“You’re still in the running toward becoming America’s next top model.”
There was a time when those words, pumped with 10,000 cc’s of ersatz sincerity by host Tyra Banks, were greeted with a huge sigh of relief. You’d staved off backstabbing BFFs, endured humiliating tasks, and vogued past all matter of schadenfreude in order to get one step closer to being, in the immortal words of Derek Zoolander, “professionally good looking.” Your future was looking very bright.
Not anymore. Now, those 11 once-magical words mean something else entirely.
On Tuesday evening, Mirjana Puhar, 19, was found dead as part of a triple homicide inside a home in Charlotte, North Carolina. The teenager had appeared in 10 episodes of the 21st cycle of America’s Next Top Model last year. When officers arrived on the scene, they reportedly found the bodies of Puhar and the two men, Jonathan Cosme Alvarado, 23, and Jusmar Isiah Gonzaga-Garcia, 21, shot to death. Reports say cash was strewn about the house in what police are calling a drug-related shooting. Emmanuel Jesus Rangel, 19, has been arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder for the killings.
According to The Charlotte Observer, when she was 5, Puhar and her family immigrated to New York from war-torn Serbia. They had just $50 to their names, and settled down in North Carolina about 10 years ago. After dropping out of high school at 16, Puhar turned to modeling. “I was a wild child,” she said. “I went out, had fun, partied, whatever—I didn’t really have the best influences around me.” Through modeling, she’d seemingly turned things around and found herself on the CW reality series, competing with a gaggle of other pretty faces for a modeling contract, a magazine spread, a $100,000 Guess? campaign, and the title of “America’s next top model.”
If the reports are true, Puhar is only the latest in a string of ill-fated America’s Next Top Model competitors.
In June 2013, Renee Alway, 27, a second runner-up on the eighth cycle of America’s Next Top Model, was arrested in Palm Springs on 12 felony charges, including burglary. She was found hiding in a garage with a gun, and surrendered to the authorities after a six-hour standoff with a SWAT team. Alway—also known as Renee DeWitt—was already free on bail from a previous drug-related arrest.
And in 2012, Jael Strauss, who placed sixth in the eighth cycle of America’s Next Top Model, appeared on the program Dr. Phil and detailed her tragic descent into meth addiction in the wake of her stint on the show. This revelation prompted CariDee English (pictured above), winner of the seventh cycle of Top Model, to pen a candid post about how difficult it is to be a Tyra Banks-approved “Top Model,” and what happens when the reality show ends and actual reality begins.
“Tyra won’t do anything [for Jael],” wrote English. “She provided a wonderful platform for girls to have a chance at their dream, but after there is no ‘Tyra Mail.’ I had to guide myself, and even though I won a model competition I still had no idea what the modeling BUSINESS was like. I had no idea what the industry was really like. I was famous, but no one wanted to take my picture.”She added, “Mentally, it’s horrific. And any girl who has been on ANTM can back me up. No one wants to take us serious as models... The fashion industry had NO idea how to market us. Our agents, our managers... We became instant celebs, but had the portfolio of a rookie model. Even though we just were named ‘TOP,’ our place in line at Fashion World was at the bottom. The industry many times didn’t care about our name, but did turn a snobby cheek to the name ANTM.”
Yes, these days, the title of “America’s next top model” is a dubious one—and these handful of examples only constitute some of the ex-models who have lost their way in the real world.
Part of the reason is the nature of the show itself. As a reality show, they try to cast as many outsized (or troubled) personalities on the program as possible because drama equals ratings. So you’ll get a self-described “wild child” like the late Puhar on, or in the case of Analeigh Tipton, a young woman who was almost sold as a sex slave to a Saudi prince. “They should have evaluated [Jael] a lot more before letting her on the show,” wrote English. “All they saw was a personality good for television.”
Top Model, like most reality competition shows promising instant fame and fortune that aren’t named American Idol or X Factor, doesn’t provide much of a platform into the fashion world for aspiring models. Yes, a handful have managed to carve out nice careers for themselves—like the aforementioned actress Tipton (Crazy, Stupid Love) or Yaya DaCosta, who recently starred as Whitney Houston in a Lifetime biopic—but these women have attested that their success came not because of their experience on Top Model, but in spite of it. In other words, like English said, there’s a stigma associated with the men and women who appear on Top Model that makes it exceedingly difficult to break into the modeling world, and as a result, many former contestants end up as struggling, out-of-work models with blank résumés and dashed dreams.