Australia’s Next Top Model rates well. Really well. In fact, last year the premiere of series five entered the record books and became the most watched show on pay TV. Many of the viewers are teen girls and many of the contestants are teen girls. This year, of the 16 contestants, only two are out of their teens and the average age is just 17.
What type of messages will girls be exposed to if they tune in this year? Past offerings give us something to go on …
In 2007, the American version set the tone with one of the most alarming and tasteless episodes I have ever seen. The models were asked to pose as victims of violent crimes for a fashion shoot. They were depicted shot, bashed, pushed down stairs - the images were graphic and deeply disturbing. But apparently, this graphic glorification of violence against women is so hot right now.
The judges made remarks like: “What’s great about this is that you can also look beautiful in death” and “Death becomes you, young lady”. Even more disturbingly, the “victims” were all meant to have been killed by other models, so vicious was the contestants’ desire to win that they would kill the others to secure the coveted prize. The scenario of one of the pictures was so over the top that it would have been laughable if it wasn’t so creepy: “Diana poses - organs stolen by a model”. What was the other model meant to have done with the stolen kidneys? Sold them for Prada?
In 2008, the Australian series was rocked by (read: the show grabbed free publicity and maximised its audience with) awful bullying. Contestant Alamela Rowan, the victim of verbal taunts and physical attacks, was left quite distraught. So bad did the systematic intimidation become that the show’s judges at the time - Jodhi Meares, Charlotte Dawson and Alex Perry - reprimanded the other contestants, but no further action was taken and the bullies weren’t punished. This sparked a media debate on teen girl bullying, although the show’s culture of “compare and despair” and practice of ranking girls on their looks was not called into question. The main bully, Demelza Reveley, ended up winning the series and going on to receive the lucrative modelling contract - there, that showed her, didn’t it?
Throughout the seasons, the judges themselves have sometimes been less than ideal role models. Alex Perry has a reputation for doling out harsh criticism, calling contestants things like “wild pig”. Charlotte Dawson sends mixed body image messages. She now says she regrets some of the cosmetic surgery she has had, and that “anyone thinking plastic surgery will make them happier is wrong”. However, although she says she’s given up on invasive surgery, she does still use some cosmetic procedures. And she has a damning, dismissive and totally out-of-touch attitude towards plus-size models.
Last year saw a revolution of sorts, when a “plus-sized” model, Tahnee Atkinson, won. She was a size 10. I say this was a “revolution of sorts” as the average Australian woman is a size 16. It was hardly an earth-shattering move, was it? Yet many commentators asked if she was really top model material:
In an ideal world, yes. The girl is unquestionably gorgeous - she’s got an exceptional figure and a smile that stops traffic. She’s professional, well-behaved and determined. Her “normal” beauty is something that a lot of women would love to see more of in fashion magazines. But in the fickle and unfair world of modelling it probably won’t equal a long-term fashion career. As casting agents politely explained in the show, she just doesn’t have the matchstick-thin figure required by most top designers. Georgia Waters, Brisbane Times
What about this season then, post Tahnee, post the government’s Body Image Advisory Group? Don’t hold your breath that this season the show will suddenly adopt the new voluntary code of conduct for the fashion industry and begin to promote a diversity of sizes. In the first episode of the new season, airing tomorrow, viewers will see a 16-year-old contestant get excluded from a catwalk parade because she is “too big”. She’s a size 8. She says the experience left her feeling embarrassed and shamed into changing her eating habits. I spoke about this recently with Kerri-Anne Kennerley:
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