Over the last 10 years millions of viewers have tuned in to watch ex-model Tyra Banks mentor aspiring contestants on America’s Next Top Model. Now in its 20th season, the franchise has launched international spin-offs around the world, with local versions in Asia that include South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
And China, too. The format is not wholly new to the Chinese – it started out quietly on Sichuan Satellite TV – but its third season got a boost when The Travel Channel, a new lifestyle station based in Hainan, picked it up. Last Saturday the series made its debut. Banks, the head judge and executive producer of the US version, made an honorary appearance by taping a clip (in English) in support of the show.
Banks will not be fronting the series in China, with the producers opting for rather a controversial host instead. Shang Wenjie, sometimes known as China’s Lady Gaga, gets the role, along with judges including leading Chinese model Qi Qi and fashion icon Han Huohuo. It has been rumoured that actress Gong Li – a spokesperson for Aimer, the lead sponsor of China’s Next Top Model – will make an appearance as a guest judge later in the series, says Sina Entertainment.
The Chinese franchise is very similar to the US format. Each week an aspiring model is eliminated until only one is left. Up for grabs? The winning girl will grace the cover of the Chinese version of Grazia magazine, get a contract with a modelling agency and become a host on the Travel Channel itself.
So far, the response to the show has been lukewarm. “After watching the first episode of China’s Next Top Model, I think it feels very staged. All the contestants are professional models while the contestants on America’s Next Top Model are amateurs. So I’m not sure what talent the Chinese show is hoping to ‘discover’. And please, get rid of the show host Shang Wenjie,” one netizen wrote on Sina Weibo.
A common complaint is that Shang lacks Banks’ on-screen presence, while others have sniped that she looks too “gothic” in her appearance. Perhaps that’s why Banks seems to keep cropping up on the Chinese series. She gets plenty of mentions throughout and induces weekly squeals of delight from the contestants by sending them “Tyra mails” (cryptic messages about the challenges that determine who stays and who goes home).
China’s Next Top Model coincides with a period when more Chinese models are featuring in the professional fashion world. According to models.com, five stars from China now rank in the world’s modelling top 50. Liu Wen, whom WiC profiled as far back as issue 44, is ranked third behind Puerto Rican Joan Smalls and Saskia de Brauw, from Holland (Liu is also one of six Estee Lauder global brand ambassadors alongside Smalls). Sun Feifei and He Sui also came in 12th and 13th respectively, with Sun the first Asian model to feature on the cover of Italian Vogue.
“I think there’s been a steadily increasing demand for Asian models in general. The increased demand is due in most part to the strength of the economies in Asia as well as the significant growth luxury brands are seeing in those markets,” another Chinese model called Jing Wang told Jing Daily.
Another modelling wannabe to make a splash in the US is Luo Zilin, a former Miss Universe China, although she did so less for her catwalk strut than for her tabloid notoriety. Luo had her own moment of fame after appearing on another modelling reality show called The Face. On the programme she was mentored by supermodel Naomi Campbell, ending the competition as runner-up. However, her hopes of stardom came to a screeching halt after she was discovered to be dating Campbell’s former lover, Russian billionaire Vladimir Doronin. Soon afterwards, Luo’s agency MIX fired her for “unprofessional conduct” and an “unacceptable work ethic”, the Daily Mail reported (Campbell denied she had anything to do with the decision).
Nevertheless, expect to see more Chinese models on the fashion runways, if only because China is going to be the biggest growth market for luxury products for the foreseeable future.
“It’s the major driver for the change in catwalk and advertising casting. In an effort to reach the Asian audience, the industry is employing girls who the customer can identify with,” Rosie Bendandi, Elle’s booking editor, told the UK’s Telegraph.
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