Compiling this list has been a journey, my personal odyssey, if you will; a marathon I've been training for since my early teens. America's Next Top Model—a cultural touchstone and at times deeply problematic slice of the current landscape in reality TV—has featured more than 300 contestants in total. That's roughly 250 makeovers, 280 utterances of, "I have two photos in my hands," 24 winners (25 if you count Angelea, which we should), exactly two people who became household names (Analeigh Tipton and Winnie Harlow), and one beard weave. It was a lot to parse through, but for you, I have taken on that challenge.
Reader: The next name I call is the girl (or boy) who will continue on in the history books of America's Next Top Model.
I will only say 24 names.
Now, I have a lot of favorites—you'll read more about them in the near future—but Ann stands out for me. This gangly, nervy, six-foot-two self-described "not normal" person (and now Tumblr mainstay) glowed with charisma in spite of—or, really because of—her physical awkwardness. Also, she set an America's Next Top Model record for most consecutive Best Photos. Ann, if you're taking applications for America's Next Top Best Friend (thank you, Jade), I would like to apply.
This woman was robbed! Robbed, I tell you! Did you see her photo with silver wire wrapped around her head? Mercedes was a sensational model, the dictionary definition of "endearing," and bravely shared her struggles with lupus with the whole world. To be fair, Mercedes was in the most competitive top three in Top Model history, in my humble opinion, but this girl deserved it all.
Khrystyana was just so damn nice. The playful, bubbly Russian-born model helped make Cycle 24 a return to form after three shockingly poor, over-the-top seasons. No matter how cynical viewers were, watching Khrystyana brought up genuine feelings of affection and a desire for her to succeed. (Once, I thought I was sharing an Uber Pool with her, but it turned out to be my overactive imagination.)
Yes, there were several shockingly poor seasons that fueled Tyra's quitting, being replaced, and then returning. But allow me to present one of the only bright spots of those years: Cory, a man whose makeover left him entirely bald, like a gorgeous, chisel-jawed alien, and who still made it work. Even though he was constantly told he wasn't masculine enough during judging (God, those were dark days for Top Model), Cory stayed true to his edgy, androgynous style, and remains the only reason those seasons were worth airing.
Sometimes, at night, I can still hear the wailing of Shandi from Cycle 2 during that sincerely horrible moment when she tells her boyfriend she cheated. That's what she's most known for, but it's not why she's on this list. Watching an initially scared-looking Shandi grow in confidence through the season, all the way up to the point where she sobs that it's the first time she's ever felt beautiful, was one of the most moving trajectories of the entire series.
Only one contestant on America's Next Top Model ever truly crossed the bridge from reality star to celebrity—the real "wow, she was on that show?" kind of celebrity—and that's Analeigh Tipton. Remember the adorable babysitter in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and the lead in the short-lived but not awful Manhattan Love Story? Yeah, that was Analeigh. Also, before she was a contestant and then a bona fide actress, she was a competitive skater. Girl knows what she's doing.
The iconic bad-girl-with-a-heart behind the catchphrase, "This is not America's Next Top Best Friend," Jade was unforgettable. Even though she went on the record post-ANTM to say that she felt she'd been "misrepresented" and "exploited," there was strength in Jade's ability to not be the sweet, modest girl. I loved Jade because she said exactly what she thought—sure, she talked about the perfect planes of her face a lot, but wouldn't you if you had those cheekbones?—and because she was impossible to tear your eyes from. Jade was shattering stereotypes about beauty and ego (that you can own them! that you can be proud of them!) long before it was okay to do so on mainstream television.
The greatest injustice in Top Model history is that Angelea did not win Cycle 17. For legal reasons, we will never know exactly why Angelea's crown was taken from her after she technically won the All-Star cycle—the episode was never aired, although rumors fly to this day—but I'm not over it. Angelea was the standout model and personality of two whole cycles, and what did she get for it? Absolutely nothing. #JusticeForAngelea
Like I could ever leave Eva The Diva off this list. Now a successful TV personality (yes, that was her on The Real Housewives of Atlanta and The Young and the Restless), the self-described "little tomboy" and winner of the third cycle was even name-dropped in a Missy Elliot song, which is how you know you've made it.
You have to give Adrianne props for being the only person in Top Model history to frustrate Tyra so much that the show literally scrubbed all references to her in following seasons. The model went on record about what she says were promises broken by the ANTM producers, and, well, that was it—they never spoke her name again. Not once. Ever. In 23 cycles. It's pretty impressive, if you think about it.
Despite relentless criticism week after week for her thick accent and front-tooth gap, Dani (then Danielle) still beat out everybody else to claim the Cycle 6 crown. Also, remember when she was so sick, she was meant to be in the hospital, but showed up to a photoshoot instead and looked completely beautiful atop an elephant? When I'm sick, I can barely even make it to the kitchen.
Another standout of Cycle 24, a.k.a. the only reason I still feel inclined to call myself a Top Model fan, Rio was a "villain" that you couldn't help but fall in love with. Rio didn't need to be liked. Rio didn't care if people disagreed with her. Rio was just Rio. and I was here for it. Side note: I spend a lot of time wondering whether I can pull off her fishtail brow. (The answer is no. No, I can't.)
Now, you may notice that there are a handful of ANTM: British Invasion contestants in this list, but I assure you that this is not favoritism, even though I happen to be British (a stunning coincidence!). Alisha, one of the Brits who "invaded" ANTM in Cycle 18 (they were invited, but sure), is one of my favorites to ever grace the series. I mean, who could forget her turn as a music video star in the ill-thought-out "We'll Mash You Up"?
Shei was another bright spot of the dark period between cycles 21 and 23—quite literally, a bright spot, because Tyra dyed the right side of her head (and only that side) platinum blonde. Shei has since decided that she doesn't want to model and is now an artist, and also unfortunately was jailed briefly for jumping over a subway turnstile in New York. Oh, well.
While we're talking about overlooked Brits during the Invasion cycle, I'd like to bring to your attention Sophie Sumner, who beat out Laura to take the crown. Even though Tyra dyed Sophie's hair the color of cotton candy and forced her to sing the aforementioned "We'll Mash You Up," Sophie still came out on top, even when competing against those pesky Americans. (Fun fact: She's friends with Emma Watson!)
Okay, yes, I've said a lot of things about cycles 21 through to 23 that I can't take back, but I cannot regret watching them because they brought me Will Jardell. Will, a 6''5 stunner with the whitest teeth you ever did see, was the adorable runner-up in cycle 21, and then became one-half of the Backpacking Boyfriends, whose website says they've been documenting their travels since 2014. "There are hundreds of other countries to visit and [Will] cannot wait to experience them all with James by his side," reads said website, and if you'll excuse me, I'll be in a corner crying because Will's happiness is all I've ever wanted.
Yes, Amanda and Michelle were two wildly different people, but you know as well as I do that they will go down in ANTM history as The Twins—Michelle edgy but nonchalant, Amanda a weaker model but with The Fire to Succeed (I'm quoting Tyra). It was all very Shakespearean! I can't remember who won the season, but I'll never forget The Twins!
You may remember Michelle as the Model With The Flesh-Eating Virus (which was actually a run-of-the-mill and not at all contagious skin condition), but I think she deserved more. Even though Tyra dyed her hair a loud shade of blonde and forced her to pose in a coffin (and don't even get me started on the blackface shoot in the fourth cycle), Michelle powered through, flesh-eating disease or not. (Not, as it turned out.)
Sadly, nobody has ever asked me to judge an episode of Top Model (Tyra: I'm available!), but if they had, I would have told Raina she was the single best contestant on the series, and then I would have told her to run. Raina got a lot of flak on the show ("Oh my lanta!"), but she's a living, breathing ray of sunshine, and have you seen her eyebrows? How could she not win? How? Oh, my lanta, indeed.
Allison was the only model to escape Tyra's ill-fated All Stars season with her dignity intact. Initially known (before her Top Model fame) on 4chan as Creepy Chan, thanks to some pretty creepy photos that became memes, Allison made even the tackiest challenges look classy—remember when Tyra made her sing a song about her deceased father and include the line, "Pot Ledom, it's Top Model spelled backwards"?—and handled her two runner-up spots with grace.
Now, if someone shaved all my hair off, I would look like an egg, but Bianca managed to pull it off. Known for her bold personality, Bianca divided viewers—was she a bully, or was she just straight-talking?—but she was rightly named an All-Star for Cycle 17. Things went downhill a little when she was arrested for her part in a fight after filming, but she's now a teacher in New York City, and has been dubbed a "teacher bae" by ~the kids~.
Cassandra did not deserve what happened to her on Top Model, i.e. being abruptly cut from the show after refusing to cut her hair not once, but twice (she was a pageant queen! Give her a break, Tyra!). Fortunately, her hair grew back out, and she even landed a guest spot on One Tree Hill as a Sophia Bush lookalike.
Okay, yes, I've included yet another British contestant from the British Invasion cycle, but Annaliese belongs on this list. Cycle 18 was around the time the model bootcamp took a turn towards Branding, and Annaliese was a walking, talking, glowing brand. (She was an okay model, too, but that girl was born to present The Great British Bake Off.) A special shoutout goes to her appearance in "We'll Mash You Up."
Surely you didn't think that I would leave Tiffany Richardson off this list? Thanks to Tyra's cycle four outburst ("WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU"), a completely unwarranted screech of anguish aimed, for some reason, at Tiffany, Tiffany is Top Model. She's the star of the most iconic moment in Top Model history. She belongs in the Hall of Fame of reality TV history. You've probably used the GIF at least once. Tiffany, we all owe you.
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