The challenges and treachery on “Survivor” are tired. It’s impossible to stay awake through an entire episode of “The Apprentice.” Normally, after a few seasons, reality shows lose their zing, their freshness, their appeal. Yet the sixth season of “America’s Next Top Model” has managed to buck the trend. In the season finale, airing May 17 on UPN, any of three remaining contestants Jade, Joanie, and Danielle could conceivably take the top prize.
Sure, the contestants are too old, too short, too fat, and too American to be supermodels, but that's not the point. Most fans don’t tune in to discover who'll be sashaying down Milan's runways or appearing in a multi-page spread in Vogue next fall.
Viewers watch the show to see the catty, crazy drama created by pitting 12 young women against one another for a prize they could not otherwise obtain in a world most viewers will never experience. Contestants are required to learn peculiar model-specific skills: how to walk the runway with an exaggerated horse-like stomp and how to straddle that fine line between beautiful with exaggerated features and “drag queeny” — ANTM-speak for “looks like a dude.”
Just like reality pioneer "The Real World", "America’s Next Top Model" has developed stock casting types over its tenure. You’ve got your sassy Southern chick who prides herself on keeping it real, as evidenced this season by Danielle. You’ve got your All-American Christian who has begun to rebel against her upbringing, this season represented by Joanie. And perhaps most importantly, there is the villain, the bitch, the girl that no one else likes, a role actively filled this season by Jade, the contestant fans love to hate.
Who will win?
Danielle was far from a standout at the beginning of the season. Her Arkansas accent made her difficult to understand, a fact the judges, and show creator Tyra Banks, constantly nagged her about. Danielle also boasted a David Letterman-esque gap between her front teeth. When asked to have the gap filled, she resisted at first, even though her mother warned her about what happens when "Top Model" contestants disobey Banks' requests. (Beauty queen Cassandra, from last season, threw a fit when her long hair was cut and dyed, and quit the show rather than have it cut any further.)
Danielle did eventually compromise (and boy, would I love to get my hands on the unedited footage from that conversation), although the gap in her smile was not entirely closed in the end. Why keep Danielle around if she had such an obvious drawback, when many others would amputate their pinkies if it meant advancing another round in the competition? Chances are it's because she takes amazing photographs, has a versatile look, a positive attitude, and a sense of humor about herself and modeling in general. But if Danielle wants to take the top prize, which involves being a spokesmodel for Cover Girl, she needs to flatten out that drawly accent, and fast.
Early on, Joanie seemed to be yet another example of the overprotected preacher's kid who cut loose by performing as a go-go dancer and stripper. Everyone saw "Footloose," right? Joanie's looks run to the bland side, and her clothing choices don't always best accentuate her figure.
But then came the dental episode, where Joanie had some teeth extracted in order to correct an unfortunate snaggletooth. The tooth-pulling was shown in all its gory glory, and despite undergoing oral surgery, Joanie toughed her way through a photo shoot the next day. Any images of her as a sheltered and pampered princess were out the window . Her new mouth looks fabulous, and perhaps has boosted her ability to stand up for herself, most notably against Jade.
From day one, Jade has displayed all of the qualities viewers love to hate. She was arrogant, as evidenced by her repeated claims that she was going to win every competition, and that the other contestants didn’t have a chance. (Note: she actually won very few competitions). She was mean to her fellow contestants, as evidenced by her repeated bullying of childlike, simplistic Gina.
Viewers familiar with reality television probably figured that Jade would stick around just long enough to stir up some drama, and then be eliminated before the final rounds. At 26 in an industry where many start as pre-teens, she's the oldest contestant by several years, and looks even older than she claims.
Not only that, but she didn’t even have the good sense to hide her evil ways in front of the show's judges. A true mean girl knows how to appear completely innocent and even victimized in front of authority figures, but Jade was so clueless that during the judges’ critiques, she offered up excuse after excuse regarding why her photos weren’t up to snuff. Even gentle Twiggy, the Paula Abdul of the ANTM judges’ panel, thought Jade was being ridiculous. Jade was repeatedly told by the judges to be more humble and learn from their advice. Tyra Banks had Jade’s number early on, chastising her for some spectacularly fake crying during one judging session. But viewers can be confident that Jade won't win because she’s the villain, and the villain can’t win a modeling contract, right?
Not so fast. This (allegedly) is the fashion industry, where Naomi Campbell can (allegedly) whack her assistant with a telephone and Kate Moss can (allegedly) be photographed using illegal drugs in public, and both can continue to get work. Setting aside the fact that the winner of this contest is highly unlikely to go on to become an actual supermodel, the way to win the contest is not by being the model that is the most pleasant to work with, or the model that complains the least.
The way to win is to be the model that is the subject of the best, most striking, most fashion-forward photographs that best show off the clothes, or the jewelry, or the makeup. As Jade herself memorably yelled in one early episode, the show isn’t called “America’s Next Top Best Friend.”
Kim Reed is a writer in Upstate New York.