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In the Arms of an Angel

This week on ‘America’s Next Top Model’

Dvora Meyers
September 27, 2010
Esther Petrack.(The CW)
Esther Petrack.(The CW)

This week was the makeover episode of America’s Next Top Model, when the contestants are given new looks, whether they like them or not. (And a few really didn’t like their new hairdos.) For one, this meant a trip to the optometrist; for another, an appointment with the dentist. For Modern Orthodox contestant Esther Petrack and most of the other women, it meant not much at all: Several hours in a stylist’s chair as dye was applied, extensions were glued in, and layers were cut.

But before we get to the salon at Fred Segal (I always thought it was a clothing store—how little I learned after two years in L.A.), we begin at the models’ Venice Beach house. Ann, last week’s photo winner, buoyed by her triumph, has wrapped her head like a settler’s wife for the cutaway interview (maybe Esther gave her pointers). As Ann’s smile fades, the screaming commences because Tyra Banks herself has arrived to give them inspiration and to let them know about their impending makeovers. She tells the girls that the competition is getting “realer and realer every day,” which I suppose is one of those modelisms that people under 5’10” with advanced degrees in literature cannot possibly understand. And then she shows the girls how to kick it old school—or walk a runway circa 1995—all sass and ‘tude.

Esther’s makeover is perhaps the least transforming of the bunch. Her hair is dyed dark, which makes her light skin seem ghostly, and then is cut with layers. Perhaps the stylists were nervous about doing anything too drastic, especially after she drops the religion card: “I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew,” she reminds us. “So I’ve been raised in a religious community. So being here, I need to make sure I stay true to who I am.” Translation: Please don’t take my eyebrows or tooth enamel, or else they won’t let me back into shul.

The following day, the ladies discover the photo challenge when Jay Emmanuel meets them on the beach wearing black feathers all over his arm to tell them their assignment: They are angels, fallen from heaven because they loved a mortal man. They will be strapped into harnesses once again (which Liz hilariously describes as “wearing a huge Depends diaper, except with metal”) and hung above their beloved, i.e., whichever hunky male model they are paired with.

Esther is the first to go, choosing “Almost Fearless,” as her angelic appellation. “Screw heaven, I’m gonna go have my fun, ” she says by way of explanation. Ruh roh. No one let this girl spend her gap year in Israel, because she will go on a rampage.

Unfortunately she doesn’t take this brazen attitude with her into the shoot. The photographer tries to get her to establish more of a connection with her male model, but it proves difficult for Esther, due to his appearance and its unkosher implications. “He looks like a sexy version of Jesus,” she explains. “They’re like, ‘Look into his eyes’ and I was like, ‘No, that’s so wrong.’ I guess it’s a Jewish thing,” she adds, with a giggle and, as usual, a flourish of her awkward arms. Esther, sweetie, Jesus was Jewish! You’re going to stand under the chuppah with a guy just like him (and if you’re very lucky, just that attractive.)

But perhaps it isn’t the appearance of the others’ Lord and Savior in model form that is so troubling to Esther, but rather being told to touch, even lightly, a member of the opposite gender. If her school is anything like mine, she was told that boys and dating were for the purpose of marriage. You could look, but you could not touch. The prohibition is called “shomer negiah,” which literally translates to, “protected from touch,” and refers to the prohibition of any physical contact between non-immediate family members of the opposite sex. (Hugging your father: Okay. Kissing your uncle: Not okay. Because you’re technically allowed to marry your uncle.) Esther may even have heard this song that I learned (once again) while at Camp Sternberg:

Because I’m shomer negiah,
So leave me alone.
If you want to reach out and touch me,
Pick up the phone.
Stay on your side of the line,
Cause this body is exclusively mine.

Luckily for Esther, nearly everyone had a bad day in front of the camera. Patricia Field, the costume designer for Sex and the City, without whom oversized flower pins, sheer tops and Manolo Blahniks would not have become de rigueur for working women, is the guest judge, and she, like the rest of the judges, has very little positive to say. They rightly accuse the models of posing like amateur ballet dancers, though I’m not entirely sure what else they were supposed to do while suspended in a harness.

Ann wins again, with Kayla as the runner-up for the second week in a row. The two unlucky bottom ones are Sara and Lexie (not Esther, though the judges do finally call her on her blank, open-mouthed expression). The latter escapes elimination this time. Poor Sara. First they took your child. Then they took your eyebrows. Then they kicked you off.

Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.