Review: Modelland

Author: Tyra Banks
Publisher: Delacorte
Genre: Young adult, fantasy

Tyra’s writing makes me crize. (That’s “cry with my eyes”, for non-ANTM viewers.)

I wasn’t initially planning to write a review for this book, because I wasn’t entirely counting it as an actual proper book that I was reading – it was a dubiously-acquired ebook that I was reading on my iPhone during my commute, and I was more than happy to use that as a caveat to get away without ever having to do a proper appraisal of it. However, the further I got into the story, the more I found myself wanting to do a write-up – not just to make fun of Tyra’s rather muddled prose/plotting/characterisation because that’s such low-hanging fruit that it feels unsporting, but more because I feel that at some point there was the gem of a good idea in here, and I want to try to figure out where she went wrong.

First of all, I’d like you to go to the Wikipedia entry for this book and read the plot summary (please come back when you’ve finished, obviously). There. Now, call me crazy, but that doesn’t actually sound that bad, does it? A bit obvious, perhaps, but a fairly solid premise for an undemanding young-adult novel about a group of teenage girls who want to be models – and I daresay there’d be a decent audience for such a book. I think that if this book had been written in a similar style to the Gossip Girl series, just to pluck an example out of the air, it might have worked quite well. Just stick a bunch of awkward teenagers with various personal insecurities together in a claustrophobic environment as they all strive to be the best, and you’re laughing – a bit like Fame, but with more booty tooching.

Where Tyra went wrong #1: I don’t think it’s uncharitable to say that Tyra was hoping this would be the beginning of a franchise along the lines of Harry Potter, Twilight or The Hunger Games – and Tyra’s big mistake was trying to follow that pattern a little too closely by shoehorning a clumsy fantasy element into a story where it doesn’t belong. She attempts to turn models into magical beings, gifting them all with superpowers that they then use to…make people buy stuff. Seriously, one of the special abilities is actually called Excite-To-Buy. Although at least that one’s spelt properly; the less said about “Seduksheeon” the better. I’m not saying that a fantasy novel with a modelling theme could never work, but Tyra goes so far with her world-building efforts that she creates too big a divide between the world of her novels and the real world, to the point where it’s hard to understand the motivations of a lot of the characters. Everything and everyone in this book is fashion-centric, and the few visible critics of fashion/modelling turn out to be hypocrites. Perhaps Tyra just assumes that anyone reading a book she’s written will value fashion as highly as she does.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Where Tyra Went Wrong #2: she doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp on what audience she’s writing for. The book is clearly intended as a young adult title, especially since it’s not without its share of graphic and shocking scenes, but the nature of Tyra’s prose feels more suited to a children’s book. It’s excessively florid, and frequently amounts to little beyond long, drawn-out descriptions of how a room is decorated or what everyone is wearing. Obviously I’d expect a certain amount of that in a book (a) written by Tyra Banks (b) about aspiring models, but Tyra has a nasty habit of getting bogged down in her obsessive need to describe someone’s ensemble when there are far more important things going on in the plot that she ends up neglecting. The childishness isn’t just limited to the text either: Tyra’s heroine Tookie comes across as worryingly childlike for someone her age, and any attempt Tyra makes to address Tookie’s developing sexuality is terrifyingly ham-fisted; Tookie keeps inadvertently sucking the thumb of her love interest, and it somehow ends up being infantile and crudely sexual at the same time. I’ve been reading quite a lot of young adult novels lately, and most of them are pretty frank about adolescent sexuality, even if they’re not especially graphic, so I suspect Tyra would’ve done well to read a few of them herself during her creative process to appreciate how featuring characters in their mid-teens giggling about sex like it’s the grossest thing on Earth is pretty patronising to her demographic.

As I’ve already suggested, the lead character of Tookie is not especially well-drawn – she is mainly someone to whom who bad things happen repeatedly so that we will feel sympathy towards her (to the point that the first quarter of the book consists almost entirely of her peers at school ignoring her entirely and her parents openly discussing how they despise her), as well as someone who gets away with deeply questionable behaviour because she’s the heroine and therefore everything she does is right, even if she did for the wrong reasons. She is, however, one of the more rounded characters of the bunch, as most of her cohorts at Modelland barely get more than two character traits apiece (Shiraz is short and a comedy foreigner, Piper is clever and a bit snotty, Dylan is fat and sassy, Zarpessa is pretty and mean), and frequently behave in strange, stilted ways in order to advance the plot. Perhaps the biggest victim of this is Ci~L (no, that’s not a typo), the biggest enigma of the book: Ci~L is the most famous supermodel in the world, who has recently gone a bit mad and ended up back at Modelland for reasons that are not made clear until the end of the book (and even then are a bit vague, to be honest). Again, there’s a sense here that Tyra’s got a vague idea of what she wants to achieve, but not how to do it, and thus we come to Where Tyra Went Wrong #3: Ci~L is obviously intended to be the mysterious figure whose allegiances we can’t quite determine until all the cards are revealed at the end of the tale, but Tyra’s need to keep us guessing whether Ci~L is good or evil leads her to say and do lots of really suspicious things entirely at odds with her motives just so that someone can witness it and get the wrong end of the stick. A good writer would drop in a scene of a character looking shady and then give a rational explanation at the end as to how the character who saw this took it out of context; however, when we are finally clued in on Ci~L’s motivation, most of the weird and scary things we saw her doing still don’t make sense. Considering she’s one of several potential antagonists in the series, the others being far more credible villains than she is, I think Tyra might have been better off keeping Ci~L out of the narrative more often and leave us guessing what she was up to, rather than actively trying to misdirect us.

Anyone who’s more than a casual viewer of America’s Next Top Model will be familiar with the show’s occasionally confusing moral messages, e.g. “it’s important to take an active role in the shoot, but you must always do exactly what the director tells you to do”, or “you shouldn’t make anyone force you to do something that you’re uncomfortable with, but quitters are the worst people in the world”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that spills over into Modelland too, bringing us to Where Tyra Went Wrong #4: in an effort to provide an inspiring, positive message for young women, she delivers some deeply dodgy morals, like when Zarpessa has some sort of nervous breakdown in her sleep and Tookie opts to withhold information about Zarpessa’s home life, because she doesn’t think Zarpessa wouldn’t want it made public. The book endorses this take on events, apparently trying to push home the idea that no one likes a squealer, and completely ignoring the alternate option where Tookie could’ve just quietly explained things to a doctor in confidence. The book’s attempts to convince us that true beauty comes from within is just as muddled, because it frequently invites us to celebrate characters for little reason other than the fact that they’re beautiful, and in order to truly make its message hit home, it would have to admit that the entire fashion industry is shallow and flawed, which is clearly not something Tyra wants to acknowledge. The book ends up getting tripped up by its own superficiality and materialism – the message ends up being “beautiful things are great, also don’t judge a book by its cover”.

There are a lot of other things I could mention: the uneven pacing and structure, the narrator who disappears for half the book without explanation, the text’s bizarre and repeated hatred of actresses (for increasingly bizarre and incorrect reasons), but I said at the beginning I didn’t just want this to be a catalogue of cheap shots, and I worry that if I carry on listing my objections, that’s what it will eventually become. What saddens me is that I really do think there was the germ of a good idea in all of this, but Tyra simply tried to do too much with it and completely overstretched herself. The book’s intended as the first part of a trilogy – whether parts two and three ever see the light of day remains to be seen, but in the event that they do, I hope Tyra employs the services of a ruthless editor who will demonstrate to her very clearly that sometimes less is more.

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