Attempting self-improvement on a reality show is a risky proposition. The producers and onscreen personalities who promise to help you become smarter, thinner or better-dressed are probably actually hoping to show just how stupid, fat and poorly dressed you really are, so that audiences can laugh at you. People’s willingness to subject themselves to this treatment is essentially bottomless, though, as evidenced by two demeaning new reality shows from the MTV family of cable networks: America’s Most Smartest Model (VH1, Sundays, 9 p.m.) and I Want to Look Like a High School Cheerleader Again (CMT, Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.).
Model is the more entertaining of the two, possibly because it is the one most obviously contemptuous of its contestants. Although the participants—16 professional models, eight men and eight women—seem to think they are on the show to prove that people in their profession can be brainy as well as beautiful, it’s clear that the show’s sole purpose is to demonstrate that models who think they are smart are in fact anything but.
Thus the deck is immediately stacked, and instead of straightforward tests of intelligence, the challenges are sneakily designed to undercut the theoretical smarts the contestants hope to display. In the first episode, a spelling-bee challenge ends up featuring names of fashion designers, and a second challenge finds the models walking a runway while trying to rattle off names of dinosaurs, trees or world leaders. Even the smartest Jeopardy! contestant would have difficulty with multitasking like that.
But it’s tough to feel sorry for the people on the show when they are such arrogant jerks. The producers do well to include a couple of cocky, incomprehensible foreign male models, a disturbingly plastic lingerie model from Long Island and all manner of people who have unreasonably high levels of self-confidence. They may be getting treated unfairly, but when they are so unlikable to begin with it’s hard to feel bad about it.
The eager contestants on High School Cheerleader are much more normal and less full of themselves, so the humiliation they’re served at the hands of trainer Jay Johnson (typical of the boot camp-style motivators on weight-loss reality shows) is a lot more painful to watch. The 10 women are all unrealistically hoping to get back to the shape they were in as teenagers, even though nearly all of them look better and healthier now, and only a few are noticeably overweight. Like most reality shows that focus on losing weight, Cheerleader obsesses over numbers rather than a healthy balance, with the woman who loses the smallest percentage of her body weight each week being asked to leave.
Add to that a perverse fetishization of cheerleading (the women end up in cheerleading uniforms by the second episode), and the show just comes off as gross and mean-spirited. Like the allegedly smart models, these women aren’t really being encouraged to show off their positive traits so much as they are being constantly tempted to reveal their weaknesses. The spread of unhealthy junk food (french fries, fried chicken, burgers) that stretches out before them right after a challenge is unnecessarily cruel and of course counterproductive to the show’s supposed goals. The fact that no one gives in is less a show of strength than a demonstration of the near-insurmountable obstacles one has to overcome just to maintain a shred of dignity on reality TV.
America’s Most Smartest Model
I Want to Look Like a High School Cheerleader Again