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November 8, 2007

Despite best efforts, models still dumb

There are certain things that at first don’t seem nearly as scary as they actually are. Not until Al Gore brought skyrocketing line graphs and drowning polar bears to movie theaters throughout the country did many see the magnitude of global warming. Record label crackdowns on illegal file-sharing didn’t seem like such a big deal to most people until friends of friends got hit with lawsuits. And, for me, it took Ben Stein scoffing, “Darfur is not a men’s cologne,” to make the just-hatched television- and movie-writers’ strike downright frightening.

If the writers won’t write and the strike continues through summer, as the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) has threatened, reality programming will likely be all that is left. That doesn’t seem so awful, until one watches America’s Most Smartest Model.

VH1’s foray into fashion, Smartest Model, pairs Ben Stein, the financial columnist known throughout pop culture for being pretty smart, with Mary Alice Stephenson, a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. They team up to judge the intellectual prowess and modeling chops of a group of handpicked, skinny, and, for the most part, shockingly dumb contestants. The show claims to seek models who can prove that they have brains and beauty, and that models aren’t all stupid.

Unfortunately for those dumb enough to trust the sincerity of this claim from the network that brought us not one, but three, Flavor of Love spin-offs, the contestants on Smartest Model are neither remotely intelligent, nor bona fide models. If the show’s creators were really looking for runway material, as Stephenson so often claims, most of the contestants would have been turned away at the doors of their auditions. Then again, anyone with realistic modeling aspirations ought to have seen a career-killer in the making before the cameras started rolling.

What viewers are left with is an assortment of men and women with neither the charisma to make it through the first round of The Bachelor nor sufficient D-list celebrity status to cut it on The Surreal Life.

There are the Rachels. Blonde Rachel, undernourished and over-tanned, with fake boobs and a staccato Valley girl whine, bears an uncanny resemblance to celebrity stylist/bad influence Rachel Zoe. When she guesses that Bush ran against Dole in 2004 and that Tom Sawyer penned The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, she gives credence to reports that insufficient food intake reduces one’s ability to reason. Then there is Aussie Rachel. The one thing Aussie Rachel has going for her is that she’s not as annoying as blonde Rachel—though her looks are unremarkable and it should go without saying that she isn’t very bright. Victoria, a very tall redhead who is just as bland, actually looks like she could be a model. She’s eliminated early in the competition when she fails to spell (or recognize) the word “emaciated.”

The rest of the female contestants are equally unexciting. The one exception is Mandy Lynn, who is also the only semi-celebrity of the bunch. At 5-foot-2, Mandy Lynn would have little chance of transitioning from Playboy spreads to high-fashion modeling, even if she weren’t plumped to the brink of bursting with silicone. She is, however, pretty funny in a self-deprecating way. That’s not to say that she knows the difference between a ton of feathers and a ton of bricks (she doesn’t). But still.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the men on the show were picked to make Ben Stein’s monotone seem dynamic. If so, they succeed. V.J. and Brett, both brunettes with chiseled abs and over-bleached teeth, look strikingly similar. Both are almost, but not quite, good-looking enough to be that vaguely cute guy in the background of an Abercrombie catalog spread. Neither says nor does much that is at all interesting. The two would be entirely forgettable if not for their inexplicable hatred of each other, which leads them to spend lots of time whining to anyone within earshot about what a wimp or crybaby the other is.

Then there is Daniel, the “smartest” would-be model on the show. Despite winning almost all the smart-contests, giving him advantages over his competitors in the modeling challenges, Daniel consistently proves himself to be an utterly inept model. Perhaps this is because he is not very attractive. Or maybe because he is a klutz. Either way, Daniel’s decision to pursue modeling makes me question his intelligence—even if the guy can spell “Dionysian” and impressively dissect a fetal pig.

Watching these model-wannabes stumble their way through smart-contests and modeling challenges is at times funny. More often, it is a little disconcerting, as when Stein corrected two contestants’ understanding of Darfur. But most often, like its contestants, it is painfully dull.

And, at least in this sense, the show epitomizes the depths to which reality TV can sink. Sure, it doesn’t raise the ethical red flags of shows depicting nine- and ten-year-olds creating their own unsupervised society (Kid Nation) or filming the arrests of pedophiles lured to what they think are the homes of underage girls (To Catch a Predator). While these shows and others like them may briefly spark public outrage, we can rest safe knowing that they are inevitably taken off the air once enough network higher-ups get wind of the controversy.

But Smartest Model represents a far more insidious danger to the TV-viewing public. It is the type of show that, especially without any competition from scripted programs, could be here to stay. It’s safe for the networks, unlikely to incite any sort of public outcry. It’s also cheap—the contestants appear on the show solely for the chance to win prize money. And the formula of pretty people plus idiotic bickering has proven a ratings success.

The show’s only fault is that it’s really boring. By the third episode, even the contestants can predict who will be eliminated.

And when Mandy Lynn can tell you what’s about to happen, it really is time to hit the off button.