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America’s Next Top Model problematic moments

America’s Next Top Model’s most shocking and problematic moments

As former contestants speak out about their abusive treatment on the show, we look back at the questionable photoshoots, challenges, and choices made by Tyra Banks and her team

Mid-00s hit America’s Next Top Model – once quintessential viewing for fashion (and drama)-hungry teenage girls – has faced a reckoning in recent years. Problematic moments that may have slipped by its young viewers have reemerged on social media – and, boy, are some of them bad. From shoots in blackface and injury-inducing runway challenges to transphobia and body shaming, ANTM hasn’t just aged badly, it’s amazing it aired at all.

In May last year, after old clips resurfaced, the show’s model creator, executive producer, and host Tyra Banks responded to criticism. “Been seeing the posts about the insensitivity of some past ANTM moments and I agree with you,” she wrote on Twitter. “Looking back, those were some really off choices. Appreciate your honest feedback, and am sending so much love and virtual hugs.”

Expanding on this in a September 2020 interview with Chicks in the Office, Banks said she addressed and apologised for many of the show’s mistakes when writing her 2018 book, Perfect Is Boring, but would continue to apologise every time offensive archive clips sprung up. Now, however, it looks like she might have some new apologising to contend with, as former contestants are speaking out about the abusive treatment of models behind-the-scenes.

Earlier this week, it emerged that ANTM stars were paid just $40 (£30) a day, which had to cover all their food expenses, as well as all other living costs. Cycle nine (2007) contestant Sarah Hartshorne – who confirmed the girls’ pay on Twitter – has also made other shocking revelations on her TikTok account. In a video about contestants having to sign NDAs, Hartshorne recalls a harrowing moment when “lawyers and producers” in “business attire” warned the models that if they broke their NDA, they would be sued for $10 million. “The executive producer said, ‘We know that (you don’t have $10 million). We won’t just sue you, we’ll sue your whole family. We will keep suing you until we get that money.”

Hartshorne also suggested that producers “fed” the contestants lines, encouraged girls to shower together so they could film them (producers allegedly said they couldn’t film contestants alone in the bathroom), and called ANTM a “traumatic sleepaway camp”.

Cycle five (2005) contestant Lisa D’Amato – who returned for cycle 17’s All Stars in 2011 – has also started spilling the ANTM tea on TikTok. As well as saying she participated in All Stars to “get revenge” for how she was treated on the show, D’Amato revealed the story behind the infamous ANTM clip of her peeing in a diaper, saying she did it to “piss on (co-creator Ken Mock’s) fucking show” after he “(provoked) me and my trauma in all my interviews” and allegedly told lies to the other girls to turn them against D’Amato.

With new allegations about behind-the-scenes treatment of contestants, we thought it was time to look back at on-screen ANTM moments that were both problematic and potentially traumatising for the models.


The ‘race swap’ photo shoot from season four (2005) is probably the most famous example of ANTM getting it wrong. In the episode, the show’s creative director Jay Manuel (AKA Mr Jay) revealed that the week’s photo shoot would see the girls switch ethnicities. “The challenge here is taking on the persona of that other ethnicity,” explained Jay. White girls were put in blackface, Black girls were transformed into other women of colour, and one white girl was made… Italian. The producers didn’t learn, however, and, in cycle 13 (2009), they had a ‘biracial Hapa’ shoot in Hawaii, where each contestant was made up to represent a specific mixed ethnicity (Hapa is the Hawaiian word for a mixed race person).


The makeover episode was undoubtedly the best of each season, spawning some beautiful transformations, and some straight up disasters. Each cycle, there’s at least one girl who has a meltdown – sometimes unjustly (see: cycle five’s Cassandra quitting the show because she hated her – as Tyra always said – “Rosemary’s Baby” pixie haircut), and sometimes for a very good reason. Poor Molly O’Connell in cycle 16 (2011) was notoriously left with a badly-sewn-in bleach blonde weave after Tyra pondered, “What if Diana Ross was a blonde?” It eventually caused her scalp issues and had to be removed. Cycle eight’s (2007) Brittany also had a terrible experience with sewn-in hair. With no tips to maintain the big red curls, Brittany’s hair eventually became known (by Tyra) as “the hamster that died on her head”.

Hair drama aside, the most problematic makeover moment happened in cycle six (2006), when the judges forced eventual winner Danielle to close the gap between her front teeth, even though she didn’t want to. After being sent to the dentist and refusing to have the gap closed, Tyra said: “Do you really think you can have a CoverGirl contract with a gap in your mouth?”, adding that she wouldn’t be “marketable” with it. J Alexander (Mrs Jay) then warned: “I guess she just left the gap wide open for another girl, baby.” She did eventually get her gap partially closed. Addressing gapgate in a May 2020 Instagram video, Danielle said she wasn’t mad about the judges comments, but was annoyed that she was “set up” to make “good TV”, as she was never explicitly told that Tyra wanted her to get her gap closed. Then, to really rub salt in the wound, in season 15 (2010), Tyra actually widened the gap in one of the girl’s teeth to make her look “more edgy”.


So many of the ANTM runways were not only insane, but actually pretty dangerous. They were also stupid – no model in the real world would ever be expected to walk down a two-foot-wide runway inside a zorb ball over a pool of water. Yes it made for great TV when they fell over and couldn’t get the ball out of the water, but also… how embarrassing! How mean! Another water-based runway saw the cycle seven girls (2006) strut down a wobbly catwalk – if you stumble, you’re in the drink (as Eugena tragically found out). While these two examples weren’t so much life-threatening, but rather dumb and unglamorous, some of the runways were more Total Wipeout than America’s Next Top Model. First up, the high-speed conveyor belt runway, which is exactly what you would imagine it to be: impossible, humiliating, and scary. Next, the swinging pendulum runway, where models had to walk down the catwalk and avoid two massive swinging pendulums. Alongside some near misses, Alexandra was actually hit by one and knocked clean off the stage – she even bled afterwards (@HR!). 

But the award for most treacherous runway goes to the high heels challenge during a cycle six judging. The girls had to stomp the makeshift catwalk in “very high” heels – supposedly a la Vivienne Westwood – with their ankles literally bending as they walked. As well as being a horrific watch, it resulted in Danielle twisting her ankle, crawling away, and returning to judging with crutches. To stop you wincing at your desk like I just did, I’ve embedded a less bone-breaking runway clip below.

(Bonus cycle six runway: when they had to walk down the catwalk with cockroaches attached to them and Jade kissed hers at the end.)


The ANTM girls had to face all their fears during their weekly photo shoots. Scared of reptiles? Time to shoot with a snake. Have arachnophobia? Here’s a tarantula as an accessory. If those fears seem irrational, what about a fear of dying from hypothermia? Don’t worry, ANTM can help by giving you exposure therapy. In cycle seven, eventual winner CariDee ended up convulsing after spending too long shooting in a freezing cold pool. Despite the judges constantly telling the girls they must adapt to any situation and never complain, Tyra and Mr Jay blamed CariDee for not speaking up when she was struggling.

Another extreme shoot moment came in cycle four, when the contestants had to be photographed inside an open grave. If this wasn’t already a nightmare scenario, one of the girls, Kahlen, had just found out that her childhood friend had passed away – only to be whisked off to a graveyard for a seven deadly sins shoot the very next day. In a move that made the whole thing seem cruelly planned, Kahlen was given ‘anger’ as her sin, with Mr Jay encouraging her to “turn her nerves into anger”.


In season one (2003), two models, Shannon and Robin, decided not to participate in a “simulated nude” shoot because they felt uncomfortable posing naked/semi-naked. Instead of respecting their decision and allowing them to do an altered version of the shoot, the pair were sent to judging without photos – and were unfairly criticised by Tyra and the other judges. “If you’re not willing to do that, you might as well go work in a car factory or a bakery because that’s part of being a model,” judge Janice Dickinson told Shannon. Seemingly in an attempt to trip her up or embarrass her, Tyra then brought up an earlier shoot from the season. “What do you think,” says Tyra, “do you feel more comfortable biting a man’s ear or doing a photoshoot and simulating nudity?” In the same episode, Robin – who also didn’t have a photo – was called out for saying no to the shoot, but shaking her breasts in front of Mr Jay on set (Janice even asked her where her Bible was when she was nude off-camera). What the judges appear to have forgotten is that being naked IRL and being documented naked are two very different things. In cycle seven, Ginger also didn’t want to pose nude, but reluctantly did it in a clip that makes for very uncomfortable viewing – only for Mr Jay to describe her as “unwilling to cooperate” because she only did two frames.

In cycle 15, Kayla was pressured into filming a close contact commercial with a male model, despite opening up to Mr Jay, telling him she didn’t want to do it because it was traumatising to her as a sexual assault survivor. Ultimately, she was forced to do it anyway – and, although she didn’t lock lips with the model, he did kiss her on the neck, which isn’t really any better. Speaking of being forced to kiss someone in a commercial (how has this happened more than once?) season seven’s Jaeda – a woman of colour – had to make out with a racist male model, who’d previously told her he didn’t like Black girls. A similarly sad moment happens in season four, when Keenyah feels uncomfortable during a shoot because a male model keeps grinding too close to her and moaning in her ear. Despite asking for space, the photographer encourages the male models to get closer to Keenyah. “I know it’s not about feeling comfortable,” she tells Mr Jay, “but I can hear him moaning and it threw me off. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She cried when she came off set, telling the camera: “There was a line that I feel was crossed.”


For the finale, here’s the most famous clip from ANTM ever: Tyra yelling at Tiffany in cycle four because she didn’t cry when she was eliminated. This one needs no explanation – you can simply enjoy (and cringe) below.