Ebony Haith undoubtedly is not the first Black lesbian model, but she may be the first to come out on national television. Haith, one of the 10 finalists in America's Next Top Model, said Executive Producer Tyra Banks brought together a diverse group of girls to compete for a modeling contract and other high-value prizes.
Supermodel Banks said a 'top model' has to be more than just a pretty face so each week the models learn something new. One week, openly gay J. Alexander (a thick Black man in a dress and heels) teaches the girls how to walk down a runway. Another week, the girls take acting classes with Alice Spivak who helped Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer understand the spoken word. After their lessons, the models are judged on how well they applied the learning. A panel of celebrity model judges eliminates one model each week.
Imagine The Waltons meet The Jeffersons meet Survivor. Haith said that Robin Manning (whose personal motto is 'I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me') became the mother figure to the group as they were narrowed from 20 women to 10. But that mother quickly became disapproving of several women in the house. Elyse Sewell, the Wynona Ryder look-alike, is an intellectual atheist. Haith is an open lesbian. Neither participated regularly in the bible study classes held by the 'plus-size' model (she's 5'9' and 160 pounds).
The outspoken Haith said she was not going to let Robin bring negativity into the house. 'The first thing I told her was 'I was born 7-7-78, honey. I'm all lucky. Sevens are the gates to heaven, now you look at me and tell me I'm not a child of God.' After that I didn't hear a word from her. She went right on to Elyse,' Haith said.
What You See
Isn't What You Get
From the beginning, Haith said she was there to win. She was not in the house to make friends. She wanted to become America's next top model. The first argument occurred when the girls arrived at the house and were treated with new clothes of different sizes. Haith said the logical way to divide the clothes would be to see what looks best on each model. But mother Manning prevailed, causing a clothing raffle of sorts to determine which model received which outfit—regardless of size. 'Look girls, you're not only affecting yourselves, we're affecting each other. I was just trying to bring the girls back to that. It wasn't necessarily me saying … 'look this is a competition… .' I think that might have been overdramatized, but it's about TV, honey. It's about making that money,' Haith said.
In an early episode, she lost a competition to win a night partying with recording artist Wyclef Jean. When 'Tyra Mail' (little notes from Banks telling the contestants what to expect the next day) came while the four winners were out partying, Haith wanted to hide the mail from them. But, she said, there's more to every story. 'It's an eight-hour show. We were together for over a month ... . [A] lot of the times, my interactions with the girls were things that were built up. If I got frustrated at them, these are things that we went through in and out all day,' she said.
The almost 25-year-old model from the Bronx said she's not as mean as TV viewers believe. 'Why was I portrayed this way? Sometimes African American women, especially in my style, African American women have a tendency to be portrayed [as] angry or very forceful. I even noticed on the show when they were trying to buff me up. My mother was [saying] 'girl, where are those muscles coming from?' … We worked out for a week and I had a full cut ... . I actually prefer myself to be more lean because that's more of me. I'm more lady-like,' she said.
She's not the typical super model. Her current style is bald and a bit rough around the edges, though she said people who know her well have seen her on the street and not recognized her because her hair was blonde or her style had changed yet again.
'I'm naturally a clown ... . I'm really a girly girl as well. If I'm going through something, you're gonna know it,' she said. Her big clown smile was seen naturally when she invited her girlfriend, Ka, to visit the house. The two met several years ago when Haith participated in a photo shoot of bald women. After remaining friends for two or three years, they became lovers.
Sewell stayed in the room while Ka and Haith were 'reacquainted.' 'The girls came in to meet my girlfriend, and their whole attitude [changed]. They all came and introduced themselves—Robin too. Robin even wanted to play cards ... . As soon as they saw us together … I knew that they were going to be acceptable toward it and understand that this wasn't something that was a joke,' she said.
No other models, for various reasons, invited guests to the house, but Haith thought it was appropriate. 'By the time I had my friend over, this was something where she was able to come over in an hour. When I came to the show, I took a train.'
Gays in Modeling? No Way!
Haith was an out lesbian from the beginning of the application procedure, but none of the other contestants knew. 'Tyra already knew ... . After we were narrowed down to the 10, that was the first thing she said to me, 'we all know you're a lesbian.'' Haith said she did not think being gay would be a hindrance to her career. She told Banks that because there are so many gays and lesbians in all aspects of fashion, she didn't believe being gay was a detriment.
And if the behind-the-scenes and on-camera guests and celebrity judges are any indication, Haith's right. In one episode, the flamboyant runway expert J. Alexander refers to his husband, the doctor, when one of the model-hopefuls reveals that she'll attend medical school if she does not win the competition.
Haith said she told the girls, 'because they [the producers] wanted me to, which I totally understood ... . I wasn't really interested in their opinions. I really don't think that anything should be forced upon a person. I don't think you have to accept or love my choice ... . I'm not really interested in what everyone else is doing with their better half—unless you want to give me that information and we can gossip.'
Haith believes the anti-gay attitude of Manning shows disrespect for the large numbers of gay people who support models and actresses. 'I was a little shocked by her opinions at the end of the show ... . Thinking to myself ... 'You're not only making these comments toward me you're making these comments to the person who made you look fabulous yesterday, the one that made that outfit that you wore look amazing, the one who held your hand when you were crying.' Those are the things that I think she should've thought about first, but, you know, everyone has a different outlook,' Haith said.
Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are
During and after Pride Month, Haith said gay people should be proud to be themselves. And she said that while staying in the closet may have been prudent years ago, she believes it's important to be out today. 'You have a lot of people who are not being honest and hiding these things. I think in the long run, today, it's [staying in the closet] really going to be negativity for you because you're going to be portrayed as a liar—as if you don't love yourself,' she said.
Haith does not fear that being out will hurt her modeling career. But she wants to be a director and an actress as well. That, she says, may be more difficult as an out lesbian. 'I think that people are always going to be in fear of what other people say,' she said. In the future, she hopes things will change. 'We have newscasters who are 60 years old, 70, 80, who are coming out saying they're gay now. We have priests who are now finally getting accepted into churches. This is something that, in the next 10 years, it really is yesterday's news,' she said.
After a month of grueling work including sub-zero outdoor shoots, criticisms about dry skin, and being called a sinner, Haith is still smiling. 'I think I'm one of the most happy financially unstable people there is.' She has big dreams including breakfast with Oprah, lunch with Missy Elliott, and Saturday evenings on Mad TV. And she says if she learned one thing from participating on America's Next Top Model, it's that she exists. 'I am present. I have always felt that as an African American woman especially—a woman period—that I have had to do extra to say I'm here ... . I was helped to realize, by watching this show, that I was present from the beginning.'
Haith was eliminated June, 10, but expect to see her again sometime soon (perhaps with purple hair?). America's Next Top Model airs on UPN Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET.
Faren D'Abell is a syndicated columnist based in Chicago. FarenTalks@aol.com