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The Scariest TV Show I Ever Watched: Tyra Banks' Top Model Health Scare

Recalling the moment that America's Next Top Model realized it could torture its contestants and viewers at the same time.
  • Tyra Banks in America''s Next Top Model (The CW)
    Tyra Banks in America''s Next Top Model (The CW)

    In the days leading up to Halloween, Primetimer is plumbing the depths of television's past to come up with the scariest TV episodes we've ever seen. And we're not just talking the usual suspects for horror — Buffy, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone — we're talking about shows that weren't usually out to frighten their fans. Because sometimes TV can get really weird. And unsettling. And straight-up terrifying.

    America's Next Top Model: "The Girl with Two Bad Takes"

    Air Date: April 5, 2006
    Available to Stream? Yes! It's streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

    Throughout America's Next Top Model's original run, we witnessed a number of psychologically twisted displays courtesy of Tyra Banks. The sudden and thunderous dressing down of cycle four's flippant Tiffany after her elimination is easily the most widely remembered. In Cycle 5, Tyra labored over what appeared to be a double elimination, only to fake everyone out with surprise trip to London. Her jarring and unpredictable nature certainly played well for the cameras while keeping the contestants on their toes.

    As Top Model arrived at its benchmark sixth cycle, the series had begun to gel into an elaborate emotional torture device for young women with big dreams, with Tyra playing its smizing Jigsaw. But never was the detonator more firmly in the hands of our actual supermodel host than in this season's sixth episode "The Girl With Two Bad Takes". That's right,  the episode where Tyra makes the models think she could be gravely ill when she fake faints in front of them.

    To set the stage for this, let's not forget that season four contestant Rebecca had actually fainted during a deliberation:

    Did Tyra get the idea for her fainting performance when consoling Rebecca's frightened competitors? "How many people were scared?" she asked, before answering her own question — "Me, too" — with a hint of mwahaha in her voice. Two seasons later, she would find a way to manufacture that fear again.

    Perhaps what was scariest about this fake fainting is Tyra's convincing performance. The setup is an overly familiar pre-challenge "teach" with the models, with Tyra placing down the sociopathic layers of her charade as a woman trying to put on a good face despite not feeling right. When it comes time to "faint," she's already created a believable scenario. Then, when she reveals it was all "ACTING!!!!" her jarring enthusiasm is another terrifying layer of sadism. It's a deeply strange and hilariously unsettling spectacle, enhanced by the group’s initial confusion about what their supreme leader is shouting about. There's a real sense of panic in the room, with each of the young women palpably terrified. The girl most shaken by Tyra's fake-out was the awkwardly delightful Furonda, the first to jump to catch her beloved host, and maybe the most naive and unassuming of the bunch. Why would Tyra want to make these models who clearly adore her, feel this way?

    It wasn't just the contestants that got played with Tyra's sick joke, it was also us at home. Despite her sometimes cruel antics towards her pseudo-pupils, we loved Tyra. But in this instance, we weren't in on the trick, momentarily rendered as naïve as the show's shocked contestants. Why did Tyra and Top Model want us to fear for her life too? We may not have been the target, but for this bit, we felt some of the fear that Top Model's contestants were subjected to.

    This was in the pre-Twitter days of reality television, where anything could conceivably happen without remorse for the sake of shocking "reality." Later in Cycle 6, the show would scare us into thinking a contestant (eventual winner Danielle) might possibly die.

    From the beginning, Top Model always came with a dose of schadenfreude, plopping its rookie models in scenarios designed to make them fall or flail or just look silly. But this fraudulent fainting spell from Tyra crossed that schadenfreude with a more macabre sense of manipulation, a devilishness that had yet to manifest itself. In her faint-acting prank, Tyra unlocked something darker that would resurface as the show's run continued, both in her antics and in the challenges themselves.

    America's Next Top Model had become the hypothermia-inducing gauntlet of terror that it was always meant to be, one that placed its contestants into bathtubs filled with blood, surrounded them with butchered meat, and asked them to portray eating disorders in photographs. And it was all made deliciously, terrifyingly real with this one moment.

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    Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.

    TOPICS: Halloween, The CW, UPN, America's Next Top Model, Tyra Banks, Reality TV