Top Model Musings: The Best and Worst of ANTM Makeovers
“I can’t be serious ALL the time!”- Judge Fudge
I live to analyze Survivor, and you all know that by now. But there is another show that holds just as strong a death grip on my heart–the titanic force known as America’s Next Top Model. Say what you will about the shallowness of the idea of a modelling competition or the complete lack of adherence to the actual norms of the fashion industry the show has, because it’s doing something right. With Cycle 21 starting in August, ANTM is one of the few reality competitions to have made it past the 10 years and 20 season marks, putting it alongside the most respectable of reality tv in Survivor and The Amazing Race. (Fortunately, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are counted as separate series, meaning that while they both have made it past 10 years, neither has yet hit 20 seasons.)
But enough about whatever I was saying, let’s ramble.
Talking about reality tv from an analytic perspective is a lot of fun–I wouldn’t have started this blog otherwise–but even when I’m analyzing, I still want to just sit back and enjoy the show for what it is. So for today’s Top Model Musing, I’m not breaking down anything about the storytelling in the show or the broader social implications of the portrayals of certain contestants. Rather, I’m devoting this post to the most exciting part of every Cycle of ANTM–Makeovers.
For those somehow unfamiliar with the culture institution of Top Model, the makeover episode is the Once-A-Season highlight (sometimes quite literally yuk-yuk-yuk) in which the aspiring models are brought to a high-end hair salon to be made over. While dramatics are a sure-bet, the goal of the makeovers isn’t solely to create drama. As Tyra Banks will often explain, there is a difference between functional, pretty real life hair and hair that is interesting, complimentary to a person’s face, and an asset to make them stand out as a model and book jobs in the industry. So with 21 cycles worth of makeovers, it only makes sense that we’ve seen some amazing results, along with some absolutely heinous ones. So let’s take a trip down memory lane by revisiting the best and worst makeovers of each cycle, starting with the first ten. We’ll wrap up with the following 11 cycles in a later post.
ANTM’s flagship cycle’s makeovers seem tame by comparison ten years later, where the focus was less on drastic, in your-face changes. Rather, the interest was in subtle touch-ups to the looks each girl was naturally working with. For witty pre-med student Elyse, that meant sticking with the short, dark hair she came in with, but giving it some extra polish. I’m personally a sucker for pixie cuts and the choppier, closer cropped style, along with a richer variant on her natural color, was all it took to take the cycle’s obvious frontrunner from “good” to “great.” Many of the makeovers I love in future cycles are great because they’re so dramatic, drastic, and statement making, but sometimes less is more.
Nicole Panattoni is one of the most interesting contestants of the first cycle–not because she had a lot to contribute as a character, but because she’s so representative of the way ANTM has held the viewer’s hands over the years to get them to embrace less conventional ideas of beauty. At the Cycle 1 auditions, many of the hopefuls were looking at Nicole as the biggest threat because she most matched the stereotypical idea of what a model looked like, with her big, fake, blonde hair and big, fake other assets. In a cycle where the makeovers weren’t very drastic, nobody really stuck out as having a bad makeover, and I don’t think Nicole’s is unflattering by any means. I chose it at the worst because of what it represents–Nicole had payed a pretty penny for some big extensions days before flying out to audition and was resistant and uncooperative to the point that she was basically given a trim and a blow-out instead of the more dramatic cut that the creative team had intended for her.
The magic of Makeover Week didn’t really start until Cycle 2, and nineteen cycles later, it’s still responsible for some of the most iconic makeovers ANTM has ever done. There were a lot of contenders for the best this cycle. Mousy, gangly dweeb Shandi was transformed into a glamazon with a bright blonde blow-out and contact lenses. Eventual winner Yoanna had her drab, just kind of there mid-length hair chopped into a dramatic, blunt short style that showcased just how gorgeous of a face she had. And of course, we had our first full-fledged makeover-meltdown when Catie had her hair cut super-short for a Twiggy-inspired look.
What made me pick April, though, is that I don’t think the fandom often realizes how dramatic her makeover was in terms of changing her look. April was super bright, eloquent, and hard-working, and those are the elements of her character that are in the forefront of fans minds when the remember her. For being as sophisticated as she was as a person, it’s almost jarring to go back to the Cycle 2 premiere episode and see her with uninspired, sun-kissed hair that made her look like every other girl in Miami. The dark hair and blunt fringe really matched April’s personality, as well as highlighting the beauty of her face.
After Tyra has explained the makeovers to nine of the girls, she has only one left to assign a look to–the extremely memorable and revolutionary Heather Blumberg. “And finally Heather,” Tyra says with a smile. “We’re going to make you a little more blonde.” And then there is an awkward silence where Tyra just kind of nods and smiles vacantly. Sometimes, minimal change is for the best, as I said for Elyse. And sometimes, well, you need to swing for the fences. Heather came into Cycle 2 as the representation of the Cheryl Tiegs-flavored “All-American” Blonde archetype, and while I guess they wanted to stay true to that idea, the problem is that it’s an idea of beauty that isn’t really new or interesting in any way, shape or form. Heather may hold the distinction for the single most generic-looking contestant to ever compete on ANTM, and the makeover was their chance to do something–literally anything–to make her even remotely intriguing. They could have shaved a strip down the middle of her head and dyed the rest the color of pea soup, and don’t get me wrong, it would probably look awful, but at least it would have looked like they were trying to give a shit.
Norelle Van Herk
Cycle 3 was another one where the styling squad really stepped up their game and put forth a lot of worthy contenders. Token “alternative” contestant Nicole Borud got punched up a thousand degrees with a short, fire-engine red style; while legally-blind mother Amanda got ultra-bright platinum hair to match her searing, bright blue eyes. There were a lot of good makeovers to choose from this cycle, but I ultimately went with Norelle, one of the most fun and adorable contestants we’ve ever seen. 18 at the time of filming, she was still very much a girl growing into being a woman–her fashion knowledge started and stopped at pretending she was Paris Hilton in her bedroom. It seemed that Norelle’s hairstyle coming into the show didn’t really have any conscious decision making behind it beyond the fact that long hair is often seen as equivalent to pretty hair, but all the length did was drag her down. The chic, choppy bob highlighted Norelle’s quirky, birdlike features instead of trying to blend her into a more conventional definition of beauty, and made the inexperienced teen appear much more fashion forward than she was. On top of it, ANTM hooked her up with an orthodontist to take off her clunky metal braces in exchange for Invisaligns.
I can only imagine what it’s like when Tyra, the producers, the creative team, etc all sit down with each other, lay out pictures of all the contestants, and try and come up with their makeovers. Because from the way I’m imagining it, when they got to Ann’s picture, there was a lot of silence, a few “um, what about… no, nevermind,” with the eventually conclusion of “let’s just skip to the next one and see how we’re feeling on the day of.” There didn’t seem to be any reason or thought behind the makeover they threw at Ann. They cut it shorter, but not in a way that made any sort of difference as to how her hair framed her face or proportions. They dyed it… but they couldn’t seem to settle on a color beyond “inspired by blonde,” leading to about 400 different colors of highlights, including the incredibly popular Rogue-streaks that have mostly vanished since this cycle aired twenty centuries ago. This makeover makes a statement alright–that statement is “I have no clue what we’re going for.”
Tiffany was the first contestant to be cut in semi-finals, only to return in a subsequent cycle and make the cast. This, along with the fact that Tiffany had a very complex and layered story and personality, ensured that no matter what she’d be one of the standout characters in Cycle 4. Of course, it always helps when the important characters can actually hold their own and impress by performing in the competition, and this makeover was a big reason that Tiffany was able to do that.
I think that there is a systematic problem with how our culture’s beauty standards treat black women’s natural hair, and I wish we could see more examples of black women with natural hair presented as beautiful in our media–and that with Tyra being a black woman herself, that she would make more of an effort to embrace natural hairstyles on ANTM. That being said, Tiffany’s hairstyle coming into the show may have been natural, but it wasn’t making her a knockout, and the goal of makeovers is to take the girls from ordinary to extraordinary. The Naomi Campbell inspired look they gave Tiffany did just that and more, because it didn’t only make her stand out physically, but it triggered an obvious psychological change in Tiffany as well. At their best, ANTM makeovers allow the contestants to really start believing in the idea of themselves as fashion models, and that’s exactly what this makeover did.
Michelle aka the former Mrs. Jonny Fairplay was the first recipient of what is now a staple style in ANTM’s makeover rotation–the dog piss on snow dyejob. Ostensibly, the idea was to make rough-and-butchy wrestler Michelle more “ethereal” with a platinum dyejob much like the one Amanda Swafford received in the previous cycle that turned her from a suburban mom into an elven queen. On Michelle, however, it just looked ridiculous. It complimented her looks in no way, shape or form and only got worse as time wore on and nobody in the style department found it appropriate to touch up her dark roots as they grew back in. By the time Michelle was eliminated in South Africa it looked like she was wearing a dingy wig that she found in the back of the costume room at a performing arts summer camp.
ANTM doesn’t only have a catalog of character archetypes it loves to re-use over and over (The Loud Hood Rat; The Awkward Nerd; The Ugly Duckling; The Ruthless Bitch; etc) but it also has a number of model-look archetypes it comes back to time and time again. One such look archetype is the “Look What the Queen Dragged In” contestant, a model whose look leans a little more on the masculine side. Now I’m not talking about gender expression. Cycle 5 had a contestant, Kim Stolz, who was openly gay and most comfortable with a very masculine style of self-expression, but her natural facial features were extremely feminine. Coryn, on the other hand, had harder facial features–a stronger jawline, sharper cheekbones, heavy eyebrows, etc… and she was absolutely beautiful. The judges will be quick to defend this archetype by pointing out that “open minded” people in the world of high fashion will embrace a model with a look that plays with gender expectations. But the classic Achilles Heel of the masculine model on ANTM is the question of broad appeal. America’s Next Top Model is supposed to be the girl that can do it all. High fashion may gravitate towards a masculine look, but will the run-of-the-mill simple minded American consumer?
Coryn’s makeover was unexpected and the most amazing transformation because it didn’t erase the uniqueness of her features, but balanced them. The big, blonde hair and matching eyebrows didn’t hide Coryn’s strong features, but softened them to broaden her appeal. It gave her the potential for greater versatility, allowing her to still embrace the unconventional beauty she had while allowing her access to more traditional and “safe” ideas of beauty.
There were a few contenders for the worst makeover in Cycle 5. The most infamous makeover in ANTM History–Cassandra’s “Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby” cut n’ dye–was a big possibility for two reasons. One, it was done wrong–Tyra’s specifications were the specific 60’s mod style Farrow had in the film, and what Cassandra ended up with was a spikier style that was like a less severe Kate Gosselin. Two, when Tyra was displeased with said screw-up, she told Cassandra they were going to redo the cut so it would be shorter, and Cassandra refused and subsequently quit the competition.
But I have to call Tyra out on her hypocrisy with the microbraids she gave Ebony. This was a cycle where nobody really walked out of the salon looking bad, but it was one of the first times we saw Tyra directly contradict the advice she’d given in previous cycles. Past contestants had come into the game with their hair in braids, and Tyra had always responded in the same way to them: beautiful, but a hindrance to the versatility a model needs to work as many markets as possible. So after multiple instances of taking out a girl’s braids, she goes ahead and then puts them on someone who came in without them. Tyra logic at it’s finest.
Okay, so this one isn’t really in line with a lot of the other makeovers–it didn’t even happen on the makeover episode. For her hair, Joanie was taken from “blonde” to “still blonde,” but there was still work to be done and Tyra delivered. Joanie had a rather British quality to her teeth that did no favors to her self-confidence and certainly wasn’t going to do her favors in her career as a model moving forward. In episode 8, Tyra sent all the models to the dentist for a teeth whitening, but she had an extra surprise for Joanie when production threw down the cash for them to pull her snaggletooth and put up a gorgeous set of veneers–a procedure Joanie would have never been able to afford otherwise. It’s a makeover that will always stand out across top model history simply because of how kind of a gesture it was on the show’s behalf and how genuinely thankful Joanie was once it was all said and done.
Usually when a girl is upset about her incoming drastic makeover, Jay Manuel is there to remind her that they’re giving her the look because they have her best interests at heart. They don’t just want to milk drama, they want to give a model the look that will best complement her and make her stand out in a positive way. Usually, when Jay says this, I truly believe it.
But with Jade, that’s just not the case. I don’t know how anyone could truly believe the best look for this woman was to weed-whack her afro to the length and consistency of pubic hair and then top it off with a half-assed blonde dyejob that took all of a week to get so brassy you could have played it in a jazz band. I’m not at all upset they gave Jade the makeover she did–she is by far the most bizarre, controversial, deluded and iconic contestant they’ve ever had. If any contestant was fated for a makeover that served absolutely no purpose other than to piss them off, it was Jade. But that doesn’t mean it looked good.
If production can both improve a girl’s look and milk every tear she has to offer in the process, they’ve struck gold. At the auditions, Jaeda talked at length about being one of the hottest girls in her high school, and it became very clear that she was very attached to obvious femininity as an equivalent to beauty. “Here, you’re actually the most handsome,” Tyra went on to tell her. Much like Coryn, Jaeda fell into the masculine looking girl archetype. While they successfully used more traditional feminine mechanisms to give Coryn a touch of softness, they took the more dramatic and exciting approach with Jaeda by going full Halle Berry. The end result was that by using a more traditionally masculine hairstyle, Jaeda’s overall look became more feminine. Bluntly, the long hair only called attention to her masculine features by looking out of place. Everyone–judges, fellow models, and fandom alike–agreed that Jaeda’s makeover was a breathtaking transformation. The one person who didn’t like it was Jaeda herself, who spent the remainder of her time in the competition bitching and moaning about how much she hated her makeover. And considering she lasted until sixth place, that was a lot of bitching and moaning to listen to. At least she looked good while doing it.
Sometimes it’s not the idea behind the makeover that’s the problem, it’s the execution. There’s only so much you can realistically do to human hair to change it, and Megg was the first of what would eventually be many to fall victim to a makeover that worked in theory but could just not be applied practically. Tyra said that Megg had a “little natural curl” that they wanted to accentuate with big, curly extensions. The end result was extensions that were so much longer than where Megg’s natural hair ended was that when not styled, it looked like she was wearing a shorter wig on top of her longer hair. The curls also didn’t hold very well, and more often than not looked like ramen noodles than a hairstyle. To her credit, Megg didn’t seem to care–she was just happy she had more hair to headbang with, because she was RAAAWK AND ROOOOOLLLLLLL!!!!
Cycle 8 was a Top Model first, having two plus-sized models in the competition, Diana being one of them. The exact boundaries of where “plus” sizes start is fuzzy and varies depending on who you ask, but it’s generally agreed that the starting point is somewhere between U.S. sizes 12 and 16. ANTM often has cast women who are larger than the fashion industry’s sample size (U.S. size 2-4) and labelled them as “plus-sized” models when the reality is that their body size falls in a place that is unlikely to be accepted in the modelling industry on either end of the spectrum. But I digress. The point is that plus-sized models are often used as an example of changing beauty standards and a beacon of hope that “real women” are going to see themselves represented more widely in media.
The reality is that plus-sized models are just as “unreal” as standard sized models. They aren’t freed somehow from the hyper-rigid standards of the modelling industry, they’re just held to different standards than the standard sized girls. Plus-sized models still need to be tall, have good skin, and symmetric proportions. Robin Manning of Cycle 1, the series first plus-sized contestant, was even referred to multiple times as being “plus-sized on the bottom but not on the top.” Diana stood out immediately because she was the first plus-sized contestant who really had the “ideal” body to make it as a plus sized model. She was tall and curvy with excellent proportions.
What was working against Diana was the neck up. She’s pretty but not particularly striking; the type of attractive where you’d be unlikely to take much notice of her if you passed her on a crowded street. A well done, believable blonde dyejob did wonders in taking her from a real world pretty girl into a Top Model Glamazon. Unfortunately, her performance was never really up to snuff, but they did everything they good to make sure the potential was there.
Megg took the first few steps into the world of bad weaves on white girls, but it was Brittany who ended up in the deep end of that pool a cycle later. As I said before, it wasn’t the concept here that was the problem, attempting to go big, bushy, and bright red. The problem was that their half-assed attempt at doing this was to mop up a crime scene and then stick the bloody rags to her head. Brittany’s weave was not only physically uncomfortable for her to have stitched in, but it was uncomfortable to everyone who had to look at it. Her confessional after her makeover was finished was literally that “I never thought getting my hair done would be such an ordeal because I would never do this to myself.” There’s really not much more to say–even after Molly’s similar nightmare in Cycle 16, Brittany still remains untouched on the pantheon of awful makeovers.
The trope codifier for ANTM villains had one of the most unexpected and dramatic makeovers of all time, and the whole thing came about as a happy accident. A New York girl through and through, Bianca had a face made for magic and no idea how to translate that into the world of high fashion beauty standards. Her hair at the start of the competition was a two-toned weave featuring everybody’s favorite color, ambiguous magenta-cherry. Cute for going out and about in Queens, sure, but nobody expected it to stay when the makeovers hit. The girls arrived at the salon and per-usual, Tyra went through each of the contestants to tell them about the look she and the rest of the creative team have planned out for them. For Bianca, it was supposed to be a step in the Beyonce direction, with a luscious, honey-golden colored weave. Bianca was not thrilled about this change, asserting it would make her look like a “streetwalker.” It ended up not being meant to be.
Once they did a strand test, it was immediately clear that they were not going to get Bianca’s permed, color-processed hair to lift to a lighter shade, as the hair was so damaged that the bleach did nothing more than break it. Come hell or high water, though, they wanted her blonde, and long story short, they buzzed her hair off and gave her a high-quality wig to wear in photoshoots. Once she had undergone the big clip, however, everyone was in agreement–the wig looked whack but the bald looked regal, and the wig was never seen again, banished to wherever Brittany’s weave was sent after being removed.
“A Louise Brooks cut can save a commercial girl,” Miss J. Alexander told Saleisha as they prepped her for her makeover–the one that would be the single most obvious choice for worst makeover of the cycle by a long shot. Much as with Diana, Saleisha suffered from the problem of just not being a terribly interesting looking model. Pretty, absolutely, but not striking. It was obvious that her generic default weave had to go. The super-short statement making bob is an editorial fashion staple and a bold, decisive style choice. This is yet another example of intent vs execution. When all was said and done, Saleisha walked out looking nothing like Louise Brooks and looking everything like either A) Dora the Explorer; B) A mushroom, or C) the tip of a penis. The weave was far too thick for the length it was cut at, adding a lot of extra volume around her head, and the angles of the cut weren’t severe enough to make the style seem bold. The bangs gradually sloped to the ends of the bob, looking more like a medieval page-boy than a vintage cut. The whole thing just looked absolutely ridiculous. I have to this day never understood how nobody caught or corrected any of the issues present in her hair, and given the short length of the style, I can’t help but feel that the whole thing could have been avoided if they had just styled her natural hair instead of putting in tracks and wefts to add needless bulk. I would go as far as to say that this awful makeover is the biggest argument against the theory that Saleisha was pre-selected to be the winner of this season.
With the hair Fatima came into Top Model with, almost any makeover would win an improvement. A color somewhere between trombone and cheetos is obviously not Fatima’s natural hair color, so the fact that her hair was that color in the first place meant she was obviously trying to do something with her hair… which made the complete non-style of her cut itself all the more jarring. Long, straight and dark might have been the most obvious path they could have taken, especially given the fact that ANTM loves creating mini-clones of more established, famous models and Fatima was being carefully groomed as their Little Iman. Just because it was obvious and derivative doesn’t mean it was bad, though.
I don’t think anyone in the creative department really knew what to do with Dominique. The kind of look she had was severe, and her face was very dependent on the styling surrounding it. It was very easy for Dominique to look much older than she was and much more male than she was. Her naturally androgynous features were only emphasized by her penchant for heavy makeup, revealing clothing, and bronzer. Lots and lots and lots of bronzer. Dominique needed a makeover for sure, but it didn’t really need to be anything drastic. The golden-blonde hair she started out with was hugely complementary to her skin tone and the length kept her feminine and youthful. She just needed to be sanded down, scrubbed up and given a fresh coat of paint, so to speak. Instead, they gave her a hair color that completely washed her out accompanied by a hairstyle that is most commonly seen on women a good 20 years older than her. In the first photoshoot post-makeovers, the photographer said he didn’t realize she was one of the models until he saw her getting put into wardrobe. Tyra remedied it sort-of by sending Dominique back to the salon so they could return her hair to its original color, but the soccer-mom bob haunted her for the rest of the cycle.