We all spent too much time at shopping centres. It’s one of those nice things that unites all kids born after 1950. Unless you were born into a religion or culture that specifically forbids the gathering of unsupervised young people, you likely spent whole years of your life walking from on end of an air-conditioned hallway to another. When the air-conditioned hallway closed, you went and stood outside the shopping centre, by the bike racks, and that’s where our story begins.
I was 14, and I was walking on bike racks. I had developed a party trick of being able to hop the length of the rack in under a minute. Obviously, this was stupid. Obviously, I paid for it. I tripped over the leg of my jeans, and my face smashed down on the metal. My front tooth was knocked clean out of my mouth. For some reason, in this moment I had the presence of mind to pick up the tooth, put it in a glass of milk, and held the cold glass in my bloody hand while my mum drove me to the dentist.
This is the story I tell about my troublesome front tooth. I have been telling this story a lot lately, because the tooth has finally given up. It had been behaving strangely for a while, and then finally, on a transatlantic flight, it buckled sideways as I bit into my dinner roll. I have spent the last three weeks in a series of complicated, painful and expensive surgeries.
In my numerous and medically necessary retellings of this story, I have shortened “bike rack accident” to “bike accident”. It’s easier, and it’s more complimentary. I think it paints a picture of a more robust kid, a sort of Stand By Me-era pre-teen who is always wearing dungarees and getting into scraps with the boys. However, the telling and re-telling of this tiny, time-convenient lie has made me think about the part of the story I don’t tell. That I have never, ever told. The part of the story that is so singularly mortifying that I can’t believe I’m repeating it here, now.
Here it goes. After the tooth came out, the friend I was with took me to the shopping centre bathroom, and held my face under the sink. A janitor came in, and said the shopping centre was closed, and that we shouldn’t be in there. My horrified friend said: “Can’t you see what has happened to her?”
With a face covered in blood and dispenser soap, I took my head out of the sink and said to this adult janitor: “I have a meeting with a modelling agency tomorrow. I’m never going to model now!”
Did I have a meeting with a modelling agency the next day? Did I fuck.
Did I ever, even once in my adolescence, have a meeting with a modelling agency? Did anyone ever express their desire for me to model? Did anyone catfish me to join their fake modelling agency, but instead trick me into a racy photoshoot, like that one episode of Sister Sister?
The answer to all of this, fortunately or unfortunately, is no. After telling this story to a friend, once she picked herself off the ground, she said: “You know this is the real life version of ‘doctor, doctor, will I be able to play the violin after my brain surgery?’ joke?”
The first thing to leave my mouth after my front tooth did was a lie. A lie that meant a lot to me, because I wanted nothing more than to be a model.
Of course, this wasn’t truth either. This truth is, that I wanted nothing more than to be an America’s Next Top Model contestant.
It is impossible to overstate the effect of America’s Next Top Model on teenage girls of the early noughties. You’re probably already picturing a giant tarantula crawling over Eva Pigford’s face while she bravely models jewellery. You can probably see Naima’s mohawk. You are probably whispering to yourself “noted fashion photographer, Nigel Barker”. It was hilarious and it was gut-wrenching. It was trashy reality TV, and it was artistic critique. It built these girls up, it tore them apart. It was terrible, and it was the best thing ever.
Like RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that heavily and blatantly aped ANTM in its early seasons, it gave you something that is completely objective – say, a photograph, or in Drag Race’s case, a piece of performance – and told you that there were definite ways to judge it. Over the course of one episode, an armchair viewer that knows nothing about either drag or modelling could point at the contestants efforts and say: Oh come on!! She’s not even using her eyes!
The key difference between RPDR and ANTM however is that if you want to win Drag Race, you have to have drag experience. To win Top Model, you didn’t need to have anything. You just needed an interesting face, a complicit attitude, a punctual and courtly approach to your ‘go-sees’, and the good sense to never wear too many accessories to a judges panel.
But that’s not what made ANTM great. What made ANTM great – and, I believe, such a hit with teenage mouth-breathers like myself – was the fact that they took pains to treat traditionally hot girls like shit.
Brita, a Cycle 4 girl who looked like a Victoria’s Secret model, was routinely called fat and boring, and compared to ‘a side of beef’ by Nolé Marin. Tatiana was called ‘too pretty’ to be a top model. Brittany was too slutty, too porn. In retrospect, this was a devastatingly cruel example of the toxic misogyny that was taught to young women by other women throughout the early noughties. It’s something we all agree is terrible now, but when you’re 14 and so full of hate for your own body that you feel like to pass a reflective surface is to die a small death, it was awesome. Because Tyra didn’t just slam obviously beautiful girls. She also lifted up kinda weird or comparatively average-looking girls.
I remember the non-beautiful ANTM contestants like I remember the stations of the cross. Michelle, the pro-wrestler! Kahlen, the girl who had never even seen an episode of ANTM! And who could forget Shandi, the gawky blonde girl who got caught kissing a male model in the hot-tub, EVEN THOUGH she had a boyfriend back home! Shandi!!
These girls were almost always white, blonde, thin and the kind of girl you wouldn’t look twice at in the street. In the world of stunningly beautiful would-be models, this was enough to make them a spat-upon serf. They beauties would pick on the mere pretty, and the mere pretty would rise up and win the challenge that week. If you were an ordinary looking teenager with no bone structure or problems to speak of, it gave you a wonderful excuse to feel persecuted. These thin white blonde girls, in a completely upside down and bizarre way, became underdogs. What made them even more alluring was that, according to Tyra, they were the true beauties.
I developed an obsession with becoming a Michelle, a Kahlen, or a Shandi. I wanted to be the awkward girl who didn’t know she was beautiful and was told by Tyra Banks that she was, but in order to do that, you had to first be in a modelling competition, which suggested you did know you were beautiful, which ruined the point of the exercise. I wanted this thing desperately, but I couldn’t speak about it to anyone. Speaking about it would be a Brittany thing to do, not a Michelle thing to do. And so, when my tooth came out, so did my desperately held secret. Namely, that I had a rich imaginary life as a Top Model contestant, and the bike rack had ruined that forever.
A few years later, when the show’s hold on me had waned a little, I was sitting at an outdoor table with a friend. We were about seventeen. The friend had a sort of Natalie Imbruglia look about her: all dark hair and pale skin, green eyes and a big mouth. During the coffee, two women approached our table, and asked my friend if she had ever thought about modelling. They ran an agency, they said, and her look was very distinctive. My friend laughed, took a business card, and said she would think about it.
After they left, there was a small degree of awkwardness, the kind of uncomfortable silence that always happens between two young women when one has been singled out for greatness and the other hasn’t. “Sorry,” she said. “That was weird.”
I grinned at her, showing my crooked front teeth. Until yesterday, when my false denture was fitted, my left front tooth was about a half-centimetre longer than the right. In the last 15 years, I’ve never smiled or enjoyed photographs very much.
“It’s ok,” I said. “As if I’d be a model with this snaggletooth.”
And we laughed, and we moved on, and we didn’t talk about the fact that I never had the look or the BMI or the bone structure or, even, the interest in fashion, to be a model. But if we talked about that, we would have had to talk about the fact that she had these things, and that I didn’t. The truth of the matter was unimportant. The tooth of the matter was.