Still Wanna Be on Top? 20 Years Later, How Does ‘America’s Next Top Model’ Hold Up?

*Trigger warning: This article discusses potentially distressing subject matter, including eating disorders*

If America’s Next Top Model were itself a wannabe runway star, it would be exactly the same age today that Adrianne Curry was when she took the Cycle One title 20 years ago in July, 2003. But the real star of this reality TV juggernaut was, of course, its iconic host and creator, Tyra Banks.

Such a momentous anniversary begs the question: Does Top Model hold up two decades later? The complicated answer is inextricably tied to Banks herself.

does americas next top model hold up: tyra banks on the red carpet.
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Though just 29 when ANTM debuted, Banks was already a world-famous “elder” stateswoman of the global fashion industry. And to this day, “Miss Tyra” remains a viral sensation. Witness her I was rooting for you! meltdown’s place in the pop culture canon. Thanks to her, we know the meaning of smize and go-see. She unapologetically platformed LGBTQ+ personalities—making catwalk coach J Alexander and creative director Jay Manuel household names by celebrating their talent without reducing them to caricatures.  ANTM featured trans contestant Isis King on two seasons, with minimal fanfare or controversy—a move that would surely be more fraught in today’s Bud Light-tinged climate. And the show was a star-maker: Several contestants, including Curry and Eva Marcille, went on to achieve reality TV notoriety. A few even made legitimate forays into fashion, with Yaya DaCosta, Fatima Siad and Kyla Coleman landing major A-list campaigns. 

However, right from the Cycle One jump, the show’s body messaging was horrendous. “I was hoping that everybody was going to be really short and fat and ugly,” says contestant Natalie in the very first episode. “But instead, everybody’s really tall and thin and beautiful.” Clearly the implication is that these adjectives are all inseparable from and synonymous with each other. “She’s just rail thin and I love it!” raves stylist Derek Khan about contestant Elyse in a typical offhand comment. Elyse herself soon swipes at a competitor for being better able to withstand a mid-winter rooftop bikini shoot because, “She has a little more insulation than me.” Oh, and Cycle One begins with a weigh-in, administered by a jacked-up personal trainer named John. It occurs to no one to object.

After 15 years (and 24 “Cycles”) the show’s relevance naturally waned. 

does americas next top model hold up judges hori
John P. Filo/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Cut to 2020, when ANTM saw a resurgence in popularity, thanks to its rediscovered binge-ability on streaming platforms. All at once, millions of locked down, nostalgia-seeking viewers had time to freshly examine it under what Variety called the pandemic era’s “zero-tolerance lens.” What they saw? Not so fierce!

In addition to the body shaming, Banks, as the show’s figurehead, was suddenly being called out for resurfaced clips evincing racial insensitivity (see the “race-swapping” challenges of Cycles four and 13), an exploitative pay structure and for gaslighting contestants—some as young as 18—who were sexually mistreated on her sets. Want receipts? Watch the judging panel’s less-than-sympathetic reaction in this clip dubbed “Jaeda kisses a racist.”

Amidst the gleefully brutal social media pile-on, the dominant narrative was that Banks, like the modeling industry she represented, was deeply—even dangerously—flawed. Her blind spots seemed even more glaring with two decades of hindsight.

With the sexual harassment in particular, the production team missed an opportunity to fire a shot across the bow at one of modeling’s most insidious realities. According to a 2017 survey by advocacy group Model Alliance, 29.7 percent of models have experienced inappropriate touching on the job, and 28 percent have been pressured to have sex with someone at work. Fans began to point out that Banks repeatedly acted as an industry apologist. When season one contestant Robbyne Manning complains about inappropriate attention from a male athlete on-set, Banks replies, “Was he talking about your booty or something? It doesn’t mean you have to go to bed with him later. Doesn’t mean you have to give him your number. If somebody says, ‘Damn!’ it just means that you’re doing great.” 

In May of 2020, Banks’s reaction to the uproar was uncharacteristically subdued. “Been seeing the posts about the insensitivity of some past ‘ANTM’ moments and I agree with you," she tweeted. "Looking back, those were some really off choices.” 

does americas next top model hold up cycle 4 cast
Hyungwon Ryoo/CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

And yet. And yet. For a decade and a half, Tyra vocally pushed for diversity and inclusivity in a way that was unprecedented and ahead of its time. “I’m looking for all colors, all shapes, and all sizes,” she declared in the pilot’s opening monologue, detailing her nationwide search, for which thousands of would-be models submitted tapes (tapes!). For context: This is a woman who broke into modeling at 15, the same year that Oprah was dragging around a wagon of 'her own' fat. Banks was indisputably trying to push her industry forward. Despite some very wrong turns, she obviously intended to drive it in the right direction. 

See more sample dialogue from Cycle One, Episode Five, when the judges consider eliminating pageant queen Manning for the crime of—among other things—being “too old” at 26.  

Janice Dickinson: And [she’s] fat! She’s huge! She’s not going to be a top model.

Tyra: I think you guys are the problem with America. I think you are the [reason] women are leaning over their toilets at this very moment and vomiting after they’ve eaten. Or taking laxatives after they’ve eaten. The full figured market is changing!

And change it did. ANTM arrived 15 years before future judge Ashley Graham broke barriers on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (and Cheryl Tiegs responded by saying, “I don't like that we're talking about full-figured women because it's glamorizing them.”). 19 years after its premiere, Lizzo won an Emmy for a model-search reality competition called Watch Out for the Big Grrrls. And two decades after ANTM, fashion influencer Remi Bader amassed 2.2 million TikTok followers. Tyra herself only has 2.5 million, making them, by that metric, virtual equals.

ANTM was all the things: inspiring and damaging, mean girls and memes, smoke and mirrors. It largely failed to deliver on its promises and its prizes: Curry has said the incessantly-mentioned Revlon campaign and Wilhelmina contract almost instantly imploded after her big win. She says she never got paid. But the show also made her famous. 

does americas top model hold up: tyra banks and adrianne curry laughing at a party.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Top Model was a diva who didn’t age so well. But that doesn’t make her any less groundbreaking.

And in the end, Curry’s take on the show and on Tyra’s haters may be the realest: 

“After season 1 of top model, EVERY girl knew what they were signing up for...and did it anyway. They wanted fame and cash SO badly, they took the risk. The Entertainment/Modeling industry is evil and abusive… This woman walked through Dante's inferno to make it in modeling...and then did it all over again to become successful on television... Stop targeting individuals for mass BULLYING sessions... Take all this energy you put forth on such negative bullsh*t and do something beautiful.”