Tyra Banks, you fierce, beautiful business tycoon you, thank you for the many writing lessons that binge watching past cycles of America’s Next Top Model provides.
At first, I thought my love of your show was fever induced, but in spite of my husband’s teasing, it turns out that those hours spent in front of the screen provided some much needed instruction in how to be a successful artist.
It’s Not Enough To Be Pretty
(c) 2005 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
It seems that every season, there’s at least one girl who takes gorgeous photos but as the episodes unfold, the judges become bored by her. “It’s not enough to be a pretty face,” Nigel will say. The panel nods in agreement. At first it seemed like such a ridiculous statement. Of course it’s about being pretty. It’s modeling, for goodness’ sake.
You, Tyra, made me understand. You claim that one of the purposes of your show is to expand what beauty means, and I believe you are in fact much harder on traditionally pretty girls than you are on the more exotic ones. Because it’s not enough to be pretty. As Mr. Jay often says, you’ve got to bring it.
Bring what? Ah, there it is. The Je ne sais quoi of the whole show, the thing that makes each cycle new and exciting. It’s impossible to say what an artist must bring to her art. Passion? Certainly. Craft, commitment, joy? Yes, yes, yes. Yet even these things are not enough. When a girl is successful it’s because she brings something unexpected, something unique, something that even the judges are hard pressed to articulate. Is each winner pretty? Undoubtedly. Outside of the narrow strictures of beauty, though, they are also something more. More is what makes them stand out.
Writing is no different. There is an intangible element to what makes a piece of writing successful that all the lessons on craft and marketing can’t quite contain. What is it? Je ne sais quoi, exactly, but like the judges, I know it when I see it. America’s Next Top Model reminds me that pretty writing isn’t good enough. I’ve got to bring it. Work it. Own it.
It’s All In The Details
Still, of course the models are all pretty. It’s a given of the industry. Just as being able to pose, knowing one’s angles, and having a signature runway walk are also expected. The building blocks to becoming a successful model are understood by all the contestants, and when one is weak in a particular area, the price is often being sent home.
“Stop posing!” Jay will shout at one of the girls during a photo shoot. She gives him a confused look. I’m confused, too. Aren’t models supposed to pose?
“Beautiful picture but there’s nothing in the eyes,” one of the judges will say during panel. Isn’t a beautiful picture the point of modeling?
Once again Tyra comes to the rescue. She gets up and shows how a subtle angling of the hips, a narrowing of the eyes, or a slight shift of weight changes a pose into a statement, an emotion, a space where the model and viewer connect.
“Smile with your eyes,” she often says. There’s a thing she does, a wide-open squint,that makes a picture come alive.
The difference then is that poses are stagnant, but dynamic engagement in the process creates art. Yes, the basics are important. Every model must master them. But it’s the details that make her memorable.
Writers must master the basics of craft, too. Sentence and story structure, point of view, dialogue, setting, pacing, tension, all the building blocks of story telling must be solid. If not, the writing will never be published. However, the basics aren’t enough. Stories can’t look posed, either–that is, the parts in all the correct places but lacking the presence, depth, and heart that true engagement brings to a piece. The writer needs to be attentive to exquisite details, to the small moments that elevate craft to art.
The worst photo shoots come from models who don’t fully commit to the moment. They go through the motions, throw out poses, stare off at the horizon, but they never quite go all the way. Don’t snarl with your lips––growl! The snarl will come with it. Don’t open your mouth in a silent scream––let it out! Pretending and doing are two different things.
When I look at my writing, I have to consider: is this real? Or am I pretending on the page? Writing that’s real has emotional resonance. Pretend writing looks pretty on the page but is quickly forgotten.
One of the biggest criticisms I got of my first book (which didn’t sell) is that it was too melodramatic. When I got the idea for Fancy White Trash, I remember thinking, melodramatic? I’ll show you melodramatic. Instead of shying away from my love of soap opera-like drama, I fully embraced it. The lesson I learned was not to straddle the fence. Whatever a piece of writing wants to be, push it as far as it will go.
Just as a viewer can tell when a model is faking emotion, so too can a reader detect falseness in writing.
It Takes A Team
Many of the girls who compete on America’s Next Top Model don’t seem all that exceptional looking at first. Then, bam, put a girl through hair and make-up, give her a couture gown, hang her off a cliff, and damn, you’ve got a super model. The girl had it in her the whole time, but sometimes she needs help reaching her full potential.
Tyra has a particularly good eye for hair. Famously, at least one model cries during the make-over episode when Tyra has the model’s hair chopped off or changes the color. Invariably, though, the changes make the girl more “modelesque,” as they say on the show. There is often discussion of the difference between being commercial and couture. A model can be commercially pretty but not have that extra oomph that makes her couture.
In writing, I think writers are often happy when the writing is good enough. It’s pretty, marketable, and my critique group loves it. However, those things don’t make it publishable. Sometimes, a writer needs a team—like a mentor, an agent, an editor, or sometimes all three––to take the writing to the next level. It’s hard to see ourselves as we really are. An outside eye can help push us further than we can go on our own.
When Bianca had to shave her entire head because of all the damage to her hair, she cried. She thought she was beautiful coming into the competition. Who was she without her hair? It was a difficult transition for her, but eventually she saw what was obvious to the audience as soon as her hair was gone: the new cut emphasized her incredible bone structure and striking smile.
Revision can be like a traumatic make-over. It can feel like the editor is picking on the thing that you feel defines the piece. Go ahead and cry. But then shave your manuscript down. Maybe there’s something more beautiful under all the camouflage you created. Don’t be satisfied with commercial. Always strive for couture.
You’ve Got To Want It
Season after season, girls confess to the camera how much they want to be America’s Next Top Model. As the seasons unfold, though, it becomes clear that not everyone wants it enough. Home life, self esteem, conflict in the house, depression, illness, redefining life goals—all these things often get in the way of a model doing her best.
Tyra, you are such a goddess. When a girl talks about a death back home or how ill she was during a shoot, you are all compassion and heart. Then, you point out the bottom line. A model’s job is to deliver. You counsel compartmentalizing. Feel your feelings, then put them away. Get the job done.
As a writer, it is so easy to be distracted by life. Constant pulls on my attention, my time, my health, and my bank account often make me question whether I should be writing at all. So, Tyra, thanks for the advice. Deal with it. Put it away. Deliver. I can do that. Because you know what? I do want it.
But it’s not enough to want it. You’ve got to really want it. Don’t hope. Don’t expect. Work for it. Models get eliminated from the show because of attitude problems more than any other reason. Here’s the advice I’ve compiled from watching girl after girl get sent home:
- Don’t be over it. Show the judges that you’re committed and even though set backs come your way, you won’t give up. When the judges feel like you’ve given up, they give up on you, too.
- Don’t be conceited. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You’re not better than everyone else. The judges are in a position to help you. Don’t alienate them with a sense of entitlement.
- Don’t be fake. You are the only one who can do this. Show the judges who you are. When others connect with you, they want to help you.
- Be grateful.
- Be charming.
- Don’t let others bring you down. Stay above the fray. Sure, it’s a competition, but if you stay focused on doing your best, the rest will sort itself out.
For writers, yeah. All of the above. Substitute the word editors for judges, and no more explanation is necessary.
Know Who You Are
Some girls get on the show, hoping that becoming America’s Next Top Model will be their identity. These girls are never successful. When such a girl is in the bottom two but given one more chance, Tyra will caution her, “The judges say they don’t know who you are.”
It can be easy in writing to mimic those writers and genres we admire, but with enough practice, eventually your own writing voice emerges. Don’t be satisfied with sounding like someone else. Keep writing until you are the only person who could write what you’re writing.
Tyra also tells her contestants to study themselves. Know what makes you unique. When you know the ways in which you are different from your competition, you are better able to highlight those features and abilities.
At the end of the day, the winner isn’t the best. There are many beautiful women who could be America’s Next Top Model. There are many amazing writers whose work deserves publication. The main lesson I’ve learned from America’s Next Top Model is that there is no such thing as the best. The winner is the last one standing.
Thank you, Tyra, for showing me what it takes to be the last one standing.
I may not get a contract with Elite modeling, a spread in Seventeen magazine, or a $100,000 Cover Girl contract, but I did get enough inspiration to keep writing for another year2