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'America's Next Top Model' recap: Tyra Banks goes rogue

February 23, 2011 | 11:39 pm


After 15 cycles of temper tantrums, hair extensions, nervous tears, and haphazard modeling-related neologisms, gearing up for the new cycle premiere feels a little bit like going to orientation for your senior year of high school. Basically, we know the drill already: prolonged casting session with sniping comments about bikini choices followed by thinning of the herd via some contrived mechanism involving a Covergirl product placement. Then the Jays walk out in the surprise episode theme, which roughly corresponds to the kinds of birthday parties you might want in elementary school: cowboys, pirates, futuristic aliens, fairytale princesses. And ... scene. 

But just as I was all folding my arms and rolling my eyes, Tyra Banks unleashed the most serious surprise of all: the theme of this cycle is postmodernism. Or so it would seem according to the opening, in which Tyra spoofed the different kinds of models we usually see at the casting call: the blond beauty queen, the terrified girl, the artsy goth-leaning girl who doesn’t even want to be there. (“I’m not a cookie cutter. I cut the cookies. And I will cut you,” she hissed.) Not that this cycle’s batch avoids those stereotypes, but the episode’s format did. At least, at first.

Instead of the usual rigmarole that takes up the premiere’s first half hour -- casting call tape, blooper reel and interviews in which Tyra gives Oprah-like advice to girls with rare diseases or other hardships -- Tyra cuts straight to the chase, winnowing out the first group of girls in the first five minutes. But nothing in ‘Top Model’ is that simple. The girls who were actually chosen thought that they were leaving so that Tyra could film their reactions to rejection (Hint: Most of them didn’t take it that well). Then she showed up and corrected them and everyone screamed and jumped around. It was a pretty lame twist. The real victims of Tyra’s punking were the contestants who thought they had been chosen but really weren’t. (No footage of them was forthcoming.)

Then it was on to the first challenge. This one had all the elements that make for extremely entertaining model high jinks: high fashion (courtesy of guest judge Erin Wasson and Alexander Wang’s couture), a kooky photographer (Russell James, the photography world’s version of Fabio), and an insane stuntman element (walking a runway on top of a swimming pool while standing in an enormous clear hamster ball). The photography portion was all semi-candid shots of the girls backstage, prepping for the runway. 

At this point, the ladies are still a sea of faces and personal styling quirks, but several stood out. Jaclyn, the baby-faced Texan, didn’t have much of a walk but she’s about the most adorable Southerner to ever be on the show. At judges' table, she even called Tyra “ma’am.” Alexandria, the self-assured diva, proclaimed “I’ve got natural swag,” which give me high hopes that she’ll be the cycle’s mean girl, and Sara, with her brightly-colored vests and weird rat tail, promises to be buckets of fun, at least in the makeover department. I also developed soft spots for Brittani, who managed to rock the runway challenge despite all odds, and Kasia, the plus-size model (who Tyra dubbed “fiercely real”) with some actual working experience.

Molly, who won best picture, seems sort of drab to me, despite her show-stopping photo and trampy Brady Bunch outfit. But I think I could get to like potty-mouthed Dominique, who landed in the bottom two thanks, in part, to her amazing wipeout during the challenge, but squeaked past bland Angelia to stay in the running. Will Tyra’s reforms affect the rest of the season? I confess: I sort of missed the portion of the evening where models would tell us their life stories. Who are your favorites? And how fantastic is Tyra’s hair looking?

Best lines of the evening:

“Her mouth looks like a cat’s bottom” -- Nigel Barker, on Angelia, shortly before imitating aforementioned cat-bottom-face

“She looks like a 19-year-old boy with makeup on, and that’s what I like about it.” -- Tyra about Sara, who really did look a little like Lou Reed in drag

-- Margaret Eby

Photo: A model walks in a plastic bubble for this week's challenge. Credit: Chris Frawley / The CW