The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

The Age’s Madeleine Ryan On ‘Australia’s Next Top Model’

Posted by Clem Bastow on June 26, 2008

I’m the first to admit that I am and always have been an Australia’s Next Top Model addict – however this Cycle (the fourth) has left me with a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth. It isn’t, as some of the Vogue Forum posters would suggest, because the “quality” of the entrants this year was lower than usual (far from it; I wouldn’t think twice about putting Leiden, Caris, Alex or Emma on a high fashion catwalk if I were a designer). It was because this year more than ever, the girls were younger – and seemed younger (after all, you can be 16 and be whip smart and totally on the ball) – and the criticism harsher and seemingly dished out solely for effect.

It’s no secret that the modelling world is full of intensely uncomfortable issues – weight, size, race, “youth”, beauty – and AusNTM‘s bread and butter is those very issues writ large. But where last year they might have quietly suggested that Jordan was too short, or that Alice was too thin, and so on, this year such “advice” was blurted out as readymade soundbites on the part of Meares, Dawson & Co. Witness “mentor” Jonathon Pease making a snaky aside about 16-year-old Demelza’s behind (“arse-tronaut, more like”); that, in Episode 1, was just the tip of the decidedly unpleasant iceberg.

Regular viewers of AusNTM will have noticed that with each Cycle, the contestants have been younger and younger. Where there were a handful of under-18 girls last year, this year it was a near 50/50 split, and when you combine young girls with the sort of highly critical direction the show is headed in, much of its entertainment value drained away very quickly as it became a free-for-all on the part of the judges and the girls more or less started to act out Lord Of The Flies, but with better outfits.

This piece from today’s Age/Fairfax network by Madeleine Ryan is spot on in discussing what has soured a previously giddily enjoyable formula this time around. Here’s where I think Ryan hits the nail on the head:

Dubious conduct also featured in the judges’ handling of the “Bitchketeers” (as they named themselves) in the Model House where the contestants all live. During episode four, the “Bitchketeers” (Demelza, Rebecca and Alyce) ruthlessly bullied the waif-like Alamela. Meares informed the group such activities were “not gonna fly with me or anyone here on this panel”. Yet despite this assertion, the judges rewarded the nasty behaviour by keeping the “Bitchketeers” because they took “absolutely beautiful” pictures. So I suppose what they’re telling us here, contrary to Meares’ pious words, is that in the world of modelling such conduct does indeed fly.

In episode six, we discovered that 20-year-old contestant Alexandra had collagen injections in her lips. And, in spite of the observations made by a photographer that it was not “a good sign”, a “tragedy” in fact, the judges opted to keep Alexandra on board. While they position themselves on high moral ground, when push comes to shove they don’t care how you treat others, or if at the tender age of 20 you’ve already had cosmetic surgery, it’s OK as long as you take a good picture. But what are these decisions saying to viewers?

Contradiction runs throughout the show. While the judges urge the girls to discover themselves and be unique, they also want them to be more like an “average teenager”. After including an “inexperienced” 16-year-old in the competition, they pressure her to be sexy. Throughout the season, Pease has stressed to 16-year-old Demelza, a finalist alongside Alexandra, that she must become “close to people of the opposite sex” because sex sells. He isn’t wrong. But can you truly speed up the understanding of sexuality? On national television? Photographer Chris Ferguson commented in episode seven that Demelza isn’t “used to her body yet. She’s drivin’ a V8 and only got her Ls.” The pressure to conform to unrealistic expectations is alarming. Girls are caught in a catch 22: youthful beauty and sexual experience are considered desirable, but it’s near impossible to have both at the same time. It’s a tantalising trap – and that just about sums the show.

The scene that more or less turned me off Cycle 4 was when, shooting the U Tampons commercial screen-test, Pease – wanting Demelza to be more “sexy” – ordered Demelza to “pash” a male model brought in to the studio; Demelza, 16 and never before kissed, was so overcome by wanting to do the right thing by the competition (as, naturally, like most of the girls there – except for Leiden, who wisely lost interest in about Week Two – she wants to win it) that she kissed the model, only to have Pease embarrass her in front of the other contestants when he revealed that it was a trick and no one else had to pash on. Sex appeal. From a 16-year-old virgin. In a tampon commercial.

What are your feelings about Australia’s Next Top Model? Do you watch it? Did you give it up? Or did you never watch?

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2 Responses to “The Age’s Madeleine Ryan On ‘Australia’s Next Top Model’”

  1. tina_sparkle said

    I’ve only watched one episode but find it really sad that the judges are enabling vicious behaviour by women against women.

  2. Alamela said

    There is something seriously wrong with that show.

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