America's Next Top Model's Most Controversial Photoshoots

When you think of the rise of reality television, you can't skip over the cultural phenomenon that "America's Next Top Model" was when it first aired. In 2003, after Tyra Banks blazed every runway around the world, she decided to introduce her own reality show. It was just like every other competition show on reality TV, except this one had a high fashion twist. Audiences were glued for all twenty-four seasons (also known as cycles). They loved picking girls to root for, they loved the quirky judges, and they loved the over-the-top Banks, who had her fair share of shocking moments

However, since it was the first show of its kind, there were bound to be some scandals along the way — especially as show that liked to push boundaries. With the series being available now on streaming services, new sets of eyes are on the show, and viewers have noticed some aspects of the series that are funny and cringe-worthy at best, and highly problematic at worst. Banks herself admits that some aspects of the show haven't aged well. One example of that has been the show's center focus: the photoshoots. Here's a look at the most controversial photoshoots to appear on the show.

The models were asked to switch ethnicities

One of the most memorable and controversial photoshoots featured on "America's Next Top Model" appeared in Cycle 4. Models were given a bizarre challenge by makeup artist Jay Manuel. They were told this photoshoot was all about "taking on the persona of the other ethnicity in the photograph and owning it." After being given ethnicities to represent, like East Indian, and even races like African American, the models had their skin drastically darkened with makeup and donned the outfits of those cultures. Even more shocking, the models in blackface were paired up with child models who were actually Black. 

Many viewers who didn't watch the show while it aired were floored when photos of this episode went viral on Twitter. Fans were outraged that putting white models in blackface was normalized by Banks. As controversy about this episode continued to spread, Banks took to Twitter and addressed it by writing, "Been seeing the posts about the insensitivity of some past ANTM moments and I agree with you. Looking back, those were some really off choices. Appreciate your honest feedback and am sending so much love and virtual hugs."

The anti-bullying campaign made models cry

What seemed like a photo shoot meant to inspire the models and viewers at home quickly turned into something exploitative as it unraveled. The Anti-Bullying Campaign in Cycle 15 challenged models to find a word that they were bullied with as a child. After picking their word, they had the hurtful word painted all over their bodies. It was intended to show that 'words don't define you' but some models still found it uncomfortable to have a painful word written all over them. A few of the models broke down and cried, including contestant Kayla Ferrel, who had to have the word "queer" written on her. She even voiced her concern to Tyra Banks, telling her, "I'm scared to see it written on me." 

Not wanting to jeopardize their place in the competition, the models still went through with the shoot, even in tears. What made this photoshoot more controversial was that one model was later body shamed and eliminated for being too thin. One judge told contestant Anamaria Mirdita that when they looked at her photo, "All I see is bones." And after eliminating her, Banks told her, "It might not hurt to eat a little avocado and a little bit of bread with some butter on it."

The awkward political shoot

Not one to ever shy away from uncomfortable topics, in Cycle 8, Tyra Banks had the girls take part in a photoshoot centered around political views. Each model was assigned a polarizing political view about topics like abortion, the death penalty, and veganism to represent. Models like Kathleen DuJour found the political angle of the shoot confusing and were unsure of how to properly represent it. During elimination, her confusion was used for cheap laughs, and the show portrayed her as a ditz. Contestant Natasha Gal was confused by the concept of pro-choice, the political view she'd been assigned, and mentioned how she would prefer to not have to be involved in political messages. Photographer Nigel Barker wasn't much help in directing her, just awkwardly telling her, "You're not getting rid of any baby, I hope." 

In an interview with British YouTuber Oliver TwiXit, Barker also revealed that sometimes the best photographs of the girls weren't chosen to air. "Tyra would have the last say, final say," he said. "There were times where I'd be like, 'Wait, that's not the best picture that I picked!'" This led fans to believe that the models were being purposely sabotaged simply for good television and cheap laughs.

The controversial mixed-race photoshoot

In a Cycle 13 photoshoot done by Tyra Banks herself, the models were turned biracial. The contestants once again had their skin darkened after being given two races and cultures to represent. They donned blackface, stereotypical outfits, and hairpieces like afros. Some models even had no knowledge about the culture they were expected to represent, and were even penalized for that as the judges considered some of the final photos to be inauthentic and uninspired.

When the episode aired, the pushback was instant, and Banks herself had some explaining to do. She was forced to address the controversy on her own talk show in a lengthy speech. "What we thought was a celebration turned out to be ... very negative in some of the press and a lot of them were even saying that it was a form of racism," Tyra said. "A lot of them went so far as to accuse me and 'Top Model' of putting the girls in black face" (via NBC). She went on the deny putting the models in blackface, and described the photoshoot as pushing the boundaries of beauty. She did, however, apologize to those who took offense.

The photoshoot with the racist model

In Cycle 7, the models took a trip to Barcelona and were given a seemingly fun challenge that included filming a commercial in the language of Catalan. The models even got to pick a handsome male model to kiss in the commercial. However, the fun wore off when contestant Jaeda Young-Englund selected a model who later told her that he didn't like Black girls. Startled by his racist comment, she then voiced her concern to Banks, who told her, "Well, you're going to have to give him a kiss to make him love Black girls." 

During the commercial shoot, Young-Englund found it hard to not only work with a racist model, but have to kiss him as well. As she began to cry, Jay Manuel told her, "You can't cry because we don't have time to fix your makeup." After pulling herself together and kissing him, the judges later told her that she acted unprofessionally during the shoot and that her issue should have never stopped her from completing the job. In a 2020 interview with Variety, Manuel responded to the recent backlash of the show and mentioned being uncomfortable with certain aspects of it. "Many times when you're working in an environment like that, you have to listen to your executive producers, and ultimately the two voices at the top were Ken [Mok] and Tyra [Banks]. There were sometimes several objections by other producers and myself about layers that were added to creative, and we were just told to execute," Manuel said.

The triggering crime scene shoot

In Cycle 8, there was one photoshoot that was just too soon for one contestant. The models were asked to participate in a crime-themed photoshoot that made each model a victim of a gruesome, bloody crime. They were each given a different cause of death, and had to "bring to life" the dead pose. This set design was just too triggering for contestant Jael Strauss, as the photoshoot occurred just a week after she found out that a close friend of hers had died of an overdose. Strauss found it triggering to pose as a corpse, and mentioned that her friend's death was weighing heavy on her mind that day. Looking back, many viewers found it insensitive that Strauss was forced to participate in a photoshoot while she was grieving. Fans admired her strength for continuing, and were heartbroken when she passed away in 2018 shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

The insensitive grave shoot

In Cycle 4, the models participated in a photoshoot at a graveyard with the theme of deadly sins. As the models pulled up to the shoot, contestant Kahlen Rondot was immediately overcome with emotions and began to sob uncontrollably. It was just one day after she found out her best friend had died in a car accident. She even told the cameras that she didn't want to be there and was thinking about quitting the show. As if things couldn't get worse for her, Rondot then had to pose in an eight-foot grave. Fearing going home, she continued with the shoot and triec her hardest to get the best shot possible. The judges loved her photos and complimented her strength in pushing through. Viewers are still unsure if this photoshoot was planned with knowledge of her friend passing away, or if it was just an unfortunate coincidence. Watching her heartbreaking reaction to the graveyard still upset the audience. Some viewers even consider it a moment where producers crossed boundaries.

Pressuring the models to pose nude

In Cycle 7, after giving the girls makeovers, they were asked to participate in a nude photoshoot. A few contestants immediately felt uncomfortable with the theme of the shoot. One contestant, Becky, immediately broke down in tears just thinking about the backlash from her small town, and contestant Ginger Wells, who was a self-proclaimed conservative, voiced her objections as well. When she mentioned not wanting to do the shoot, she was immediately told by Jay Manuel that it was going to affect her place in the competition. Even the photographer asked her multiple times to re-think the decision, and offered compromises to get her to go through with the shoot. 

After getting help from the other models, she agreed to pose for only two nude photos before walking off the set. "When it comes down to it, it's not enough for me to just win something. I'm going to stick to my morals and standards no matter what," she said. Other models even made snide comments about her not fully participating in the shoot. During elimination, Jay Manuel described her as someone not willing to fully cooperate because of her objections to nudity, before deciding to eliminate her.

The Michael Jackson tribute shoot

In Cycle 17, "America's Next Top Model" paid tribute to the iconic moments of Michael Jackson's career. Featuring a guest appearance by La Toya Jackson, the photoshoot contained replicas of Jackson's most famous outfits for the models to wear. The controversial aspect of this shoot was that the tribute consisted of painting the models black and brown and having them wear afro wigs to fully look like Jackson. This episode aired years after Banks had previously faced major criticism for painting the models in blackface, but yet again chose to do so. 

Viewers found it distasteful to once again paint models in blackface while paying tribute to an icon like Michael Jackson. One highlight of this episode is guest judge La Toya Jackson choosing not to eliminate any contestant in honor of her brother's main message of love.

Pressuring a model while she was experiencing trauma

In Cycle 15, the models were instructed to co-star in a commercial with a male model and kiss them. Upon hearing the theme of the shoot, contestant Kayla immediately broke down in tears and didn't want to participate. She disclosed to Jay Manuel that she had been sexually assaulted as a child and did not feel comfortable getting so intimate with a male model. "This whole challenge freaks me out. I don't want to kiss them, I don't want to interact with them. They scare me and I really don't want to do it," she tearfully told him. The theme of the shoot was a trigger for her, and she explained that it was a secret she'd been holding her whole life. 

After mentioning that she would walk away from a gig if it required her to kiss a male, Manuel told her she needed to "deal with this" and properly heal. After being told to "push away those painful memories," she still went through with the commercial, even though she was visibly uncomfortable.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit for additional resources.

The photoshoot that gave a model hypothermia

In Cycle 7, the models were pushed to the limit in a photoshoot that was completely unnecessary and dangerous. In a shoot directed by Tyra Banks, the models were placed in a freezing pool while they attempted to pose. In the episode, viewers could see the models shake from the freezing temperature and frequently complain about it. The photographer and Banks dismissed the claims by telling them "cold is in your mind," and "this is real modeling." After countless shots, one model, CariDee English, finally asked to leave the pool as she began to convulse. She was immediately told that it was her fault for not speaking up earlier about being in pain. Other contestants accused her of being dramatic and needing attention. This episode is just another example of the contestants being pushed to their limit and then being chastised for not being able to handle it.

The unsafe photoshoot with an elephant

One common theme of "America's Next Top Model" are photoshoots that up the ante with bizarre accessories. Whether it consists of hanging from the ceiling or posing with a tarantula, the models are always expected to put their fears to the side for the perfect shot. In Cycle 6, the models were paired up with an elephant in the jungle for a shoot centered around smooth, shaved legs. As the shoot unfolded, the elephant was not a happy co-star. Each time the camera would flash, viewers could see it get startled and start to move frantically. Models were simply told to "hold on tight" and do their best to pose during the animal's distress. One contestant, Danielle, was just as miserable as the elephant. She had just been released from the hospital for dehydration and severe exhaustion, but was forced to power through this shoot. During the elimination, the panel teased her for being high maintenance as she explained her struggles during the shoot. Though her resulting photos were good and she later won the season, the judges used this moment to highlight the power of "posing through the pain" and uncomfortable situations.

The lack of response towards sexual harassment

One of the most uncomfortable moments in "America's Next Top Model" was the treat of Keenyah Hill in Cycle 4. During a photoshoot in the jungle, Hill stopped and addressed a male model who kept touching her inappropriately and moaning in her ear. She voiced her concern to the crew, in hopes that someone would step up and establish boundaries, but instead was met with annoyance. Jay Manuel told her that she was being unprofessional and to carry on with the shoot. When she spoke with the other models, she wasn't met with much support either. Some even accused her of blaming the male model for her poor performance. After the shoot, the male models were invited back to have dinner with them. Hill confronted him about his behavior and once again she was shot down and accused of being dramatic. On screen, there was no support for a woman who had just experienced harassment in the workplace. During the elimination, Tyra Banks offered minimal support as well, and simply told her it was her job to control the situation without disrupting the shoot.

The photoshoot in the dark

Cycle 22 was the final season of "America's Next Top Model." It was groundbreaking for multiple reasons. It not only featured its first-ever deaf contestant, but he also went on to win the season. Nyle DiMarco won the hearts of viewers with his positive attitude, swoon-worthy looks, and candidness. However, just because they included him on the show didn't mean they were completely accommodating to him. In one controversial photoshoot during the season, DiMarco was expected to model and take directions on a completely dark set. Without being able to hear the photographer's directions, he was left disorientated and confused by the signals they used with flashing lights. With no interpreter by his side, he stumbled through the shoot, missed the cues, and had lackluster photos. 

To make matters worse, as he tried to explain the issue of attempting to work on a pitch-black set, judge Kelly Cutrone cut him off as if he was giving meaningless excuses. In an interview with Variety in 2020, DiMarco discussed the need to represent members of the deaf community accurately: ​​"During my experiences on 'America's Next Top Model' and also 'Dancing With the Stars,' I always felt branded as sort of one-dimensional. I was just the deaf person," he explained. "There was no real deep dive into who I am, what I liked, what I do every day, and things like that."