The return of Tyra Banks: Why this season of 'America's Next Top Model' could be its best yet

The new season of <em>America’s Next Top Model</em> welcomes back its original host and show creator, Tyra Banks. To Banks’s left, celebrity stylist Law Roach; to her right, model-entrepreneur Ashley Graham and <em>Paper</em> magazine creative director Drew Elliott. (Photo: VH1)
The new season of America’s Next Top Model welcomes back its original host and show creator, Tyra Banks. To Banks’s left, celebrity stylist Law Roach; to her right, model-entrepreneur Ashley Graham and Paper magazine creative director Drew Elliott. (Photo: VH1)

In 2003, Tyra Banks‘s reality television show America’s Next Top Model took a few dozen women from across the country on a journey through the cutthroat modeling world. There were breakthroughs and breakdowns everywhere from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and for the next decade, the show endured.

But there was little diversity throughout the seasons, and the show lost its edge. The CW network canceled it, before VH1 revived it — albeit without Banks as host — in 2016.

On Jan. 10, to the delight of ANTM devotees, Banks makes a triumphant return to the series as its host. As part of her homecoming, the “smizing” supermodel/actress/entrepreneur television queen has reinvigorated the reality TV universe with a new season, new rules, and new expectations of who and what models are.

Admirably, there’s no more age limit for contestants to be eligible (in previous seasons, you could enter a casting call only if you were between 18 and 27). It’s one of the last frontiers of diversity expansion upon which the show is embarking.

America’s Next Top Model began as a competition in which models were expected to be tall (typically above 5 feet 9 inches) and thin. Many of them were white. Very few identified as anything other than cisgender and straight. But the newest season is unrecognizable — in the best way imaginable — compared with the show’s earliest iterations. The criteria is no longer strictly physical — it’s metaphysical. This season’s mantra: “Are you next-level fierce?”

There is more racial diversity than ever. Various genders have been allowed to compete. Curve models were not only accepted but encouraged to participate. Albinism, alopecia, and other genetic conditions are beautiful. And this season, a 42-year-old woman, Erin Green, is competing among more than a dozen 20-somethings.

Green, a mother of five and grandmother to three, hails from Riverside, Calif. She works as a mental health professional, runs a youth development nonprofit with her twin sister, and has modeled for the last two decades. Green originally auditioned for Top Model in 2003, just after it premiered, but was too old. Within the new season’s first episode, though, Green’s age serves as a powerful plotline.

After the first challenge, meant to narrow down the competition from more than 25 to 14 contestants, Green makes the cut — but only after thinking she’s going home prematurely. Banks personally delivers Green’s photo to her (when contestants receive their best photos from that week’s photo shoot, it’s a signal they have qualified for another week), and delivers a speech-cum-pep-rally meant to validate Green’s age and beauty, which she’s encouraged to wield like a secret weapon.

Of course, that’s only the first episode, and viewers will have to wait to see how far Green progresses in the competition. And if that isn’t enough to hook you in to the new season, there’s talk of President Trump within the first 10 minutes of the first episode, as well as any number of the as-to-be-expected battles that make any reality television show buzzy.

And to those who wonder whether all that focus on inclusion and diversity means the fashion is forgone, it’s not — and it’s arguably bigger than ever. The season’s runway and photo-shoot challenges feature photographers, designers, stylists, and models whose résumés are cornerstones of the fashion-capital-F world. As for the sophomore-level judges, there’s model and entrepreneur Ashley Graham, Paper magazine creative director Drew Elliott, and one of the industry’s most in-demand stylists, Law Roach.

Roach, in his second season as a judge, injects some much-needed vitality into the series. He tolerates no disrespect from mouthy contestants, cautions against perilous outfit choices, and is unapologetic when his opinion clashes with “mother” or “boss lady” Tyra, as he warmly calls her. In a way, he’s the perfect judge for the show, considering his own humble beginnings in Chicago that evolved into a career working with superstars like Zendaya, Celine Dion, and Naomi Campbell. If the contestants look closely, they might see their own reflection in Law — who’s beyond modest when speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle about the show’s new season.

Should I retire after 2017 ????? #styledbyLAW #fLAWless

A post shared by Law Roach (@luxurylaw) on Dec 28, 2017 at 1:31pm PST

“I had a moment this season when we were taking a cast photo, where I was standing next to Tyra and literally started crying,” the “image architect” says. (For those wondering, that’s a designation he’s coined, to explain how he does so much more than simply styling for his clients.) “I couldn’t believe this moment happened for me. Every week, my friends and I would go to each other’s houses to watch and talk about it the show. We talked about how groundbreaking it was for Tyra to be among the first to highlight transgender as being beautiful, or watching Miss Jay teach girls to walk in heels. You know, we had never seen that before.”

This year, viewers will get their own taste of what it’s like to witness beauty barriers being broken. Banks is on a mission to do away with ageism, sexism, racism, and any other -ism meant to exclude, divide, or belittle.

“It was so aspirational for us,” Roach says of the show’s earliest seasons he watched growing up. “And now the show’s got this legacy — it’s really pop culture at its best.”

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