Things heat up as the models are literally set on fire for their runway challenge

By Keith Staskiewicz
March 17, 2011 at 05:44 AM EDT
Jaimie Trueblood/The CW
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Why must one suffer for fashion? Is it because of those shoes that bind your feet like a well-born 16th-century Chinese woman? The insubstantial dinners of garlic powder and water vapor? Having to brace for the flailing, soft-handed slaps of angry designers? Perhaps. But if Top Model is to be believed, being a fashion model is one of the most dangerous occupations on earth, right after “bear taunter” and “personal assistant to Russell Crowe.” According to the show, once you join the industry, you will be continuously and arbitrarily swarmed by bees, submerged in ice-cold water, draped with serpents, punched by boxers, besieged by rabid toddlers, tied down to flying airplane wings, tossed into Sarlacc pits, and locked in phone booths slowly filling with irate hermit crabs.

Obviously Tyra wouldn’t put her modeltestants through these trials and tribulations merely for her own petty amusement. That would be cruel, in addition to extremely unusual. No, clearly she does it because she knows that if you show up at Fashion Week without at least a few bee swarms and crab booths under your belt, you’ll be a laughingstock. Tyra’s just trying to help these girls out when she subjects them, week in and week out, to humiliation and potential physical harm. I mean, how else do you help someone develop grace under fire, unless you literally set their body on fire?

Which is, of course, what Top Model‘s trendy Torquemadas did in this week’s episode. But before that, they had to get some house drama out of the way. Having established herself as the resident inhuman dream-murderer, Alexandria reflected on the fact that the judges didn’t like her attitude the previous week. The other girls in the house also reflected on this, although only in terrified whispers, because they knew that if Alexandria ever heard them she would snap her fingers and turn them into gruesome jack-in-the-boxes.

Sara further distinguished herself as my favorite contestant by exhibiting human qualities like doubt, empathy, self-awareness, and personality. She feared, quite rightly, she would be sent home for those very qualities, should the malfunctioning Tyrabot and her other automatons ever find out that she was only pretending to be a lifeless android. Add to that the fact that she made a literary reference last week by calling herself “Smeagol,” and it’s clear that the poor girl never really had a chance.

Perhaps sensing this, Sara pondered the possibility of college and how she would continue to live “when our looks run out,” to which Alexandria scoffed her scoffiest scoff. School is for chumps, said she, explaining that she would make it to New York, the Windy City, whether it took her 10 years or even a whole decade. (Hey, just because she shares her name with a famous library doesn’t mean she has to know how to read.) And so began this episode’s central thematic conflict between Smeagol and Sauron.

Downstairs on the monitor—or, as Alexandria the Unedumacated calls it, “the magic rectangle”—Tyra warned the models, “If you don’t watch your step, your career will go up in flames,” telegraphing the theme of the upcoming challenge quicker than Samuel Morse on speed. Cut to Miss J in a warehouse that looked suspiciously like the emptied set of Hell’s Kitchen as he explained that they would be walking down a runway surrounded by shooting flames while modeling clothes by Geoffrey Mac, who designs outfits for Lady Gaga. Unfortunately, none of them got to don Gaga’s infamous meat dress, which would have been grilled a perfect medium-rare on that catwalk.

NEXT: I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ for you

Of course, simply walking amid a fiery inferno and courting the possibility of a Michael Jackson Pepsi-commercial disaster wasn’t enough: Their hands would also be on fire, turning them into strutting, pouting Lumieres. The Weave Beast was still firmly attached to the vulnerable cranium of Molly, who had taken to wrapping her hair-tastrophe in a bundled cloth like Erykah Bad-’Do. At this point, the weave was less a weave than a half-formed conjoined twin that fed on her nutrients and told her to do bad things. The hairstylist smartly cut it off before it could steal any more of Molly’s life force, but instead of throwing it into the flames, locking the ashes in a consecrated safe, and then dropping that safe into the Mariana Trench, they just left it sitting there on the table. You fools! What are you doing?! Don’t you know it will just find itself another victim! It neeeeeds to feed!

Before the hairspray-laden models dressed in highly flammable fabrics walked a runway covered in burning fire in a likely approximation of Smokey the Bear’s worst recurring nightmare, Miss J gave a fire-safety tip—should the flames on your hands get out of control, just clap them together. That way, you can applaud your way to horrible disfigurement! Yay! Brittani explained that she loves fire and remarked, quite scarily, “I was, like, the queen of fire.” She quickly added, “But I’m totally not a pyromaniac or anything. I’m just the immortal phoenix who rises unscathed from the cleansing baptism of living fire! Big difference.”

Everyone managed to come through relatively safely, and it was Dalya, Alexandria, and Firebug Brittani who were neck-and-freakishly-long-neck for the win. In the end, Dalya took home the prize: two dresses from the collection, which presumably still smelled like burned hair. As punishment for being in the bottom three, Sara, Hannah, and Kasia were forced to walk home. Seeing as they left when it was dark and arrived at the apartment sometime midmorning the following day, either they walked across state lines or they had a crazy night of After Hours-style antics involving a wacky costume party, the Mafia, and drunken tattoos of Tyra’s face. I’m hoping it was the latter.

They must have been tired, but there’s no rest for the weary, as the models soon discovered a package labeled “Tyra Mail” outside the front door. Tyra Mail is a lot like regular mail except instead of being delivered by a fleet of uniformed professionals, it’s delivered by a single beleaguered Top Model PA who cries at night because she doesn’t understand what Tyra means when she demands a coffee with “two sugars, skim milk, and no sugar.” The Tyra-gram contained a script the models were to memorize for a commercial involving, yes, coffee and two heaping helpings of good ol’ fashioned sexism.

NEXT: Light my fire, but don’t burn those bras!Right now retro is chic, so Top Model traveled back in time to the early ‘60s, when linoleum and housewives filled this country’s kitchens and when men were men and women were not men. Again demonstrating why she was the best of the bunch, Sara was the only model to express any misgivings over the idea of playing an oversexed secretary trying to fulfill all her boss’ needs, both caffeinated and uncaffeinated. Bras were stuffed with socks, socks were stuffed with bras, and Jaclyn’s little Southern tush was given a little outside help. The whole scenario was only a tiny bit less demeaning than forcing the contestants to bake cakes while dancing on a stripper pole and spitting on a portrait of Susan B. Anthony.

During the actual filming, half the models played it like nervous sixth-graders forced into a school play, while the other half turned it into the beginnings of a Mad Men-spoof porn video, as they seduced Mr. Drysdale with their bold flavor. I tried to get into it, but I just kept picturing poor Mrs. Drysdale at home, pulling the roast out of the oven and telling little Timmy that his father would be home shortly. Oh, Mr. Drysdale, you philanderer! She gave up art school for you!

Alexandria continued to be a control freak, directing everybody in the room. Someone mentioned that she was acting motherly toward Brittani, which she was, I guess, although more in the vein of Joan Crawford or a female praying mantis. Mikaela had difficulty with the shoot because her hand was shaking. She had to keep redoing the scene, meaning she probably downed about 15 cups of coffee in the space of a half hour, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t help stop you from shaking.

At the judges’ table, Tyra was dressed like a crazy-eyed ringmaster for no particular reason, while the rest of the…WAIT A MINUTE! Something is wrong. There. Is. Nothing. On. André. Leon. Talley’s. Hat. The feather duster is missing! All right, nobody move. It has be around here somewhere. What if it escaped? Oh God. What if it has teamed up with the Weave Beast? Oh, please no. Please, please no. That will be the end of us all. For some unfathomable reason, no one on the panel or the dais appeared particularly worried by this. I’m hoping they were all just acting strong because they didn’t want anyone to panic. I don’t know how I’m going to go to sleep tonight knowing that those two creatures aren’t safely affixed to someone’s head.

The commercials were predictably uncomfortable to watch, but even more uncomfortable was Tyra’s continual insistence, like some helpful farmhand, that they weren’t “milking it enough.” In keeping with the episode’s theme, Tyra sexually harassed Jaclyn, while Sara apologized for not being subservient and feminine enough.

Kasia pulled in her first victory, seeing as she was the only one with enough of a figure to look like Joan Holloway. Hannah was announced as runner-up, and the contestant pool was winnowed down until it was only the Good (Sara), the Bad (Alexandria), and the Brittani (Brittani). Brittani got her pass, and so we were left with Smeagol and Sauron. Because all is nothing and Tyra hates good things, Sara was the one sent packing. Somehow they must have figured out that she has a pulse and the ability to form a cogent thought. No fleshies allowed in the robot factory! Alexandria was left to whine another day.

What did you think of the episode? Were you sad to see Sara leave? Does Top Model have difficulty telling the difference between sexy and sexist? Finally, are you as scared as I am about the idea that André Leon Talley’s pouf and the Weave Beast are out there somewhere… SHHH! Did you hear that? What was that sound? Oh my God.

Tyra Banks searches for the next great supermodel
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