Jael Strauss and the Era of Exploitation

Crying and frustrated, a then 22-year old Jael Strauss fought to compose herself for a photoshoot on the set of “America’s Next Top Model” back in early 2007. A friend from home had died only a day or two prior of a drug overdose, giving an eerie significance to the shoot’s theme of beauty in the moments preceding a painful death. Each of the contestants were given a grim scenario to pose through. Some were pushed off buildings, and some were simply shot in the head (quick and easy). Jael was set to portray a model who was strangled. She lay there atop silky sheets, stilettos and lace in tow, staring coldly into the camera as tiny tears trickled down her porcelain face.

The pain was real, exploited by producers with a cruel tie-in photoshoot with bitter relevancy to Jael’s life; the bruised markings on her neck giving new meaning to the words “strangling” and “suffocation” as photographers snapped away and producers hovered over this spilled glass of a situation as not to let it trickle to the floor.

There’s only so much “reality” we can endure in reality television.

Fast-forward five years. Strauss, now 28, is the subject of scrutiny yet again as she goes public with her addiction to meth on “The Dr. Phil Show” tomorrow, where her family stages an intervention for the troubled model. She’s come full circle since that fateful day in 2007. The fear of death and uncertainty ringing in her voice as she learned what killed her friend via telephone, now channeled into some sort of banshee war cry screaming for the “Dr. Phil” cameras to leave her alone. A face once porcelain now tinged with sores, aged what looks to be nearly twice what it is in reality.

This begs the question of how much the “Top Model” producers knew about Jael’s fragile state as they were casting for the show. It’s no doubt that Strauss is good television. Her antics were just shy of insanity, enough to make her talking to chickens in Australia or brandishing a tutu and electric blue wig part of a  repertoire of endearing quirks. But the fact remains that her dear friend died of a drug overdose. Is this indicative of the “crowd” Strauss was running with? Certainly drug tests and psychological screenings were mandated for all contestants of Cycle 8, but I still recall past contestants telling me they’d seen Jael at numerous parties taking endless amounts of drugs and unable to hold herself up on two feet.

Ignore reality, indulge the “reality” fantasy, right? It’s unhealthy (and, frankly, none of our business) to speculate on the lives of others especially when we’re given such miniscule fractions of them to begin with. Jael is, unfortunately, another victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy of pop culture junkies. “Red flag” during filming and “red flag” post-show automatically correlate. Jael was odd, so Jael was obviously an addict. The fact remains that we know little, if anything, about the “real” life of Jael Strauss. A few conversations with barnyard fowl doesn’t crack that lid open any further.

What I can say, however, is that the screening process for reality television contestants (and the format of the “behind the scenes” operations) need to change. Contestants, who have asked to remain anonymous, report to me that “Top Model,” not unlike any other reality competition show, is a highly structured mockery of what a “real” model experiences on a daily basis. Re-shoots, scripting, fake-outs (production assistants telling a girl she did horrible on the shoot and that she will be eliminated only to have her called first at panel), all equate to a look at “reality” through a filtered, agendized lens. And since Tyra’s reportedly not too interested in the contestants after they graduate from “Top Model” (http://gawker.com/5942709/americas-next-top-model-winner-caridee-english-describes-how-sucky-it-is-to-win-antm), how are such unstable contestants as Jael supposed to handle something like the diluted version of “fame” that exploded for her in such a short time, only to fizzle out a few months later? One way I can think of…well…meth, anyone?

CariDee English, winner of Cycle 7, seems to think that “they should have evaluated her a lot more before letting her on the show. All they saw was a personality good for television. Well, this hopefully will save at least her life and someone watching. Everything happens for a reason.”

What do you call those who “allow” this sort of thing to happen? That’s right…enablers. Sitting back, digesting this sort of crap television, and processing it via sounding off on the various “personalities” that were all, whether psychologically unstable, current or future addicts, “good for television.”

At what point do we accept responsibility, at least in part, for circumstances such as this? I can’t tell you how many times my praise for Jael during the airing of Cycle 8 was met with “she looks like a crack whore” or “she acts like she’s on drugs” comments from friends and online message board users alike. Since when did insensitivity become acceptable? Is it the filter of the computer screen? The inability to accept the person we see before us as a “person?” I’m in no way saying we are responsible for Jael’s addiction, but we are responsible for indulging in a medium which parades “personality” (AKA – people like Jael) as a freakshow free-for-all. In the end, we only can find comfort in knowing that this proves Tyra Banks’ self-help, “love yourself,” “let’s make a role model-model” piece of television has never had anything to do with modeling –runway nor role.

The fact remains that Jael sought out to be something greater than what she thought her current state afforded her. She sought out reality television to make her a star. A quick-fix overnight modeling sensation that, in reality, takes years to produce. In turn, she was met with a lack of success, an a short-burning fuse as a reality tv implosion. Get famous quick, lose fame even quicker, indulge in escapist fantasy provided by drugs. This is the industry we support simply for a “good personality” to watch fall apart week by week. Americans believe in these rags-to-riches stories because shows like “Top Model” force us into their ideologies where stars are born over the course of a 12-week “competition.” Let’s get one thing straight: modeling isn’t something that can be “judged” or “rewarded” in a weekly competition. In essence, Tyra’s show doesn’t even represent the reality of the “reality” it supposedly documents. So Jael’s descent into drug addiction seems a fitting descent into the, well, “real.” There is no godly “Hand of Banks” that descends from the sky to carry you through to an astronomically difficult dream to attain. This is the harsh reality shows like “Top Model” ignore and gloss over, and Jael is living proof.

And even the “Dr. Phil” clips scream exploitation. We’re making connections to the “before and after,” the downward spiral, and the spectacle of her reaction to the “intervention” that was staged purely to get, as it occurred today, the gossip sites abuzz with fodder in the form of a “former model” (notice how they’re only “models” when they fuck up, because they’re certainly regarded as just the opposite after they’re on “Top Model”) named Jael Strauss.

A consumer as addict and enabler; through our instantly gratified desire for “out-there” personalities and quickfire, meaningless on-air conflicts; to focus groups, tracking polls, and Nielsen ratings designed to reflect just what we want from the networks. That’s one to think about, isn’t it?

Here’s to hoping Jael gets the help she needs.
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