One of the most influential names in America’s Next Top Model history isn’t stomping the world’s runways or posing for weekly photoshoots. Instead, prolific executive producer Ken Mok has been hard at work behind the scenes, crafting its legacy hand-in-hand with creator Tyra Banks since the show’s 2003 launch on UPN. Now, 14 years, hundreds of contestants, 22 champions, and three networks later, ANTM has been given a serious facelift for its VH1 debut, with Mok’s creative hand ushering it every step of the way. Ahead of Wednesday’s cycle 23 finale — which sees finalists India Gants, Tatiana Price, and Cory Anne Roberts vying for the first next-generation ANTM crown — Mok tells EW why he thinks they’re all worthy of representing the brand well into the future, and why their individual strengths still, to this day, have him questioning their ultimate decision.
The America’s Next Top Model’s cycle 23 finale airs Wednesday, March 8 at 10 p.m. ET on VH1. Read on for EW’s full interview with Mok.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This new season feels familiar and fresh at the same time. Was there a different approach to how you cast this season?
KEN MOK: What a model is has changed over the years, so we’ve gone into a world where social media is an important part of a model’s success. Successful models are now a brand. They have platforms to express that brand, not only on the runway, but also in businesses, commercials, and outreach to fans. [This season] we wanted to have girls who had a bigger macro awareness of how they wanted to take their brand and spread it out. We also took some girls who were already running businesses on their own. If you take a look at the way we cast cycle 1 versus now, it’s completely different.
When casting cycle 1, could you have imagined the show would evolve as much as it has?
The only thing I’m concerned about is making the best show I can. The rest is up to the audience. I’ve never been stressed out about ratings… I thought we had a shot at having a long-lasting series because fashion is ever evolving and ever changing. It travels well. The show is probably the most successful franchise show under CBS and we have over 20 franchises around the world. We even have one in Mongolia: Mongolia’s Next Top Model, can you believe that? Fashion is always changing; fashion is always constant in people’s lives.
That’s a huge legacy. How will this finale stack up to what hardcore fans are used to and what will it do to freshen things up a bit?
You’ve got three great finalists going into the last episode. These finalists represent different facets of the industry. If you could mash them together, you’d have the perfect model. It’s going to be a tough choice for the judges and the audience… which direction do you want to go with the winner? Do you want to go with a girl who’s going to be successful as a model or a girl who’s going to be successful as a model but also has a greater strength as a businessperson, a social media person, and as a personality? Or is it someone in the middle who might have both? It’s a conundrum. Even now, after we’ve decided who the winner is, I still weigh the other choices.
How do you think India, Tatiana, and Cory Anne reflect what the ANTM brand has become?
Tatiana has a great commercial look, she’s got a great personality, and she sparkles in front of the camera. She’s a boss in her own right because she has the skinBUTTR business already. Cory Anne has great pedigree. Her mom [Stephanie Roberts] was a very famous and well-known model. She’s got the whole package in terms of modeling experience, and has a great personality as well. Then you’ve got India. A lot of people compare her looks to Gigi Hadid, and people on the show like her modeling experience, but does she have the same kind of personality that Tatiana has? Cory Anne is kind of in the middle of both of them. They’re three distinct choices.
You’ve been with this show through the Jade Coles and the Lisa D’Amatos — all of those colorful personalities. Cycle 23’s contestants really are from a different generation, though. What do you think made this group right for the show at this time?
The girls on this cycle were in kindergarten when ANTM started. People now are savvy, not only to the rules of reality, but to the lessons they’ve learned from Top Model. Over the years, these girls have picked up tips from Tyra – from smizing to building a brand. We were into brand building before brand building was even a thing. Did we build the branding business for models? I think we did, in a way, because we started talking about branding back in cycle 6 or 7 before models thought of themselves as a brand, but Tyra had, at that point, looked at herself as being a brand. She made a distinct choice of leaving the world of runway couture and not trying to compete with Naomi [Campbell]. She made a conscious decision to cross over into the commercial market, and then did the iconic Sports Illustrated cover, which opened up a new world for her. She parlayed all of that into being a TV star, producer, businesswoman, makeup maven… In a lot of ways, she became the early template for what all of the girls are doing now.
All of the successive girls on Top Model have taken those lessons to heart, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that nowadays models — whether it’s Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid, or Rita Ora — have taken those lessons and created incredible brands for themselves… The girls today are far more focused on that than the girls on cycle 1, who were pure models looking to get an agency behind them to work in Milan or Paris or Asia, as they have… it’s a whole new breed and mentality now.
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And there are obviously reasons why ANTM is one of the oldest reality shows in history…
On the most superficial level, fashion endures. Fashion is a part of our lives, consciously or otherwise. I always go to that scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Anne Hathaway walks in wearing that blue sweater…
The cerulean sweater!
Yes, cerulean blue! She thinks she’s not part of the discussion, but she is… We are beholden to that, every single one of us. On the most superficial level, that’s what makes this show so interesting. People also love the fantasy of this show: A small town girl goes in and, by the end, she’s become the complete package… The storytelling on an unscripted show is the same as it is on a scripted drama. You have to tell a story about a person. That never goes out of style, right? People respond to the heart and humor of the show. We’ve never taken ourselves completely seriously… I think that’s what’s kept the show going.