Tyra Banks has always played mother figure to the gawky goslings on her show, setting herself up as the ultimate aspirational figure (unlike foil Janice Dickinson, a poster girl for the hazards of supermodeldom). While the catty panel scorched girls for being too fat or too black, Tyra would retort with dignified speeches about the beauty of a plus-size model like Toccara, the dangers of bulimia, and her disdain for the black-bitch stereotype. She bumped a ghetto-fabulous single mom named Tiffany from last season for that very reason (Tiffany got in an on-screen bar fight, screaming, “That skank ‘ho poured beer on my weave!”), but gave her a second chance this season after she took an anger management course.
Tiffany returned, her rage seemingly replaced by hopelessness. She felt ignorant among the middle-American girls and flummoxed by new experiences like eating sushi. When she was finally eliminated for her lack of passion, Tiffany acted nonchalant. “I’m sick of crying about stuff that I cannot change,” she told the panel. What happened next was one of those moments when the real crashes through the immaculate contrivance of reality TV. Tyra unexpectedly lost her cool and, morphing from surrogate mom to bitterly disappointed parent, berated Tiffany for her defeatism. “How dare you! I was rooting for you. . . . When you go to bed at night, you lay there and you take responsibility for yourself!” In her fury, it was as if Tyra was trying to blot out the obvious truth: With just a smidgeon less pluck or luck, she too might be hanging in the ghetto. For a moment, Tyra’s tirade cracked the facade of the great American Lie (that anyone can make it if she’s got the will) and exposed the structurally ingrained unfairness of shows like America’s Next Top Model, which exploit the unrealistically raised hopes of the contestants and then ogle their anguish.
As Tiffany so eloquently pointed out when she was eliminated on the previous go-around, “Somebody’s gotta fail, right?”