Beauty Genres: ANTM Uses Music to Play with and Reinforce Racial Difference

Happy new year, y’all! I trust you all have woken up by now and had pancakes to soak up the hangover. Or maybe you just quietly sipped some tea, played with a noisemaker, and went to bed at 12:01. Either way, let’s make 2012 our year. And since a number of us found out that we lost a good friend today and are reeling from the horror and tragedy of such a deep loss, let’s make this Esme’s year too.

Earlier this fall, I expressed interest in contributing a piece on America’s Next Top Model for In Media Res. The forum is running a series on the show later this month that will be worth checking out when it goes live. But as sometimes happens, I bit off more than I could chew. Long story short, I missed the deadline by about a month due to end-of-the-semester scrambling. So I thought I’d offer up what I planned to pitch to IMR in order to circulate my ideas and help publicize the site. Also, next time I’ll write the deadline into my calendar.

I stopped appointment viewing ANTM about a year (roughly two cycles) after I earned my master’s degree. But the show was very much a part of my schedule during graduate school, particularly my second year when I was working on my thesis. My deadlines always seemed to fall on Thursdays, so an episode of ANTM, cycle 8 and Chinese takeout helped prepare me for a long Wednesday night. And I will drop everything if a cable network is airing a marathon. I’ve lost weekends over reruns of the show on VH1 and Lifetime.

What do I find compelling about the show? Tyra’s certainly a fascinating character, but it’s not just her. Some time ago, a BUST contributor argued that the show had radical potential by depicting the modeling industry as a strange, discursive sites for experimentation and play with feminine beauty. This may be an overly generous interpretation, but it’s part of my interest. But to borrow an observation made by a colleague at a conference a few years back, I’m troubled by how Tyra and the ANTM staff enforce their supremacy over black contestants by messing with their hair, a major and highly contested site of identity for many black women.

Yet I do think the show offers a number of teaching moments regarding the intersections between race and gender throughout the show’s run. In cycle 8, Jaslene and the crew did a photo shoot in male drag. The results, particularly Natasha Galinka’s hip-hop-inspired shoot, reaffirmed many of Judith Halberstam’s assertions about the ambiguous nature of play and racial performance in drag king shows. Thea Lim called out the show’s use of colorface in a controversial cycle 14 episode that featured a photo shoot where the models had to pass as women of mixed ethnic heritage. I imagine there’s some kind of postracial rhetoric operating here–if models are supposed to transcend any identity in order to be commodifiable in an international industry fixated on edge and nowness, why not have them transcend racial difference?

Natasha Galkina used a gum wrapper to make her grill; image courtesy of

Erin Wagner is neither Egyptian nor Tibetan; image courtesy of

Yet as any casual ANTM viewer knows, the show often has trouble transcending race (fact: it’s something none of can do). One common trope in the show’s 17-season run (one swiped from The Real World, masterfully satirized on Chappelle’s Show, and recirculated in basically any show where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds share a house) is the simmering feud between white contestants and black contestants. Often, the white contestants with beef on ANTM come with a coalition of passive-aggressive housemates from the ‘burbs in desperate need of enrollment in a critical race theory course. They tend to target, or be targeted by, one to at most three contestants of color. The feud is usually shaped by regional difference between suburban white girls uncomfortable sharing space with ’round-the-way black girls.

But I think the show also reinforces racial difference in a variety of ways. As mentioned earlier, the makeover episode is a site of articulating difference in a way that asserts cultural supremacy against black women. But sometimes a shoot’s creative direction affirms such difference. Witness cycle 10’s music photo shoot. Many of the models who excel at this shoot are white girls working within rock and pop contexts. The contestants who do poorly or cause concern at panel are those whose assignments worked against the raced implications of musical genres–an African model posing as heavy metal, two women from multicultural backgrounds representing white-dominated genres like country and folk, and a lily-white contestant whose “tone-deaf” interpretation of R&B costs her the competition.

What I find especially interesting here is how race informs generic affiliation. Notice Paulina Porizkova having to explain “emo” to Miss Jay, which she dismisses as white people music. Note too that Tyra admonishes Aimee for failing to embody a genre as popular as R&B. The subtext here is that R&B is Tyra’s music but not Aimee’s, and thus racial difference is once again reinforced. Granted, Stacy-Ann and Anya are called out for playing it safe or relying on costuming and lighting for shoots that respectively represented house and punk. But Whitney is given disproportionate praise for representing a musical genre that fetishized white-trash and thrift-store aesthetics, which no doubt made the contestant–who was repeatedly compared to Anna-Nicole Smith–bristle. Finally, Fatima’s repeated use of the term “metal rock” seems to demonstrate that the model has literally no connection to the genre beyond sticking her tongue out.

Interestingly, hip-hop is not represented in this shoot. That’s a missed opportunity, as the genre simultaneously reifies stereotypical notions of black American masculinity and is global in scope both in terms of production and reception. While hip-hop seems to have a racial affiliation, it doesn’t always have the same affiliation depending on what national borders are crossed. While racial and class privilege bolster eclecticism, this shoot confirms the still widely-held belief that when you announce your affinity for a particular musical genre, you reaffirm cultural assumptions of racial categories in need of troubling.


  1. kiki

    I’m glad though, that antm shun the whole light skin-dark skin divide with ethnic minority contestants. I remember when Anchal first entered the competition, and told Tyra how she was made to feel bad about her dark skin. But Tyra insisted that she was beautiful. Light skin and dark skinned ethnic models succeed equally (like danielle who won, or Yaya Dacosta, and Toccarra). Thats one positive thing about the show.

    • Alyx Vesey

      That’s true, Kiki. I forgot about Anchal talking about her dark skin. Also, Yaya is my favorite success story from ANTM. I wanted her to win real bad, and am so glad she’s found success in film. She even sang backup for Raphael Saadiq.

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