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Model madness: TV awash in modeling reality shows

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Cast of VH1's new model reality TV show, "The Agency," which premiered earlier this month. From left to right: Lorri, Greg, Carlos, Pink, Sean Patterson, Anita, Becky and Lola. (Courtesy of VH1/CNS)

Dreams of glamour, fame and fortune are shattered and granted on the current wave of modeling reality TV shows. Viewers are treated to tense office politics, body fat readings, gossip about other cast members, plus-size and bone-thin beauties, plenty of fighting and some extreme modeling.

“America’s Next Top Model” and other modeling shows run three weeknights in a row, forcing interested viewers to scramble to find time to fit them into their schedules.

So what can “The Agency,” VH1’s new reality show about the New York City office of Wilhelmina International, add to the torrent of modeling shows? Bloggers, critics and couch potatoes say “The Agency” finally tells the true, un-sugarcoated story of a difficult industry.

The modeling show trend started in 2003, when Tyra Banks starred as host and executive producer of “America’s Next Top Model,” said R. Couri Hay, society editor for Gotham, LA Confidential and Hamptons magazines.

Now in its eighth contest, the show has spawned versions in France, Turkey, Russia and Germany (with Heidi Klum as the host). The “Top Model” shows are viewed in 110 countries.

The “Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency,” a reality show tracking the success of former supermodel Janice Dickinson’s budding Los Angeles modeling agency, concludes its second season this month. Its first season received the highest ratings ever of any show on the Oxygen network, according to an Oxygen spokeswoman.

Unlike other modeling shows, “The Agency” takes a different perspective on the industry. Instead of focusing on the drama in the lives of the models, this show follows their booking agents. Client meetings, open calls, scouting adventures and the cast’s brutal honesty bare the dark side of the fashion industry.

Sean Patterson, president of Wilhelmina International, pitched the idea to VH1 in a 12-minute pilot to introduce the characters, according to the executive producer, Shelly Tatro.

“We fell in love with it,” she said. “The people are larger than life, compelling and brutally honest.”

Maybe too honest. Pink, the director of the high-end women’s division, doesn’t bother to give positive reinforcement when reviewing potential new models.

“You're too short, you're way too old, you're nowhere near tall enough, you're too old and too short, your smile's off, your face is asymmetrical, you want me to keep going?” he said to one hopeful in the season premiere.

Becky, a blunt British agent in the woman’s division who swears frequently, also spares no feelings, describing one potential model as having “a canoe chin” like Jay Leno.

Usually "you get to see the beautiful side [of the fashion industry] on TV, but not the raw underbelly,” Tatro said.

Not everyone appreciates the bluntness. In a forum discussing the program on style.com, one contributor chastised VH1 for, however subtly, portraying an ultrathin body image in a positive light. “Don't these people,” wrote nic844, “have any idea that they are the reason millions of young people are living the miserable and inevitably short life that is an eating disorder?? How do they sleep at night????”

Realistically, certain hip measurements can make a model lose a job in the fashion world - a fact most other shows don’t discuss. Although Patterson’s top goal of the show is to entertain, he also wants to be honest and educate people about the industry.

“No one had really demonstrated what the real world was like,” he said. Since he began as a junior agent at Wilhelmina 14 years ago, he has wanted to inform people about the “crazy world” of the industry, unlike many “game show versions” previously produced.

Others agree. “'The Agency' aims to expose the nasty edge that 'America's Next Top Model' blunts or sheathes,” wrote Joanne Weintraub, television columnist for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The Agency” also exposes the darker side of office politics. Although the men’s division of Wilhelmina is quite successful, the high end women’s division struggles to find enough models, perhaps owing to too many canoe-chinned women. Tatro hopes the drama of the search, the tension between the two divisions and all the colorful clashes of personality will hook viewers.

So far, unleashing the fierce side of modeling seems to be attracting an audience. Tatro says the ratings are “strong” and seem to be increasing. Seven episodes have been completed, and depending on the show’s popularity, “The Agency” may run another season.

Patterson is hopeful. “We have ideas for another 30 episodes,” he said.

Hay also doesn’t expect a shortage of modeling reality shows anytime soon. “Who doesn’t want to be a model?,” he asked, These shows "allow you a glimpse into the glamorous life of what you only see on magazine covers.”

E-mail: gcm2107@columbia.edu