Cameras capture light, light reflects off surfaces — and that, dear readers, is where Reality Television must halt, unable to penetrate any further.
Try as you might, you simply can’t suck a person’s inner life into a videocamera, smash it into a million pixels, and then project what remains onto a TV screen. Scientifically impossible, I say! Instead, all you can hope to capture are those aforementioned surfaces; all you can show are actions, not thought.
Not thoughts, hopes, and dreams, but cussing, fighting, and drinking: these are the building blocks of reality TV personhood, made available to editors for endless stacking and restacking until something like a character gets formed.
Someone like Snooki from Jersey Shore is an editor’s dream. She’s a wholly external creature: impulse translates directly into speech and action without the delay of unfilmable, tempering contemplation. And when Snooki acts, she acts BIG. To laugh is to snort, to drink is to guzzle, to cuss is to emit more [BLEEPS] per minute than a turn-of-the-century telegraph operator.
Snooki, in short, has a Reality Television “personality” – which is to say, an extreme one. Jane Randall ’12 does not, as America’s Next Top Model’s judges have remarked again and again, especially on tonight’s episode, which saw her land in the bottom two come elimination time for that very reason.
This doesn’t mean Jane is actually boring. I want to make that clear. In the real world, possessing some degree of quiet interiority (“unSnookiness”) a good thing. This “no personality” business also doesn’t make Jane a bad model, which is why she’s now made the competition’s Final Four in Milan. (The girl looks gorgeous even in candids, as the above picture demonstrates).
But as Top Model eliminations progress and the show is forced to spend more time on fewer contestants, the show’s producers (including Tyra Banks, ANTM’s executive producer – and, in an flagrant conflict of interest, head judge) begin to put more of a premium on “personality” when choosing who to keep.
Indeed, the “no personality” elimination is legendary, and much-maligned, among longtime fans of the show. Producers can tell in a few days which models bring “drama” and which ones don’t (Use or disuse of the phrase “Stank ho poured beer on my weave” is generally seen as a reliable indicator on this front. And yes, I’ve referenced that phrase in two straight recaps — what can I say, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Unlike weave itself, which apparently gets ruined by a single dousing of Beast.).
The larger fashion business may have use for the show’s quieter contestants; indeed, they’re often among the most plausible models of each season because their looks, not an over-the-top personality, got them cast. But Top Model itself, which is in the business of creating the biggest, most dramatic storylines possible, values these girls far less.
And so, season after season, the judges begin to harp on a few of the low-key girls’ supposed lack of presence, insisting that off-set personality is simply essential in the world of modeling (a suspect claim, to say the least, in a fashion industry that too often treats models like barely-glorified clotheshangers). Then, about halfway through the competition, these “no personality” models get cut for no good reason.
One notable victim was Season 10’s Katarzyna, who, like Jane, is an Ivy League student (she went to Cornell), and therefore had an active incentive not to have a personality — that is, not to give editors unfiltered, unguarded moments to work with.
When Top Model’s judges first met Jane, they immediately questioned her about owning horses – and before she could even finish answering, one judge cut in, drawling: “Oh how priiiveleggeddd…”
But Jane refused to play along, even when producers continued to raise the topic of her moneyed background in interviews. “I could kind of tell where they were going with the questions. I think I did a good job of giving them a hard time when they asked me about money,” Randall told the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Can’t make Jane into a rich b**ch? Might as well tell her she has “no personality” – a nasty thing to hear in the real world, made all the more devastating in the vacuum of Top Model, which forbids contestants from reading books, watching TV, listening to music or seeing relatives for weeks on end. So keep hammering that personality thing! Who knows? It might just cause her to break down.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened during this week’s photoshoot. The contestants had to portray statues brought to life by their male-model sculptor (Jane: “I’ve been told I look stiff in my photos, so this should be perfect for me.” Wit!)
Top Model’s shoot director went after her hard, perhaps displaying the kind of “exquisite sadism” some say is the show’s hallmark.
Jay Manual [shoot director]: You have a boyfriend, right?
Jay: It shows.
And so Jane wept. Fiercely.
Later, in a more cooly contemplative mood on the day before judging, Jane told the camera, “I’m just annoyed that I can’t present myself better – I need to do something, or else I’ll leave.”
There were no more photoshoots or challenges left before Jane was set to face the panel. Whatever, then, could she have meant by “do something”?
Perhaps this: Once it was Jane’s turn to step in front of the judges, she once again burst in to tears, protesting, “I do have a personality!”
And behold, in that very moment, our own Jane Randall Twelve did indeed have a personality. In fact, for this episode, she had the Biggest Personality Of Them All. As I said before, in Reality TV “personality” always means action. But on ANTM, not all actions are created equal. Oh no! One stands clearly above all the rest – and I don’t mean “modeling”. (What show have you been watching for the past fifteen seasons?)
I’m talking about crying, the only action that gives a show a built-in little moment of pathos, a moment set to the kind of sad, slow music that shows use when they want you to Feel Things. Reality TV professionals are master manipulators, and a crying scene replete with tinkling plinkling sädmusik (to borrow Mozart’s coinage) allows them to deploy their powers to maximum effect. They made a girl cry, and now they’ll try to make you cry too! Bow down, mortals! The Editors are back in town, and they’re comin’ for your tearducts!
Jane might have once had “no personality” in the strict Reality Television sense, but she sure isn’t dumb: thanks to her well-timed breakdown, she got to stay on the show despite landing in the bottom two. After announcing Jane’s safety, Tyra, who ate up Jane’s tears like they were so many ribs, told her:
“The reason why your name was called is because the judges saw some passion in this room. They saw a real human being. They saw a crack of a real true person.”
If I had to use the word “crack” to describe Top Model, that wouldn’t exactly be the first meaning to come to mind, but you know what? I ain’t mad at Tyra. As long as Jane’s still in the competition, I’ll happily keep skimming the surface — the shiny, glossy, candy-coated surface — of this sublimely silly show.
Speaking of sublimely silly, here’s the episode description for next week: “Tyra directs the girls during a motion editorial challenge that requires them to bring their poses to life with movement and emotion. Following this week’s double elimination, Tyra premieres her directorial debut of “Disturbato.”
What an intriguing tribute to Italian cinema! Who’s up for a Banks/Fellini double feature?