I thought I got to cover the finale of "America's Next Top Model" because TV critic Heather Havrilesky was too busy writing about other shows. But apparently she's so soured on "ANTM" thanks to its wan plotlines and Tyra's diva shtick that she didn't want to do it anyway.
I bet she'll want to do it next year. "ANTM" came back this year: better girls, conflicts, challenges and photo shoots, cooler clothes and bitchier rivalries. Girls had to model with icky bugs crawling on them, sashay down the aisles of raucous black churches full of worshipers, dress up like big dolls, and make themselves a part of Thai culture in Bangkok and Phuket. Cycle 6 didn't have the fabulous black-on-black class warfare of earthy Eva vs. regal, Ivy League Yaya from Cycle 3, but it made up for the nails-drying boredom of Cycle 4 and the victory of cipher Naima, and the Tyra torture, of Cycle 5 and the victory of prettier cipher Nicole.
Still, even in mediocre years, Tyra's racial and cultural funhouse politics are always entertaining. Last year we learned that lesbians will have more fun than they expect in a house of supposedly straight girls, and drunk, wacky women who seem entertaining at first get boring quickly. And every year the sheer number of African-American models she showcases makes the racial dynamics unpredictable. The many ways to be black -- globally, culturally, esthetically -- are fun to watch unfold. On the other hand, Tyra giveth and Tyra taketh away when it comes to her sisters. Her picking on certain black contestants -- Tiffany for her ghetto defeatism in Cycle 5, sweet, hardworking Danielle for her country accent this time around -- can be cringe-making, and we saw a little more of that in the finale.
This year the racial dynamics were vivid. Early on there was racist (and homophobic) Texas cheerleader Dani, who clashed with Danielle immediately -- but got booted almost as quickly because she was just too awful. Shy Korean-American Gina was tortured by crazy, androgynous mixed-race Jade, who was also, often, just too awful, but who became the show's anti-star. (Gina left early, a mercy judging.) Every cycle walks the line between keeping an asshole so long she'll drive viewers away and booting her so early the contest loses its juicy sting.
This time they got it right -- dumb Dani went home to Texas early, but brassy, androgynous, too-tough Jade made it to the last episode, when the judges decided they hated her arrogance as much as her housemates did. But what fun she had along the way: playing nasty mind games with poor overmatched Gina and manipulatively messing with the lovely Nigerian (and onetime frontrunner), Nnenna, encouraging her sick romance with her needy, creepy boyfriend, until Nnenna's distraction seemed to cost her an edge. Jade's outsize ego, big mouth and hilarious vocabulary -- she called herself "analistic," meaning analytical; Television Without Pity compared her to the Damon Wayans prisoner in "In Living Color" -- made her the series' favorite villain. She actually took great chameleon-like photos -- she could be Pam Grier or a delicate blond beach flower -- but in the end, it was nice to see her go. No fake kisses to her rivals, no tears, she glided out the door on her crazy confidence, with a lame rap about leaving to become a "popular muse" and insisting the show will "regret" tossing her. "Jade will be hard to forget," she warned. The mean editors followed Jade's rant with gorgeous fireworks, and it was hard not to feel everyone was celebrating.
Then it was down to Danielle, black, statuesque, charismatic but country vs. Joanie, blond, short, charming and country. And it was sort of over: The black girl from Little Rock, Ark., and the white girl from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, had bonded, and with crazy Jade vanquished, viewers couldn't lose. Still, there was one more drama: Would Tyra play Queen Tyra, arbiter of proper blackness, and disqualify Danielle from "Top Model" status because of her country accent? Tyra won me over in Cycle 3 by offering contestants (and viewers) many parables about how you embrace and make the most of your supposed limits -- Tyra's alienlike high forehead and big booty were Exhibits A and B -- and giving many speeches about beauty and confidence coming from within. But first she wore Danielle down about her gap-toothed smile, which was in fact a little ... distracting. But after Danielle fixed her teeth, the harping on the accent got grating.
In the end, Good Queen Tyra picked the country girl from Little Rock as America's next top model, and promised her speech lessons. Not a total victory for be-who-you-are top-modelhood but a start. "The best girl won," rival Joanie said simply, and she was right.