Days after arriving in Puerto Rico, I found myself blindfolded and forbidden to speak on a bus full of other young, sweaty, beautiful girls. One by one, I heard them get sick as the bus swerved along miles of narrow, winding roads, and I thanked God for my iron stomach.
We’d spent the previous few days at a hotel, shuttled from suite to suite for assorted physical, psychological, and emotional testing while the producers whittled us down to the 33 contestants who would compete on the first episode of the ninth cycle of America’s Next Top Model. The first audition for the show — my first ever, modeling or otherwise — had been more than six months ago. Now, after months of paperwork, waiting, and having our blood drawn in a Puerto Rican Ramada, we were finally achieving the ultimate goal: we were going to be on TV.
Once the bus stopped, we were once again instructed to sit in silence while the crew set up the cameras outside. Reality TV contestants aren’t allowed to speak when they’re not on camera — it’s called being “on ice.” Eventually we were led, holding hands, out of the bus and in a meandering line across a hot parking lot. Cloth still over our eyes, Miss J’s booming voice was a balm to our ears. “Take off your blindfolds!” she yelled. Blinking the spots from our eyes, we were greeted by the sight of her standing in front of a beautiful cruise ship.
Before we had a chance to find our bearings, we were told Miss J was going through our suitcases and picking out an outfit for each of us, throwing anything she didn’t like overboard. I watched girl after girl look on as their clothes got chucked into the trash. I winced as Miss J threw away my favorite t-shirt, a soft white baseball tee from Rainbow. Later, as we walked off camera, someone handed us the trash bags — the clothes were not being thrown overboard after all — so that we could repack our suitcases in the parking lot of a cruise terminal. This segment, “Fashion Inspection,” did not end up making it to air.
Bending over my suitcase, I realized I was going to throw up. My stomach was failing me. A crew member took me by the arm to some chairs just a few feet away from everybody. “Sorry, I can’t take you to the bathroom right now, we have to stay in sight,” she informed me before watching me barf on the pavement.
“Yes, girl, you look fierce in that dress,” Miss J said moments after I had finished puking my guts out, as I was getting my “boarding pass” picture taken in the outfit she had picked out for me.
My perseverance in the face of adversity didn’t even make it to air. The episode cuts from the initial reveal of the Royal Caribbean’s SS Adventure of the Seas to Miss J showing us around its many attractions — pools, a rock climbing wall, an ice skating rink and hot tubs — most of which we would be seeing for the first and last time.
At the end of the tour came our first challenge: a “fashion show” where we were to walk up and down the deck in our life jackets. “You’ve all seen models walking the runway; now it’s your turn,” said Miss J. In fact, the only models I had ever seen walking down a runway were other Top Model contestants, while watching this show just three months ago in my friend’s dorm room. I grew up in a town of 700 people with no TV. Before my audition, the only professional photos of me were from a J.C. Penney portrait studio, in matching outfits with my mom.
But there wasn’t much time to dwell on that. It was time to walk. If this part of the episode looks weird, it’s because the editors had to cut around the yells and jeers from the regular passengers around us, who apparently did not know they had signed up to be extras on a reality show. A Pixar cartoon of a grandmother in a floral, skirted swimsuit screamed in my face, “I came all the way from Idaho, and you BITCHES ruined my vacation!” before spitting at us. The crew hurried us back inside.
* * *
For the entire five-day trip, we never knew where we were going at any given time. The crew would tell us what to wear and bring, but we never knew if we were going to the dining room for lunch, or one of a seemingly infinite number of conference rooms to sign contracts or simply sit for hours with no explanation or end time.
One morning, they herded us into a different room for breakfast. It was low-ceilinged, dimly lit and windowless, filled with cafe tables surrounding a small, shoddy stage dressed up with velvet curtains. It felt like a claustrophobic comedy club. We nibbled on our food and waited, on ice. I’d eaten bacon off three other girls’ plates by the time they a producer finally told us that something was about to happen — and we had to absolutely scream our hearts out when it did.
And then… there she was: Tyra. Stunning, six feet tall, dressed like a showgirl, surrounded by a team of beautiful men all dancing behind her in sailors’ outfits that looked like they came from Wish. She was singing a song, but we were told to scream through it, which we did, and then we did it again, and again, and again. For four or five takes, we screamed at the top of our lungs, completely drowning her out every time. I assumed it would sound better when the episode aired (it didn’t).
Finally, Tyra smiled and gestured for us to be quiet. And in that distinctive, authoritative voice she told us, “Today you will meet with the panel of judges. And we will decide which of you will go on to become America’s Next Top Model.”
As we were being mic’d for the panel in a stairwell outside the theater, a producer asked me, “What’s your talent?” Seeing my face go blank, he offered by explanation, “That girl is rapping, that one is singing a song. Janet’s going to outline her aesthetician skills.”
If society had taught me anything, it was that I should be able to coast on my looks, and here I was, on a reality show about being pretty, and that suddenly wasn’t the case?! My roommate Ebony suggested, “Why don’t you do that thing that you did at dinner the other night? The thing with the straw wrapper.”
It wasn’t great, but at least it was a plan. I took a strip of paper, accordion folded it into a tiny ball, and shoved it up my nose. Minutes later, I was in the spotlight, the three judges in front of me in an otherwise empty front row. I smiled and tilted my head up so they could see the contents of my nostril.
“What happened? Did one of the girls punch you?” asked Mr. Jay.
“Oh, do I have something in my nose? How embarrassing,” I said in my worst performance to date. I pulled the accordion-ed paper out to some mild chuckles. Somehow, it was enough. Feeling a little more at ease, I introduced myself and answered the judges’ questions, ranging from the generic “tell us about yourself” to the slightly more intrusive “is it hard being bigger than all the other girls?”
* * *
Hours turned into days in the cruise ship’s windowless conference rooms. We met with teams of lawyers to have the same conversation over and over again: They listed all of the ways we could violate our contracts, and all of the things they would do if we did. They repeated the dozens of contract violations that could make them sue us — for no less than $5 million.
“Okay, I don’t have 5 million dollars,” said one girl, a bartender from Boston who pronounced it “dollahs.”
“We know,” said one of the producers. “That’s why we had your families sign these contracts. We won’t just sue you. We’ll sue your parents, your grandparents, and you. We’ll sue your children, your children’s children, your children’s children’s children. We will keep suing you and taking a portion of your paycheck for the rest of your life until we get that money.”
Aside from that looming threat of $5 million, we never discussed any other type of payment. Compensation was not in the contract; they never brought it up, and it never even occurred to me to ask. The contract did say that the producers could give us a stipend, but were under no obligation to do so. We got $38 in cash every day to pay for our own food. After we were eliminated, the cash stipend stopped, but we couldn’t go home yet. We were kept in a hotel for two weeks, during which we had to pay for food out of our own pocket. Because we weren’t allowed to leave the hotel, our only options were room service. By the end of the show, I went home stone cold broke.
* * *
The ship made several stops, but we could never tell from inside the claustrophobic conference rooms — until St. John’s in Antigua, where we had our first photo shoot. It wasn’t just our first time off the ship; it was our first time outside in days.
While each girl was shooting, the rest of us lounged around, swam, and frolicked on the beach. We were still heavily supervised but I felt so free and relaxed. It was the first time in almost a week that we were able to just go to the bathroom or get some water without having to ask permission or needing to be chaperoned.
Back at the ship dock, Mr. Jay asked us, “Did you girls have fun?” We all screamed, “Yes!” with reckless abandon, which the producers insisted on. “Well, for some of you, the fun is over,” said Miss J. I had to stifle a laugh. I had never heard someone talk like that in real life.
And that is how we found out that 13 of us were about to be left behind on St. John’s. Mr. and Miss Jay and J urged us to run as fast as we could to get our boarding passes and find out which of us had made the cut. We were supposed to act excited, but I walked over slowly. I was tired from the sun and assumed that my picture wouldn’t be one of the chosen few. But there it was. The photo of me taken right after I’d thrown up next to my handler. I couldn’t believe that was only five days ago. I looked beautiful. My hair was windblown across my face, nonchalant but intense. I was so proud that I could look so good while feeling so bad.
Those of us lucky enough to get boarding passes got back on the ship, and then came a moment that I have thought about a lot since. They had the girls who made it lean over the edge of the deck and wave goodbye at the cluster of heartbroken girls on the dock. The dock girls all waved back up at us, presumably instructed to do so by the crew filming them. Even at the time, I felt like an asshole. Those of us on the deck had gotten the ultimate validation: more airtime. We smiled awkwardly while mocking the girls we’d spent the last five days bonding with, despite the producers forbidding us from speaking to each other. The whole process felt so random; it could have been any one of us down there on the dock, being interviewed through our tears. But for now, there was nowhere to go but back out to sea.
A week later I would arrive in LA, where the surreality would continue. When people ask me what being on Top Model was like, to this day I never know what to say besides “weird.” The cruise has become an emblematic memory of the show for me: a seemingly fun, whimsical, relaxing experience that was, in fact, both tedious and disorienting. There would be echoes of that feeling throughout the rest of filming. Like the “Eco-Friendly Van” they presented as our exciting chariot to get from point A to point B — decked out to look like the rainforest with fake plants and wood paneling covering the sides. It turns out it was just a clever way to gussy up yet another windowless room to drive us around in.
Sarah Hartshorne is a writer and comedian best known for neither of those things because she was also the plus-size contestant on Cycle 9 of America's Next Top Model. She's since modeled for Vogue, Glamour, and Skechers, and was also the “before” in a Weight Watchers commercial. Now she performs standup all over New York and the country and spends way too much time on TikTok.