Shea Couleé on the Enduring Legacy of 'America's Next Top Model'

Shea Couleé on the Enduring Legacy of 'America's Next Top Model'

As one of the preeminent look queens of the entire Drag Race franchise, it comes as no surprise that Shea Couleé holds a special place in their heart for America's Next Top Model. Their love for the show runs so deep, in fact, that they're dedicating an entire podcast series to the reality show.

Debuting today on all major podcast platforms, Wanna Be On Top? sees Couleé breaking down the highs and lows of all 24 cycles, its impact on culture at large, the enduring legacy of Tyra Banks and more. They'll be joined by Maxwell Esposito and different guests to discuss the show's themes, challenges, fashion, makeovers, contestants and everything in between.

"America's Next Top Model is one of the most iconic reality television series and so much of the Drag Queen that I am today, was influenced by things that I learned and observed over the years of being a superfan," says Shea. "As a young, queer, black person from the suburban midwest, it gave me an outlet to dream about leading a more glamorous life."

The podcast, which was produced in conjunction with Moguls of Media (led by drag stars Alaska and Willam) and Forever Dog, will air episodes twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. PAPER caught up with Couleé over the phone to discuss their new podcast venture, their Top Model obsessions and why the show is still relevant to this day. See, below, for an exclusive commercial of the new podcast.

Congrats on the new podcast! Why did you decide on this show to be the entire focus?

I have been in talks with producers for over a year trying to get a podcast off the ground. And I really couldn't think of anything that I felt passionate enough to talk about. And then interestingly enough, in a cinematic parallel, similar to when Tyra Banks was in her underwear making coffee in her kitchen one morning and came up with the idea of America's Next Top Model, I, too, was in my kitchen wearing my underwear and making coffee. And I was like, "I need to make a podcast about this show." Because over the quarantine, I had been binge-watching the show, rewatching the seasons, time and time again, and talking to all my friends and family about all of the plot points that I told them all about several times before. And I realized that that show is one thing that I do never really tire of talking about.

What kind of influence did the show have on you growing up?

Being introduced to J. Alexander, this queer Black femme, to me was super groundbreaking. They would use pronouns like Miss J and Mister Jay, which allowed us to get a peek into queer culture, and it really just started a full-on trajectory for me as a Black queer person who was growing up in a small town in Illinois to see that and feel inspired by seeing queer Black people be successful in the fashion industry and create beautiful, memorable photos and runway moments. And it just gave me so much hope and I feel like it really led me on a path to following so much in love with fashion and wanting to pursue it myself.

Which ANTM moments do you think about a lot?

I definitely would have to say the "Be Quiet Tiffany" moment which I feel like is iconic for everybody, but also, not so much the moment Tyra saying it but also Tiffany's legendary reading of the teleprompter in that challenge. That is also a meme that I live for. Jade from Cycle 6 of Top Model was everything, she was just full-on camp. And I just feel like of all the contestants, she would be, for me, the Alyssa Edwards of the Top Model franchise, just like someone who genuinely is camp. Her walk up the stairs for her CoverGirl commercial, iconic moment, absolutely, lives in my head rent-free.

Who are the models throughout the series that you absolutely lived for?

I would probably have to start off with Shandi Sullivan from Cycle 2 because I feel like she was the blueprint for what the makeover challenge was meant to do. And seeing her transformation on this show was just absolutely beautiful. I thought that she was stunning. I'm obsessed with that picture of her in Italy, in the Colosseum, with the big pretty blond hair, just looking so Italian, sexy chic. Eva, the winner of Cycle 3, that tarantula photoshoot with the diamonds that the girls did, I had that picture up in my locker in high school. Yaya, absolutely love Yaya from Cycle 3 as well. I'm sure there are some other girls like I could go on: Naima, Norelle. I love Norelle because she was not a good model, but she was great reality television and she was just so goofy and awkward, and I just really adored her.

The show went through a lot of changes as the seasons progressed, from the judges panel to the challenges and format. What are your thoughts on how they've tried to mix it up over the years?

There is a piece of me that wishes America's Next Top Model would've just bowed out before it became almost a caricature of itself. They still have a following and still going. I am a huge fan of the show but later on in the franchise, it takes a turn. I feel that the show started with the purest intentions of launching the careers of top models, but it was ahead of its time. The fashion industry didn't think reality television contestants could be a real asset or a successful model, they would just reject these calls. And I feel like even though the show has such a huge following that they had to keep up with, ultimately they weren't launching huge careers. They were just documenting a show that was a caricature of the fashion industry for people to continue to look at and watch. It's a journey, and I'm glad that there's 24 seasons for us to talk about and go through.

The show is not without its faults, of course. Looking back, and I'm sure you'll talk about this in your podcast, but how do you feel about some of cringe-worthy moments (cultural appropriation, mean critiques etc.) that everyone seemed to talk about during quarantine?

I think that as a fan, it's always important to be able to hold the show accountable. Obviously, it was a different time then. But even if the intent was not to create harm, we have to understand that the impact is greater than that. So it will be great to be able to now, years later, look back and discuss from a different point of view the impact that some of those decisions that were made by production have.

I want to talk about the super high fashion seasons where Andre Leon Talley was a judge and they partnered with Vogue Italia. What do you remember about that era?

It was fun because they really brought the exuberance back into it by having these fashion industry heavyweights. It felt like they were really trying to go back and do what they intended on doing in the very beginning. But I feel like at that point, once again, the industry had kind of looked at this show as something to not be taken seriously. And I felt like they couldn't, unfortunately, come back from that. I just feel like the industry didn't really embrace the show, to be perfectly honest. And I think that there's something to be said about that. Specifically the American version, because the Australian girls have seen success working with big designers and actually becoming huge top models, Duckie Thot being a great example. It's not to say that the potential wasn't there, it's just interesting to see how culturally timing works and how sometimes things are received well at certain points and why not at others.

Who do you think are the most successful models to come out of that show for America?

Here's the thing: the girls that are most successful are the ones that listen to those fashion industry people that told them to stick to reality television, Eva [Marcell] being one of them, being on several seasons of Real Housewives of Atlanta. It seems that the girls who have received the most success are, on the tip of my tongue, I want to say it's Analeigh [Tipton[, she went on to star in Manhattan Love Story. So I feel like the girls in America have achieved more success in TV than they actually have in the modeling world, and then the girls from Australia have really been successful in the modeling world.

What do you think the future of ANTM would look like if they keep doing more seasons? Would it still be ANTM without Tyra Banks?

I almost feel like it will be a show to basically find America's next top influencer. It will either be that or they would have to do such a strong, hard rebrand and pivot to really make it be a focus about a modeling competition. It's hard because I'm such a fan. I feel like I only know the show with Tyra. For me Tyra is a huge cultural phenomenon. And I feel like it can't be America's Next Top Model without Tyra involved in some way, shape or form. Even if it's not in front of the camera, I just feel like it wouldn't be the show without Tyra.

Photography: Gabriel Gastelum