The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism. The show, a high-fashion reality knockout which pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation via a series of invasive and demeaning 'challenges', is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general and young women in particular.
At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate their deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that they do not 'have what it takes'. Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.
Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" - which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry - this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. The show's promoters have clearly learned the value of such sensationalism, allowing new judge Julien MacDonald to confide in Wales On Sunday last week that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke."
Sick, cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating. This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason that America's Next Top Model and its twenty local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the West: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of ‘making it’.
The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of ‘ordinary’ whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future. These girls will do literally anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will clumsily betray one another and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, although the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.
The fairytale these girls are chasing was dreamed up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role-models of the age, courted by rockstars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way. This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed away for younger, less traumatised models - but the dream persists. Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is 90s supermodel Elle MacPherson, known in her day as ‘the body’, who quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for twenty years.
The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about 'working it' 'believing in yourself' and 'being on top'. The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful: Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement. For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of ‘standing out’, the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and ‘representing the brand’. This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.
The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is nothing, however, compared to the submission required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling. In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years for several counts of rape and assault of young models. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to access. In 2009, former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to sexually submit to male agents, photographers and designers, who hold every shred of power and cover for each other's indiscretions, if they wish to remain in work.
Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairytale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairytales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to coldly compete with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to tamely submit to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse. This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it's this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves. The cruel misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car-crash in slow motion - and this, of course, is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.