As soon as I read the announcement last Monday, I could hear fate calling: The open casting calls for the next cycle of America's Next Top Model were coming to New York and I was coming to 'em! When I arrived at 8:30 am at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan's Midtown West on Saturday, I was immediately met by a throng of girls. All sorts of girls: Fat girls, thin girls, Jersey girls, high school girls. It was like landing inside the Beastie Boys song! And all these girls were here, an hour and a half before the official start time, in hopes of being cast on the best and worst reality show of all time, that clusterfuck of Tyra Banks, eating disorders, cat fights, Tyra Banks, stolen granola bars, lesbian limo kisses, and, well, Tyra Banks. And so I hauled my ass out of bed at an ungodly hour to partake in the posing. This is my story.
If you want to be America's next top model, you have to be really patient. Really, really patient. At least this is what I conclude, since I am there for 5 hours and probably actively "auditioning" for all of, oh, maybe 10 minutes. The first phase of the waiting-game takes place outside, and if outside means New York City this past Saturday, that means blistering mid-90's heat. On the line, already hundreds deep, mothers abound; delusional, surely-psychotic mothers who have come to stand beside their daughters to go and scope out the size of the line for them, offer a make-up compact for an impromptu mascara touch-up, or to assure their little beauties that surely Tyra herself will be on hand to appreciate their greatness. The mothers are soon dispatched (no one besides potential contestants allowed inside!) but an overwhelming Holocaust-rooted paranoia takes hold of me: We told to walk silently with our arms at our sides as we enter the hotel, making sure we keep pace — "You aren't moving fast enough!" one Gestapo agent / CW network peon hisses — and we twist and turn through endless hallways, up and down flights of stairs, only to end up in a hallway outside a ballroom and handed numbered mailing labels we are told to keep on us at all times. I am 334.
We file into the ballroom, and settle into the rows according to our numbers. I look around me. Why does no one else seemed panic? Why is no one else listening carefully for the sounds of German shepherds? Why is that girl behind me eating... a Whopper and fries? Suddenly, I am pulled out of my horrific moment of revelry as I hear the piercing shrieks of one of the guards, calling my number, "334! 334! How many times do I have to call you, 334? You need to sign in on the sign-in sheet, 334! You are slowing everything down, 334!" (Surely I will be denied my ration of watery broth this evening.) I sign and examine the girls around me. To my immediate left is a plump 18-year old. She just graduated from high school, she blabs to no one in particular, thinks Lindsay Lohan is the best actress ever and is destined to become a big Broadway musical star. To my right is a bleached blonde who says she's 27, the oldest you can be to be on Top Model, but seems to be a little closer to 30 . She has makeup caked on, at least 6 inches thick and is short, which means, definitely under Top Model's 5'7" height requirement.
"No cell phones! No cameras! No contact at all with the outside world while you are in here! Do not talk to anyone about what you see or do here! If you speak to the press you are immediately OUT!" the 'guards' holler every 15 minutes or so. Finally, after several hours in the holding room, in which we are again berated about the significance of our numbers and asked to turn in the 15-page applications needed to attend auditions today and asked to complete an additional brief form in which we detail three emergency contacts and three adjectives that best describe our personalities, we are eventually led in groups of 100 out of the room. We are told to move silently, and move closely. Our toes should clip the heels of the person in front of us.
We are now in staff-only hallways. The lighting is dim. There is no air conditioning. (Sorta like a cattle car?) We run up 4 flights of stairs. I am relieved I am in flat shoes. And at last we are brought to our next holding area, a narrow and dank hall. We are not sure where we are or how long we will be there. Another hopeful contestant, about 10 girls behind me, starts telling anyone who will listen about what we have in store: This is her 4th time auditioning, you see. "You will walk into a room," she tells us. "You will line up — they will cram us in between 30 -150 at a time, depending on how behind schedule they are. We will say our names. And then they will call the numbers of the people who they want to stay. I have heard that if you make it past this, then you are brought to another room where you are asked to speak to Tyra."
After waiting in yet another hallway for 45 minutes, we finally enter a conference room with more people barking orders at us: "File in! Stand with your right shoulder against the wall! Make sure your feet are touching the feet of the person in front of you! Faster, ladies! Faster! And remember — you are NOT PERMITTED TO SPEAK." Behind a long table sits the casting director and her assistant. There is also some sort of other assistant, a young man whom I want to smack: He wears one of those not-so-ironic t-shirts that says, "You Looked Better On MySpace." Thoughtful, buddy.
The casting director tells us we will go around the room and when it is out turn we are to say our full name, our age, our height, and our weight to the camera. She asks us to take a moment to practice, as if we mess up — we are immediately out. "Jennifer Gerson, 23, 5'8", 118," I chant over and over again in my head, until it is at last my turn and I say it out loud. The moment the last girl finishes, the casting director informs us that she is going to call a series of numbers: Those ladies are to stay, and everyone else is to leave the room immediately. The room is silent. And then, shockingly, I hear it: 334! Once the losers have been cleared, I see that there are 8 of us from our group of 100 who remain. We are asked to line up in numeric order: It is time to be measured. One at at time we are led to a wall where an impromptu ruler has been constructed, with increments ranging from 5'8" to 6". We are told to shove our hair down to make sure an accurate reading is made on our height. Then we are told to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the opposite wall. Two of the girls are unsure of what this means, and touch one another's shoulders with their hands. The casting director's assistant snarks, "Well, that's one way to interpret that direction." A camera man steps forth. We are told to offer up a blank face, a half smile, a full smile, and then stand in profile. And we are told to lift up our shirts, so they can see our "waists." This is problematic as I am the only one here in a dress. I do not expose myself. And after that, two of the girls from our group are asked to stay... and I am not one of them..