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America's Next Top Model Throws A Mother F---ing Walk-Off

Cycle 23 kicks things off proper by inviting Stacey McKenzie and Zendaya to judge the models' walks.

Morning Prep

Right off the bat, the new Top Model does itself a disservice by foregoing the traditional house introduction. If I am watching any reality show in which the participants live indoors, I damn well better see fools bursting through a front door, shrieking and pointing at every tacky wall accent in the place. Fighting over beds would be nice too, but that's just gravy. Instead, we join the Top 14 models in medias res, calmly applying makeup while reading from the Big Book of Reality Competition Clichés ("We have no idea what to expect") before the...sigh...RitAlert arrives. I get it, but I really wish I didn't. Rita -- who clearly filmed this message on her phone, ten minutes after a wake-and-bake -- instructs the models to meet Stacey McKenzie somewhere in Brooklyn for runway training.

Runway Mini-Challenge

I assume I speak for a silent majority of Top Model fans when I say the concept of runway training is dumb. Either you can walk in heels to the rhythm of chill-wave electronica while scowling sexily, or you can't. These segments were only essential in the past because they let the late, great Miss J deploy his comedic chops. Stacey McKenzie is an international treasure and a joy to gaze upon, but, alas, she lost the memo that "runway training" is code for reading the girls' dead arms for filth and perfectly imitating their diva-overload struts. Not even the three voguers shipped over from the House of Mugler do anything resembling critiquing. Nor do they teach the models how to vogue. I genuinely do not know what they are doing here.

Despite all that, this scene is pretty fun! The models are divided into two "squads" and square off in seven head-to-head runway battles. We get a sense of who already knows how to walk with consistency and authority (CoryAnne, Marissa, and the twins); who slays (Binta); who think they slay but actually look like damn fools (Cherish and Paige); and who is so nervous they forget how to operate their extremities like a human being (Kyle and Justine).

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Stacey arbitrarily picks the winning squad and awards them...more runway training! Sorry, girls who already suck, you're not getting any better today.

House Dramz

The models are in the backyard, having "some deep conversations," when Paige, a private-school educated white girl, initiates a conversation about Black Lives Matter. Paige is a tad white-splainy, albeit well-intentioned, and her full-throated support for the movement brings more than one of the black models to tears. Giah even tells Page she's the type of white person she conjures up when telling her black friends "white people are good."

Not enough time is devoted to this scene, so it's hard to tell how they jump from that conversation to Binta -- a Nigerian woman now living in Seattle -- screaming at the other black women, "You are from Africa!" Giah and Cody (or maybe it's Tash; I can't tell the twins apart yet) try to explain that, while they are conflicted about their identities given how their ancestors were brought to this country as slaves, they see themselves as Americans far more than they see themselves as Africans. This doesn't fly with Binta, who thinks they are "living in La La Land" by denying their African heritage. Like I said, this conversation gets short shrift, so I hope they continue to explore topics like this in future episodes.

Stacey Mackenzie 4 Prez

Continuing with the feels-heavy day, Stacey arrives at the house, sits everyone down, and tells them about her journey becoming a model. As you might expect from someone as nontraditionally modelesque as Stacey, it was a long road through Toronto, New York, and Paris before someone -- Jean Paul Gaultier, in fact -- was willing to book her. Stacey breaks down a few times during her story, especially while describing how a New York agency head, who had been on vacation when Stacey was hired, belittled her in front of a room of her peers upon meeting her. Suffice it to say, it's waterworks all around.

Afterward, Stacey takes the winning squad from the runway challenge out back for their lesson. Binta is clearly still the most talented walker, and Kyle shows little sign of improvement. Paige thinks runway is where she excels, but it's obvious to everyone from her first step that she's a clomping mess. The best part of this scene, though, is the other models huddled around an upstairs window, peering down at their competition, trying to pick up tips.

Runway Show/Photo Shoot

The models arrive at a venue where Drew (who will also be taking on the role of creative director this cycle) explains this week's challenge: after walking down a runway, the girls will crowd-surf into a dozen generically handsome male models' arms while having their photos taken from above. A cruel lesson designed to remind men what their role is in the model matriarchy? Yes, ma'am!
Before the show even starts, Paige and CoryAnne demonstrate their amateurishness by playing dress-up with the outfits on display and failing to put them back on the rack in their proper spot -- a move Binta, rightfully, scolds them for. She hasn't said it yet, but I will: Binta did not come here to make friends.

Since Law is today's stylist, he brings in one of his bigger clients, Zendaya, to pick the winner. As with Rita Ora, Zendaya's celebrity is one Wikipedia cannot adequately explain, so I am at a loss as to why the star of a Disney Channel series with only one album (which peaked at #51 in the U.S.) is such a big deal. But she was in the "Bad Blood" video, so I guess she's a thing.

The challenge is notable mostly because of the weird way Drew has to direct the shoot. Though it's framed as an actual runway show with a live crowd, Drew is standing on a crane above the models while they're being photographed, shouting directions like, "Give your legs some dimension because you're wearing black pants!" The editors do what they can to get around the awkwardness, but it's impossible to watch this and not think of the dozens of people standing around, waiting for the mishegoss at the end of the runway to finish up so they can get on with the show.

Tash's is the only walk I consider above-average here, but what do I know? Far more obvious are the missteps. Giah tries to pump up the crowd with her arms in a move I know Miss J would have called shenanigans on, but, in his absence, gets a pass. Krislian, the most petite model in the group, tries to pull the same move as Giah, AND fails to keep her eyes open during most of her shots. Justine walks way too quickly and spends most of the shoot "showing off her pussy cat," according to Law. And CoryAnne does whatever this is:

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Inexplicably, while she's as stiff as ever and keeps one hand in her pocket at all times, Kyle is declared the winner of the challenge by Zendaya, who rewards her with a guest spot...on her Instagram.

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I feel like I understand Zendaya's appeal even less after watching her pose for a selfie.

Paige Vs. Binta (Sort Of)

Back at the house, Paige is gushing over Zendaya some more while Binta eats something unidentifiable and makes this face.

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There seems to be a general consensus now that Paige is pretty "extra," but Binta is the only one willing to call her obnoxious to her face.

Panel

Since there are still fourteen models in the competition, a bunch of critiques are rushed through. The shortest one clocks in at literally seven seconds. Here are the high- and lowlights:

  • Kyle is universally praised as the biggest boss in the competition, which I will remind you on a weekly basis, means absolutely nothing. Her photo is better than I expected, though.
  • Justine lets forth the giggliest giggle in the history of giggledom upon being called. I wouldn't be surprised if the producers dumped her in the bottom 2 just for that.
  • Marissa has one of the best photos, even though she's the only one delivering a profile. Based on what little we've seen, she's my shot-in-the-dark pick to win it all. Never underestimate a raspy-voiced eighteen-year-old.
  • Courtney is told she looks like a sexy woman and a hot dude, and seems hilariously not okay with that.
  • Ashley points out that India -- a.k.a. subpar Gigi Hadid -- has one eye that's smaller than the other.
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    I will never un-see it.

  • Though the judges have kid gloves on with everyone else, Krislian draws their ire simply by remarking that she couldn't understand the direction she was being given. She's also handed this season's honorary "Too Hoochie" designation. Nice to know some things don't change.
  • Cody has a full-blown panic attack in front of the judges because, as retroactively decided by Rita, she is tired of living in her twin sister's shadow. Law, channeling Iyanla, tells Tash to come hug her sister. It's forced melodrama in an episode that doesn't need it, though it does give Tash an excuse to show off her bomb walk one more time.
  • Holy shit, we're going to have to listen to Rita pronounce "photo" as "pho-o" FOR YEARS.

Cody is chosen as best photo as a total consolation prize (sorry 'bout it). The bottom two are Justine and CoryAnne, with Justine sent packing. Surprising, considering how much CoryAnne seemed set up for a fall with all her talk of being the daughter of a '90s supermodel. Also, Justine was cute (and the only Asian-American in the competition, unfortunately), and I will miss her more than I would have CoryAnne or Krislian.

Verdict

This might be a new era, but Top Model, like all reality shows, always lives or dies on the strength of its contestants. "Lights, Camera, Catwalk" (so long, "The Girl Who..." episode title formats) is a fun, exciting showcase for the talents and personalities on display in Cycle 23. Plus: Stacey Mackenzie is everything.

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