Black Zen Masters in the Dojo of Reality Television

by: L.S.Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

Typically in reality television, the host is white — famous examples include Jeff Probst in Survivor, Ryan Seacrest in American Idol, and Regis Philbin in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? whose through-the-roof ratings jump-started the reality programming watershed. But in America’s Next Top Model, The Road to Stardom, and Pimp My Ride, the hosts are African American and already stars.

In my first article for FLOW, I raised the concept of personal transformation as the underlying logic of reality television programming, particularly as it relates to race. Through an explicit display of Gratitude, a Sympathetic Back-Story, and Hard Work, reality television winners are shown to triumph, no matter what their race is. In this sort of “double-bind” (of having racial diversity on the small screen, but within a specific ideological framework), the article also points to the fact that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre in primetime. Furthermore, few (if any) other genres proffer African Americans in positions of authority and roles as knowledge-giver.

“Miss Tyra,” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, and X are key decision-makers, glamorous celebrities, and mentors. What Victoria’s Secret supermodel Tyra Banks says, fourteen wannabe supermodels do, or at least try to do, as they strive to learn the inner secrets of modeling to earn entry into the temple of fashion. Grammy-winning artist Missy Elliot is music priestess to thirteen “wannabe artists” who hope to gain immortality with a $100,000 recording contract. And Rapper Xzibit endows young dreamers with the ability to “go from dirt to pimped” on MTV’s popular show where clunkers are transformed into “tricked-out masterpieces.”

Race or ethnicity would not have been an obvious prerequisite for the job of host in these series. On the surface, a white supermodel is just as qualified to mentor and evaluate novice models, a popular white singer can just as skillfully spot a striving young artist’s talent, and a white entertainer can host a show about car culture as easily as an African American entertainer can. Is this simply a case of bringing faces of color into roles that are primarily race-neutral? Or are these roles essentially racialized, offering an alternative in the representation of characters of color as well as in the way viewers participate in racial discourse?

All three series involve multicultural, multi-racial “casts.” As with many reality programs, the characters consist of those who do the transforming and those who are transformed. (Just as Extreme Makeover, for example, has a cast of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, and personal trainers who literally transform the physical appearance of the cast of participants, Pimp My Ride has a cast of mechanics, auto body specialists, painters, and other car experts together with a cast of car-owners.) While the contestants on America’s Next Top Model and the young performers on The Road to Stardom distinctly consist of a rainbow coalition — and white singers who master the hip hop beat are especially intriguing — it is notable that the “transforming” experts (i.e., the panel of judges and advisors) are a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities. And the clear masters of the game, the hosts, are African American.

In this regard, the role of host is much more than an emcee. The host is a paragon of what the contestants strive to become, and is the means — the necessary instrument — through which they can reach a higher level.

America’s Next Top Model is a tightly-constructed, smartly-paced program that involves a group of young women participating in weekly tests in their effort to get into the succeeding round of judging. Each episode is a lesson on multiple aspects of the fashion industry: photography, make-up artistry, clothing style, and publicity. Each competitor realizes she must learn how to model: how to pose, how to express emotion in a still image, how to convey that she understands the concept of the task at hand whether it is to pull off a squeaky clean Cover Girl close-up, or an edgy experimental “art shot.” There are people on the ground training the women, featured prominently are “Mr. and Mrs. J” — Jay Manuel, who helps direct the models at the shoots and just J, a very tall Black man who instructs the women on how to move down the catwalk.

It is Tyra Banks — her style, her look, her experience and expertise, her personality that is both motherly and sisterly — that is the guiding force in the program. Although her catchphrases, “The judges will now deliberate” and “Congratulations, you’re still in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model” are subject to ridicule in Saturday Night Live skits, Banks’ success with the series is no joke. Moving into its 4th cycle, Tyra Banks is creator, executive producer, and judge of the hit “dramality” series, and she is also founder of Bankable Productions. She lends the wisest and most earnestly taken advice to the young women. Miss Tyra is quite literally, a model for them in her success in the fashion industry, and as a self-possessed, strong Black woman.

In the three seasons thus far, there is a running discourse about owning up to who you are, specifically for the women of color. April in season 2 who is Japanese and Caucasian made statements such as “My Mother said I could never be a model … but it’s her fault that I look this way.” Tyra advised her to embrace her looks and market herself as ‘an Asian model.’ April agreed, if not to the idea to accept who she is, at least to the strategic suggestion. In a photo shoot that transformed each contestant into a famous figure, Xiomara’s skin was made darker with body paint to resemble Grace Jones; she was clearly upset with the choice and rejected the persona. Miss Tyra later schooled the young woman, and all the women, on Grace Jones’ place in history as a beautiful, dark-skinned, “fierce” model who helped pave the way for her and other “non-traditionally beautiful” (read non-white) women.

Being non-traditional is a vital part of Missy Elliot’s achievements as a writer, performer, and producer. Her ground-breaking work as an artist who crosses and combines genres — rap, hip hop, pop, and techno — has garnered her numerous accolades. She is highly regarded among music critics and kids alike and her videos are impressive, avant-garde pieces with musical, lyrical, and political bite.

On the show, she comes across as a near mystical figure. Her aloof demeanor can be daunting. Seated and surrounded by a coterie (her dancers), beautiful and regal, clad in a phat outfit and signature baseball cap, unsmiling and sucking on a lollipop, Missy Elliot delivers such lines as, “I think you’re going places . . . just not with me.” She tells you whether you are good enough — to be on tour with her, to be a performer of her high standards. Contestants act as willing pupils, hoping to have the honor of sharing the stage with her. Unlike Miss Tyra, she does not interact closely with the contestants. Like Banks, however, she is the avatar of cool everyone seeks knowledge and approval from.

Like ANTM, TRTS also uses a multi-racial panel of judges. Among them are singer Teena Marie, producer Dallas Austin, and president of Violator Management, Mona Scott. The goal of Scott’s company is: “To better market hip hop to Hollywood . . . to successfully promote mainstream products to the urban consumer, a consumer not defined by ethnicity, but rather by lifestyle.” The website for the program also proffers the idea of cultural sharing, and the sentiment that ethnic and racial identity is not as important as style: “The next big superstar could spring from a variety of backgrounds, but what each participant has in common is amazing talent, distinctive style and fresh attitude.” A contestant’s ethnicity may or may not be immediately relevant, but the racialzed derivation of that “lifestyle,” “distinctive style” and “fresh attitude” is unmistakably Black, or more importantly, learned from a Black mentor.

Style and attitude are exactly what contestants hope to gain from Pimp My Ride. They begin their transformative journey by appealing to MTV and Xzibit for help. Many are college students (including one of my own from UCSC), driving, for example, their soccer mom’s old Nissan. There usually is some element of charity involved in each episode, not only towards the car owner, but also for another group — helping an aspiring singer drive to teach kids music lessons, for instance. When Xzibit comes knocking on the front door, the car owner goes crazy, jumping on X, acting like Publisher’s Clearing House just showed up, only more excited. There are many who dream to come face to face with this man in baggy jeans, a basketball jersey, and cornrows.

Whether you are Black, white, Asian American, male, or female, Xzibit’s crew — the working class, minority men at aftermarket West Coast Customs — will take you from 0 to 60 in the eyes of your friends and family. These guys have pimped cars with turntables, a ping pong table, a big screen monitor, and even a fireplace in the trunk. Video games with monitors installed in headrests practically come standard.

Theme Song Lyrics
So you wanna be a playa?
But your wheels ain’t fly
You gotta hit us up
to get a pimped out ride

To what ends is the creation and representation of Black sensei figures in these reality series? It is the promotion and cultivation of respect and reverence for the African American hosts. While Miss Tyra and Missy Elliot have more to specifically teach than Xzibit (and arguably, their level of accomplishment is higher than his, his recent album has not sold well), all three are examples of Black hosts/African American figures as benefactors — bequeathing opportunities upon youth primarily, and whites often.

One could argue that this is a form of exoticism, that Black culture has long held “the cool factor” desired secretly and now openly by non African Americans. But most things on television are exotic or cool, that’s what gets them good ratings (Ex: The O.C.). I also want to make note of not only a multiculturalism that is proffered in all three of these television discourses, but a cross-culturalism: The latest season of ANTM is set mostly in Tokyo where Tyra Banks wants to educate the models about experiencing another culture; Missy Elliot’s most popular and award-winning video engages with an aesthetic that is both mystical (Chinese martial arts) and avant garde (Japanese fashion); and Xzibit essentially takes up Asian American “rice rocket” tuner culture. This is part of what I call a “Black-Yellow alliance,” which I don’t have time to expand upon here.

There is a bit of exoticism and idealism of the “Black Master” going on. But I think (I hope) there is also modeling. Viewers see African Americans in positions of authority, as lenders and gatekeepers of hopes and dreams and moreover, viewers see numerous and diverse contestants (“people just like us”) paying respect to them. And that’s something to model.

America’s Next Top Model
CBS Review, Pimp My Ride
Pimp My Ride Homepage
TV Tome — Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.


  • Kim has again raised some interesting questions about the functions and implications of race on Reality TV. She suggests the many possible cross-cultural influences (both on and by) these programs. Her discussion of first minority contestants (in the previous issue, Vol. 1, no. 4) and now minority hosts leads me also to consider the issues of race as they relate to audience perception of reality programs and also to think about the makeup of the behind-the-scenes crews. Are the writers, producers, and crews of these programs also reflective of the diversity we see on the camera and how does this affect the content of the programs or the contestants who are chosen for the programs?

  • race, gender, and production context

    The narratives surrounding Tyra Banks and Missy, as celebrity personas, have an interesting point of intersection: their “authenticity,” savvy, and autonomy. Missy’s involvement in production even before her own singing career has endowed her with a certain gravitas missing from the public perception of many other female rappers/vocalists, frequently dismissed as “studio creations.” Also, Banks has long been perceived as one of the more “articulate,” autonomous models, having branched out into acting and biz ventures before the reality show. I would contend that her heavy involvement with the production of the show has set her apart from other women operating in television who are seen as kind of “pretty figureheads” for what is a creation/economic endeavour of someone else….

  • Shenise Sampson

    This article has raised some very important issues that have recently become an inseparable part of the entertainment society regarding the role of blacks in the reality business. I think it’s important to note the accomplishments of these significant and influential black role models in the media. As minority hosts, figures like Tyra Banks and Missy Elliot have gained the respect of not just blacks, but other races as well. Because of the way the media industry is designed, sometimes the prospect of minority hosts maintaining an authoritative and well-respected role is not an easy accomplishment, so I do agree with Kim in that these roles of “Black Zen Masters” in this business is something to consider significant and deserves a compliment. Another aspect of this article that I think it is also important to consider is the influence that these type of reality shoes are having on the audience. Through these shows, entertainment is able to move beyond the usual targeting that is used in the media industry and instead is able to reach and appeal to many people of different races, ethnicities, and beliefs. Constantly are stereotypes about minorities and reality TV being erased and new positive conceptions and ideals being established. Not only are these black role models becoming a prominent and influential figures in the reality television industry, but in the lives of many hopefuls who desire to make it in a competitive society.

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