America's Next Top Model contestants address switching races for shoots: 'This is uncomfortable'
Somewhere during the two hours it took the America's Next Top Model makeup team to apply dark paint to her skin to transform her into a Botswanan woman, cycle 13 contestant Jennifer An realized something was wrong.
"I didn't know we were going to have our bodies painted. We were standing in front of the makeup area, we're holding our bras and underwear on, and as I'm watching them paint my skin, I'm like, 'Oh my God, that's really dark,'" says An, speaking exclusively to EW for a 20-year anniversary piece on the show's most shocking moments, of the 2009 episode that tasked six models with switching races for a photo shoot portraying women from different cultures through clothing, hair styling, and, as An describes it, pure blackface — an assessment host and ANTM executive producer Tyra Banks adamantly denies.
"I kept saying, 'You guys are putting me in blackface,'" An remembers of the Hawaii-based shoot — which occurred four years after cycle 4 models switched races for the show — also alleging that the show's team pinned her hair "so they could 'fro my hair out" to complete her evolution into a woman with African heritage. "They definitely didn't show any of that footage."
THE CW Jennifer An on 'America's Next Top Model' cycle 13
The moment fell four years after Banks and creative director Jay Manuel first asked the cast to undergo aesthetic transformations to portray different races on cycle 4 in 2005.
"There's a twist!" Manuel told an excited gaggle of cycle 4's model hopefuls as they learned they'd participate in an ad for the Got Milk? campaign. "We're actually going to switch your ethnicities!"
The reaction in the room was nothing short of… well… standard for the time. The models smiled, laughed, and giggled as Manuel informed the cast that some of them would undergo makeup and hair evolutions, to take some from Caucasian to Black, others from Latina to white, and beyond. In 2023, it's hard to imagine a group of young women getting excited about the thought of undergoing surface-level alterations to temporarily portray different races — and agree to have the results televised. The cast of cycle 4, though, maintains that they thought little of the brief at the time, years before this shoot (and another, similar challenge from cycle 13) drew sustained criticism as the internet re-evaluated ethics surrounding it nearly two decades later.
"I don't remember us raising concern about it, because we didn't think too much into it, it was just a photo shoot. We were pretending, like we did on every other shoot," cycle 4 contestant Tiffany Richardson, who transformed to portray a Native American on the show, says. "It reads differently to me [today] because I've grown and I understand how people could be offended by it, but I still don't really give a s---. It's not that deep for me."
Competitor Keenyah Hill, who's now a modeling coach, says that no one made a "serious fuss" about the creative because it took place prior to what she calls "the sensitivity era."
Hulu / Amazon Prime / CW Most shocking moments in 'America's Next Top Model' history.
"There's a big difference between us being artistic and having fun with photo shoot ideas and different parts of our aesthetic. That's our job as models," Hill continues, emphasizing what she feels is a clear line between the cycle 4 shoot and malicious intent behind blackface. "If there's a [non-Black] who goes out on Halloween, painting their skin brown and making a mockery of it, then it's blackface, and making a mockery of [Black people.] Those are two different things; look at the context."
In a statement to EW, a spokesperson for Banks says the intention of the shoot was to combat an industry where "lighter skin and straight hair were pervasive beauty standards," which "perpetuated deep insecurities within women." The spokesperson maintains that such shoots were "meant to be a moment celebrating and spotlighting underrepresented ideologies of beauty — textured hair and darker skin — on a global scale."
On cycle 13, Banks and Manuel introduced the 2009 shoot to the models as a celebration of Hawaii's immigrant history, with Banks using the word "hapa" — a Hawaiian word for someone of mixed ethnicity — to define the project. An, whose family immigrated to the United States from Korea, says that she wasn't given an option to decline having her skin darkened and began panicking when she saw what was happening to her body — the end result of which judge Nigel Barker described as "National Geographic" during the panel deliberation.
"I looked around and I'm like, 'Guys, but I'm in blackface right now.' And they were like, 'Yeah, yeah, it's fine.' I think Tyra came over and she was talking about how beautiful it was that we were trying to meld these cultures in the shoot, and I just remember feeling super uncomfortable about it," An recalls. "I know that this is wrong, this is uncomfortable with me, nobody asked if I was okay with this, but I also realize that I'm in this competition state. Like, what can I do? I have no say over anything…. once the cameras are on you in that way, you feel like you have to perform and not cause an issue, because the history of the show is, if you cause an issue, you get kicked off. So, I was like, let me just shut my mouth and stay on the show."
An, who still works as an actress and model and has appeared in ads for KFC and American Express, says she recognizes that Banks had "good intentions" in celebrating diverse beauty with the shoot and even says she didn't feel offended by some of the contestants — like Erin Wagner and Nicole Fox — transforming into women of Asian descent for the same shoot.
"You know, I didn't connect those dots. I was more upset because I knew how the Black community felt about blackface. For me, it wasn't the same thing. I don't remember their outfits pushing a boundary or anything like that," An says.
She does, however, hone in on Barker's "National Geographic" comment as an example of why the shoot was, ultimately, inappropriately handled.
"It's weird when I look at the photo. I don't see National Geographic, and if we do, I think we miss the point that it's a fashion shoot that has very little to do with my modeling as much as it does the styling," she observes. "I feel like, then, it just points to the fact that the point was lost, unless that's what they were going for. Mostly, I feel like it was a mistake. Like, it just shouldn't have happened."
UPN Noelle Staggers switching races for a photoshoot on 'America's Next Top Model' cycle 4
Kahlen Rondot, a white model who, during the cycle 4 shoot, says she received "really thick foundation" to darken her skin to reflect Hawaiian ethnicity, has a similar view.
"I know Tyra got a lot of flak for all this, as she should, because it's her name on it," she says. "She needs to take responsibility for certain things. I realize this was 20 years ago, but how did we think this was actually okay?"
Executive producer Ken Mok declined to comment, while representatives for Manuel and producer Laura Fuest Silva did not respond to EW's multiple requests for comment. A representative for Banks, however, points to a prior statement from the supermodel."I want to be very clear: I, in no way, put my 'Top Models' in blackface. I'm a Black woman. I am proud. I love my people and the struggle that we have gone through continues, and the last thing that I would ever do is be a part of something that degraded my race," she said. "I'm sorry to anybody that watched Top Model and was offended by the pictures because they didn't understand the real story behind them or even if you did see the whole episode and you were still offended, I truly apologize because that is not my intention. My intention is to spread beauty and break down barriers."
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