When Eugena Washington looked down the runway, she was terrified.
It was one of the first few weeks of filming “America’s Next Top Model” season seven, and before her was a path of wooden planks seesawing in a pool. Prior to filming, producers instructed divers to loosen the bolts connecting the planks to make the runway more wobbly, according to a producer who worked on the episode. They wanted “the most drama,” this person told Insider.
“We were all nervous, because we didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” Washington said. “It was dangerous.”
“I just kept thinking, this isn’t just for show,” AJ Stewart, another season-seven contestant, said. “Someone could get hurt. Someone could break an ankle.”
According to Washington, her outfit — 6-inch heels, a pencil skirt, and two corsets — made walking the floating runway an “impossible task.” She made it to one end, but on her way back, a lopsided plank sent her toppling. She cracked her knee as she went down, clutching the runway to avoid falling into the water. Sixteen years later, she still has visible scars.
“I felt like my life was being put on the line for ratings,” Washington said. (Contestants signed contracts saying “ANTM” wasn’t responsible for injuries sustained on the show.)
More than 5 million people watched Washington fall when the episode aired in 2006. Few seemed to think twice about the scene, nodding along when the host and judge Tyra Banks threatened to eliminate Washington for her supposed lack of passion. The absurd runways and photo shoots, along with Banks’ eccentric persona, were part of what drew viewers in each week — and what turned the show into a generational touchstone.
“ANTM” went off the air in 2018 after 24 seasons, but fans were still obsessed, relitigating its eliminations and scandals on Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. But when COVID-19 hit and everyone was stuck at home bingeing on reruns, things felt different. The show’s treatment of sexual orientation, body type, and race suddenly seemed wildly inappropriate, not to mention the expectation that contestants compete while terrified, injured, or ill. How is it possible, people wondered, that everyone just sat back and watched the show air three blackface photo shoots and still kept tuning in for more?
In many ways, “ANTM” wrote the playbook for reality-TV competitions. But numerous contestants who spoke with Insider said the show could cause real harm. Two models said they were questioned by producers about past abuse and trauma to provoke emotional on-camera responses. Some contestants described on-set panic attacks, and others were injured after makeovers gone wrong. (Many of the 30 former crew members and contestants interviewed for this article requested anonymity to speak without fear of professional retribution. Their identities are known to Insider.)
While the show helped jump-start some contestants’ careers, others say it destroyed their self-esteem and mental health. Banks was described as a ratings-focused executive who offered little support in the face of what one season-12 contestant, Aminat Ayinde, called “psychological warfare.”
One person who worked on the show for five seasons told Insider that he’d come to believe “America’s Next Top Model” put contestants in a “harmful environment for the sake of TV.”
“You’re not looking at lifting women up,” he said of Banks. “You’re not looking at giving them a real opportunity. You’re looking at trying to pit them against each other in a barrel full of crabs that are all trying to claw their way out.”
“America’s Next Top Model” was, in theory, a modeling bootcamp cum competition meant to echo Banks’ runway days in Paris and Milan. The show was supposed to be a golden ticket for contestants across the US who never would’ve had the opportunity to break into the fashion industry. But many insiders said contestants’ well-being was sidelined for ratings.
Challenges became only more preposterous as the seasons — or cycles, in “ANTM” parlance — progressed. In season seven, on-set medics had to treat CariDee English after she was pulled out of a swimming pool convulsing, with the “Top Model” judge and creative director Jay Manuel saying English had hypothermia. There was a runway with a pendulum to knock contestants over (season 14); one on a conveyor belt (season 15); another that went down the side of a building (season 20). In season 16, contestants sashayed down a runway with their hands set on fire. That same season, the women had to walk a 12-inch-wide runway over water in inflatable human-size hamster wheels. The contestant Hannah Kat Jones said that when no one fell into the water the first round, the models were forced to walk again until someone did.
Producers picked challenges before contestants were cast, but they made tweaks to pile on the drama. Andrew Patterson, who oversaw all creative across photo shoots and runways for seasons 15 to 20, said producers sought to include an “element of fear” in photo shoots. If a contestant was nervous, producers would purposefully photograph her first or last to escalate the tension; if she mentioned she was afraid of a specific animal, she would be paired with that animal in a photo shoot, producers said.
While photo shoots were constructed to play on contestants’ fears, makeovers could be the most dangerous of all. Producers said Banks personally brainstormed or approved makeovers — later rebranded to “Ty-Overs” — which were executed every season in one exhausting day that could stretch more than 20 hours.
Season four’s Michelle Deighton was left with open sores on her scalp when a bleach job went wrong. The season-eight contestant Brittany Hatch developed welts on her head because of her new red weave. On season 16, Mikaela Schipani had to go to the emergency room off camera after a botched weave. Schipani wrote on her Tumblr that she “developed a severe rash and I had sores on my head that were bleeding” but that producers wouldn’t allow her to have her weave removed until she received a doctor’s approval.
When Aminat Ayinde was cast on “America’s Next Top Model” season 12, she was thrilled to work with Banks. But when Ayinde found out her makeover included relaxing her hair and getting extensions sewn in, she panicked. Ayinde said she told the salon stylist that she was allergic to relaxers, salon-grade chemicals used to straighten curly hair. If her hair was relaxed, she feared, her scalp would scab and her hair would fall out.
But the stylist said her hands were tied. Banks was not on the set, and Ayinde said the stylist was unable or unwilling to change direction. “This is what Tyra wants — this is how we have to do” it, Ayinde recalled her saying.
“This is when I understood: Tyra doesn’t give a fuck,” Ayinde told Insider.
Afraid that objecting further would lead to her elimination, Ayinde bit her tongue as she felt her scalp burn. When she removed her extensions after landing in third place, there was a 2-inch bald spot. It took three years for her hair to grow back.
“The whole thing really left the most disgusting taste in my mouth,” Ayinde said. “And honestly, I lost all respect” for Banks.
Every season, women in their late teens and early 20s across the US flocked to “America’s Next Top Model” open calls, desperate for a chance to be discovered. In 2009, the New York City open call for the “short girl” season 13 attracted a staggering 10,000 hopefuls, sparking a stampede that sent two people to the hospital.
Casting producers combed through the thousands of applicants and sent hundreds of Polaroids, videos, and typed-up backstories to Banks and a small team of producers, according to a longtime producer. About three dozen women were picked to meet Banks and judges for the final round of auditions, which was filmed for each season’s premiere.
Behind the scenes, these contestants underwent a series of personality tests and psych evaluations, answering questions like “Do you hear voices in your head?” and “Have you ever been in a physical altercation?” as well as a multiple-choice-style test about histories of drug use, mental illness, and abuse. According to Manuel, three psychologists gave each contestant a red, yellow, or green grade; red applicants weren’t cast over concerns they wouldn’t be able to withstand the stress of filming.
Banks and her team of producers decided who made the final cut, fighting for hopefuls who could succeed as models and make good reality television. One longtime producer said others were often surprised by Banks’ favorites, like Heather Kuzmich, a season-nine contestant with autism whose on-camera awkwardness concerned the producer. But the producer said Banks was right — Kuzmich’s ugly-duckling look translated into amazing photographs. More important, she provided reality-television gold as she triumphed over “mean girl” competitors.
As soon as the cast was set, a team of story producers began assigning each contestant a “brand” for the season: the party girl, the ugly duckling, the Ivy Leaguer. A story producer who worked on seasons six and seven said producers created a board with each contestant’s brand. As producers edited 200 hours of raw footage into 45-minute episodes, they earmarked any clip that fit the various contestants’ narratives.
Lluvy Gomez, who was branded the reformed gang member in season four, recalled an incident in which she and the party girl Brittany Brower got drunk at a restaurant. Gomez said producers shepherded her to throw up away from the cameras. Brower, meanwhile, was shown dancing on a table and mooning passersby. Gomez’s drunkenness didn’t fit her brand, while Brower’s did. Only one made it to prime time.
“You can basically manipulate the audience into thinking anything,” a person who worked on the show for five seasons said.
During the two to three months it took to film a season of “America’s Next Top Model,” producers controlled every aspect of contestants’ lives.
Contestants had no access to the internet, no cellphones, and essentially no contact with the outside world except limited phone calls. Once during season nine, contestants heard explosions and rushed to the window of their Los Angeles house thinking they were going to die, one contestant, Sarah Hartshorne, told Insider. But it was just fireworks. Having lost all track of time, they had no idea it was the Fourth of July.
Cameras were rolling close to 24/7. If the cameras were off — such as when judges were deliberating or the crew was setting up a photo shoot — contestants were barred from talking, spending hours in silence “on ice,” they said. Models escaped surveillance only while sleeping or using the bathroom. Even then, privacy was elusive. Season four’s Gomez recalled that one camera operator constantly jumped out of curtains and raced around the house, desperate to catch any drama. In season seven, bathroom doors in the models’ $17 million Los Angeles home were removed before filming, according to Stewart. Contestants fought to get the crew to install curtains for privacy partway through the season. Still, if two women were in the bathroom at the same time, filming was fair game.
As part of a 2014 lawsuit against the show’s network and executive producers, including Banks, Angelea Preston alleged that contestants on season 17 — the show’s all-star season — once went from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. without a meal break. (Preston’s lawsuit centered on her allegation that “ANTM” illegally revoked her win in that season because of her past as an escort. She dropped the claim in 2018, telling Bustle she realized she “wasn’t going to win.”)
Lisa D’Amato, a contestant who also returned to compete in the all-stars season, said she lost 15 pounds while filming that season. D’Amato said many contestants avoided on-set catering over fears of gaining weight; numerous contestants said they tried to avoid spending their roughly $38 daily allotment for groceries because it was the only money they received from the show.
Sleep was in similarly short supply. A typical “ANTM” episode took four days to film, and photo shoots, makeovers, and judging panels would drag on for hours, resulting in 20-plus-hour days for contestants and crew members. Season three’s Ann Markley recalled one judging lasting until 3 a.m., only for filming to resume at 5 a.m. Hartshorne said contestants fainted or became lightheaded at almost every judging panel.
Contestants who crumbled under pressure weren’t safe from the cameras. Preston alleged in her lawsuit that producers once withheld medical treatment during a
for at least 10 minutes “to capture the raw, human drama on film, and thus make for better television.”
Contestants were sometimes required to do their daily confessional interview after these 18-hour or 20-hour days — “our most vulnerable and weak state,” as one season-16 contestant put it. Producers could be relentless in securing the sound bite they desired, numerous people told Insider. D’Amato said that once, when she was trying to remain positive after a tough day on the set, a producer surfaced trauma she had shared in her psychological evaluation.
“The interviewer brought that up — ‘Is this the way you felt when your mom would tell you to kill yourself? Is that why this is affecting you so badly?'” D’Amato said. “They don’t stop. It just keeps going and going.”
Gomez recalled a similar experience in season four, when she was eliminated two episodes after what Banks called “the worst photo in ‘Top Model’ history.” When a producer asked whether she was upset, she said she was but would be OK.
Gomez said the producer responded by asking whether her deceased father, whom she had discussed only in her psychological evaluation and with Banks and other judges, would have been disappointed in her failure.
“So, the one thing he wanted for you, you’re not achieving,” Gomez recalled the producer saying. Her tears began to flow.
In the episode, Gomez is shown wiping her eyes. “I’m so lost right now,” she says, “I have no idea.”
Tyra Banks was at the top of the “America’s Next Top Model” food chain. She owned a 25% stake in the show, and as an executive producer she had a final say in what aired.
Banks worked closely with her other executive producers, especially the “ANTM” cocreator Ken Mok, and insiders said she ran the creative side of the show. Banks assigned makeovers and brainstormed photo shoots. The supermodel abhorred repetition, producers said, and was intent on outdoing the previous season.
In season 17, the show struck a deal with the Greek tourism board to travel to Crete for the season’s international trip. Patterson, the creative producer, asked Banks to name the “most Greek thing” she could think of for their photo-shoot theme.
“She looks at me with the most serious face and she says: the Greek salad,” Patterson said. “And I’m like, how am I going to explain this to the tourism bureau of Greece?”
Patterson ended up putting contestants in massive vats of oil, tomato, cucumber, and feta for a Greek-salad-themed photo shoot. Ultimately, he said, “they looked pretty good — except I think we used oil, and the girls ended up frying a little in the sun.”
As the show grew, so did Banks’ ambitions. “She wanted to be the next Oprah,” a producer from early seasons recalled.
In 2005, she launched her own talk show, “The Tyra Banks Show.” Banks also recorded an R&B single in 2004; enrolled in a nine-week Harvard Business School program in 2011; and launched the Tyra Beauty cosmetics line in 2014.
Nearly everyone who worked with the model turned mogul said Banks was devoted to “America’s Next Top Model.” Keri Carpenter, who worked closely with Banks starting in season 21 as her assistant, said her former boss often worked late nights alongside the rest of the creative team. A production assistant who worked on the show from seasons 15 to 21 said Banks took first-aid classes so she could be prepared if something went wrong on the set.
But many contestants were surprised that Banks, who came across to viewers as a bubbly big sister, could be so different off camera. She sometimes stopped speaking mid-sentence when the cameras stopped rolling, contestants said. Gomez recalled season-four contestants joking that she “has got to be a robot.”
“When those cameras go down, she was back in her other room,” said the fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone, who joined as a judge in season 18. “She was at Harvard, she’s studying, she’s executive-producing other projects. She has to deal with Ken — they have a franchise in 22 countries. So, what is she going to do? Go sit down there and eat marshmallows with the contestants to hear about how their uncle is an alcoholic?”
As seasons wore on — and ratings began to sink — Banks and other producers became more strategic in constructing some of the show’s storylines. In early seasons, insiders said, Banks and other judges actually picked who stayed and who was eliminated based on their photos, deliberating late into the night. But as the seasons progressed, producers had more input, according to Cutrone.
The judge Nigel Barker, a noted fashion photographer, recently acknowledged in an Instagram Live appearance that Banks didn’t always pick contestants’ best photos to show the judges, confirming a long-held fan conspiracy theory. A crew member of five seasons said producers used an array of tricks to give favorites an advantage: better photo selection, more time with the photographer, guidance behind the scenes.
“What the judges think is not the only thing that goes into who stays and who goes,” Cutrone said. “If you have a great model who is super beautiful, who has nothing interesting going on, she is probably not going to make it the whole way. Why? Because it’s a TV show.”
While “ANTM” was transparent about all its outrageous made-for-TV moments, insiders said Banks wanted the show to address real issues, including race.
Kai Bowe, who worked on seasons six and seven, said the fashion industry saw a huge boom in its appreciation of Black models “directly because of” the show.
“The stuff that Tyra wanted to do, a lot of the time, was way more inclusive than where the fashion industry really was,” Cutrone added.
Yet at least five Black contestants have spoken out on social media or in interviews with Insider, saying they felt as though they were subject to particularly harsh criticism from Banks and other judges. Many said “America’s Next Top Model” fueled harmful narratives about Black women and beauty.
In season three, Yaya DaCosta was criticized by the judges as trying too hard to “prove” her “Africanness.” In a since-deleted 2018 Instagram post, DaCosta wrote that it “took a lot of work to heal” from what she called the “ignorance” of “America’s Next Top Model.” Backlash around Banks pressuring the season-six winner, Dani Evans, to close her tooth gap reemerged in 2020, especially in light of Banks telling a white season-15 contestant to widen her gap. Evans responded with an Instagram video “to all the young queens affected by Tyra’s words,” saying: “It doesn’t matter if you have a gap, stacked teeth, straight teeth. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, brown, white, indifferent, other.” “You are so loved,” she added, “so adored, and you are beautiful.”
The season-one contestant Ebony Haith told Insider she felt Banks and other judges didn’t understand how to approach her as a gay, dark-skinned Black woman. An early red flag, she said, was when a Black stylist had to be called to fix numerous other nonwhite contestants’ makeovers before they even left the salon. (A similar situation occurred in season 12, when Ayinde said she and the season’s winner, Teyona Anderson, were sent to Harlem to have their hair fixed off camera after disastrous New York City makeovers.)
Haith said stylists couldn’t even shave her head properly, painfully cutting her gelled hair. Unsure whether this was a mistake or production manipulation, Haith tried to avoid reacting on camera. But as contestants laughed at her, Haith said, she worried Black viewers would feel like the butt of a joke. She ended up shaving her own head with a razor she bought at CVS.
Haith was ultimately eliminated when Banks criticized her dark skin as looking “rough” in a photograph after telling her earlier in the season she looked “ashy,” she said. To Haith, being eliminated for having “rough” skin in a photo shoot in which she felt her skin looked flawless seemed like a judgment on all dark-skinned Black women.
“I was floored,” she said. “Tyra Banks has never felt my face.”
She added: “I think at that moment, I felt like there was no compassion towards the plight of all of us, all the things we’ve been through.”
Some Black contestants felt Banks was extra hard on them because she was trying to prepare them for the realities of being a Black model in America. Washington, the only nonwhite contestant in the final five of season seven, was repeatedly critiqued by Banks and other judges over a supposed lack of humility.
“I felt kind of trapped in this situation where I thought I had an ally or someone who understood me,” Washington said of Banks, adding that she instead “was the worst to me.”
Certain photo shoots dealt with race in ways that made some contestants feel uncomfortable. In season four, models were greeted on the set by the creative director Manuel, who told them they would switch their ethnicities, with white and biracial contestants having their skin darkened to portray “Eskimo,” East Indian, African American, and “traditionally African” women.
Some contestants immediately expressed concern, Gomez said. “Me and a few girls were like, I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” she said. “I was like, this is not OK. This is straight-up blackface.”
According to Gomez, who is Latina, the contestants voted on whether they should bring up their concerns to production. She was outvoted, she recalled, as others argued, “It’s Tyra’s idea, and Tyra is Black, so it’s fine.”
A producer who worked on “ANTM” for six seasons said the creative team generally didn’t challenge Banks’ vision, even if it found photo-shoot ideas uncomfortable or offensive. After the season-four photo shoot, contestants’ skin was darkened two more times in subsequent seasons.
In a show where the underdog narrative reigned supreme, many contestants from underrepresented groups told Insider they felt their sexual orientation, disabilities, and weight were mined for drama.
In season 22, Nyle DiMarco — a Deaf competitor who had a translator by his side throughout the show — struggled in a photo shoot in the dark. The season-three contestant Amanda Swafford, who is partially blind, wasn’t allowed to inspect a dark runway ahead of time. “They wanted a bitch to fall,” she later told the YouTube personality Oliver Twixt. Hartshorne, the only plus-size model in season nine, said producers asked pointed questions about her weight, like: “How does it feel to wake up in the morning and all the other girls look perfect and you don’t?”
Whitney Cunningham Walker, a plus-size contestant in season eight, recalled a challenge in which she and the rest of the models had three minutes to put together an outfit at a Goodwill thrift shop. Walker said the challenge was meant to spark a conversation about the lack of options in plus-size fashion.
“I knew that I was the vessel,” Walker told Insider, emphasizing that she was proud to play a role in the show’s effort to make fashion more inclusive. “I knew that I was going to be put into uncomfortable situations to prompt much larger conversations.”
“ANTM” was a groundbreaking show for LGBTQ representation; at the same time, judges frequently criticized contestants who defied gender norms.
In season five, Kim Stolz, a gay contestant, was repeatedly criticized for her “masculine” photos, with the judge Barker nicknaming her “Tim.” Fifteen seasons later, Cory Wade — who competed as the show’s first openly gay male contestant — said judges criticized him as being too feminine, telling him, “You need to lead with your crotch — you need to grow facial hair.”
In 2008, Isis King made history as the first openly transgender “America’s Next Top Model” contestant. Banks and the show won a GLAAD award after King’s season aired, but behind the scenes King faced moments that a producer described to Insider as “pretty inappropriate and disrespectful.”
The producer recalled King — who had only recently begun her medical transition — telling her that she was uncomfortable changing in front of the other contestants, some of whom routinely harassed her, calling her a “he/she” and a drag queen. In a 2020 Instagram Live with the longtime “ANTM” judge Manuel, King said she told producers she didn’t want to inject herself with hormones on camera, as she was worried she might faint and wanted to keep the injections private. Producers, she said, agreed to allow the on-set medic to help her.
Once the contestants had settled into their Los Angeles loft, however, the “back phone” — used by production to talk to contestants off camera — rang. When King picked up the phone, she said, producers told her she would have to inject herself. If she wanted help, she would have to ask a fellow contestant.
Producers got their made-for-TV moment, airing a scene in which another contestant joined the visibly nervous King in the bathroom for her injection. According to Manuel, it was a scene that Banks and the executive producer Mok fought to air, arguing that it would change viewers’ perceptions of transgender people.
“I was there as a trans woman,” King told Manuel. “That’s enough of an impact. I don’t need to do a hormone shot on camera.”
To understand the staying power of “America’s Next Top Model,” you only have to look at the discourse that continues to dominate Reddit, TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram in 2022. Interviews the “ANTM” superfan Twixt conducts with former contestants can last more than two hours and rack up 100,000 views.
“We all sort of thought it would be this fun trip down memory lane, right?” Hartshorne said of people rewatching “ANTM.” Instead, a fuse was lit.
Twitter exploded this past November when a fan uncovered that, instead of a paycheck or royalties, contestants received only a small per diem for groceries.
While some contestants launched television careers after “America’s Next Top Model,” few became big names in fashion. Season three’s Markley signed with Elite Model Management after being on the show, but she and others had to change their appearances and names to actually book jobs. Markley became Annalaina Marks after starting to suspect that the reality-TV connection was turning off potential employers.
“That was the trade-off, but it is hard when I see that it’s on
In May 2020, Banks addressed the growing anger surrounding her once beloved series. “Been seeing the posts about the insensitivity of some past ANTM moments and I agree with you. Looking back, those were some really off choices,” she wrote on Twitter.
Mok added in his own tweet: “I look at some of those #ANTM moments and cringe.”
But many contestants say the show didn’t just make them cringe but rather had long-lasting effects on their mental health. Lisa D’Amato said appearing on both seasons five and 17 traumatized her, as did postshow harassment online and in person. Stewart said she began having regular anxiety attacks while filming season seven and saw other contestants struggling in similar ways. The former contestant Sharaun, who goes by just her first name, told Insider she was plunged into a
after she was eliminated early in season 11.
English, who won season seven, published a blog post saying that contestants received a lack of support from Banks and faced disgust from the fashion industry. “I love love what I have made for myself since my win, but mentally, it’s horrific,” wrote English, who announced in February that she was entering rehab for addiction. “And any girl who has been on ANTM can back me up.”
Season 18’s Alisha White, who has said she felt gaslighted by producers, declined to be interviewed by Insider, writing in an email that an “article alone wouldn’t be enough to really sum up the experience, suffering, and confusion I and my family have had to deal with over the past 10 years.” She added: “The damage has been done already.”
Still, producers, judges, and even some contestants told Insider that those criticizing the show had unrealistic expectations and that wannabe models knew what they were getting into. “You take a risk when you put yourself on television,” Cutrone said.
Wade is one of the numerous contestants who told Insider they were grateful to Banks, an appreciation that Wade said had surprised some who’d come to expect nothing but “ANTM” horror stories.
“I’m like, I’m OK!” Wade said. “Like, haven’t you ever gone through anything that is a little bit extreme or intense or challenging? It’s just like that. The difference is it’s for the world to see.”
Apart from her tweet, Banks has stayed mum about the show and the rumors swirling among producers of a 25th season. Banks and Mok declined to comment on this article; The CW and VH1, which aired the show, didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Last week, Banks deleted her Twitter account within days of receiving a request for comment from Insider.)
Professionally, Banks remains a multi-hyphenate; she came out of retirement to cover Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition in 2019, rebranding herself as BanX. In 2020, Banks became the new host of “Dancing With the Stars.” She recently appeared in an ad for Kim Kardashian’s Skims brand and is throwing her entrepreneurial energy behind her ice-cream brand, Smize Cream.
As for Washington, she said her self-confidence was so damaged by “America’s Next Top Model” that she couldn’t even look at photos of herself years into her career as a professional model. She believes there was no way she could have understood what she signed up for when she entered an alternate reality at 21 where Banks’ judgment felt like life or death.
“The show left a trail of very hurt young girls who really had to overcome a lot of self-esteem and self-worth issues,” Washington said.
“Talking to a lot of contestants, it took us years to recover the things that we lost on that show.”
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