Climbing into a giant fish tank fully clothed and in full makeup. Crying hysterically in an acting class, then French-kissing a complete stranger. Posing naked with another naked woman, who also happens to be one of your competitors. Getting ruthlessly insulted by a fashion designer's bossy assistant. Making out with a hot young Italian man in a hot tub, then sobbing on the phone to your boyfriend.
These are just a small handful of the thrills and spills afforded to those lucky girls on this season of "America's Next Top Model," a show that consistently transcends its simple premise with a brilliant mix of cattiness, absurdity and voyeuristic fun. By pushing these young women through a gauntlet of difficult photo shoots, forcing them to grapple with wildly egocentric fashion experts, and making them live in impossibly close quarters with each other, model-turned-actress and singer Tyra Banks has crafted one of the most consistently entertaining reality shows on TV.
It's a testament to the incomparable pleasures of ANTM that the second season feels like it's ending just as it's kicking into high gear. Last night, with the pool of 12 aspiring models whittled down to three, the competition was tough to call. Who would win? Mercedes, who's bravely battling lupus but never complains? Yoanna, an obsessed fashion maven who lost several pounds to be on the show? Or Shandi, the dorky duckling who, with the help of contact lenses, a new hair color and some poise lessons, has emerged a sophisticated swan -- albeit one who cheated on her boyfriend with a hot Italian guy?
I can't believe I just wrote the words "sophisticated swan." But that's what this show does to you. You think you couldn't care less about fashion or models or any of this nonsense? Think again. Tyra fills up every little moment on the show with drama, clothes and one giddy treat after another.
Pretty incredible, considering the first season of "America's Next Top Model" was easy to regard as a fluke. While the relentless eye-rolling and insults of sharp-tongued finalist Elyse and the Bible-thumping of Robin were a strong sign that Tyra knew a thing or two about casting -- or knew enough to hire someone who did -- it was unclear at the end of the first season whether we were witnessing beginner's luck or the launch of a juicy new franchise.
The creative challenges ("Charm these wealthy Frenchmen!" "Convince this interviewer that you're a fascinating woman!") were another good sign, as were the editing choices. Somehow Tyra knew exactly what we wanted from a show about aspiring models, namely, glamour, backstabbing, nudity, hot men and catfights. So she threw out the filler of other reality shows -- the repetitive ceremonies and rituals, the bland observations and voice-overs, the softball comments from the judges -- and gave every episode a dramatic arc, but with plenty of fun and colorful distractions along the way.
In fact, ANTM is one of the fastest-paced, most tightly edited reality shows around. When Shandi screeches to her boyfriend or Tyra instructs the girls to craft a stylish outfit out of a large cotton T-shirt using only a pair of scissors, we can trust that we'll get only the funniest, snottiest or most dramatic moments. Truth be told, we could easily spend several more minutes per episode just listening to what deliciously outspoken former supermodel Janice Dickinson has to say. But there's no time. Tyra packs so many unique activities and tasks into each show, we're left with only the most hilarious comments. Compare that to even a great show like "Survivor," where we hear how Jerry's a jerk and Boston Rob can't be trusted at least once each episode, and you start to see that Tyra isn't just an innovator, she's arguably as good as reality TV mogul Mark Burnett.
But enough with the superlatives. ANTM's finale was a big shock, even to the sophisticated swans in the audience who were sure they could predict the winner. When we meet up with the three finalists, they all have the jitters, and why shouldn't they? Art director Jay sums up the competition in his usual concise manner: "In terms of the top three? It's really, really, really, really, really tight."
Yoanna explains that the stakes of the competition are very high at this point. "Any top model, like, once they get a cosmetics contract, your face becomes a household name." But I want my name to be a household face!
Tough cookies, rookie. With their household name-face game-faces on, the three women meet with Dean and Dan, identical twin designers and founders of D Squared, who look the same, talk the same and are really just plain creepy, no matter how you slice it. In a move typical of the egomaniacs Tyra seems to surround herself with, the crafty twins meet with each of the finalists, ask her a series of drippy questions and then demand to know who her favorite designer is.
Dean and Dan: (coyly) Who's your favorite designer?
Shandi: Betsey Johnson.
Dean and Dan: (pouting) Wrong answer!
Shandi: I thought you really wanted to know!
Dean and Dan: Nobody really wants to know anything.
Have you ever in your life heard a more concise summary of the professional world?
You're not going to believe this next part, but I'm going to tell you anyway because you need to know the truth. Before the judges begin to deliberate, Dean and Dan proclaim: "Wonder twin powers!" and put their fists together. This is so disturbing I can't remember what happens next, and then before I know it, Shandi is being eliminated. Shandi! I would've figured Yoanna was the next to go since, even though her face is incredible, her body doesn't really seem right for high fashion, a fact that the judges have been harping on for weeks now.
But it's Shandi who's gone, and suddenly Yoanna and Mercedes are set to square off for the crown.
So there's a fashion show. Mercedes looks perfect striding down the runway. Yoanna breaks a heel, but somehow manages not to fall like she did while the contestants were shooting Tyra's music video. Next, the girls watch the footage in front of the judges. Mercedes is clearly loved and admired by the entire group. Yoanna, not so much.
Finally, the judges meet. Mercedes is praised to high heaven. Yoanna is described as beautiful, but it's not clear that any of the judges adore her. This almost seems too obvious, really, which makes me a little suspicious ...
Unbelievable. Yoanna, whom I thought would be eliminated a full month ago, wins the prize: a contract with IMG models, a fashion spread in Jane magazine and a cosmetics contract with Sephora.
Mercedes seems heartbroken, but it's hard to imagine that she won't get work. Shandi and April seem destined for success as well, although it's really anybody's guess -- modeling is a tough business, after all.
The only thing tougher, of course, is appearing on "America's Next Top Model." Tyra wouldn't have it any other way.
So when does the next season start, again?