The world, as we know, is a reeking open sewer of misfortune maintained by the cut-price plumbers of reality TV. Reality TV, a mutant genre on which I was once employed to report — well, until I told my editor that she and her paper, so eager for a tedious rundown of what Hayden from Tasmania had put in his stupid veloute that night, were “part of the fucking problem” — is worse than shit. It’s the pipe through which shit is permitted free flow.
Like most of the worst things in life, including serial killers and right-wing politicians, reality TV gives us momentary hope for life by means of the artful lie. MasterChef makes the hard slog of the working cook look like an afternoon stroll through the pages of Vogue Living. My Kitchen Rules does the same, although it does offer us the cheeringly sadistic spectacle of Pete “Paleo” Evans being force-fed bleached wheat. The Biggest Loser, which seems to have been lost in the annual binge-and-purge TV cycle, similarly offered a false message of “you can make it if you try” serving often impoverished and always implausibly obese people the fiction that a three-month program of unsound physical exertion and low-cal crispbread could help them recover from a lifetime of socially imposed self-hatred.
Well, it can’t. Not even the producers at Shine can cast light on the darkness of the lived real and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a copiously average Idol singer or a contestant on one of what must be 37 locally made renovation shows, all of which seem to produce rooms that look exactly like the Apple Store, things don’t get better. I mean, shit. Inequality by all sane measure is on the rise and now is not the time for a volley of primetime ideology bombs urging us to Shine. We should be tearing this world up and starting it anew and not watching the telly being moved by implausible stories of personal advancement.
So, sure, some of the perky dimwits on reality might get lucky and score a book deal and a presence on the shopping mall circuit. But, the rest of us dimwits are consigned to a fate worse than that of the 20th century. Unemployment is on the rise, commodity prices have softened and, FFS, there is a very grave housing affordability crisis. The income to house price ratio in Australia has never been so vast, yet the soon-to-expire bright white stars of Reno Racist, or whatever it’s called remodel property that tax concessions to the wealthy prevent us from affording.
As for a career in popular music: there’s no longer a revenue model, so quit dreaming about Making It. And even more modest goals, like becoming a chef, are under threat thanks to policy talk on penalty rates. But, you know, reality. Keep performing as a high-speed funnel for the sewage of ideology. Keep telling us that We Can Make it if We Try. It’s our fault if we fail to Shine. We only have ourselves to blame.
Of course, what we have to blame is a complex of economic events and these I freely admit are beyond my ken. And so I hardly expect Ten and friends to give over primetime to a Piketty v Friedman cagefight but I am sick to the gums of chirpy smarm that ascribes my social and economic failures to me alone. To these producers, I give the same advice I did the newspaper: you are part of the fucking problem. How do you go to work to promulgate the old and dangerous falsehood of the undeserving poor and then sleep? Probably on a mattress made of memory foam and stolen dreams.
Having said all of this and upchucked my bile on the reality zombie for its crime of devouring the real hope of people for a more endurable life and replacing it with false expectation and inward-focused blame, there’s one reality show I refuse to miss. And it is, perhaps, the most cruelly aspirational.
Australia’s Next Top Model is, to my knowledge, the greatest reality TV show ever to have promised implausible things to idiots. It is, often despite what I imagine to be the conventional aims of producers, very funny and never more so when the late and marvellous Charlotte Dawson joined in cycle 3 as a judge. Dawson had been cursed with the gift of a Louboutin-sharp tongue which was not sheathed for reality TV any more than it was in reality and the editors’ decision to allow this haute-contempt to air should be commended. Dawson, her zingers and the staged wrestling with friend Alex Perry turned the show from a pure US format “journey” of aspiration into some very deep camp.
The hosts of Top Model have always been conspicuously forgettable but the Dawson and Perry show that veered from midlife ennui to ardour for beauty was always a much-watch. This super-gay dynamic that ranged from detached disgust to total engagement infected the show with a fabulous virus from which it has happily yet, despite Dawson’s much-mourned absence, to recover.
Of course, it’s cheap and frequently nasty and laughing at pretty young women who have scant interest in words is both easy and unkind. But ANTM manages a feat that no other reality TV does and that is to give us an uncommon dose of the real.
This is not to say that the fact of fantastically gorgeous teens living in clifftop luxury reflects the real, nor is it to endorse an industry that itself thrives on implausible aspiration. But, the thing about Top Model is that it never suggests for a second, unlike MasterChef et al, that we could achieve what these finely proportioned bodies could.
Following the camp motion of Dawson and switching from the serious to the lightweight, from revulsion to total faith, this show has the accidental decency to remind us not to hope. As gay men, the truest guardians of camp, have for so long and so unjustly known, life is very often shit. And so, it’s best to enjoy its fleeting pleasures, like youthful beauty or delivering a great one-liner.
Models, I think, are unfairly made the focus of Everything That Is Wrong and so, naturally, every year ANTM hits headlines because Perry told some young hopeful to lay off the carbs. This explicit injunction is far better than the kindly remonstrations of judges on other reality TV. Often, the possibility they are selling — beat the housing market, become a celebrity, make a viable living in music — is just as remote and contingent on unreproducible qualities as being a model. Still, upon elimination they, and we, are told “You can make it if you really try”. ANTM reminds us that you can only make it if you are blessed with great skin, a high metabolic rate and other genetic quirks of appearance that happen to suit the taste of your era.
For what it’s worth, my model money is on the DNA of Brittany Beattie. She lives in a caravan in her aunt’s front yard, drives a backhoe and sounds just like a bucket bong would if given the talent of Australian speech. But, whack some couture on her unfeasible bod and a little MAC on her lips and she looks, for all the world, like the girl Gaultier would transport to Paris. Which he did. Despite the fact she couldn’t pronounce his name. Oh, god, Dawson would have loved this improbable transition fuelled by the power of improbable beauty. Because it was, like ANTM and the higher end of fashion, camp and improbable.
A reality show that refuses to tell the lie that life is fair is the realest thing on telly. Long may ANTM make aspiration a big laugh. Long live camp, beautiful gowns and the memory of Charlotte Dawson.