America’s Next Top Model could be transgender

One of the 14 contestants on Cycle 11 of America’s Next Top Model will be Isis, the first transgender contestant to compete on the regular season of America’s Next Top Model. In previous cycles, ANTM had a not-so-secret policy that only those who were born biologically female could compete on the show.

Does anyone remember Claudia Charriez? Charriez was a transgender contestant on an earlier cycle of the show who made it all the way to the semi-final round, but was ultimately disqualified for not being born biologically female.

Afterwards, Tyra invited her to The Tyra Banks Show for a feature called “America’s Next Top Transsexual Model,” which aired in February 2006, a contest Charriez handily won. However, we all know from watching sports that exhibition games aren’t part of the regular season, and winning an exhibition game doesn’t have the same cachet as winning in the regular season or in the playoffs. Charriez won the exhibition game, but she wasn’t allowed to play in the regular season.

Janice Dickinson, at one time the bad cop and resident diva of the Top Model judges, scooped up Charriez as a model for the first season of The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency. After out-walking, outshining, and out-fiercing her fellow models (some of whom could barely walk and had to be led around like toddlers), Charriez was dismissed during the season finale. After a few crocodile tears, Dickinson fired Chiarrez and mused, “Unfortunately, there is no place for her here.” Throughout much of the season, Dickinson was fawning over Charriez like a mother hen, so Charriez’s dismissal seemed especially brusque. Then again, asking Janice Dickinson — who regularly shrieks at her models and has even slapped one across the face — to be the poster child of sensitivity is like asking Cruella de Vil to be nice to puppies. (My roommate is obsessed with the show, so I have sat through virtually all of the episodes. I have concluded that The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency is nothing but a front for a secret government program to create humiliating forms of torture “enhanced interrogation techniques” for use at Guantanamo Bay.)

Though sometimes met with confusion or ignorant remarks (most notably when Dickinson herself mentioned that she had to renege on her policy of not revealing her models’ personal matters to others because Dickinson felt she had to disclose to a male model that “[Charriez] truly is a man”), Charriez’s brief stint on reality television was groundbreaking in that it was one of the few times a transgender person appeared on a non-LGBT network as an integrated member of the cast. Although there is no question that one reason why she was brought on the show was the curiosity factor, her appearance brought visibility and a human face to transgender individuals.

Hot button topics such as sexual orientation, race and gender are regularly exploited on reality shows for entertainment. It doesn’t take a cynical mind to conclude that, lurking behind the publicly stated reason of more media visibility to underrepresented minorities, is a desire that the curiosity factor may lead to controversy and conflict on and off the show, which will then lead to higher ratings. Race was exploited in Survivor: Cook Islands, where the tribes were initially separated by race, which had media outlets and the blogosphere buzzing like hornets in the weeks before the season premiere aired. Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor: Cook Islands stated:

The idea for this actually came from the criticism that Survivor was not ethnically diverse enough.

So, let’s pit yellow people, white people, brown people and black people against each other! Ultimately, Survivor: Cook Islands came and went without much controversy. Additionally, the ripped and sexy Yul Kwon emerged as the winner, which helped shatter some unfortunate stereotypes about Asian-American males perpetuated by the media (William Hung, anyone?).

As to sexual orientation, virtually every season of The Real World had viewers predicting, “Who is going to be the gay guy, and who is going to be the homophobe?” And don’t even get me started on A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila. (The only things shattered in that show were various pieces of furniture and Bo’s jaw when Jay and Chad would fly into adolescent temper tantrums during the second season.) In any event, intentionally fabricated controversy and conflict are always part of the reality show formula.

One can only hope that the producers will use this opportunity to treat Isis with same amount of respect (or, in this case, the same amount of disrespect) afforded to other contestants. Whenever there is a “first” in any realm, the (un)lucky individual is inevitably put into a fishbowl and subjected to more intense scrutiny than her peers. Isis may be the first transgender reality show cast member that many Americans will be exposed to. The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency and the sensationalist UK import There’s Something About Miriam aired on cable television. America’s Next Top Model will air on network television on the CW. Even though Top Model isn’t exactly an after school special, Isis will, somewhat unfairly, be placed in a representative capacity for the transgender community in the eyes of the public.

Unfortunately, Isis is already getting heat, most notably from the usual suspects, such as the Fox News Channel.

On August 14th, GLAAD issued a call to action, excerpted below:

On August 14, Fox News Channel aired a crude and obnoxious segment concerning the recent announcement of America’s Next Top Model‘s first-ever transgender contestant. Isis, who will begin appearing on the new cycle of the popular CW program when it premieres on September 3, was interviewed exclusively in the current issue of Us Weekly.

Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett and Us Weekly Editor-at-Large Ian Drew spent the segment gratuitously insulting the America’s Next Top Model contestant, using dehumanizing terminology, inaccurate and inappropriate pronouns and offensive references to her anatomy.

While laughing and joking, Jarrett mocked Isis’ description of herself as a woman whose “cards were dealt differently,” and said, “That’s an understatement!” Drew referred to recent instances of transgender visibility on reality television as “The Crying Game ’08,” going on to call the show America’s Next Top Tranny. Drew then said that she doesn’t look any different from other contestants because “they are not exactly the most high-class group of women.” Throughout the segment, Jarrett switched back and forth between male and female pronouns, and both Jarrett and Drew suggested that Isis “fooled” people by “blending in.” They went on to make crude remarks about her genitalia and the pitch of her voice.

The Fox News Channel — always a class act.

In any event, a transgender reality show contestant is playing in the regular season just like any other person — and on network television instead of cable. This should be considered a step forward. And so, as with any other contestant, the questions should be: Can she walk the catwalk without tripping? Can she avoid pissing Tyra off? Can she sell Cover Girl products or Secret deodorant without flubbing her lines? And of course, can she bring it? Tune in September 3rd to find out.

(Thanks to icarus of Quench Zine for the tips.)