Fashion

Oscar Season Diary #2: Is America Watching or Seeing?

prisoners

Venice and Telluride came and went, and now Toronto is a thing of the past.

It’s that time of year again; the beginning of Oscar season, a time when a stern focus is placed on the finest films of the year. A variety of perspectives come together both onscreen and off, and it’s an invigorating season filled with a celebration of one of the most incredible industries in history.

While we often disagree on which films are the best of any given year, no one is complaining that for 6 months out of the year we have a legitimate excuse to talk about movies every single day on a larger-than-usual public scale.

Two things are certain at this point in the race:  three black filmmakers have films vying for legitimate recognition (that is, beyond technical or minor categories) from The Academy (when was the last time–if ever–this happened?), and one of those films emerged as a race-wide frontrunner at the close of Toronto.

12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, seemed to sweep all three major precursor festivals with near unanimous praise. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock in a one-woman show is being hailed as the best film of her–and director Alfonso Cuaron’s–career.

While we have our surefire Oscar hopefuls distracting us in one corner, it’s often that we find other, less-expected gems to creep up and find their home in the awards season race. One such film to come out of the festival circuit this year, Prisoners, at one point held a somewhat decent standing as a light Oscar contender. And while the awards circuit might be in tune with mature films, is the general public ready to invest in watching versus merely seeing?

From Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was nominated in the Foreign-Language category, Prisoners similarly explores dark subject matter in a way that American audiences simply aren’t used to. It’s the story of two families dealing with the kidnapping of their daughters. Each parent takes a drastically different approach, coming to terms with their own guilt, sorrow, and anger in a narrative which becomes an emotional, character-driven journey than a crime-solving procedural.

The theater I saw the film in was comprised of your typical mainstream crowd–the only problem is that I could tell half of them were prepared for Taken 2. At two hours and thirty-three minutes long, Prisoners isn’t popcorn-flick fare. Its weighty themes and brooding atmosphere do little to comfort, and that’s the exact opposite of what contemporary American audiences want.

It’s part of my job to get audience reaction after these pre-screenings. Most of the comments I got for the film were positive, but the rest were negative for one reason only: the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that the film does not spell everything out for you. It ends abruptly on poetic note that requires mental backtracking. It truly pulls you to all extremes of the film, and beckons your analysis in its stark simplicity. It’s complex, challenging, and wants to get under your skin. It forces you to think, and that’s something I’ve come to realize American audiences simply aren’t willing to do.

“It was fantastic up until the end. The end ruined it! I wanted to see what happened!” A woman shouted, and it pained me to write it down. I fear that the American public has grown far too impatient to enjoy mature films anymore, and it’s even more unsettling to think of the broader implications this has on our society at large. All this film asks of us is to think. For five minutes out of your day, to really think about what you’re seeing onscreen versus passively accepting it. Can it be chalked up to laziness? Sure. I’m only 23-years old, but I remember when laziness was a descriptor that stood out; it meant something to call someone lazy. It meant that their inability to function individualized them, but when that same sentiment can be applied to an entire group of people–and entire society, even–and mere competence becomes the standout–is where the issue becomes disturbing.

Yes, that’s it: we’re not just talking about films, here. We’re talking about competence.

Some of the comments for Prisoners were positive, but for the wrong reasons. “Great action, really violent and disturbing!” I heard a man say. “Total blockbuster,” another yelled. I remember asking myself if he was even aware of what a blockbuster truly is? I thought back to the 1970s, when Star Wars and Jaws introduced American audiences to the blockbuster. The term is a physical descriptor for a film whose presence takes over popular culture in key ways. Is it playing on a vast majority of screens across the country? Is their multi-channel marketing? Merchandising? A simple high concept? Compare yesterday’s Jaws-es to today’s Fast and Furious 6-es, and the cultural shift is clear. In his (and many other) eyes, “blockbuster” means “quality.” This is how much we’ve been conditioned to big-budget studio trash, and while we have the 1970s to thank for that, it’s also an era worthy of extreme praise for conditioning the public to the opposite of the blockbuster.

The 70s were about making movies for adults. The highest-grossing films of the year weren’t sequels, or based on comic book heroes, or budgeted at $100 million for the sole purpose of tripling that number for bragging rights. We saw experimentation in mainstream film. We saw ambition and creativity. And, as in any business model, the customer determined the product. We were smarter and patient. Today, we just want our $10 popcorn and escapism in spandex and a cape. Easy to digest, easy to process, and easy to feel good about ourselves at the end, and that’s NOT what cinema is about.

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Prisoners represents a reality that’s still tangible in the film world. We’re still seeing studios invest somewhat in small, independently-spirited, adult-oriented features. I don’t have a problem with the public dictating what a business does. That’s how it works. I have a problem with the downward spiral of the public’s intelligence having an effect on the quality and types of films that are produced. We’re seeing less and less investment in “riskier” projects (like Prisoners) and it’s killing creativity in the mainstream. There’s no reason that “mainstream” and “trash” have to be synonymous. It’s ingrained in our minds now because that’s what it has turned into, and that’s why we see Best Picture winners like Argo. We’re complacent with the fuzzy, tickly, sugar-coated happy ending that can only come with escapist fantasy. We’ve got soft stomachs built on titanium foundations of yesteryear, and it’s hard to tell what went wrong.

Was it the failure of big-budget films in the 1980s? When we saw the reality of failure could exist in Hollywood fantasyland? Heaven’s Gate couldn’t have caused that much of a shift, right? It takes more than one film to instigate a shift in collective cultural tolerance.

By all means, Prisoners is a mainstream film for a mainstream audience that isn’t quite ready for it. They’re still here, albeit not as abundant as they were in the days of Heaven’s Gate. I noticed the audience growing increasingly frustrated at around the two-hour mark of the film. Conversations were happening, phones whipped out, and trips to the concession stand increased by the minute. At one point, I even heard people cheering Jackman’s character on during one of the most disturbing sequences in the film. Everyone around me was missing the point, and it made me ashamed to be a part of a generation that sacrifices intellectual curiosity for disrespectful superficiality.

There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the film, it’s merely people’s tolerance levels have deteriorated to the point where mere self-induced distraction is blamed on the film for being “boring,” when in fact it’s one’s own failure to invest that’s the issue.

It gives me some hope, then, that 12 Years a Slave (Audience Award-winner, Toronto’s top prize) and Gravity have sustained their Oscar buzz throughout the festival circuit (with Prisoners plateauing with the critics this week, it’s unlikely to garner Academy recognition unless it smashes at the box-office). I’ve yet to see either film, but from what I’m hearing they’re pretty straightforward, linear films with big-budgets, studio backing, and undeniably mature, complex art-house flair that retain their viewer appeal in a fresh way. Sort of like Jaws and Star Wars were breaths of fresh air in their own right. It’s in the Academy’s best interest, in a year they’re desperately seeking to diversify themselves beyond their male-dominated member base, to choose films like these going forward, as they represent a glimmer of hope not only for the film industry, but for the culture consuming them.

No one wants to see mature cinema disappear and all it takes is a little thought on everyone’s part, no? Films like Prisoners deserve audience support, because we can’t let the creative side of the film industry disappear.

Is that really a ridiculous thing to ask of people? For them to use their money to think? It goes far beyond being interested in film or being a cinephile; it’s merely asking people to use their heads.

Top 10 Films of 2013 so far:

1) Prisoners
2) Blackfish
3) Blue Jasmine
4) Stories We Tell
5) Stoker
6) Frances Ha
7) The Place Beyond the Pines
8) The Bling Ring
9) The Grandmaster
10) The To-Do List

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Jay Manuel Says Male ‘Top Model’ is “not something we would do”

It’s been discussed time and time again on countless message boards, website threads, and blogs alike. Hell, even my friends as casual viewers have proposed it amidst one of our weekly “endurances” (it can no longer be called “viewings”) of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model. What they all say is simple; replace the tears, sob stories, and aggressively “real” (i.e., within the context of reality show “real”; crying, backstabbing, and all around bitchery) conflict the show loves so much with the tanned-and-toned physique of 14 male competitors instead. But, while giving a presentation at the University of Pittsburgh (attended by yours truly), fashion/television personality and America’s Next Top Model creative director Jay Manuel put to rest one of the most heavily contested rumors in the 9-year old show’s history.

A male version of the usually all-female reality competition is “probably not something we would do” according to the 39-year old Canada native who, in response to a question on the topic from a member of the audience, provided rationale for that decision that may surprise you.

Manuel says that the discussion at the round table of one of Tyra Banks’ production meetings (…shit your pants a little? The thought alone is ominous enough) revolves around the appeal of the show’s all-female contestants to not only the target audience of 18-49 year old females, but rather to their male “partners” (alright, “boyfriends,” “husbands,” “apparent television slave,” etc.) who are “forced” to watch the show by their daintier half.

Manuel says countless males come up to him on the street and tell him they know him from the show they’re “forced” to watch by their ladyfriends, saying they enjoy looking at the scantily clad bodies but, as every good “bro” would have you believe, are in NO WAY (AT ALL!!) interested in ANY of the fashionable aspects of the show whatsoever. So, Top Model not only solidifies itself as secondary foreplay for all the heterosexual couples out there, but also as a dazzlingly charming alternative to the “no sex tonight, guess I’ll just masturbate in the shower” that’d no doubt occur as punishment. Surely the legacy Banks and company sought after off the inaugural cycle nearly a decade ago (only about 5 years in Mr. Jay time; seriously guys, the man is going on 40 and has the youthful complexion of a gerber baby’s ass…dipped in the containing jar’s mashed carrot content for coloring, of course)

Despite Manuel’s insistence that a core part of the viewers of Top Model are straight men (again, who knew?) who would be alienated by watching shirtless men for an hour (44 minutes with commercials, guys, and about 55% of that dedicated to God Banks, so it’s not ALL bad), he also cited the failure of other male modeling competitions like Manhunt as a model for an all-male Top Model‘s projected failure.

“Are men really as interesting to watch in a competitive aspect like that?” he asked the audience (i.e.; men are boring). What he really meant to say was “Unless you want to watch an hour-long brofest punctuated by the most desperate self promotional tactics on the face of the earth, you’ll take your ANTM-xploitation and its mass murder of feminism as long as we continue to skullfuck it down your throat.”

Sewing Cinema:
 Stitching Together 2011 Oscar Greatness, One Costume at a Time

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“A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” It’s a philosophy spewed by Edith Head, one of the most celebrated names in the history of the Academy Awards.

Edith Head’s name isn’t synonymous with star-power or box office success, as most of the politicized institutions associated with the words “awards” and “season” tend to be. She’s no Angelina Jolie. She’s no Meryl Streep. Alas, she’s bounds ahead of them; She was a costume designer, one with more Academy Awards than any other woman in history.

Her line of work is visual and prominent throughout each of the 433 films she worked on, but remembered only as a fleeting compliment to the performers who donned her creations.

Yes, Edith Head dressed everyone from Gloria Swanson to Joan Fontaine, and if her career as a costume designer throughout Hollywood’s golden age up until her death in 1981 proves anything, it’s that she made such glamorous stars, well, shimmer.

That’s the job of a costume designer, after all; to aide in the illusion, to craft the cinematic fantasy which envelops us, sometimes out of materials we’d be hard-pressed not to find at a local Pat Catan’s. It’s not everyday someone like Anne Hathaway can whip up a sustained, award-winning performance out of a clearance bin at a flea market. Costume designers often shop on a budget, with some of the most effective pieces finding their way onto a set because a diligent member of the costume department strolled off set and into a sale rack at a shoe store (I speak from firsthand experience: I once sold a pair of $15 Vans that were to be worn by Viggo Mortensen, purchased by the costume designer for 2009’s The Road which filmed here in Pittsburgh).

In short, it’s a costume designer’s ability to turn the ordinary into spectacle. That’s why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has taken it upon itself to recognize the countless men and women who sew, pluck, rip, tear, and stitch together the framework of some of the biggest spectacles in American cinema each year with an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

Representing 2011’s crop of contenders are five designers who crafted gorgeous pieces representing eras as far apart as Shakespearian Britain (Lisy Christl’s work for Anonymous), the brooding moors of 1800s Gothic fiction (Michael O’Connor’s designs for Jane Eyre) and the streets of 1930s Paris (Sandy Powell’s contributions to Hugo).

Most of 2011’s nominees (as is true for every year, actually) crafted dazzling wardrobes which harken back to periods of years past, what with the most contemporary representation hailing from Arianne Phillips’ work in W.E., a film whose narrative spans between the 1930s and 1998 as it chronicles the love affair between Britain’s King Edward VIII and an American, Wallis Simpson.

Its director, having never been a stranger to the aesthetically rich, Madonna’s film boasts perhaps the most arresting costumes of each of the nominees with hats by Stephen Jones, gowns by John Galliano, and other contributions from the likes of Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, and even the National Museum of Costume in Scotland, who donated a Michael O’Connor wedding gown for filming.

The power of film to incorporate so many contemporary facets of the fashion industry into a single lavish homage to historical fashion is particularly evident in W.E., a film which utilizes the savvy of head designer Arianne Phillips to string together other magical pieces which drape the veil of 1930s European glamour over the delicate cheeks of Madonna’s sophomore directorial effort.

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Recreating the fantasy of the past through fashion is often the primary task of a costume designer. As CGI and digital projection technologies evolve to elevate the medium itself to higher standards of sophisticated (albeit illusory) presentation, the spectacle itself becomes simply representational. Yes, the fantastical flora and fauna which populated Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar were imaginative and spectacular, but they ultimately remain fantasy, relying on our classically trained tactic of suspending disbelief in order to “accept” them in context.

But, costume designers have a different job. They must create the past in the physical, in the present, in the now, bringing a glorified age of, say, 1920s Hollywood to life with every stitch, sequin, and wing-tipped shoe at their disposal. Of course, I’m referring to Mark Bridges’ work as seen in The Artist, also nominated this year. The film is a cinematic love letter to the silent era of Hollywood, when looks were everything and an actress’ wardrobe was the yesteryear equivalent to a computer generated explosion. Bridges’ costumes here do more than just catch the eye, they serve as a reminder of the simplicity of an era, the ability of an audience to listen with their hearts to a film which didn’t contain a single spoken word of its own. Costumes were more than just flashy adornments, but rather beacons of prosperity or shining testaments to the desire of the public to one day afford something just as beautiful as the drapery cascading down the frame of the actress dancing before them. Yes, the stars are the ones who conspicuously consume and uphold the business. Maintaining the fantasy, however illustrious the illusion; that’s what costume designers have done throughout history.

It seems as if Ms. Head’s observations are correct. A designer’s work can certainly be esteemed by its presence on the frame of a Hollywood actress as she poses for photographers on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre. But as the evening of February 26 comes to a close, one costume designer at the Academy Awards is going home with an Oscar; the other starlets just pretty girls playing dress-up.

‘America’s Next Top Model’ Cycle 18 Cast Pictures LEAKED; Half U.S./Half ‘Britain’s Next Top Model’ Rejects

Apparently Tyra’s scraped the bottom of the U.S. barrel for the last time. Only six contestants on Cycle 18 will be from the United States. The remaining cast will be fleshed out with rejects from “Britain’s Next Top Model.”

The "U.S." contestants on Cycle 18 of 'Top Model'

The "U.K."/"Britain's Next Top Model" reject portion of the Cycle 18 cast on 'Top Model'

I’ve run out of things to say about this show, anymore. The course has been run. I am digging the faux-Amber Rose, though.

This whole show just gets one big, ghetto, Angelea-sized “SMH.”

“Top Model”-gate; Bianca, Shannon, respond; WHAT DA $*#& HAPPENED!?

 

It was a fitting conclusion, the “America’s Next Top Model: All Stars” finale was. The aftershocks of which are currently rippling through the entertainment industry. By “entertainment industry” I mean the 18 gays and their hags (and those on the RTV + IMDB forums, holla!) who still watch this shit (The CW’s core demographic, you know).

 “Top Model” has cemented itself as part of a dying breed of reality programs aimed at authenticating a weekly “competition,” validating its winner with the promise of household name status. We’ve seen them come and go on “Making the Band,” release-and-drop from a label on “Idol,” hawk a collection on BlueFly.com and fade away into some costume design gig for local theatre post-“Runway”. But “Top Model” has always taken the cake for showcasing some of the most rotund of egos out there, regardless of their post-show “work” including an AppleBottoms spread as its biggest accomplishment (I’m looking at you, Jade) or a successful career in something that isn’t…well…modeling (I throw a side eye to you, Ms. Yaya).

Sadly, “All-Stars” did nothing but reaffirm that this is a show whose battle cry has been reduced to the sounding off of its various contestants via Twitter, which ultimately happens to be far more entertaining than anything that’s happened to “Top Model” all year (yes, I’m looking at you too, Cycle 16). Although that whole “Lisa popping up on the wrong side of the pool” thing was fucking tight).

The “All-Star” season was nothing more than a platform which gave already self-inflated (attached to under-producing “models”) egos the impression that they’re actually entitled to a place in an industry the “competition” suggested they were part of. 14 “icons” (as some of their Twitter account biographies self-proclaim) duked it out in an all-out exploitation of why “Top Model” hasn’t worked for about 5 years now (I realize that’s a generous overstatement).

If this show were anything at all about modeling, there wouldn’t be an “America’s Next Top Model” at all. Modeling isn’t something you can “reward” week after week. You have a model’s face, proportions, height, etc. or you don’t. You’ll most certainly never have to record your own single (Banks herself will be the first one to tell you that’s not a good idea… “Shake Ya Body,” anyone?) , produce a fragrance, or validate your own flag-football/hot dog designing/salad bowl posing skills (I kid you not; each of these was a challenge on cycle 17).

The aftermath of last night’s crowning of Lisa D’Amato as the ultimate “Top Model” All-Star (which basically just means a free Express campaign, Vogue Italia Spread, and “Guest” correspondent job on “Extra”) was met with a slathering of loathsome comments unto Tyra’s Facebook page. Twitter exploded. The forums ignited. The Allicats hissed.

And Angelea apparently peaced.

You see, a quick bit of editing post-ridiculous runway challenge (note to all aspiring models; you’ll never have to do anything remotely close to that) incriminated Angelea as…well…something.

 “She just didn’t seem right,” Lisa said, mentioning something further about Angelea’s uneven behavior and “racing” heart. We’re shown the diva in question demonizing herself, mug plastered with a blank stare in some spliced (what was undoubtedly shot as) B-roll I’m sure she was entirely unaware would later be used to incriminate her as some sort of drug addict (which I’m sure the producers wanted us to think).

Cut to commercial.

We return on panel, the usual post-runway judging that would involve the three contestants we, you know, left at the runway. But that’s not the case; Tyra and Nigel announce that Angelea has been disqualified. Some dribble about producers “finding something out” that rendered her ineligible to compete.

“We’re back in LA for a special judging,” Tyra says. “We decided it would be best to evaluate Lisa and Allison’s work in a separate judging that does not involve Angelea.” Lisa and Allison appear before us as if nothing had ever happened. Actually, Allison’s you-can-totally-tell-what-she’s-thinking-at-all-times face sort of read “Tyra be stealin’ cookies from da jar, I know, but I ain’t tellin’ ‘cept fo’ a lil raised eyebrow.

Time clearly passed, though. Enough time for Lisa to get a haircut and Allison’s eyebrows to return to a normal shade of brown as opposed to the horrendous shade of blonde they’d been dyed in Greece.

Rumors abound that Angelea initially won the competition in Crete, blabbed about the win to someone (press, Facebook, Twitter…who knows), was stripped of her title, refused to show up for the re-shoot (where Lisa would have won) and was then disqualified.

 This wouldn’t be entirely unconventional, especially not by “Top Model” standards. I mean, Angelea was the only bitch on this show who was actually eating right the fuck out of Tyra’s stretched (gloved, no doubt—commonfolk germs spread easy, you know) stigmata-plagued (in her own mind) hand. Tears, like, actual legit tears were shed by Angelea over the most minute of slip-ups this cycle. She took this shit seriously, bawling harder than when we first met her (under extremely unfortunate circumstances) three years ago. “This means so much to me,” she’d commonly spout. Clearly.

Can’t say the same for Allison, on the other hand, who couldn’t have given the slightest hint of a fuck (“Today you’re shooting with *insert no-name photographer here*! *other girls jump, Allison remains motion/expressionless*) about this whole damn thing (every judging, her face read an equal “you mean I have to fucking stay again?”).

Lisa was the most logical choice for a winner based on the “All-Star” format right from the get-go. She was vocal about using this to promote herself (“This win will be a great platform to advertise my new album!” she says), understanding the show for what it is and relishing in all its trashy exploitation. It’s just too bad she spent years trashing the show in interviews “We were all Tyra’s little monkeys” she said in an Out.com feature).

That point holds true when you examine Janice Dickinson’s surprisingly candid (actually, I’m more surprised it took her this long to finally admit it) interview yesterday, where she told Tyra to “suck a bag of stank,” revealing that CoverGirl actually picked the “Top Model” winner. It was rather difficult to discern who the eternal-bitchface CoverGirl rep “liked” last night (she seemed “tolerant” of Lisa, at best) but Angelea’s not-seen-on-the-show-but-still-leaked-to-the-public shot was, by technical standards, the best “CoverGirl” shot of the bunch.

Shannon Stewart claims the finale was taped in Crete (“I flew back with the girls..they did not reshoot the finale” she boasted on Twitter a few hours ago). Unbeknownst to her, Tyra actually said they were filming the finale in LA on last night’s show (What the fuck other reason would they have to fly back to LA for the finale MINUS Angelea? Calling attention to this was the huge mistake here).

Bianca Golden was quick to side-eye bitchslap Stewart’s comments to the ground (still waiting for Shannon’s obligatory “don’t crucify me” response to Biancus Pilate), telling her to “shut up” (burn) and revealing that she “knows” what really happened. To unlock the secret? She needs 20,000 followers by tomorrow (the thirst for publicity is never quenched, apparently).

Even Isis took the opportunity to sound off smack dab in the middle of this profound war of propheticism. “Producers promised us (decoys) would be shown in finial [sic] runway show.. cant believe it until you see it, and I hear it wasnt shown #antm” [sic, once again, one giant sic on this whole fucking thing]. She apparently didn’t get the memo about other more important matters, but this deserved a shout out in its own aloof absurdity as well.

First of all, I can’t stop thinking about is how fucking awful Allison has to feel right now. What was that production call like? “Umm…we have to reshoot you losing again…again.” And I’m not talking about “awful” as in “sad” but as in “I FUCKING THOUGHT THIS SHIT WAS OVER” (did you see the look of relief on her face last night?).

To be honest, I really don’t know what to make of this whole thing. The show shot itself in the foot after the first season, when the Jades, the Lisas, and the Angeleas ensured that no one from this show would ever be taken seriously in the modeling industry. I guess arguing about this kind of thing is like trying to bitch about what type of cancer is worse. There’s really nothing “good” that can come out of either side.

But right in the middle of it all is Lisa, happy as a clam.

“You’re all all-stars and stars to me,” she said on Twitter today.

Hearts and smiles, I suppose. I suppose your very own Italian Vogue spread that you can dangle over their heads will do that to you.

Tyra Returns with “Top Model”; Does the Fashion Industry Care? Contestants dish on Illegitimacy of Show, Returning for “All-Stars”

Note: Although originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this started as an idea for this blog. I’ve always been interested in ‘Top Model’, yet the show’s aim at creating a real supermodel has always fascinated me in its absurdly presented (and impossible) format which has no relevance to the fashion industry at all. For this piece, I interviewed Jade Cole, Bre Scullark, Monique Weingart, and a slew of people ranging from Ford Models and Anna Sui booking agents, executive producers, and fans and fellow (non-ANTM, I should add) models alike. I was very proud of the piece (front page of Mag section! Holla!) and even more proud of the fact that I royally pissed off Cycle 10’s Lauren Utter with the nerve I had to dare ask her for an interview. She called me “fraudulent” and told me she’d interview with me if I didn’t betray her by spewing her secrets to everyone. I’m sorry, if my memory serves me properly you blabbed to ANYONE who would ask about ‘Top Model’ and its illegitimacy to anyone who’d ask on the IMDB ‘Top Model’ forums. So, again, thanks for blaming your own big-mouthed antics on me even though you told multiple people heapings more than what you revealed to me. Anyway, on to my article:

Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Joey Nolfi (me)

Despite the popularity of “America’s Next Top Model,” former contestants and fashion industry insiders don’t believe the show is an avenue to supermodel stardom.

One of fashion’s greatest minds, Karl Lagerfeld, describes Tyra Banks’ “Top Model” as “trash that’s funny for 5 minutes” but says its contestants “will never become the next Gemma Ward.”

“Modeling is a phenomenal opportunity, a great job, and a s—-y career,” supermodel and former “America’s Next Top Model” judge Paulina Porizkova says in a Huffington Post article about the cutthroat modeling industry.

So why then, since 2003, have countless model hopefuls scrambled for a chance to compete on Ms. Banks’ wildly popular television show in hopes of walking the same runways as Gisele Bundchen and Agyness Deyn?

An all-stars version of Ms. Banks’ hit show returns for Season 17 (seasons are better known as cycles to fans) at 9 tonight on The CW. The show’s format will remain the same as it has for the past 16 installments — 14 contestants will compete for a contract with IMG models, an Express fashion campaign and a cover of Beauty in Vogue magazine. The “All-Stars” version is chock-full of contestants from past seasons again competing for the coveted title.

Since its first airing, the show has garnered millions of loyal viewers and critics on the Internet. Seas of message boards dedicated to praising and bashing particular contestants can be found on countless websites.

Amanda L’Heureux, a 22-year-old Bangor, Maine, resident and avid “Top Model” fanatic, has been watching the show since its fourth season in 2005, blogging about it on her site, “My ANTM Addiction Starts Here.” Ms. L’Heureux says that “All-Stars” is bound to be great television, but will do little to help raise the show’s credibility as a full-fledged representation of the fashion industry.

“I think ‘Top Model’ succeeds as a reality show in a way that a lot of others don’t,” she says. “Despite seeing the purpose of the show fail time and time again, faithful viewers are invested in the contestants for many different reasons. Some people will always support the best model while some tune in to see the funniest girl or the most tragic story. There’s a nice, healthy mix of trash, absurdity and a prize that makes the show decidedly watchable.”

Returning “All-Stars” include fan favorites such as Allison Harvard (Season 12 in 2009) and Shannon Stewart (Season 1 in 2003), but also some of the most notoriously abrasive girls the show has ever seen, namely Camille McDonald (Season 2 in 2004), Angelea Preston (Season 14 in 2010) and Dominique Reighard (Season 10 in 2008).

No longer newcomers on the modeling scene, each has matured well beyond their initial appearance on “Top Model” according to “All-Stars” and Season 5 alum Bre Scullark.

“It’s amazing to see how everybody’s grown and who they’ve become,” said Ms. Scullark, made famous through her involvement in a granola bar theft incident on the show in 2005. “We all have a little more experience and exposure. This time I’m living in a house with girls that really are models. It’s a lot different from [the first time around] living with girls who don’t know if they want to be models or TV stars.”

The blogosphere is abuzz with speculation about the legitimacy of the show as a “serious” fashion endeavor because of the inclusion of “mature” models — the oldest “All-Star” is 33 years old — in the upcoming cast. A model’s career in an industry that craves young, “fresh,” and often unknown faces usually is over by age 25, let alone 33. This has fans and industry insiders alike echoing Mr. Lagerfeld’s criticisms.

“It’s stupid to watch the show as if it’s like the real world,” 22-year-old longtime fan and British model, Avess Arshad, says. “It’s on television, so it loses credibility. [Tyra] is running a superficial show and trying to give it depth beyond anything it ever could have and that’s why it’s so cheesy.”

Detractors of the show have often been those directly involved with production. Janice Dickinson and Ms. Porizkova publicly criticized Ms. Banks and the show after their tenures as judges. Season 5 cast member Lisa D’Amato shocked fans by returning for the “All-Star” season after a very candid interview in 2010 with Out.com where she slammed the show, calling its contestants “[Tyra’s] little monkeys,” saying that Ms. Banks is “absolutely insane,” and that the show “absolutely does not portray the life of a real model.”

In the show’s initial 16 seasons, it has produced successful actresses. Season 3’s Yaya Dacosta starred in Best Picture nominee “The Kids Are All Right” alongside Julianne Moore and Season 10’s Analeigh Tipton garnered critical acclaim for her turn in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” with Steve Carell.

“Top Model” alums also have gone on to become public speakers, television show hosts and lead singers in rock bands, but the one thing “Top Model” has failed to produce is, well, America’s next top model.
“There are very few traditional supermodels these days and models have evolved into reality stars who can model,” said Laura Fuest, executive producer of “America’s Next Top Model. “‘ANTM All Stars’ takes some of the most successful former participants, who have used their experience and exposure on ‘ANTM’ to expand their modeling careers, and helps them to continue evolving their individual brands and entertainment career choices.”

International versions of the “Top Model” franchise have provided star-making platforms for some of the industry’s most in-demand new faces. Winner of the third season of “Australia’s Next Top Model,” supermodel Alice Burdeu, went on to appear on runways around the world, in campaigns for brands such as Dolce & Gabbana as well as gracing the cover of Vogue Australia twice.

Still, the American audience has come to perceive the U.S. version as somewhat of a joke because its first winner, Adrianne Curry, failed to make much of an impact on the fashion industry, instead opting for a career as a television personality with appearances on “The Surreal Life” and “My Fair Brady” after marrying actor Christopher Knight.

“I think the place where ‘ANTM’ has failed the most is dragging along contestants solely for their Cinderella stories or gimmicks,” Ms. L’Heureux says. “Too many times someone who has ‘overcome’ something wins over someone more deserving. That ‘story’ is what they’re recognizable for, not their modeling potential, and that ultimately doesn’t make them bookable.”

With the exception of Ms. Harvard, none of the “All-Stars” contestants was picked for her modeling skill during her previous season, Ms. L’Heureux says.

“They are most notable for their antics. Every single one of them has a notable incident in the show’s history,” she says. “So, this is a brilliant idea as far as the reality aspect of the show is concerned. As a modeling show? Not so much.”

Former contestants on the show agree.

Monique Weingart, Cycle 16, discusses the unfair stigma ANTM leaves contestants with

“I don’t think you can go on the [American version of the] show and expect to become a supermodel,” says contestant Monique Weingart, who appeared in Season 16. “I went to L.A. Models to meet with their New Faces division [after my season]. They laughed at me. I’ll go on castings and meet every requirement and bond with the client. They’ll say ‘You look really familiar.’ I’ll tell them I was on ‘Top Model’ and I never get a callback.”

Although some former contestants feel being on the show has been detrimental to their modeling careers, Ms. Scullark has enjoyed a career that’s to her liking.

“I think people don’t like rejection. I think that people don’t like to hear ‘No,’ whether it’s for a show or at a casting. Those are the excuses people hear, but it really just has to do with them personally,” she says. “I can only speak for myself. I have a Garnier Fructis campaign, print ad for Ambi Skincare and Dove Chocolate. I’ve worked really well with great clients after [Season] 5.”

Still, some winners, who usually receive a print campaign with CoverGirl cosmetics, a cover of a magazine (winners have graced everything from Seventeen to Elle Girl) and a contract with a prestigious modeling agency (from Wilhelmina to Elite) have trouble working in the industry. More than half of the show’s champions barely lasted two years with their prize agency. Contestants who won seasons three through six received representation by Ford Models, an agency with offices from Los Angeles to New York. But, when asked whether the winners booked a respectable amount of work while with the agency, a Los Angeles representative for Ford Models chuckled.

“Not necessarily,” he said.

“Breaking into the fashion industry and doing a reality television show are two different things,” Season 6 contestant Jade Cole says of the unfair “stigma” that followed her around after her appearance on the show.

Miss Jade, the Ace of Spades, Cycle 6’s notorious fan favorite discusses her time on ANTM

Ms. Cole, one of the most notorious contestants in the history of the show, declined to return for “All-Stars,” citing a “bogus” and “one-sided” contract.

“As much as I would have loved to be back on TV, I felt I possibly would be misrepresented if appearing on [Season] 17,” Ms. Cole says. “[It’s basically] signing your rights and life hypothetically away. … Reality shows frequently portray a modified and highly influenced form of reality. [We’re] often persuaded to act in specific scripted ways by off-screen ‘story editors’ or ‘segment television producers,’ with the portrayal of events and speech manipulated and contrived to create an illusion of reality through direction and post-production editing techniques.”

Still, a faint glimmer of hope remains for past contestants and the upcoming All-Stars. A booking agent for Anna Sui, one of the most successful labels in the fashion industry, said that he would consider booking a model that’d already been exposed to a wide audience on the show.

“It all depends on her look, I guess,” he said. “Anything is possible, but I’m afraid I haven’t been following that program.”

When Art Becomes the Artist; ANTM Winner, Model, Musician, Naima Mora is a Melting Pot of Expression

An Interview with Naima Mora

By Joey Nolfi

She’s a world-class fashion muse and a quirky tomboy; the face of an industry that prides itself on the image of untouchable perfection while still finding time to mentor crowds of young people as a very tangible inspirational speaker. And she’s about as different as she appeared on reality television as the words “Chanel” and “men’s clothing” are from each other.

Naima Mora is a slew of contradictions, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Mora’s catapult to fame as the winner of the fourth season of Tyra Banks’ wildly popular “America’s Next Top Model” is only a blip on the radar of this young artistic maven’s long list of career milestones. From posing on the beaches of the Cayman Islands to rocking out onstage with her band at a gig in New York City, Mora can do (and has done) it all.

Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, Mora’s roots run deep within the realm of artistic expression.

“My parents are musicians, and I remember waking up every morning to some different kind of awesome music from a different part of the world,” she says of her childhood, “They always encouraged my twin sister and I to follow our artistic endeavors.”

After studying art at summer camps and crafting the illegal kind in her free time (she says she enjoyed slumming downtown, tagging and spray painting trucks and abandoned buildings), Mora channeled her interests into the fine art of dance.

“In slight contradiction to my tomboy way of life I was a ballet dancer and I loved it,” she says, “When I moved to New York City I was dancing all day with my ballet company and in the evenings I went to night school for creative writing.”

Soon after, the same girl who was so graceful onstage in ballet slippers was soon gracing the set of “America’s Next Top Model”, a competition Mora says far exceeded her expectations.

“America’s Next Top Model was a very emotional journey,” she says, “When I do build the nerve to watch back a couple of episodes, I look back on a younger me. I think I had a lot of balls going out to win that competition, although I can tell I was really nervous most of the time.”

Mora’s nerves proved for naught, seeing as she was crowned “America’s Next Top Model” by Tyra Banks herself, winning out over runner-up Kahlen Rondot, who has since quit the modeling industry.

For every ounce of fame Mora has garnered since her appearance on the show, now heading into its 17th bi-annual “cycle”, an equal amount of backlash follows. Claims of the show being “fixed” after Cycle 9’s winner, Saleisha Stowers, appeared in countless national print ads (as well as on “The Tyra Banks Show”) prior to her tenure on the show have led to some fans questioning the legitimacy of the show itself as well as Ms. Banks’ investment in the girls.

Mora says those claims, echoed loudly and publicly by other former contestants (namely Lisa D’Amato, Lauren Utter, and Adrianne Curry) are simply not true.

“I do believe Tyra genuinely cares about all the girls on the show and I believe that she wants all of the models to move on to pursue wonderful careers,” she admits, “But we cannot expect Tyra or the network to just drop the jobs and work into our hands. I have had to learn the ropes pretty much on my own since winning the show. ‘America’s Next Top Model’ is not only mentorship between Tyra and the models, it is a business as well. There have been a lot of contestants, and while I do believe Tyra cares, I also know that she is working on not only the show but other facets of her own career.”

While Mora enjoyed her time on “Top Model”, she admits that the pressure of having a crew document her every move over the course of a few months took its toll. The audience, however, responded in a largely positive manner to her onscreen character as the rather subdued “reformed party girl”.

“It all depends on how you portray yourself,” she explains, “It’s sad to see though that with more reality television arising, people feel the need to portray themselves in such a bad or negative light to get attention and the American public feeds this by supporting it.”

Whether she was “edited to look that way” or simply too nervous in the spotlight, Mora’s demeanor on the show has facilitated her fans’ confusion with the next step of her career; hard rocking frontwoman of the band Galaxy of Tar.

“The idea that you can know someone completely from a month’s worth of filming is a bit odd,” Mora says in response to the confusion, “I have always loved rock music and the older I get the more I have matured inside of rock culture. I think people were given a chance to witness the kind of person I am, but not who I am entirely from the filming of ‘America’s Next Top Model’. I have always been a bit dark and I’m intrigued by the more magical side of things.”

“Dark” and “magical” are yet another opposing set of descriptors that perfectly profile Galaxy of Tar’s sound. But her current frontwoman position of the group isn’t Mora’s first foray into the realm of sonic heaven.

“A couple of years ago my best friend invited me to sing for his band,” she says of Chewing Pics, the band in question, “That project broke up last year, but it gave us a chance to do something we really wanted to. [We] were interested in pushing some boundaries while the other musicians wanted to make safer music. After we all agreed that it wasn’t going to work out we moved on.”

Despite the demise of Chewing Pics, Galaxy of Tar has achieved success. The band released their first EP, Pneuma, in May of this year.

Although Mora says that she enjoys crafting music and the artistic outlet it provides, some of the output puzzles her just as much as it has for her fans.

“Galaxy of Tar sounds weird a lot of times to me, but that’s a great thing in my book,” she says, “we constantly aim at creating something new. I love the challenge of making sense out of [bandmate Elias’] creation. Most of the music I love now and that inspires me was difficult to understand at first, but the project is particularly special to me because it is something I have set up in my life that will consistently challenge me and perpetuates my own artistic and humanistic growth.”

And she’s got the fiercest onstage moves this side of Karen O., to boot.

“Performing is an extension of myself. It’s definitely evolved since the days of Chewing Pics,” she says, “I just wrap myself up in the moment and the music and allow myself to go wild for a while. I allow myself to fall desperately in love or become angry with vengeance.”

While she moves like a veteran rocker she also maintains the elegance and grace of a model walking down a Versace runway. Although “My music has one hundred times more of an effect on my modeling than vice versa,” she says.

Whether it’s tearing up the stage in front of a crowd of fans or promoting only the most chic of fashions in an ad campaign, Naima Mora says the one thing that keeps her going is self confidence.

“At least once a week I question whether what I am doing is crazy or not,” she says, “all my heroes are crazy too or at least were perceived as crazy at first. I brush that doubt aside. It only lasts for a moment or so.”

While that goes to show that even the most pristine of faces can crack, Mora says that remaining an independent force amidst an industry of deprecation is key to finding success.

“I have sacrificed jobs for integrity. I have sacrificed sometimes integrity for jobs. But that is the growing process of life and learning,” she says, “I really don’t like the politics of a lot of things in both the music and modeling industry, but I have learned to approach these things on my own terms.”

And those of us that get to admire her beautifully diverse career are genuinely appreciate of that.

Follow Naima on Twitter: @NaimaMora

Follow Joey on Twitter: @joeynolfi