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Television review

No shortage of talent on ‘Next Top Model’

Tyra Banks hosts the 13th season of “America’s Next Top Model’’ on the CW. Tyra Banks hosts the 13th season of “America’s Next Top Model’’ on the CW. (Jonathan Mannion/Cw)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / September 9, 2009

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Plus-size women might be leading the zeitgeist on television right now, but not on the CW. The network has always been TV’s ultimate home for super-skinny teens and emaciated models; when the 10th season “America’s Next Top Model’’ winner was described as “plus-sized,’’ that really meant she was naturally curved as opposed to nearly concave.

But 13 “cycles’’ into its existence, the show was due for a twist, and so this season we get a contest for . . . short people! Every woman on the current series, which premieres tonight at 8, checks in at 5-foot-7 or under. For the world, that’s pretty much average size. For this network, and in fashion circles, it represents the Lollipop Guild.

Rest assured, the show itself hasn’t changed. Producers know better than to violate certain television principles, and what makes this contest work is what always has: that hostess Tyra Banks is one fabulous brand of crazy. At the start of tonight’s two-hour premiere, she emerges from behind a curtain to address the semifinalists, draped in swooshy fabric and ranting in a horrible French accent about how cruel the world is for girls who are petite.

The most memorable contestants, like their muse, are nutty to the extreme. There’s the loony-eyed religious girl, the girl who hates everything and everybody, the girl who’s so passive and downbeat that she barely seems to register a pulse. (“Are you awake?’’ fashion guru Jay Manuel asks her at one point, as she readies for a photo shoot. She’s standing up, but still, the answer is unclear.)

Of course, they’re all gorgeous, though this show plays with beauty in ways that are sometimes fascinating and sometimes incredibly disturbing. On one hand, we get repeated proof that unconventional looks can be lovely, and that beauty comes in many varieties. On the other hand, every contestant is unsettlingly thin, and when the girls pose for the judges in minuscule bathing suits, contorting their bodies like double-jointed dolls, it doesn’t feel remotely attractive.

And then there’s the constant admonition that they shouldn’t look too sexy -the suggestion that there’s a barely visible line between couture modeling and soft porn that fresh-faced 20-somethings of any size might not fully understand. This seems especially pertinent in the first challenge, when the models are asked to take grown-up versions of their baby pictures, posing suggestively with plastic cups and straws.

As for their height, or lack thereof? It’s not always apparent, at least not when they’re getting hair makeovers or fighting with each other in their temporary mansion, a candy-colored, twisted Barbie Dream House. The judges do encourage them to “stretch’’ - sometimes with the help of high-heeled shoes that look more like torture devices - but it’s only in the publicity photos, when they stand on either side of so-tall Tyra, that they look like characters in a circus sideshow.

Still, as much as Tyra and her sidekicks, the Jays, talk about opening doors for small women, this season isn’t likely to alter the fashion world’s prejudice in favor of the tall. Watch any episode of Lifetime’s “Project Runway’’ and you’ll see that designers are conditioned to draping their designs over beanstalks. (Add a belly or a bust, and they break into hives.) Besides, the CW revised its rules for the casting of cycle 14. Once again, only women 5-foot-7 and taller need apply. As Tyra might say, plus ca change. . .

AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL On: Channel 56

Time: Premieres tonight at 8

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