Watching reality TV can feel like one of life's guiltiest pleasures, but viewing an April 2005 episode of America's Next Top Model that featured 21-year-old Kahlen Rondot posing for a photo inside an 8-foot-deep grave hours after learning that her friend had passed away felt almost criminal.
"They would throw so many crazy photo shoots at us," Rondot tells EW in an interview on the 20 most shocking moments from ANTM history. She remembers checking her voicemails the night before one of their shoots — the brief for which had not yet been explained to the cast — and a wave of sadness that washed over her when she came across a message that would change her trajectory in the competition. "It was late at night, I was checking my voice mails and so many of my friends had left me messages like, 'Hey, why weren't you at the funeral? There were so many pictures of you in the montage.'"
Nearly 18 years later, Rondot fights back tears as she recounts the difficult day she discovered that, while she was away from home to film cycle 4, a childhood best friend died in a car accident — and she'd unknowingly missed the funeral. Later, as they made their way to the set, the cast was informed of the week's challenge: a photographer would capture them channeling the seven deadly sins while laying in graves at a real cemetery.
"I was bawling and a mess," Rondot remembers, calling the ordeal a "f---ed up coincidence." Despite her clear discomfort (she's shown, on the episode, physically doubling over in tears when the van carrying the cast arrived to the graveyard), the shoot proceeded.
UPN Kahlen's 7 Deadly Sins photoshoot on 'America's Next Top Model' cycle 4
A spokesperson for ANTM host and executive producer Tyra Banks explains that "the shoot had been planned beforehand, and, as is standard with any production of this magnitude, it would have been near impossible to pull off an entire shoot change, especially if you factor in all of the location scouting, permit requirements, etc. that go into filming a competition series."
Rondot maintains that creative director Jay Manuel was "sincere and remorseful" in his interactions with her and estimates he didn't know about her loss until he questioned her morose demeanor on set. Still, Rondot was overwhelmed, and nearly quit the competition.
"I turned around at one point and started to walk away. I thought I was going to keep walking and not come back," she says. In a small twist of good fortune, the sin Rondot portrayed for the shoot was wrath, something she easily channeled during the session. "I'm so lucky that I got wrath, because I was very angry," Rondot says. She ultimately pulled off one of the most stunningly raw photos the show has ever produced, but only because the image captured her on the brink of emotional endurance.
Rondot, who now runs Bebe Zito ice cream shops in Minneapolis, says that day left her with lingering trauma. "Even now, it brings stuff up. It was scarring," she explains, adding that the pain from Top Model played a role in worsening her alcoholism.
"Of course, yes, 100 percent. It definitely contributed," Rondot, who recently celebrated one year of sobriety in January, says, referencing the show's impact on her substance abuse struggles.
"I was going to be a model, and Tyra found me," Rondot remembers. "There are dark corners and a lot of toxicity in [the industry], and I mashed a lot of things with the PTSD and drinking. I was like, this is a way to deal with it."
She continues: "I feel like we were just pawns in this production that Tyra's putting on for everybody's enjoyment and the fact that we were characters, we weren't humans behind the character… I felt like Tyra pulled a lot more strings than we were able to know. I think she knew a lot more of what was going on than what we knew, and anybody given that kind of power, what you do with that kind of power, it reflects on your character, I feel. These people become objects and are dehumanized for enjoyment. That shows a lot about a person's character."
Hulu / Amazon Prime / CW Most shocking moments in 'America's Next Top Model' history.
A spokesperson for Banks tells EW that "there's a great number of individuals who contributed to the production of the show over its 15-year run, including a production team [and] network, with many aspects of the show falling outside Ms. Banks' purview," and urged people to "note that ANTM was a reality show contest featuring heightened aspects of real life with an element of surprise, as any reality television show does."
The statement continues: "In the editing process, there's a team of storytellers who decide which stories to tell that does not include Banks. Footage is then cut and narrowed down before Banks enters with a team of people for review. Cuts are then sent to the network and undergo a series of notes and edits before finalizing. The network has final sign-off on all episodes."
(Executive producer Ken Mok declined to comment, while representatives for producer Laura Fuest Silva and Manuel did not respond to EW's multiple requests for comment.)
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