The Cycle 22 season premiere was the first episode of America’s Next Top Model I ever watched. It surprised me how much I enjoyed it. A lot of memorable moments still stick out in my head. I laughed out loud at Nyle’s jokes about Bello’s crown. Shit was definitely worth $1.99 1
But my favorite part of the episode didn’t even occur onscreen. I watched it at home, with my girlfriend and my family. During a commercial break, my dad declared to us that he was “uncomfortable” with the show. We laughed. He said he wasn’t sure if he could keep watching.
But when the show came back on, he kept watching. That was the moment that I began to realize the power of Nyle.
You see, my dad is a proud AARP cardholder. His TV diet consists of healthy amounts of HGTV and pro sports games. The skimpy bikinis and undies and the bucketloads of drama on ANTM agree with him just as much as yucky broccoli and brussels sprouts agree with a kid. But he sat in his favorite recliner and watched every minute of the episode.
Why? Nyle DiMarco.
My dad is just a tiny part of a larger phenomenon.
That same night, my friends were up at a lakeside cabin in Wisconsin. They boated over to a bar on the lake to watch the show. When they asked the middle aged bartender— who may or may not have been wearing camouflage overalls and a fishing cap with hooks on the brim— to change the channel of the only TV in the place, he was dumbfounded. A blank stare on his face.
“What do you mean, you don’t want to watch the Brewers game?”
They told him, “Our friend is on it!” Grudingly, he changed the channel.
At first, he and the two other people in the bar were just flabbergasted. But the moment Nyle introduced himself onscreen, light bulbs flashed on in their heads. The bartender looked from Nyle signing on the TV and to my friends signing at the bar. Intrigued, he asked my friends some questions. He wound up enjoying the entire show.
My dad and the lakeside bartender are only two stories of the impact that Nyle is making on ANTM. Hell, my girlfriend’s grandma, 93 years old and still going strong, watches the show. (When she saw Nyle’s photo on the local paper, she asked, “Is he wearing anything behind that?”)
I know there are countless other stories of unlikely viewers tuning in to ANTM, inspired by the Nyle phenomenon.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any novelty in what we’re seeing. We’ve all seen deaf people on TV before. Linda Bove first appeared on Sesame Street in 1977. Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar in 1987. Sean Berdy has been making pre-teens teens go gaga for four years now. Nyle isn’t even the first deaf person on a reality show— I remember one on Survivor some time ago, and I’m sure there have been others.
Look a little further and you’ll find that there is indeed something special about what Nyle is doing. He’s embracing his role as the ambassador of the deaf community. He has a chip on his shoulder and he’s kicking ass, both on the show and in the business of breaking down stereotypes. He has also stepped into the role of de facto champion of our community, spreading awareness of our culture and our language, all the while radiating a genuine pride.
In an era where technology advances and ideological disputes threaten the survival of our community, Nyle is one of the few bright spots. He’s fighting the good fight, and restoring some of my optimism in the process. Here are some of the tweets he’s sent out lately:
ASL is my native language. I don’t remember learning it, like you don’t remember how you learnt spoken English ;p https://t.co/0YRXrlnZNq
— Nyle DiMarco (@NyleDiMarco) August 25, 2015
— Nyle DiMarco (@NyleDiMarco) August 22, 2015
I hear you all right, bro.
Say what you want about reality shows—there’s too many of them, they’re obnoxious, and their content is too often fake and overdramatic. But it turns out that the reality show is the perfect medium for turning stereotypes upside down. Nyle is not playing a character onscreen. To a certain degree, there’s no script. He is himself: a deaf and proud native ASL speaker.
(And also someone who happens to have a face and body that turns people’s hearts into jelly and ramps up their, well, libido.)
He’s a runaway train, gaining steam by the minute. His damn mug hijacks my social media feeds at times.
But that’s okay. I’m enjoying the ride.
1And when one of the judges asked Alexa, “When did you develop your chest?” That just slayed me. “Develop?” He sounded like a basketball coach talking with his big man: “When did you develop your post game?” Oh man. What a marvelous euphemism.