The CW's 'Top Model' combines aspiration and perspiration

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It might just be that the seminal moment for "America's Next Top Model" (born May 20, 2003) arrived when it tapped fashion photographer Nigel Barker to be a judge at the beginning of what it refers to as "Cycle 2." Barker is U.K.-born, you see, and if the unscripted TV world has taught us anything, it's that you need a Brit helping with judging in order to succeed on any sort of elite scale.

"That's simply how it is," Barker insists. "It's an established fact that your show needs a bit of salt, a little pepper and a dash of Englishman."

Perhaps this is a key reason why, beginning with that second cycle, the show often referred to as "ANTM" morphed into a modest phenomenon. Indeed, if supermodels tend to have notoriously short careers, it's worthy of note that the same isn't true of "Top Model" -- which not only continues to steam ahead with its 100th episode tonight at 8 p.m. PST on the CW but can make a claim matched by few hit series in having outlived the network that spawned it.

The show has emerged from the ashes of the defunct UPN (R.I.P., 1995-2006) looking none the worse for wear, metaphorically high-stepping from one runway to another back in September 2006. En route, it has grown to become Earth's Next Top Reality Format, a juggernaut with international appeal and a trump card in its wildly popular creator/executive producer/star Tyra Banks. Having that English guy hasn't hurt, either, even if he lacks the nasty gene made legendary by Simon Cowell.

"Top Model's" 10th-cycle launch last Wednesday confirmed that the show remains a ratings player, taking second place in its target demographics of adults 18-34 and women 18-34 and 18-49 behind time-slot competitor "American Idol." Since premiering its second batch of episodes in January 2004,

it has been the most watched show on first UPN and now the CW, never generating less than a 12% share of young women.

"Viewers are very loyal to this show," notes Dawn Ostroff, the CW's entertainment president, who followed "ANTM" over from UPN. "'Top Model' is a project of passion for everyone at this network. We all think it's gotten better and better over the years -- it's water-cooler stuff. And Tyra has just blossomed in every way. She's got this amazing knack for relating to young women."

Ostroff also praises the show's expertise in conveying "wish fulfillment, intense competition and, of course, the drama of it all. Everybody goes after each other. That's something the audience really can tap into."

Ah yes, the catfighting. It is, acknowledges those involved with the show, the sugar that brings viewers to the "ANTM" table. "This is a soap opera where the people involved happen to be aspiring models," points out creator/executive producer Ken Mok.

But as over-the-top as "Top Model" sometimes gets with the clashing personalities, there are real hopes and dreams being fulfilled and dashed -- and some genuine education about the modeling industry, insists Barker. "The core of our show remains the diamond-in-the-rough mentality," he says. "The magic is in picking girls who embody their own Cinderella story -- who, with a bit of spit and polish, can shine. If you took a bunch of pretty girls who already worked as models, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting or exciting."




Great pains are taken in "Top Model" to hold up a mirror to the actual fashion industry, insists the show's photo shoot producer and creative director Jay Manuel, who likewise cautions that what one sees in modeling isn't nearly as glamorous as it looks.

"Tyra likes to say that she won't do anything (on the show) that she hasn't actually done in her own (modeling) career," Manuel says. "All of the things the girls encounter can and do happen for real. When you see the girls hung up in harnesses, or shooting them with a parrot or a tarantula, we're creating provocative imagery. But it's not done for the fear factor's sake -- it's about eliciting a reaction, which is what drives the real fashion industry.

"But if anyone thinks we're hard on the girls, trust me, the real world is much tougher," Manuel continues. "We take the time to explain things and give them another chance. There isn't that luxury out there in the actual industry. If you do something to tick off the creative director, you're gone. When we had Janice Dickinson here as a judge, she represented the harshness of this business."

Dickinson departed "ANTM" after the fourth cycle, the famed '60s pop icon Twiggy after last year. Signing on for the current cycle is onetime supermodel and former Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover girl Paulina Porizkova.

While he isn't a permanent judge on the show, Manuel is featured prominently throughout each episodic cycle and has an active

hand both in keeping the contestants engaged and in how the show's ever-evolving cosmetic/stylistic sensibility will play out. Part of it is remaining vigilant with regard to body image and how girls and young women will perceive it while watching "Top Model."

"We talk about being on the lookout for eating disorders while doing the actual edit of the show," Manuel emphasizes. "We're not pushing size-0 women. When Tyra was walking the runways of Europe, she was healthy and ate plenty. And that same healthy ideal is coming back."

Runway coach and judge J. Alexander takes a measure of pride in the fact that "Top Model" has had a hand in laying open a modeling process that has long been shrouded in mystery and misconceptions.

"So little of this business is about looks alone," Alexander, who lives in Paris, offers. "Being really pretty and tall and thin doesn't make a model. Being lanky and attractive is useless if you don't know how to perform in front of the camera. I think that's less a surprise to the girls who compete now than it was when the show began."

That beginning hardly represented a stratospheric liftoff. It was, in fact, a hard sell. Banks and Mok first pitched it to CBS, which fortunately was linked under the Viacom umbrella with UPN. It was expected to be just another short-lived dip in the reality pond, and the first cycle numbers were underwhelming, if consistent.

But that's all in the distant past now. Since the launch of the CW just under 18 months ago, "Top Model" has generated some 277 million content page views on the CW Web site (cwtv.com) and has helped spawn a companion franchise in "The Pussycat Dolls Present."

And speaking of dolls, this spring will see the launch of "America's Next Top Model" dolls from licensee MGA Entertainment, the company that gave the world the Bratz doll line. You can choose from four different model dolls, all of whom are poised to become "runway ready" and feature a "jointed torso for posing!" More "Top Model" licensed products are scheduled to be announced later this year.

So just how long can this show go? Well, a casting call has already gone out for "ANTM" Cycle 11. And Barker has said that there's talk of at least another four to six cycles as long as the ratings numbers stay consistent.

"We're not going away anytime soon," he concludes.
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