Casting week is thrown out the window, as 14 new models compete not to be the one kicked off first

By Keith Staskiewicz
February 24, 2011 at 05:07 AM EST
Chris Frawley/The CW
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“Welcome to Cycle 16.” That is both the title of a dystopian science fiction short story I once wrote in high school (about a band of scarily lifelike androids who learn what it means to be human) and my words of greeting to you for this season of America’s Next Top Model (about pretty much the same thing).  Since it is the 16th cycle, that of course means that the show’s previous contestants now comprise the Top 15 spots on the official list of America’s best and most famous models. Wait, that’s not how it works? Ah, well.

There will be much screaming — of the happy, sad, angry, hungry, confused, and arbitrary varieties — as well as many cat-fights, catwalks, and, potentially, CAT scans, in episodes to come, but the season premiere is more about introducing us to the fourteen inhumanly lovely ladies who will compete for a $100,000 contract with CoverGirl, as well as a spread in Vogue Italia, which itself comes with the added bonus prize afforded all Vogue Italia models: One night of passionate Italian love-making and national policy debate with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Promos promised this season premiere would be the most shocking premiere, like, evah, so what was the big twist? If you guessed that the entire season would take place underwater, you would be wrong. If you guessed that Tyra would reveal that the Lindbergh baby is alive and running a small mom-and-pop toy train store in northwestern New Hampshire, you would be wrong, but strangely imaginative. However, if you guessed that, this time around, the producers had done away with casting week: Ding! Ding! Ding! You win this bell that makes dinging noises!

In lieu of narrowing down the field of contestants via the good, old-fashioned reality-TV technique of institutionalized humiliation, Tyra and the gang shook things up a bit. Taking a cue from Punk’d and terrible human beings everywhere, they decided to fool the winning contestants into thinking they weren’t the chosen few with a tactic that could best be described as Candid Camera-meets-Schindler’s List. As the sad-faced and emotionally broken models were leaving, Tyra descended the stairs under the guise of saying goodbye. But then…psych! She pulls down a curtain and they’re already in the house! They were the contestants all along! It was all those other models who would have their wishes and hopes shredded into teary handfuls of dream-confetti! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that Tyra would turn around and say, “Nah, I’m just messing with you again. You’re still off the show. Seriously, please leave the building now.”

But no, these fourteen were here to stay, at least until the end of the episode, when one of them would be departing so very soon after arriving, just like that kid at summer camp who had to go home because he forgot his asthma medication. Here I will give a disclaimer: I’m not very good at names. I promise to try my hardest to match the unnecessarily misspelled name with interchangeable Y’s and I’s to the model, but in these first few episodes please forgive me if I refer to them as “The one with the freckles who kind of looks like Maeby from Arrested Development” or “The one with the prequel Obi-Wan Kenobi hair thing” or just “Eyebrows”.

NEXT: They survived a Japanese game show

After a bit of cursory house drama and characterization — Alexandria is hard-nosed and abrasive, Jaclyn is naïve and sounds like a Confederate Betty Boop, aaaaand we’re done! — it’s on to the challenge. Model Erin Wasson was there along with metal-haired Jay to explain the rules and make the immature thirteen-year-old in me giggle by saying “I know you guys love A. Wang.” Tee-hee!

Since fashion modeling is all about poise, dignity, and looking good, the contestants would of course be walking the runway in a giant inflatable bubble like a flock of fashionable immunodeficiency patients. I had a strange uncontrollable urge to argue about the Moops. What’s more, the runway was only twelve-inches wide and it was suspended over a big pool of water.

Wait a minute. An absurd challenge? The threat of getting wet? A contest based on utter physical humiliation? The producers of America’s Next Top Model have clearly been watching themselves some Japanese game shows. Of course, if this kind of stuff is happening here, I have no option but to assume that on Japan’s Next Top Model the contestants are forced to sky-dive naked while fighting a man in a raccoon costume and Miss J is a eight-foot-tall robot whose arms are cannons that shoot scorpions.

As the challenge went on, many bubbles burst. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Physically speaking, they just kind of rolled around awkwardly. Dominique, in particular, tripped repeatedly and floated about the pool in her transparent sphere of embarrassment like an inebriated Glinda the Good Witch. In fact, only Brittani strutted her stuff impressively despite being trapped in an over-sized hamster ball. Unfortunately for her, that wasn’t what the elimination was based on. Rather, the models would be judged by a series of photos taken backstage by Fabio-haired fashion photographer Russell James.

NEXT: To the most bubblicious go the spoils!

At the judges’ table, we finally got to see both Nigel, who still resembles an haute couture Jason Statham, and André Leon Talley, who still resembles a sassy B.B. King. (Side note: I will never refer to André Leon Talley with anything but his full name, because it’s just such an awesome name to say. André Leon Talley. Awesome.) Tyra entered bedecked in a t-shirt with André Leon Talley’s face magic-markered on it, to which André Leon Talley gave the only response you can give someone who wears a shirt with your face on it: “Thanks?”

Alexandria and Dalya were praised for rawness and naturalness, respectively. The first photo to really get criticized was that of Sara or, as Tyra called her, “Rat-tail Sara,” a name I’m sure all the other models chanted bullyingly at her while pelting her with hard-boiled eggs when they all got back to the house. Tyra also bestowed her first nonsensical complisult of the season with “This picture to me looks like a 19-year-old boy with makeup on, but that’s what I like about it.” Again, the only correct response is “Thanks?”

Also not receiving rave reviews was Kasia, this season’s only fiercely real contestant, “fiercely real” of course being Tyra’s euphemism for plus-sized, which is itself a euphemism for “I can’t play your ribs like a xylophone.” Still, she managed to sneak by under the aegis of early-episode affirmative action. Despite having a good photo, Brittani of the Trailer Park was chastised for wearing a peacock feather in her hair when she went up for judgment. André Leon Talley was particularly against the unnecessarily silly headpiece, clucking, “Honey please, retire that forever!” with a perfect lack of self-awareness, as the enormous goofy feather duster on the back of his hat bobbed up and down like a tail trying to get back to the horse it was stolen from.

After deliberation, the midriff-baring Molly won, and a now feather-less Brittani took the runner-up spot. At the bottom were the unmemorable Angelia, for not being memorable enough, and Freckles, for not having a photo that captured what was inside her soul, although I’m pretty sure that’s what X-rays are for. In the end, it was Angelia who had the ignominious distinction of being the first model sent home. I’ll probably forget her name forever before I reach the end of this sentence. Wait, seriously, what was it? Andrea? Alexandra? Sven Börvis Bananafingers? Yeah, I think it was probably that last one.

Sooooo, what did you think of the premiere? Were you sad you didn’t get to see the freaks and geeks of casting week? How long do you think Sara will last and how many times will Tyra Juno-tastically refer to her as “quirky”? Finally, is Jaclyn’s Blanche-DuBois-on-helium voice adorable or enraging or both?

Tyra Banks searches for the next great supermodel
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