Pretty hurts on reality TV, or at least it can hurt your chances of winning if that's all you've got.
"Resting on pretty" is a dreaded critique that's occasionally trotted out on competitive reality shows that take aesthetics into consideration, like (the recently canceled) America's Next Top Model or RuPaul's Drag Race (which returns to Logo with a new season on March 7). If a contestant on either of these series is told that she or he is "resting on pretty," it means that person is allegedly leveraging normatively attractive physical features in order to sail through the competition.
In a word, the idiom is perfect. In two words, bizarrely perfect. I could go on and on about how, in only three words, the phrase perfectly distills the notion of a person's hubristic reliance on socially exalted physical traits with such stunning simplicity. I could argue that it critiques older, oppressive beauty ideals, and that its rise to prominence in the medium of reality TV both informs and is informed by a continued destabilization of the hegemonic beauty industries that have historically propagated those ideals. I could wax poetic on how its embrace by Tyra Banks and RuPaul, two fashion icons who spur subversion from within the system, is telling of all of the above.
But, like, offer me a book deal first! Besides, such a deep dive ignores the airtight Ziploc bag of pearls floating on the surface of the water. It ignores how fun and accurate and satisfying it is to say that someone you hate is "resting on pretty." That awful CrossFit bro at work who keeps getting promoted in spite of his mediocrity? He's resting on pretty. That Disney Channel star who releases single after vocally dubious single? She's resting on pretty. Resting on pretty. Resting on pretty. Resting on pretty. The saying slips so seamlessly into the vernacular that it's kind of hard to believe that "resting on pretty" likely didn't exist, linguistically speaking, before 2004.
"I think Amanda's resting on pretty," Tyra Banks says of an aspiring model's less-than-impressive beauty shot during an episode of America's Next Top Model. "She needs to step up her game or else she'll go bye-bye."
Amanda, the young mother from
Season Cycle 3 whose vision was slowly degenerating, had been a frontrunner in the competition ever since Banks gave her a drastic, icy blonde makeover. But by episode 8, the hype around her had stalled. Was Amanda just having a bad week, or had her trio of white beauty signifiers (blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin) obscured a bunch of bad weeks prior? Either way, Tyra decided, Amanda was "resting on pretty."
And thus, "resting on pretty" was born.
I'm not sure if Tyra Banks formulated the critique on the spot or if "resting on pretty" is something she had been saying off-camera for years. (A representative for Tyra Banks did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) I, for one, am totally willing to believe that the former Victoria's Secret supermodel originated the phrase, though. I mean, this is the person who came up with "smiling with your eyes," along with its abbreviated form, "smize." It's not a leap to think that her crazy-beautiful brain was also capable of coining "resting on pretty."
That said, I did consider the possibility that "resting on pretty," like a lot of Banks' Top Model catchphrases, had roots in ball culture. There is a lot of crossover between the borders of the fashion world, the drag queendom, and the ballroom scene; the cultural osmosis is both micro (Sutan Amrull served as ANTM's makeup artist for nine years before winning the third season of Drag Race as his drag persona, Raja) and macro (note how the runway challenges on Drag Race resemble a toned-down walk-off at a ball, which in turn draw inspiration from haute couture showings on international catwalks). So by the transitive property of something or other, "resting on pretty" could hypothetically have hopped from A to B to C, eventually landing on the tip of Tyra Banks' tongue. Could "resting on pretty" have been decontextualized from its queer black and Latino roots like "fierce" and "work" before it? Totally. So, I asked someone with a foot in a couple of those worlds: Mariah Balenciaga.
Mariah is a drag queen who competed on Season 3 of RuPaul's Drag Race. In fact, she even received the dreaded "resting on pretty" critique during her run. But before competing on reality TV, the founding member of the House of Balenciaga had competed in cities across the East Coast ballroom scene for years. She was even deemed "Legendary" in her category, Drags Face, in 2006. If anyone knows pretty, she does, and she told me that "resting on pretty" had no roots in ball culture, a world where properly executing a "pretty" look is valued as a skill.
"Being pretty is not demonized or looked down upon [in that world]," Mariah, who is now based in Los Angeles, said. "There are categories for beauty, face, body—those things are celebrated. People who have a keen sense of style, whether they can afford labels or not, are celebrated in the ballroom scene… You can't be a model because you're openly gay or too short or too dark-skinned, but, in the ballroom scene, if you have the striking beauty or striking look you can walk and be considered the epitome of society."
Michelle Visage, a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race with roots in New York ball culture and nightlife, also confirmed that she'd never heard someone say "resting on pretty" back when she was learning to vogue with Willi Ninja in the late '80s. She couldn't recall ever hearing anyone say that idiom, period, even if the concept of "resting on pretty" has, obviously, been around since time immemorial.
"I don't know if 'resting on pretty' was a saying that was around before Drag Race, but it definitely was a feeling that we had before Drag Race," Visage told me. "In the clubs, there was always the pretty girl getting all the attention from boys… I was always different-looking, always had a hump on my nose. I had to work harder to get attention from boys, but really pretty girls [can just count on being pretty]. It becomes a crutch for pretty girls, and I ain't mad at that. If that's your claim to fame and that's your shit, then work it. But for me judging drag queens or [for Tyra Banks] finding America's next top supermodel, I think people want more than just a pretty face with no personality behind it."
"Resting on pretty means that we can see that [you're pretty], but we're not getting any depth," she continued. "Obviously, you're pretty. Ray Charles can see that you're pretty. But what do you have that Ray Charles can hear or feel?"
It should go without saying that the general concept behind "resting on pretty" is far from new. The reality TV critique's most obvious etymological forebear is "resting on one's laurels," an idiom that dates back to Hellenic times and refers to how athletes at the Pythian Games were given wreaths of laurel branches upon winning. The saying had a neutral, if not positive, connotation until the 19th Century, when the idea of "resting on one's laurels" began to become associated with cockiness and a presumptive lack of effort.
But to rest on one's laurels is to rest on one's achievements, and neither Tyra Banks nor RuPaul have ever criticized a contestant for "resting on achievement." In fact, the failure of "resting on pretty" lies in a person's inability to transform one's beauty into an achievement, the failure to make the abstract concrete, the failure to make a noun a verb; it's like they've won the so-called "genetic lottery" but can't be bothered to get off their ass and collect their winnings. And in a world that increasingly values the production of beauty and the labor of beauty over beauty in and of itself—a world where a 27-minute YouTube tutorial on natural brows and contouring can rack up more than a million views—that truly is a crime.
And now, thanks to Tyra Banks, RuPaul, and the bizarre meta-reality of reality television, we have a charge for that crime: resting on pretty.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.