America’s Next Top Model was never a real arbiter of taste. Despite Tyra Banks asserting that her reality competition show was designed to comb through the nation’s most promising beauties and pluck out the next big name in fashion, ANTM never did that in any meaningful sense. What it did do was provide bountiful entertainment across 24 seasons of manipulative challenges, provoked catfights, doled out relentlessly personal critiques, and cursed girls with some bad, bad haircuts.* Much of this fun came from the contestants, who were mostly twentysomethings with a flair for the dramatic and penchant for waterworks. But just as much of it was bestowed upon us viewers by Banks and her panel of judges—who were also the only ones who came close to granting ANTM high-fashion cred, since none of its winners ever did.
While the self-declared “world’s first supermodel,” Janice Dickinson, provided some of the most watchable asshole-ry ever aired on TV, and noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker supplied a steely British accent, neither offered much in the way of moving the ANTM couture needle in the right direction. Dickinson was brash and cruel; Barker was a no-name outside of the show. The beloved Miss J. and Mr. Jay were more comic relief and bad cop than trusted sources of tastemaking. It took until the 14th season for Banks to get her act together and introduce someone with actual fashion bona fides into her cast: the late, great André Leon Talley, an immeasurably influential icon with a resume so long, it made the other judges look like amateurs.
By time he died Wednesday at 73, Talley had been working in fashion for nearly 47 years. He’d worked with Andy Warhol, become Vogue’s first Black creative director, styled Michelle Obama, written three books, starred in a documentary about his life, and even live-blogged the Trump inauguration. When people talk about the high fashion world, they’re talking about people like Talley.
Talley’s tenure on ANTM was something else, and he practically leapt from the television for young viewers like me. It lasted just four seasons, but it was a much-needed wake-up call for a show that had exhausted its welcome in Season 9, when the woman crowned Next Top Model was a 21-year-old with a personal connection to Tyra. Talley immediately brought a sense of gravitas, coupled with an infectious, innate love for the fashion world. In his assessments of the girls, he didn’t hold back from the occasional barbs that any good reality show character must drop—he regularly dubbed looks and photos as exuding “dreckitude,” most memorably. But he also had a much more eloquent flair: He had “cauldrons of love” for one girl; another looked like “an ice cap-covered mountain.” Mostly, though, he walked in with a fedora and a cap, laughed a big laugh, praised the girls for looking like palace courtesans in their shots, and said that he wished to hang their photos in his salon. He saved fan-favorite contestants from elimination that the other judges found forgettable, but which Talley and viewers could never forget. (If you’ve seen that one GIF of a girl crying and fist-pumping, the context is that Talley had just voted for her to stay for another week.) He even brought the girls bouquets of flowers and drank Cognac with them in their hotel room.
When guest judges like Alek Wek, Patrick Demarchelier, and Franca Sozzani stopped by—all of whom huge in the high-fashion world and therefore atypical of the tacky ANTM—Talley’s presence made their high-fashion fame feel not out of place but consistent. These were people he’d worked with on shoots or stylings, who could comfortably sit next to them at fashion shows across the world. It only made sense that, during Talley’s time on the show, Banks shifted the prize from a Seventeen photo spread to one in Italian Vogue, what those in the know tend to consider the most glamorous of all Vogue editions.
I only know any of these names from watching ANTM in the first place. The show prompted young viewers like me develop an obsession with modeling—not just the desire to be as beautiful and tall as these women, but the understanding of a good photo, runway walk, or commercial shoot. But the true fashion aspect of the show never felt earned until Talley arrived. For all that Banks bragged about the shows her judges walked in and photographers they worked with, it was still a network show aimed resolutely at the middlebrow; none of these girls were actually making waves with the expensive brands we all lusted over. For those of us who were falling in love with couture through ANTM, we had to put in a lot of the legwork on our own. It wasn’t until Talley graced the table with a mixture of indisputable know-how and an unintimidating presence that all of Tyra’s talk felt like more than words. Under Talley’s discerning eye, the show felt like it could fit in with the fashionable outlets it strived to be one of. Maybe Tyra Banks was the person with a knack for finding Top Models, after all—the editor-at-large of Vogue said so, all while wearing a grin and a very classy, very expensive cape to boot.
Correction, Jan. 21, 2022: This piece originally misstated that ANTM had 25 seasons. It had 24.