Model citizen

The other day, I got a call from Tyra Banks. “What’s up?” she chirped. “Guess who just hit me up on my celly? Your homegirl, Rachel! She told me that you’re a huge fan of Top Model.” It was a recorded promotional message in which Banks reminded me to both “keep it fierce” and “tune in to the new CW to watch America’s Next Top Model.”

As if I’d forget. For at least a year, my girlfriends and I have had a standing engagement whenever the show is on. We grab dinner, catch up on each others’ lives and then settle onto somebody’s couch to complain about Banks and her latest batch of runway hopefuls.

Being a reality-TV snob, I’d never seen the show when we started meeting. I just went along for the company. As the weeks went on, I was shocked to find I’d developed opinions—nay, deeply held convictions—about which girls were model material and which were pretenders to the cover-girl throne. I told myself I was just seeing Top Model socially; I could quit anytime. One night, when I couldn’t be there in person, I programmed the VCR to tape an episode for me. Later I discovered that the tape’s quality was compromised, and I’m ashamed to admit I watched it anyway, squinting to make out the models between lines of static. That’s when I knew I was hooked.

I still can’t explain my attraction. The show is ridiculous on so many levels. Why is Miss J. Alexander, a grown man who wears braids, baggy T-shirts and miniskirts, an authority on female fashion? Why are designer fashions pushed aside for product-placement assignments like posing with Venus razors and Payless shoes? Why, at the end of every show, does Banks perform the same drawn-out elimination routine (“The next name … that I’m going to call … is …”) until I want to gag her with her own hair extensions? And, perhaps most importantly, how can the show pose as a generator of supermodels when none of the winners ever surfaces again? Seven cycles and not a Kelly Clarkson in the bunch.

Worse, the show exposes the depths of my pettiness. In daily life, I try hard to encourage and support the people around me. But when I watch Top Model, I find myself barking out judgments on hairstyles, runway walks and Banks’ unfortunate halter-dress habit like God’s own stage manager.

Needless to say, by the time Banks hit me up, I’d already planned to watch the premiere. I’d scoped out the contestants online and was thrilled to discover one from Sacramento. The Web site’s bios were thinner than Kate Moss, so it was impossible to tell much about Sacto’s own A.J., besides that she’s a 20-year-old student and stunningly gorgeous. In an accompanying video, she confidently delivered the sort of vague statements that sound positive but don’t mean anything. (“Hey, I think we’re all in this together. Let’s do the best we can.”)

Last Wednesday, my friends and I discussed whether we knew anyone who knew A.J. over noodle soup at Andy Nguyen’s (alas, no) and then tucked into the premiere. I vowed to keep my mean comments to myself, but by the time the little blond girl from Texas started rapping in the judges’ room, I was already muttering, “Oh no, no, no.”

With 33 girls to whittle down to 12 in two hours, no one got much airtime, but A.J. did OK. When Banks forced the contestants to tell sob stories, she had a good one about surviving cervical cancer. (Take that, girl who got teased for having dark skin!) She also embodied the spirit of Sacramento with a large tattoo, unexpected beauty and low self-esteem. She just about melted down during the elimination round, saying she didn’t think she belonged there.

Yet, on the Top Model message boards the next day, she was a clear fan favorite. Hang in there, A.J.! Do Sacramento proud! I promise never to pick on you from the cruel vantage point of my couch—unless you start to rap.