Thank you Terri of Barriers, Bridges and Books for permission to cross-post this article.
This weekend my 18 year old daughter got completely sucked in to watching the America’s Next Top Model Season 9 marathon on VH-1. The show, hosted by Tyra Banks chooses several lovely young ladies from around the country and provides a combination of modeling training and elimination competitions so that by the end of their season there is one winner of a major modeling contract. I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that all of those young ladies get a career boost from both the training and the exposure the show gives them.
I got interested in watching the show when my daughter informed me that one of the girls competing (Heather) has Asperger’s syndrome. It was fascinating to watch this young woman compete on the program and watching the dynamics of the folks around her as she advanced in the competition.
I applaud America’s Next Top Model for their commitment to diversity.
Probably the most fun for me was listening to my daughter’s commentary on the show. She has grown up with a younger brother who has a learning disability and a younger sister who has Down syndrome. And, while I knew she was certainly aware of disability issues, it turns out she is pretty analytical and quite passionate about them. (Yay!)
She first called my attention to the show to point out Heather and to say, “Mom, I am so excited, she is really good!” She said that she’d been worried about what angle the show would take and she didn’t want them to have a “pity contestant” or to make a fool of someone. She said that Heather had some struggles, but so did everyone and “her strengths are really strong, Mom!”
Later she called me in to comment on the social dynamics in the group. My daughter pointed out one of the contestants and said that this girl had targeted Heather from the beginning. The girl started out early in the series saying mean things to Heather and when that didn’t appear to affect her she escalated and escalated until she was finally able to rattle her. My daughter’s comment was that the best revenge was that Heather’s pictures really were better than this other girl’s.
Heather made it nearly to the top which was so exciting, but my daughter was disappointed by the disqualifying events. Throughout the series people were attentive to giving Heather the cues she needed and she responded to them pretty well. All of the girls had areas where they excelled and areas where they did not. The final tests were hard to watch though.
There was a contest where Heather was having trouble with the photo shoot (some of the other girls did 13 takes also!) One of the coordinators eventually fed Heather the words line by line, but the critique was about connecting with the camera… it was sort of a parallel accommodation.
I have run into this with my daughter at times where someone will tell me that they have been zippering her coat for her, for example, for months and she still can’t do it herself… They did something—maybe a lot—for her, but NOT what she needed. It’s an odd disconnect.
The argument could be made that in the real world of modeling no one will help her that much… I think when the intention is success there will be ways to create accommodations that work. If they had given all of the contestants their lines the night before they probably all would have done better—but the intention of that competition was to eliminate someone.
The part that upset me was in the activity called Go-Sees where the contestants drop in on a bunch of designers to show their portfolios and make a connection. They left Heather wandering around some city in China unable to find a single designer. She cannot follow maps. So her elimination eventually had nothing to do with her ability, her connection with designers, her commitment or her work ethic, it had to do entirely with her disability.
The fact that people walked past her and let her flounder on the streets shows just how well she was doing in the competition! They clearly felt very insecure.
I think eliminating her because of her runway skills or her lack of smoothness talking on camera—essential job skills—would have been fine, but eliminating her for her map-reading capabilities was ugly. Especially in the age of the GPS! And wouldn't a GPS manufacturer just love the exposure of having the show hand out their systems to their top 5 models for Go-Sees?
Oh well, she got into the top 5, if our house was any indication she was cheered by multitudes. She really is a top model with a fairytale story—and, oh yeah, she happens to have Aspergers.