Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Girl with Asperger's Syndrome Eliminated from America's Next Top Model

Tyra Banks is a Super Model turned television executive who seems to be trying to change a few of the more negative aspects of the modeling world--the world where she gained her fame. Ms. Banks was the first woman with dark skin to be featured on the cover of the famous (or infamous) Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated Magazine.

The biggest change Ms. Banks seems to be trying for is diversification. The vehicle in which she does this is her show, America's Next Top Model (ANTM.) My guilty and now former secret is that I have watched ANTM for eight of the nine seasons or cycles as the CW Network calls them. It's a way to experience a world I'd not otherwise get to experience. It's fun to watch the photo shoots, see the results and then learn who goes home next. One even learns a little bit about what it takes to be a successful professional. These lessons can translate to other professions.

Anyway, I've seen girls from many ethnic backgrounds and at least two lesbians on the show. The eight former winners have included one African American, three women of mixed descent, one Latina and one blond and two brunette Caucasians. The message is clear: beauty comes in many forms.

This season has been more exciting than normal because of one particular casting choice--the casting of a gorgeous, twenty-one year old Midwestern college student with Asperger's Syndrome. Her name is Heather Kuzmich.

Ms. Banks cast the tall, thin brunette with the light brown eyes along with twelve other girls. The reaction from viewers was wonderful. They all identified with Heather and chose her as Cover Girl of the Week every single week except for the first. I don't ever remember a model winning that honor so many weeks in a row. I've have been suspecting for awhile that Heather might be the most popular model ever to appear on this show. Amazing huh?

Heather, by all accounts, earned most of that adoration. Her photos were glorious. To look at them you would not know she had a disability. Most of the time she was mesmerising in her photos. At judging, Tyra would exclaim "No one else looks like her!" The four judges would comment on Heather's beauty and her bravery at appearing on the show. It was clear that she was a favorite amongst the judges. An artist, the girl seemed to have a knack at visualizing how she would look on film. At least for the first few weeks. Then one mistake started to turn into many.

Like most people with Asperger's Sydrome, Heather had some challenges. One of them was living with competitive and occasionally snarky girls. Some of the girls were understanding. Others thought she was babied by producers, etc. One in particular, seemed to make an effort to get a reaction out of her. One time the model, Saleisha, upset Heather when she jumped in the shower first after Heather called it. In another episode, the two girls argued about a bed.

The latter scene occurred when the six finalists relocated to Shanghai, China. In their penthouse suite, they found five beds and five girls quickly claimed them. Heather was the sixth girl. (Clever drama-producing trick on the producers part, huh?) Heather argued with Saleisha, who was refusing to share the bed she had claimed. It was the biggest one.

Dismayed, Heather teared up and left the room. At that point one of the girls said "Heather is so funny!" It was a comment not meant to be complimentary. Heather heard the comment and shot back "I wish I could get the joke!"

Other mishaps that Heather experienced because of her disability included nearly passing out at a late night video shoot after not eating all day, choking up on a runway when she was supposed to speak, messing up at a commercial where she was given each of the lines and then getting lost in Shanghai on Go-sees. Go-sees on ANTM mean mini-interviews between the five finalists and a set of four designers that are located in different places. On Go-Sees models must show off their runway walk and chat with designers while trying to show some personality. There are usually four Go-Sees and there is always a time limit.

The girls were turned loose to navigate the city by themselves. For this Cycle only, a translator was provided for each model. Heather only made it to one Go-See because she repeatedly got lost in Shanghai. That Go-See did not go well. She had an awkward walk, failed to make eye contact and did not impress the designer with her social skills. That does sound like Asperger's Syndrome doesn't it? Unfortunately, the other girls made it to their Go-Sees, although two others were late getting back to the return point.

Further, all of the girls had decent photographs. The only big mistake made by another model was that one of girls, Jenah, showed too much attitude toward this week's featured photographer, Nigel. Nigel is also a judge on the show. He was not impressed and the attitude became an issue at panel.

The judges ended up deliberating between Jenah and Heather--the two girls who had consistently been the best two performers on photo shoots. Heather's recent mistakes as a whole were too difficult to overlook and to my disappointment as well as other ANTM fans, Heather was sent packing. Cycle 9 will not be the same without her.

The last few cycles have had a theme. For Cycle 9, the theme was futuristic. My hope is that we will see more of or hear more from Heather in the future. She represented Aspies well, although she needs a lot of practice in terms of public speaking. One should remember, however, that coming in fifth on a popular reality show is not an easy feat--whether one has Asperger's Syndrome or not.

P.S. For more comments about Heather on this blog, please see my most recent post.


Victoria said...

My 13 year old daughter has Asperger's Syndrome. Heather was the first person she'd ever seen on television with Asperger's. I t meant the world to her. She walks like Heather, talks like Heather and even looks like Heather. I was so sad to see her leave last night but she did such a service for my daughter I can hardly put it into words. I am a huge Heather fan. I hope we see more positive and successful Asperger's stories in the future.

frylime said...

hi! i found this blog by googling heather from top model...i really admire her and hope that her future bodes well for whatever she wants to accomplish.

also, i'm a first year med student, and i love finding and reading blogs of people's medical experiences. we don't get much "people contact" right now. i'll definitely be coming back to visit your blog.

mcewen said...

I've not watched it myself although I have caught snippets here and there.

What a pity she's been eliminated. From the clips I saw she was absolutely lovely.
Best wishes

J said...

To Victoria: I am glad your daughter has such a great role model in Heather. I'm planning on providing some follow-up posts on the model in the far future. Also, hoping to find more info in order to provide insight on girls with Aspergers (probably not until after the holidays).

To Frylime: I'm glad you like the blog and am happy that a future doctor is interested in autism. I will be doing some posts that apply to doctors and biomedical approaches to autism. Good luck with your studies.

To McEwen: Yes, Heather is lovely, but she needs to develop a few more coping techniques to be an effective spokes model. Still, she did a great job and has an amazing portfolio of photographs. Thanks for posting again. : )

obsessedartmama said...

I am with you and a constant watcher of ANTM! I love the make-up and photo shoots. As a school social worker, I work with a lot of kids with Asperger's and I was so excited to see Heather! I have told kids and parents about her. I could see her struggles as the same as my students BUT I could also see her great coping skills. I think with a little more practice and repetitions she could have nailed her weaker areas! She is gorgeous and I am disappointed to see her go but excited with how far she got and how successful she is!

*wishing* said...

I love that someone with Asperger's Syndrome made it to next top model. After watching Heather and her mannerism a friend called me to inform me that this girl on ANTM has Asperger's and acts mostly the way i do. This long time friend of mine frequently tells me and talks to me about some of the things I say and do and i can never understand why they're wrong or what's so different from the way i act compared to others. After watching Heather i've began to wonder if i have this disorder as well and made an appointment with a local specialized to go see.

It's wonderful because i think she could make many people with asperger's happy to see someone like them on tv.

J said...

To Obsessed Art Mama: It is great that you are passing along news about Heather to the kids you work with. As I mentioned before, she is a great role model. Everyone should have another chance to see her when MTV (or is it VHI?) airs repeats of ANTM, Cycle nine.

To Wishing: Heather certainly is inspiring. Hope the quest for a diagnosis of Asperger's goes smoothly for you.

RealityChick said...

Let's face it: Heather may have been the first Aspie on ANTM, but she's not the only one.

Victoria from the college season was by far a more typical example of a extroverted Aspie. Whereas Heather was more introverted, Victoria 's kind of Aspergers is typical with many Aspies: they don't realize how they come across, refuse to stop talking, and tend to come off as arrogant or a know-it-all. They also have the typical physical and social awkwardness of Aspergers people.
I believe she's well aware of her Aspergers, but chose not to reveal it formally on camera. She came close one episode when she told the camera that her mom "didn't make her feel wierd for being 'a certain way'", but told her to embrace it. I'm willing to bet that "certain way" she's referring to is in fact Aspergers.

I taught special ed for 20 years, and Victoria's behavior is textbook Aspergers. Not all Aspies are introverted like Heather. (If they were, they'd be a lot less annoying in social situations.)