Desperate times: A bedlam of beauties at 'America's Next Top Model' auditions

On Saturday in New York City, girls starving to be plucked from their lives of obscurity caused a riot at Midtown's Park Central hotel, where preliminary auditions for the CW's America's Next Top Model were being held. I was at the scene as 55th Street flooded with cops barking orders into megaphones, triple-parked ambulances, and barricades.
So desperate were thousands of young women to be discovered -- and win the TV competition's modeling contract and $100,000 prize -- that the swarm of models stampeded, hospitalized people, and forced the police to intervene.

Apparently this is what happened: Fortune-seekers started camping out to stake spot in line for the tryouts on Friday night. Producers showed up and started the process at 7a.m., but the crowds swelled far beyond expectations. By late afternoon, it was becoming clear that hundreds of the pretty young girls (none of whom were allowed to leave the line to use the bathroom after nine hours or longer) were not likely to be seen, and throngs began pressing in around the doorway. Crowd control was scandalously inadequate, with some witnesses saying cops didn't put out barricades until 2 p.m., and all hell broke loose.

As with so many instances of mass hysteria, the retelling of the event was different from person to person. I heard one person complain that it happened because only the girls at the sides of the doorway seemed to be getting in. Line-jumping ensued, and the crowd got frustrated. A car overheated, and the rabble overreacted. I heard someone say he heard someone shout the word "gun." Another said she heard "fire."

Here's a video that someone shot from overhead and annotated:

Bedlam ensued as the wannabe models fought for their slice of the American Dream. Girls were trampled, people scrambled over nearby cars, luggage carts were toppled, and at least six people were hurt and three people were arrested. Afterward, the scene outside was chaos: Girls weeping over their shattered dreams, their boyfriends telling the tale to their buds on their mobile phones ("I've never seen anything like it in my life, yo!"), and the cops already shoving the blame elsewhere ("This is the TV people's fault," I heard one complain, despite the fact witnesses said police weren't doing anything to contain the girls.) The producers remained hidden inside the hotel, unable to leave.

I spoke to someone close to the casting of the show, and I was told that even though it's going on its thirteenth season, this one is different. For one, Tyra Banks, who produces and judges, has opened up casting to girls who are under 5'7", which is shorter than the standard requirement in the modeling industry. Banks wants to perhaps locate a Kate Moss type, but the looser height standard probably had the effect of multiplying the number of aspirants.

There's also the recession. With so many of these girls anxious to break out of their current situations, far more people than expected showed up. It's estimated that some 8,000 girls came to show off their superior beauty. Recently, the Washington, D.C. auditions brought out 4,000. In Manhattan, both the police and the producers were overwhelmed.

Even as the dust settled, the girls were still so anxious to be discovered they were behaving recklessly. A hefty guy in a black stocking cap threaded his way through the shell-shocked crowed with an open cardboard box. Once a few headshots and résumés got tossed into his box, dozens more girls chased him down, not even asking him who he was or if he was with the show, to add their own envelopes and folders to the pile. Even after the shock of the chaos, desperation reigned. This nameless guy was swamped with stacks of their personal information (including address, Social Security number, and photos), and when he was asked by news crews if he worked for the show, he said, "Nope, I'm just a regular guy," and made his escape, with the private information, into a side door of the hotel. The police let him pass.

On the bright side, the melée meant some of the girls got to appear on camera, like they always wanted. They got to tell their story to the news. ("It was hardly 'model behavior,'" quipped New York's local news anchor in covering the mayhem.)

In the Great Depression, desperate people pushed their bodies to the limit during dance marathons. In our age, we have Tyra Banks to thank for shameless degradation.
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