Show Hide image

“Britain’s Next Top Model” is a cultural crash in slow-mo, says Laurie Penny

... which is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism.

The show, a high-fashion reality knockout that pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation in a series of invasive and demeaning "challenges", is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general, and young women in particular.

At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate her deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that she does not "have what it takes". Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" -- which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry -- this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. (Last week the new judge Julien Macdonald confided in Wales on Sunday that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke".)

Cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating.

This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason America's Next Top Model and its 20 local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late-capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the west: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of "making it".

Cats in a sack

The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of "ordinary" whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future.

These girls will do almost anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will betray one another clumsily and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, though the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.

The fairy tale these girls are chasing was dreamt up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role models of the age, courted by rock stars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way.

This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed aside for younger, less traumatised models. Yet the dream persists.

Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is the 1990s supermodel Elle Macpherson, known in her day as "The Body". Macpherson quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for 20 years.

The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about "working it", "believing in yourself" and "being on top".

The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful. Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement.

Car crash

For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of "standing out", the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and "representing the brand". This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.

The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is as nothing, however, compared to the submission that's required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling.

In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years on several counts of rape and assault of young models in California. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to gain access to.

In 2009, the former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to submit sexually to male agents, photographers and designers who hold every shred of power and who cover for each other's indiscretions if the girls wish to remain in work.

Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairy tale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairy tales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to compete coldly with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to submit tamely to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse.

This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it is this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves.

The cruel, misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car crash in slow motion -- and this is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of "Britain's Next Top Model" begins on LIVING on Monday 5 July at 9pm.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Show Hide image

Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses