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Video Killed the Modern Orthodox Star

Esther Petrack departs ‘America’s Next Top Model’

Dvora Meyers
October 29, 2010
Two Jews: Esther Petrack and Zac Posen.(The CW)
Two Jews: Esther Petrack and Zac Posen.(The CW)

After last week’s Esther-rific episode, we get the ball rolling again with our favorite Model/ern Orthodox contestant, who discusses her foray into the bottom two last week and the advice she received from Tyra about bringing her personality more to the fore. “I need to be more pssh,” she says, making the sound I frequently hear in a Jewish learning setting when someone says something that is particularly shtark, which is a yeshivish term for something that appears particularly religious or pious. I wonder if less Jewishly learned viewers understand the true meaning of Esther’s bizarre sound effect.

From the beis midrash to the model home. The girls are in pajamas when they are visited by fashion designer and Member of the Tribe Zac Posen, who tells them that they will be walking in a runway show wearing the clothing from his new line. This all seems a little too straightforward for a program that sent the girls down a catwalk four stories up during their first challenge. What’s the catch, producers?

The catch is that they will be strutting with professional models who have been instructed to be bitchy to the wannabes. And boy, do the real models take to their directive like piranhas to mammalian flesh. When one of the models tells Esther that her large breasts will be hard to work with, Esther grits, “I’m well aware.” Esther’s presence on the show not only highlights the plight of the Jewishly observant but also the difficulties faced by the awesomely cleavaged. G, apparently, is for “gross.”

Esther acquits herself reasonably well on the runway, but she is by no means memorable. The recently dethroned photo queen, Ann, looks petrified, like a deer caught in the headlights, only on stilts. Chelsey, she of the platinum-plus hair, wins: She did not let herself get psyched out by the professional bitches (perhaps because she’s an amateur one herself).

For the main challenge, instead of a photo shoot, the girls are filmed for a commercial where they will be shilling for an imaginary flavored water drink. While on roller skates. Their task is to say some generic ad copy lines while rolling towards an attractive male model, who will nuzzle them as they sip and smile.

Apparently someone in the style department hates Esther, because she receives the worst of the American Apparel “drecktitude” (to quote Andre Leon Talley)—a matronly purple one-piece that her bubbe might wear on the beach in Miami over Passover. She also seems flustered as she delivers her lines, looking down and away from the camera. When the director (and one of the regular judges) Nigel Barker tells her to have fun, she bobs slightly to the music while surrounded by a cadre of attractive men in bathing suits. Jay Emmanuel, who is watching from the wings, asks, “That’s having fun? A couple of bobs in the chair?” No, Jay, that’s what we Jews call dancing. But he was right when he noted that Esther’s overall performance was woefully under-energized and flat.

But Esther is at least matched in the awfulness department by Ann, who seems to have lost her confidence after her streak of five wins was snapped last week. The awkward 6’2’’ teen falls several times while attempting to skate, and looks like she’s on the verge of tears as she addresses the camera. Sweetie, crying will get you out of speeding tickets, but it will not sell products. There are no tears in capitalism! During the judging panel, Nigel echoes this sentiment. “Fear is not endearing,” he tells Ann.

It comes down to Esther and Ann as the rest of the models are called to safety by Tyra. I thought Esther might stand a chance had she been paired with Liz, who also had a bad day in front of the lens. But Ann, the judges’ awkward darling, was not going to be sent packing for one foray into the bottom after five wins. After a brief, unsuspenseful moment, Ann is admonished for her lack of self-assurance and is sent to huddle with the other safe models. Esther, despite her attempt to be pssh and please Tyra by pulling her unnaturally dark hair into a ponytail for judging, is told to pack her bags. But not before Tya gives her an impromptu speech therapy session. “Your voice has a natural muffle,” she explains to Esther, who is doing an admirable job of maintaining her composure. She sagely advises Esther to work on projecting.

So Esther has lived out the meaning of her name by participating in a series of fashion shows, yet unlike her Biblical predecessor, who wins the favor of the king, she is unable to win over the queens. But, also unlike the Esther of antiquity, the modern-day version is not lost to the Jewish people. She is reportedly safely ensconced in the Orthodox-friendly city of Jerusalem, where she is studying Hebrew for her gap year, which she intends to follow with university study. She also still plans to pursue modeling, having vowed to make it onto the cover of Vogue Italia “on her own terms.”

Though I am quite disappointed that Esther is leaving the competition with more than a month of shows left to air (and just one week after I coined the brilliant hybrid term, “model/ern”), I am impressed, even shocked, by how far she made it. I also think she represented herself quite well on the program, from patiently raising her hand during a fight to getting almost no screen time due to her total lack of scandal and meanness. I hope that she will look back on this experience after college, grad school, and marriage to a good Brandeis boy, and schep naches from her younger self.

Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.