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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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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

Paris in Pittsburgh; An Interview with Paris Nicholson

The following Interview was written by me and published in East End Fashion Magazine’s June 2011 issue.

Paris NicholsonA coffee shop in the middle of Pittsburgh’s Oakland district is just about the last place you’d expect to run into a world class male model fresh off the runways of Milan. And pokemon stuffed animals are just about the last thing you’d expect to see gracing the interior of any serious model’s bedroom.

But the day I interviewed editorial model and photographer Paris Nicholson, I encountered both.

To describe Nicholson’s approach from across the room as an intimidating experience would be a colossal understatement; to place it into perspective for those of us “normal” people not chiseled from a perfect statuesque mold, it’s probably one of the most intimidating experiences you’ll ever have in your life. His bone structure, towering height, and altogether…well…godlike physicality can’t help but place you into a complete frenzy of self-deprecation. He’s probably going to look down on you in more than just a literal sense. His topical savvy is probably going to make your fashion “knowledge” look rudimentary at best. He probably swaps texts with Anna Wintour about all of the meaningless peons like you who just can’t seem to come close to touching them up on Mt. Couture Olympus. In short, next to Paris, you’re probably going to feel like a three seasons-old Martha Stewart sweater collection being hawked next to Von Furstenberg’s Fall line.

And to be quite honest…I was wrong. And our conversation was easy.
Paris Nicholson
The second Paris begins talking, each and every one of the aforementioned (and altogether unsubstantiated) pretenses melts away. Although he might look like one on the most superficial of levels, you immediately realize you’re not talking to just another vapid, pampered mannequin who uses his good looks to coast through a fashion-related “career”; Paris is, at his core, a quirky photography student with the same relatable qualities that you’ll probably find amongst your own social circle…that is, if you don’t hang out with the fashion elite.

That’s right…Nicholson is almost as ideologically disconnected from the fashion snobs of New York and London as your grandmother who considers tax returns her own personal Spring collection. That’s not to say he doesn’t care about fashion, because he certainly does. It just doesn’t have a pretentious reign over his life. “I definitely think more people should understand fashion in a city like Pittsburgh,” he says, “but I don’t like indulging in it. I like creating it as an art form, but I would never personally buy something ‘designer’ if I could get it cheaper somewhere else.”

It’s this kind of unpretentious, realistic view towards fashion that sets Paris apart from others in his field. He tells me that rubbing elbows with the likes of fashion royalty doesn’t impress him much, rather he enjoys meeting a person versus a fashion “name”. “It’s funny because at a party I could be talking to a really sweet older lady and think nothing of it, walk away, and somebody will be like ‘oh my god that was Donna Karan’. It still doesn’t faze me.”

Even after hearing something like that, you’d still wholeheartedly expect his experience modeling for clients such as Givenchy, Missoni, and Dior to have warped his perception of a city like Pittsburgh for the negative. But that’s not the case, considering he’s in the city building the foundation for a career in fashion related areas.

Paris NicholsonParis is currently a photography student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He focuses primarily on fashion photography, which is entirely unsurprising; however, what got him started in the medium undoubtedly is. “When I first started doing it in sophomore year in high school, I had absolutely no interest in photography whatsoever,” Paris says, “I only took the photography class because the teacher was hot, but while other kids were taking typical pictures of like, a flower or a plant, I was getting inspiration from the shoots on America’s Next Top Mode.l” In essence, he styled and shot his friends in outlandish costumes and elaborate, amateur-couture pieces while the other students continued to play it safe. From then on, Paris’ interest in shooting fashion concepts grew to encompass his career ambitions.

Paris hopes to become a successful fashion photographer and make a decent living, and who wouldn’t? But his ambitions don’t stop there. “I like creating images that stir the pot and force people to reconsider their ideas towards something whether they like it or not,” he says, “I guess I like to be obnoxious and force my own opinions on people.” A playful smirk crosses his face as he says this. I can tell he has something more on his mind. I ask him what he means, and he immediately lunges into a full-on description of his latest concept he was obviously waiting for me to ask about. To describe the concept in family-friendly terms is next to impossible, considering the description I received from Paris. The project is essentially a mock ad campaign for Prada. All the basic elements for a typical Prada ad are there; a gorgeous model, the product perfectly showcased, and perfect fashion lighting and composition dominating the frame. The only thing that keeps the shot from gracing the pages of Vogue as a real advertisement is the presence of a thick white residue that happens to be splattered across the model’s face. I’ll leave it to your own perception to figure out what Paris told me the substance is meant to be, but I have the feeling that if I’d seen the picture first without him explaining anything to me, it’d take me a minute to fully understand what exactly I was looking at. And that’s the beauty of his images; they’re not always thematically intelligible upon first glance, which is undoubtedly a refreshing alternative to the explicitly overstated images photography students typically craft. His outlandish ideas often come from his dreams, a surreal place he often taps into when he’s fresh out of concepts and wants to challenge himself to present an image.

It’s this kind of perspective that gives Paris and his work such an alluring quality. There’s a mischievouParis Nicholson photographys, almost childlike quirkiness about the attitude he possesses as well as work he does, and that truly sets him apart from most of his peers. But that doesn’t mean Paris doesn’t harbor a great appreciation for the skills of others pursuing fashion careers in the city. “If you weed through all the bullshit, as you’d have to do in any field, there are definitely other talented people in fashion in the city,” he says. Specifically he mentions fellow students, photographers, stylists, and local fashion designers he feels all have potential to make a name for themselves within the industry. “There are definitely people in Pittsburgh who do awesome work and are going to make something of themselves” he says, “I really have a great appreciation and admiration for others around me doing the things I can’t do myself.” Paris specifically cites the photographic skills of Danielle Yagodich as well as the fashion-savvy styling prowess of Danny Lutz, both of whom are also students at the Art Institute.

Paris also hasn’t kept his face out of circulation in Pittsburgh fashion publications either. Another local fashion magazine recently recognized and utilized Paris’ skills as a photographer and model when they allowed him to shoot and star in an editorial for a local brand.

But what interested me most about our conversation had to be Paris’ clear favoring of topics concerning his photography versus his modeling. “To be honest, I’d much rather be known for my photography than modeling,” he says, “modeling is definitely more of a job to me than a lifestyle…photography gives me the chance to be creative and express myself by injecting my own personality, and with modeling you can’t fully do that.”

Paris NicholsonDespite his low-key attitude towards the exposure modeling has garnered him, that hasn’t stopped the public from lapping up every tear sheet or runway appearance he can credit to his name. There’s even an online forum dedicated entirely to his modeling work, with various users gushing over his many endearing physical qualities like a lion to fresh meat. “By far my biggest fans would have to be my family,” he says, “my mom goes crazy when she sees me on a runway, but in all honesty I don’t understand why simply working for a designer is much of an accomplishment. It’s just a job to me.”

Despite his humble feelings towards modeling and fashion, it’s undeniable that Paris’ modeling career has thus far been an incredibly diverse one. Jobs have taken him everywhere from New York City to Milan, with agencies like Boss and D’Men. It’s this kind of experience that gives Paris an elite, untouchable quality reminiscent of a true world class fashion model…that is until he shows me pictures of the pokemon toys he has sitting around his room. “I’m a total dork” he says excitedly. And he’s certainly proud of it.

At one point during our interview I paused to gather my thoughts on which direction I should take the conversation next. The silence was broken by an impromptu rendition of Yael Naim’s “New Soul” coming from across the table. I stared at Paris for a second and couldn’t help but laugh. I asked him what made him decide to sing. “Wasn’t that like, the song that was just playing in here?” [side note: It definitely wasn’t]. My interest is entirely piqued at this point, considering I’ve never had anyone burst into song during the middle of an interview. But then again I’ve never interviewed someone quite like Paris Nicholson before. It’s not often you come across a model or photographer as experienced as him, especially in a mid-sized city like Pittsburgh. But it’s even less likely to find someone of Paris’ stature who will freely confess their undying love of video game characters and McDonald’s. Because of his elite background in the fashion industry, Paris (and anyone else of his standing, for that matter) ultimately comes with a slew of preconceived notions unfairly tacked on to his personality simply because of how he looks. But I think I can gather, at least from the short time I spent with him, that Paris would much rather be seen for being a thought provoking visual artist than a pretty face. Someone who idolizes animated characters versus someone who’s attended parties with New York fashion royalty. And ultimately someone who enjoys being the person who can push through such superficial judgments. “I just like doing me,” he says. And as many times as we’ve all heard people say that before, I think with Paris we can all actually believe it.

Tyra(nt) Turns it Around; Cycle 15’s Ann Ward in Vogue Italia

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Saying that a singluar contestant, one of the many long-legged (or stub-equipped, as in the case of Cycle 13) beauties who have graced our television screens on Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model since 2003, is the crowning achievement of the 8 year old series would be similar to hailing a track on Christina Aguilera’s Bionic as the most listenable; in other words, it’s not much of a compliment. But Cycle 15’s Ann Ward is certainly looking to prove each and every one of the show’s detractors wrong by being the first of such alumni to win one of the most sought-after modeling opportunities in the actual fashion industry itself, a realm Tyra’s little wannabes have had trouble strutting into ever since the show’s inception.

Ward won’t be the first Top Model cast member to grace the pages of Italian Vogue (Cycle 3’s Toccara Jones fabbed-up the pages a few years ago as part of their “Black Models” tribute) but she will be the first to land a cover of any sort of publication within the Vogue family; while she won’t be headlining Vogue Italia, she’ll be splattered front and center with the words “America’s Next Top Model” no doubt gaudily plastered in conjunction with her face, emphasizing why she’s there as if someone in the  industry would dare think the illuminati the Vogue family would ever put a winner of a reality show on one of their covers by the grace of their own will. Francesca Sozzani apparently has a sense of humor and a void in her wallet; mama has bills to pay, and Tyra is apparently playing sugar daddy for this little Italian gold digger…and, well, I guess Ward would be Tyra’s gargantuan forcibly-entered penis penetrating the pages of Vogue as compensation.

Anyhow, the first set of pictures from Ward’s freshman (and probably only) stint in the Vogue family have been released, giving us a glimpse of the true supermodel Ward could have been if only she hadn’t appeared on America’s Next Top Model. Give me more weave pats, drunk shrubbery conversations, and just more Angeleas and Jades in general because seeing the scum of our generation’s reality is less depressing than showing us what genuine talent you’ve destroyed with the stigma of your show, Miss Tyra.
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Trainwreck Results: ANTM’s Krista White Shoots a Portfolio

I still can’t believe that this…

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…won cycle 14 over the likes of this:
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Well at least the latter is actually working. She’s had the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Dubai already, and is working some go-sees as we speak, and also got signed to the same agency Krista’s prize allowed her to sign with. Well, we give Krista about a Saleisha-sized run with Wilhelmina (the agency for which the above test shots were taken)…on shaky ground for a couple months, then a contract slash from 3 years to 1. Sorry, boo, hand-picked-by-Tyra winners don’t go over well in the fashion world. Your audience isn’t as dumb and quick-to-mindlessly-follow you as you think, Miss Banks. Maybe (just maybe) give them a bit more credit the next time you decide to fuck a perfectly good cycle up. Perhaps your shit should be together for Cycle 15, because the girl who wins that is actually going to be on the cover of a relevant renowned fashion magazine (Italian Vogue, anyone?). Oh well.

And while we’re on the subject, it’s very clear to me that the reason why ANTM is regarded as such a joke in the fashion industry is thanks to none other than Tyra Banks herself. I mean, it wasn’t quite as clear from the beginning that the winners were in fact pre-packaged, hand-picked toys of Tyra’s trade (Adrianne, for one, seemed like a truly legitimate winner in the hot-ghetto-mess that was Cycle 1), but as the series limped along, it became entirely apparent by Cycle 3 that these girls who were “winning” the competition just seemed to fit whatever agenda Tyra had in mind at the time. A plus-sized winner coincided with Tyra’s embarrassingly hilarious “Kiss My Fat Ass” era, and a black girl has won every 3rd cycle since Eva’s disastrous 2005 triumph (Tyra is incessantly vocal about african american girls not being fairly represented in the fashion world).

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The exploiting of tragic sob-stories has been a key point in Tyra’s marketing of the show as well; we’ve seen girls who have fallen victim to the likes of kidnapping, genital mutilation, same-sex rape, homelessness, and even some who’ve been forcibly entered into underground sex cults where children are the valued sexual object (no, I’m not making this up). The over-emphasis on the dramatics surrounding these girls’ lives only makes for interesting televions perhaps much better suited for Banks’ discontinued talk show, but certainly not within the context of a modeling competition. And as much as I’d like to disbelieve it, Banks does indeed have a group of loyal, blind followers who will gladly accept the fact that the trainwreck mess that was Angelea Preston (of Cycle 14) was actually capable of modeling simply because she lost her daughter to a disease years ago. The truth is that while Angelea’s story is heartbreaking, that does in no way, shape, or form make her a model.

Drama-free and fashion-forward, Australia’s Next Top Model has produced some truly groundbreaking talent who have taken the fashion world by storm (Alice Burdeu, people?). As much as Tyra wants to preach about self-acceptance and redefining what is classically “beautiful”, perhaps she should find herself a much sturdier soapbox to stand on because the girls she’s using to do it might be loud, but the only thing they’re representing is the worn-out agenda of a self-inflated fading icon.