"It's not about being beautiful, it's about being interesting." Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model, or BINTM, is a reality show. But this is an alternative reality with its own rules, where the judges decide that one girl is "gorgeous but not a model"; where young women are told that their walk leaves a lot to be desired and learn how to hide their ugly toes. This is a reality where 13 girls share one bathroom and communicate in squeals, like bats; where a contestant cries that she wishes she was a size eight but just can't put the weight on; and a male designer tells a female model he wishes he had her breasts. In the BINTM house, skinny is deplored for promoting anorexia and curves are applauded as "real", but the window of acceptability is as narrow as a catwalk and closes as quickly as a camera shutter: anyone plumper than a gazelle is labelled "plus size" and shunted off the show.
Queen of this jungle is chief judge Elle Macpherson, who stalks among the girls like a fabulous beast, a giraffe with a lion's mane. This is makeover week, when the contestants have their hair chopped off and dyed pink, weeping as they see their new, "improved" selves. One of them, given a shaggy black cut, looks suddenly and uncannily like comedian Noel Fielding; but then, Elle herself looks like she's wearing Steven Tyler's hair. They are given their shorn locks in bags, to take away. It's like a bizarre, exotic ritual, a rite of passage - and that's the key to the show, and to the whole "reality" genre.
Where does this "reality" sit in relation to hand-held YouTube footage, Big Brother's CCTV, glossily scripted pseudo-documentaries such as Made in Chelsea, and improvised, naturalistic narratives such as Joanna Hogg's film Archipelago (2011)? More fake than some fictions, BINTM and its ilk occupy their own strange but carefully structured space. It's all about ritual, about familiarity with a few twists. The girls know in advance that this is makeover week, just as the audience does. They know the next shoot will be nudes, as it is every series. They know Elle will deliver the same stock lines she does every episode. They know, as we do, that the judges will fake them out to prompt a reaction, to make the contestants cry or squeal; that a sob story will always end with Coldplay rising on the soundtrack; that events from someone's "personal journey" (even if it's just a fortnight) are always shown in faded flashback. Not for nothing are BINTM series called "cycles"; "recycles" would be more accurate. And the repetition is half the pleasure.
It's the same pleasure offered by The X Factor, with its pantomime villains and comforting routines, and by The Apprentice, with its stock characters and catchphrases. Across the Atlantic, we find the same familiar structures in Jersey Shore, which has just launched again on MTV. This series, the gang is in Italy, but the same faces appear reassuringly with the same theme music, the same boasts about boob jobs and biceps, and the same personal philosophies: Vinny doesn't know exactly where Italy is, but declares it's going to be an "international panty raid".
Like BINTM's aspiring models, the Jersey Shore crew cling to rituals: their obsessive routine of "gym-tan-laundry" is abbreviated to the mantra "GTL", and (like their British counterparts on Geordie Shore) they prepare for a night out with a day of styling and removing hair, applying bronzer and picking out low-cut tops. The girls get ready, too, of course, but they're lower maintenance.
These shows take place in an alternative world; and despite their reliance on scandal, quarrels and gossip, in some ways it's a very innocent world. The guys of Jersey Shore are strangely sexless in their smooth, gleaming orange solidity, like Action Men or Oompa-Loompas; sex is largely confined to "smushing" and snuggling; and fights are quickly stamped out by security. For all the sassy talk on BINTM, the models' chests are carefully pixelated during the nude shoot, and even the word "bitch" is consistently bleeped.
Like Big Brother, The Apprentice and The X Factor, these shows are in essence about putting a group of strangers in a house, stirring them up and watching them clash; but both the model girls and the Jersey boys occupy an artificial reality, more like the computer-generated environment of The Sims videogame than an actual community. Two of the Jersey contestants, nicknamed Snooki and Situation, are already semi-celebrities themselves - like Simon Cowell and Lord Sugar, Cheryl Cole and Cher Lloyd, they're larger than life and a lot less natural. But then, we don't want natural or beautiful. We want interesting, and we'll manipulate reality to get it.