This essay is part of Avidly’s “Too Real” series, guest edited by Carissa M. Harris: a series of short, vivid essays focusing on a single moment, scene, or episode from reality tv that has lodged itself in the writer’s soul and refused to leave.
At twenty-three I knew my life was falling apart, but I didn’t think an episode of reality TV called “The Girl Who Gets A Boob Job” would be one of the things that would help me put it back together. “The Girl Who Gets A Boob Job” is episode five of season five of America’s Next Top Model, a show in which aspiring models battle it out to be on top, top, top of the industry (as the theme song reminds us). Former judge Janice Dickinson, who was let go from the show because of her scathing and at times deeply inappropriate critiques of the contestants, returns to shoot the girls in a plastic-surgery themed photoshoot. The resulting photos will decide who stays on the show, who must leave, and who is the week’s top model.
I was watching seasons out of order and had little awareness of where I was within the Top Model universe, or of Dickinson’s turbulent history within it. All I knew of Dickinson’s past was gleaned from her own intermittent reminders that she was the world’s first supermodel, oft-punctuated by a haughty toss of her brown hair and a look daring anyone to contradict her. I now assume she appears in “Boob Job” because her brand of problematic chaos makes for extraordinary reality TV, and not because of any great skill as a photographer. But none of that mattered to me then, because I was obsessed with the moment where Dickinson collided with Kim Stolz, the season’s token lesbian contestant.
Kim Stolz was not the first queer woman on ANTM, nor the last, but she is perhaps the most memorable: she makes an impression by kissing another contestant, the blonde Midwestern Sarah, during a group limo ride. Kim looks like one of the Lost Boys and seems incredibly obnoxious in the best kind of way. Her hair is always a mess, she wants you to know she’s attending Wesleyan, and that she’s in an open relationship with her girl back home. If I’d seen this season when it originally aired in 2005, I think I would have been fascinated by the famous limo kiss instead. Back then I was still in the closet. The fantasy of being out and kissing girls on national TV would have felt delicious. But over a decade later, I’d been out so long that everything felt easy to me. Or at least it had felt easy until I’d contracted a chronic illness that threw everything I thought I understood about my life into complete disarray. To my older, grumpier, sicker self, that limo kiss reeked of a set-up: beautiful young girls, their queerness arranged for the audience’s viewing pleasure, getting it on. What I fixated on instead was this two-second conversation between Kim and Janice on the set of the photo shoot.
Janice approaches Kim behind the scenes and opens with a question that seems unrehearsed, just more Janice chaos. She asks if Kim is really a lesbian, as if this is her idea of polite small talk. Kim says yes, seeming aware that she locked in the gaze of a snake that may strike. But she also seems totally into it. Janice pauses, evaluates.
“That’s hot,” she declares, which should feel like it fetishizes Kim’s queerness. But somehow it doesn’t land that way to me; the pause, evaluation, and affirmation feels like it’s at precisely the right tempo. Desire pervades the interrogation and its result. It seems possible to map these desires into several modes: Janice’s desire to desire Kim, Janice’s desire to be Kim, Janice’s potential desire to sleep with Kim. Of course, none of these desires are realized, which is part of what makes them so potent. The show’s lighting pace washes this brief collision away quickly, and it is never revisited.
But I revisited it, over and over. I wanted to be destroyed physically and emotionally by Janice Dickinson, then left to put myself back together. I didn’t want to kiss the secretly not-so-straight Sarah in a limo. I didn’t even want to be Kim. Reality TV is best when it articulates something true with its camp hyperbole, imparts names for longings that are in fact larger than our own lives. Janice rocking back on her heel like a cowboy and deciding Kim and her queer attachments are hot is that moment for me where it all came together, where desire got weirder, and I wanted to chase it. The chaotic gay lust of Janice Dickinson and her mean MILF energy felt like a spark of something new, a promise of queer continuance beyond able-bodied, inarticulate youth.
What I needed from Janice was this shimmering realization she would have absolutely hated: that our bodies get older, sicker, strange to us, but new modes of desire will find them all the same. We are not supermodels forever. We are not young forever. We are not healthy forever. And sometimes these changes bring new ways of wanting that are less scripted and more of our own making. These are pleasures we found for ourselves, in a land where bodies age and change and stiffen. And I’ve found satisfaction here in this complaining body that feels more real than the ease that came before.
All this is the anti-Janice of revelations. I doubt she’d see things my way, and now that I have the context of her constant defense of the modeling industry being “just how it is” in all its fatphobia, racism, and assorted abuses, I hardly want to deify her as some kind of queer icon. But for one moment, she gave me a kind of permission to want again. To want better, weirder, deeper. And it was these new desires that buoyed me forward into a new life, where all my desires are real, coursing through a body that has withstood time and illness and too many episodes of ANTM. I look at where all this want has taken me, and in the end, I can only remark, “that’s hot!”
Alessandra Occhiolini: writer and PhD student at The Graduate Center by day, frantic ANTM queer theory instastory spammer by night