyra prevent cruelty and toxicity from her peers. Doing so would have been a more effective way to “disrupt” the negative traits so often seen in the industry.

Kim Stolz

Another contestant who has since spoken out about her experience on the show is Kim Stolz. Kim, who is openly gay, saw a clip of her time on the show back in 2009 go viral. In the clip, Tyra is telling Kim how to make her sexuality more acceptable. “I’m black and proud,” Tyra tells the contestant, “but I’m not, like, walking down the red carpet [saying] ‘I’m black, I’m black.”

Kim went on the state in an interview that controversial (at the time) subjects – such as sexuality, homelessness, sexual abuse etc – were most definitely used for entertainment value. But that the show was filmed during a time when conversations about these subjects were far less open.

This clip was the start of a mass archival dig into America’s Next Top Model history. People wanted to see whether it was a thoughtless one-off, or part of a bigger, more worrying trend. More clips were brought to the surface that, today, would never have been allowed to air. The show’s resurfacing also brought old contestants back into the limelight. This gave them the opportunity to say the things they couldn’t say back during the show’s prime.

America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) was a popular reality show created and presented by supermodel Tyra Banks 17 years ago.

Prejudice, Casual Racism, Bullying, and Other Claims

The show took further fire when not one but two older episodes featuring skin darkening appeared. Tyra apologised in 2009 saying that she didn’t mean to offend and was simply trying to “spread beauty and break down barriers”. Yet more instances of weight shaming, racism, bullying over things like teeth and accent, exploitation and the like have now come to light. As Tyra was the creator and an executive producer, she would undoubtedly have had the power to remove things she didn’t like or deem appropriate – yet they still found their way onto our TV screens, and even today remain accessible via rewatches.

Some contestants have gone so far as to say their lives were “put on the line” for the show, resulting in traumatising experiences including injuries and even panic attacks, and were not offered medical treatment. Others said they had their fears used against them, were forced to talk about past traumas and were put into dangerous situations – all to get views. They accused host Tyra Banks of not ‘giving a f**k’ about their wellbeing. In fact, contestants were asked to sign a contract stating that ANTM wasn’t responsible for any injuries sustained on the show.

And it’s not just the contestants. Former producers and crew members have since spoken out about having unpleasant work experiences with Tyra. Combined with the contestant complaints, over 30 people have since spoken out about the toxicity that happened behind the camera. Tyra herself has yet to comment on this.

One former employee said the following: ‘You’re not looking at lifting women up. You’re not looking at giving them a real opportunity. You’re looking at trying to pit them against each other in a barrel full of crabs that are all trying to claw their way out.’ 

Angelea Preston

Angelea won America’s Next Top Model in 2011 (the ‘All Stars’ season). Her prize? A $100,000 contract with Covergirl cosmetics . But Angelea had her title stripped from her in 2014 when producers discovered she had previously worked as an escort. Angelea went on to sue the show for breach of contract, claiming producers had already known about her past.

Angelea went on to say that her and her fellow contestants were starved and deprived of water for hours at a time while filming.


Perhaps one of the most anticipated episodes of each cycle was the makeover show. Each season, Tyra herself would come up with a (usually extreme) hair makeover for each contestant. This often included shaving at least one contestant’s hair down to the scalp.

They would often use hair relaxers and painful extensions on black contestants, covering their natural curls with chemically straightened concoctions that would likely ruin their natural hair until it grew back out. One contestant had relaxers used on her hair despite telling them that she was allergic to the product. This resulted in a 2-inch bald spot that took three years to grow back.

‘The whole thing really left the most disgusting taste in my mouth,’ the contestant, Aminat, said. She added that she ‘lost all respect’ for Tyra in the process.


America’s Next Top Model contestants were challenged both physically and mentally during their time on the show. One producer admitted that they made up various storylines and scenarios to fit a “brand” chosen and assigned to selected contestants. For example, they would deem one girl would be the party girl, another would be the ugly duckling, or the ivy leaguer, and so on. They would then only show selective footage that fit the narrative they had chosen.

‘You can basically manipulate the audience into thinking anything,’ an employee said. And in a society that generally believes whatever is depicted to them, especially if it is in a “reality” setting, this could have damaging consequences for the people involved.

Sizism and Eating Concerns

After witnessing the treatment of plus-size contestant Toccara mentioned above, it’s not hard to believe that even the smaller models were often concerned about their sizes. When it came to food, All-Star winner Lisa D’Amato said she lost 15 pounds during her time on the show, claiming that many of the girls often avoided eating over fears of gaining weight.  

Contestant Keenyah was spoken to about her diet and told to “eat better” to offset her weight gain. Then, in a following photoshoot, she was made to dress up as the deadly skin gluttony. During another photo shoot, she was made to dress as an elephant, while cameras zoomed in on her stomach and played sound effects. She was later told off for the amount of touching up her photos apparently required.

Another contestant in cycle 7 saw her storyline revolve around her weight; the show later depicted her as a “giant lady” circus freak for a photo shoot.

Contestants were apparently given $38 a day for groceries, but many chose not to spend this money on food as it was the only pay they would receive during their time on the show.

Their shooting hours were often incredibly long – sometimes up to 2 hours straights, and often into the small hours of the morning, with filming regularly occurring on little sleep. Then, when contestants were running on little food or sleep, they would be made to film confessional interviews while in their “most vulnerable and weak state”.

And if that wasn’t enough, producers would seemingly bring up things they knew would make the women upset to add to the drama.

‘They don’t stop,’ contestant Lisa said. ‘It just keeps going and going.’

Challenging the Industry – Is It Possible?

Tyra may have set out with good intentions when creating America’s Next Top model, but at the end of the day, modelling and reality TV are two businesses with one primary goal – making money. The modelling industry is infamous for its prejudice, its difficulties, its racism, sizism, and other issues. Today, as a society we are much more ready and able to discuss difficult topics and, what’s more, hold people accountable when they do wrong.

Form the stat, Tyra’s hands were tied. She was damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t. The whole concept of the show was – as the title pertains – to find America’s next top model. How could she do that while also fighting the very structure of the industry that made her a success? She was unable to challenge the industry about its views without also looking like a hypocrite, and without potentially hindering the success of the contestants she was supposed to be helping. Today, it’s much easier to look back and see the glaring issues of the show. But the truth is that the show was not an inaccurate representation of the modelling industry at that time. Fortunately, the industry has come far in the last 15 years. By looking back, we can see even more clearly the major leaps and bounds forward the industry has since managed to achieve.

The modeling industry is still lacking in diversity and equality – we can see it in high fashion with the lack of representation in the size and colour of its chosen few. But compared to 15 years ago, it’s made some definite progress. Perhaps in another 15 years, we’ll look back on shows being made today and see even more.

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