This article originally appeared on VICE Alps
We all know Next Top Model. Some of us watch it, others have friends who do and then there's the very few of us who have actually taken part in the TV competition. Having been conceived by Tyra Banks for the original series America's Next Top Model, which premiered in 2003, the reality show has gone on to be adapted in as many as 120 countries around the world. I had the pleasure of taking part in the tenth anniversary season of Germany's Next Top Model, which is currently presented on German TV by Heidi Klum.
It's easy to understand why Next Top Model has been so successful for so long: It's got drama, makeovers and hot young women awkwardly trying out poses with names like "smize" and "booty tooch". It speaks to the audiences's inherent desire to simultaneously aspire and undermine; the women might be hotter than you or your girlfriend but they often behave like mental patients. It works because it works.
As a teenager, I venerated GNTM and dreamt of one day taking part in it. However, as the years passed, I realised it could be doing harm that stretched far beyond teenage brain cells. Indulge in the tiniest bit of social media research and you'll quickly come across hundreds of posts with titles like, "Germany's Next Top Model reminds me how unbelievably ugly I am" or "Only the thinnest girls are chosen for GNTM so I need to be thin too."
I wanted to see if the reality behind the scenes was as ugly, so last year I decided to apply to take part GNTM. After all, I'm a professional model myself – I'm just not really into all the ways the modelling industry could be affecting the minds of young girls. But I still had a long way to go before I was actually featured on the show.
First of all, to even take part in the casting, each of the contestants had to travel to Munich in the middle of the summer and stay for a few nights – no expenses paid. If you were among the lucky ones who got selected, like me, the production company called you back a few months later: "Congratulations! You've made it to the next round and you can come to the next casting in Munich!" they said. They didn't mention that the next casting was also an open casting and that again, I'd have to pay for everything from my own, empty pocket.
Turns out the GNTM producers didn't find enough fresh meat during the first casting tour so we had to do it all over again a few months later, in November 2014. And so I found myself back in Munich, waiting in front of the studio where the casting was to take place for hours in the freezing cold with a few dozen other models. We could have all easily fit into a waiting room but when we asked why we had to wait outside, someone from the production team responded: "To create some suspense!"
After several hours of waiting, we were told that the GNTM bus carrying the judges would be pulling up in front of the studio soon. And so we were all sent to the entrance of the building to practice cheering the bus. Lined up to the left and right of a red carpet leading inside, we were all asked to clap, cheer, scream "Heidi!!!" and ask the jury members for selfies – it was all prescribed behaviour.
Fifteen minutes later, the jury finally arrived. Three minutes after that they were taken inside, while the rest of us were again made to wait outside. "Take off your jackets or it will look like you're cold on TV," shouted a production assistant. LOL.
Eleven hours down the line, the crew suddenly announced that cameras would start rolling in ten minutes. The mood among the models instantly switched from boredom to full-on stress – to me, that was obviously a technique designed to provoke strong reactions from the contestants. Once we were finally allowed in we were given some cold snacks – the film crew was given warm food.
The situation didn't change much once I was selected to take part in the competition. Every week, on the day of the main shoot – which plays a big part in every episode – we had to get up at 5AM only to then be made to wait for ten hours in a cold room that was affectionately called "backstage". Again, whenever someone complained about it the production crew would mention the suspense.
After being slightly mistreated by the crew and sometimes the judges (some would complain in our faces – "Oh, you again!" one of them once said to me) some girls would ask to leave but that was, in a way, not allowed. If you wanted to go, you had to endure a long conversation with the producers where you had to explain your reasons for wanting to leave. This was such a mind-numbing experience that it was often enough to convince some to stay. Those who were set on leaving Heidi's freakshow weren't allowed to do so straight away. Instead, they were called out in front of the jury on elimination day and were kicked off the show on camera for made-up reasons.
Right before they had to pack their bags, the girls were furious: "Hey! That's not what I was told would happen! What the fuck?" one of them asked the crew.
"It has nothing to do with you, it's for the sake of the show's reputation," replied a production assistant. I felt like a product with absolutely no rights and so did many others, yet no one protested. After all, who would want to deal with Heidi's lawyers?
Once, I overheard the production team discussing the candidates and realised we were diminutively referred to as "children", even though most of us were in our mid-twenties. During the on-camera interviews, we were confronted with phrases packed with maximum embarrassment potential, that we were then asked to repeat on camera as realistically as possible. We weren't just given the questions, but also the answers and then it was all recorded multiple times, until our acting was deemed fit for TV.
"Fit for TV" meant that it didn't matter at all if the script contradicted your real personality. Some of the candidates realised that they could win more screen time if they behaved hysterically early on and played accordingly. Those who couldn't authentically read from the script or fit into one of the female stereotypes we were narrowed into (naive girl, drama queen, bitch, everybody's darling, etc) were sent home immediately. Many of the calmer models in the group were almost never featured in anything but short shots.
GNTM reenforces clichéd images of young women: The format propagates a rigid definition of beauty and nurtures narrow-mindedness. The women who watch the show aren't the only ones who are negatively influenced – it also fucks with men's heads. Ultimately, many people think that what society thinks is beautiful when it comes to the female sex, is what struts down the runway every Thursday at primetime on ProSieben [the German TV channel featuring the show].
That's the reason why I've made a conscious effort to talk about the importance of being image positive every time the camera is turned on me. I do not want any of the viewers to feel bad if they don't look like or behave like the "giiiirls" on TV. We are all fake characters spewing prescribed dialogue made for predetermined drama – we are not real.
I feel that participating in GNTM, I was at least able to speak to the girls who are affected by this show's concept – those who suffer from the stereotypical body consciousness enforced towards women, those who are influenced by the media and are silently nodding to what they're being presented with on TV. If my account managed to get just a couple of viewers to question the GNTM format, I'd consider my efforts successful.
But I think my mission failed. No matter what kind of show you're on, chances are you won't be allowed to say what you want – instead, as a woman, you're almost with no exception going to be forced into a personality that doesn't fit you. The more drama you create, the more screen time you'll be rewarded with. Here's to hoping that instead of the thigh gap or the bikini bridge, the next trend will be believing in yourself.