The 99%: “Talk like a Cover Girl” and the Classing of Voice on America's Next Top Model

Tyra, Nigel, and J at the judges' table on ANTMThis past Wednesday, Tyra Banks crowned her seventeenth America’s Next Top Model, which means—in my estimation—that we have enough top models for several generations. Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion Tyra isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon.

There’s a lot to talk about in Top Model.  This is a show with a history of posing women as murder victims, of styling models in blackface, and of playing up the racial and ethnic stereotypes of its competitors, from the “spicy” Latinas, the “exotic” Asian women, and the “ghettofied” black models.  (Jenn Pozner devoted a large portion of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV to dissecting the “tyranny of Tyra Banks,” and I can’t recommend her book highly enough.)  For the moment, though, I’m going to put these issues aside—not because they aren’t incredibly important, but because for this post I want to focus on one pretty specific element: how the models talk.

“Top model’s gotta speak, not jus’ look pretty,” Tyra said on a previous season, in a voice meant to imitate the Southern drawl of one contestant. 

The show definitely identifies the ability to communicate as a qualification for modeling.  Previous challenges have featured the models speaking in Japanese, Catalan, Australian English, as well as pronouncing the names of brands and designers with which they were unfamiliar. (Really, who would guess how to say “Hermes” at first glance?  Let me give you a clue: if you get it right, it’s because you’ve got a bunch of what we like to call cultural capital.)

But most of the time, when Tyra is talking about the contestants’ speech, she’s talking about their accents.  And when she’s talking about their accents, she’s talking about class. 

This season featured Laura Kirkpatrick, a Kentucky girl who was constantly called “sweet” and “bubbly”—at least partially due to her Southern accent—who was then eliminated for being “too sexy” and “erotic” for her country brand.  However, past accented contestants have gone through much worse than Laura.  Back on Cycle 6, North Carolinian Kathy Hoxit was eliminated first, and at least part of the reason was because of the Appalachian lilt to her voice.  One of the challenges on the show was a press conference: 

Kathy: Ah’d like to say tha’ mah middle name is fearless.

Reporter: You need to get rid of that accent a little bit.

Instead of pointing out that the reporter’s response was non sequitor and more than a bit rude, Tyra later said at judging that she had to “work on the Southern accent” and criticzed Kathy for being “vacant” and a “deer in headlights,” referring to her as a “hillbilly.”

Kathy’s accent marked her as an outsider, the Hillbilly, with all the stereotypical connotations of low socioeconomic status, lack of education, and certainly insufficient refinement to be successful in the fashion industry.  Kathy’s race, voice, and geographic home converged to create this label:  had she been black (like fellow accented contestant Danielle) she would have been criticized for a different reason, not as a “hillbilly,” or its synonymous identities of “white trash” and “redneck;” had she had a more subtle accent, or a Southern variety with less rural roots, she would have been a “Southern belle” and her warmth and hospitable nature celebrated.  But she was not and she did not—instead, she fit cleanly both racially and linguistically within the identity forced upon her by judges.

How, then, did Danielle Evans fare on that same season?  A black woman from Arkansas, Danielle seemed to surpass the judge’s demands on a model’s communication skills. While other competitors were criticized in their interviews for being long-winded, using clichés, and making up words, Danielle was commended for her high-brow vocabulary and humorous and witty delivery.  Yet, although they nearly always praised what she was saying, when it came time for deliberations, the judges could only seem to comment upon how she said it.  Originally from Arkansas, Danielle’s voice reflects not only the region of her upbringing, but her identity as a black woman with command of African-American Vernacular English.

Unsurprisingly, the judges had a problem with this.

After the contestants’ first Cover Girl commercial shoot, Tyra provided this feedback, respectively before, during, and after the judges’ discussion:

Tyra: Alright, Danielle, so you know about the accent.  [Affecting Danielle’s accent:]  Perfe’t’shun.  You have to really study the other girls that have the newscaster accent, just the normal accent where no matter what city you’re in it’s pretty much a standard accent.  That’s extremely important in doing a commercial.

Guest Judge: Danielle just has to refine her movements and what she says.

Tyra: Dan-yell wuz liiike talkin’ liiike thiiis.  And you ain’t gun be nobuddy’s CuverGirl talkin’ like this.

Tyra: Danielle.  Danielle-now, you need ta’ git it togetha’-now-ya nee’ ta star’ soundin’-a li’l betta-now cuz you ain’t gunna get no commercial talkin’ li’ that.

With each interaction, Tyra’s attempt at mimicking Danielle’s accent becomes more prolonged and exaggerated, until in the final instance she is virtually unintelligible. 

Unlike Kathy, who by virtue of her accent, place of origin, and self-identity, was easily stereotyped as a “hillbilly,” Danielle’s image and voice defied classical categorization.  She was alternately dismissed as “country” and “ghetto,” as if the judges could not precisely say what is objectionable about her voice, just simply that it embodies at least two marginalized English dialects by simultaneously being “Southern” and “black.”  Thus, Tyra’s criticisms become sweeping: “She cannot do a Cover Girl commercial speaking like that” and “Danielle’s speech is off.” 

The conclusion of the season should be Danielle’s happy ending.  After a sprained ankle, dental surgery (Tyra decided the gap in her teeth was unacceptable), international travel, hospitalization for dehydration, and constant barraging about her speech, she is ultimately announced as the winner of the competition and proclaimed “America’s Next Top Model.”  Yet, the happy ending is perhaps marred by this exchange, which closes the final episode of the cycle:

Danielle: I am the winner of America’s Nex Top Model, my life has officially changed.

Tyra: We gonna get you some voice lessons, girl!

Tyra’s not the only one at fault here.  We all make assumptions about people about based on the way the dress, how they act, and the sound of their voice.  Southern accents are judged particularly harshly.  Sociologist John Edwards writes, “Although lower-class, minority, and ‘provincial’ speech styles often have positive connotations in terms of integrity and attractiveness, their speakers are typically assessed as being less competent, less intelligent, and less ambitious than are those who enjoy some regional, social, or ethnic majority status.”

The thing about accents, though, is that while it’s become pretty politically incorrect to judge someone overtly because they’re poor, it’s completely acceptable to rip apart two women on national television because of the sound of their voice, and what we think that must imply about their class background.

Kathy and Danielle are just two examples on one television show—what other shows are there where accent or vernacular is used as a marker for class?

(Note: In the transcription above, I tried my best to alter spellings to best communicate the sound and pronunciation of each speaker’s voice.)

Previously: The Hidden Class Politics of Teen Mom 2“Money Can’t Buy You Class”

by Gretchen Sisson
View profile »

Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

11 Comments Have Been Posted

fashioning race for the free market

ooh, if you have access to academic journal articles, Amy Hasinoff has a super excellent piece about exactly this. For her, this kind of discipline happens specifically when contestants' accents reflect a particular intersection of race, class, and region that isn't marketable. So in order for Danielle's Blackness to be legible as a desirable commodity, they have to make her over from southern & rural into "urban glam" (Tyra/Mr. Jay's awful phrase, not mine).

Amy Adele Hasinoff (2008). “Fashioning race for the free market on America's Next Top Model,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25 (3), pp. 324-343.

Oh, that's great! Thanks so

Oh, that's great! Thanks so much for sharing - I will be sure to check it out. I did think it was interesting that, when Dani came back in a later season to host a challenge, her accent was virtually gone. It seemed to take away so much of what made her unique and special (though, of course, she still had that bit of a gap that Tyra "let" her keep).

Yes, but...

While I agree that there is a definite classist discussion that needs to be had surrounding the issue of accents on Top Model, I do have some problems with the points in this article. First, Tyra does not always tell girls to change their accents; she specifically says several times that they need to know how to pull it back and when to use it. This is not unproblematic in itself - why should someone have to ever pull back their natural voice? - but she does not say "get rid of your voice." She says, "use it to your advantage." Indeed, many of the judges loved Laura Kirkpatrick BECAUSE of her voice and her Southern personality and I don't recall then ever telling her to completely get rid of it (though perhaps we could have a discussion on how Danielle was told to get rid of her accent while on Laura it was deemed "cute," but it seems to be that wouldn't be a class discussion as much as a racial one).

Also, it is not unreasonable to assume that someone who wants to work in the fashion industry should know how to pronounce brands and designers. If you are wanting to work in a certain sector, you need to know the terminology. I assume you're referring to one of the judging challenges where the models were pretending to host a red carpet event. The judges acknowledged that everyone mispronounced names and brands - and told them to study fashion and then they moved on. There wasn't an attack on them for not knowing the pronunciation; the only attacks came when the girls gave up.

I think you're right that

I think you're right that some accents are acceptable, and some aren't. I do, however, think that this is as much a class discussion as a racial one. As I mention, Kathy's accent was unacceptable as a white woman because it was a "low class" accent from western North Carolina; Laura's was acceptable because -- while the rest of what we know about Laura tells us she comes from a lower SES background -- her voice could as easily have come from a wealthy Louisville suburb as a rural Kentucky farm. She "passes" where Kathy cannot, even those they're both white.

I disagree, though, with your thoughts on the designer names challenges. Yes, the girls should know how to pronounce the brands; they should be familiar with the jargon of the business they're pursuing. But I do think that the background music during that scene and the way it was cut and edited made it seem as if the joke was on them. If the judges really want to prepare them for the industry (as Tyra claims to want to do), she should teach them the actual pronunciations and then test them on it. Given that so many of the contestants did so badly on that challenge, it seems that it's not common knowledge for aspiring models. They were set up to fail, laughed at when they did, and screamed at when they became frustrated. Tiffany was eliminated because she said the challenge was "humiliating." It was. I think it was supposed to be.

Humiliation etc

I would agree that many of the challenges are set up to be humiliating, to to manipulate affect for the purpose of creating a spectacle. For example, I think it's interesting that in both seasons someone had a friend pass away, the next shoot just so happened to revolve around death (posing as a murder victim, or in a coffin). Coincidence? I doubt it. That's just messed up. Oh, your best friend just overdosed on drugs? I'm, pretend to be a dead body!

The thing is, the way people

The thing is, the way people talk does have an impact on how others perceive them. And especially in the fashion industry. Even someone with an upper-middle class valley girl accent would need voice lessons and be criticized by Tyra. I hate to say it, but someone like Kathy simply wouldn't book jobs if she spoke like that because of the prejudice in the modeling and fashion industry. I would say that the problem isn't necessarily ANTM and the way Tyra talks about it on the show, it stems from a deeper prejudice in the fashion industry as a whole. And I wouldn't necessarily equate it solely to class and wealth, but rather a prejudice against people who have non-European accents in general. I would have liked to see this connected in that way. there is definitely an element of prejudice to lower class individuals, as Tyra reprimands some "models" of their naivete of the fashion industry (and knowing brand names and how to pronounce them). However, that being said, America's Next Top Model has yet to produce a top model, or anyone that successful in the fashion industry. And the way she ridicules the women on the show with strong accents is simply wrong. And I find it funny when she tries to talk "ghetto" on her talk show or on ANTM to seem more "real" and approachable to the girls. So I guess it's fine to speak in your normal voice when not modeling?

I really don't think the way

I really don't think the way to counter prejudice on a larger scale (whether that be the fashion industry, or society as a whole) is to mock difference and promote conformity. If Kathy wouldn't book jobs because of her accent, that's a problem with the industry, not a problem with her voice. Instead of talking to Kathy or Danielle about how they'll face discrimination, but that's not their fault and the industry needs to change, they chose to focus on criticizing and tell the women to change. And that's the bigger problem.

I'm confused when you say "And I wouldn't necessarily equate it solely to class and wealth, but rather a prejudice against people who have non-European accents in general. I would have liked to see this connected in that way." I'm saying that the prejudice against certain accents is rooted in class. (And I'm assuming by European accents, you don't mean actual French, German, or British accents, but the Northeastern United States accent that we usually hear on television.) Everyone has an accent -- all of our voices and ways of speaking reflect where we are from. When we create a hierarchy of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" accents, that's NOT based on quality of sound (because objectively, there's nothing wrong with an accented voice), it's based on what we think that accent says about where people come from. And that's classist (and racist).

Southern accents aren't the only "unacceptable" ones in the US. New Jersey and Long Island accents are often mocked as lower class. I live in Boston where the South Boston accent (think Good Will Hunting) is considered problematic. There was a case where a Native Hawaiian weatherman was fired because of his accent (and the decision was upheld in court). These formed of prejudice are always mostly because accent is used as a marker of class.


yes, yes, yes! Great post as well. And I completely agree with your assessment of Laura and her accent.

But it is what it is. Anyone

But it is what it is. Anyone with a strong accent won't book jobs, rural accent or not. And it's not focused solely on women in the modeling industry, it's men too. If someone has a strong Long Island accent and comes from a wealthy family and is middle-to-upper class, she's still not going to book jobs, and it has nothing to do with her wealth or class, but her strong accent. Sure, sometimes accents are a marker of class, but if like I said above, even a wealthy LA girl with a valley girl accent wouldn't always book jobs, either simply because she has a strong accent, and Tyra would criticize her for it. anyone with a strong accent, wealthy or poor, non-European, would not book jobs. And by European, I mean generally European. Like, as in, French, German, London. A girl with a French accent would be way more likely to book jobs because a French accent is perceived as high class and intelligent, regardless of her class. A girl with a Valley Girl accent isn't. Or Long Island. Even actresses and actors have changed their speaking voice. If you listen to Brad Pitt, you'd never know he was from Oklahoma. I guess my point is that people in the modeling and acting industries have to adopt a blank state so they'll be able to easily fit into any role they need to fit into.

Add new comment