AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL. 8 tonight, Channel 57.

"What happened to Jeffrey Sebelia?" asks New York magazine this week in a profile of the latest "Project Runway" winner not to set the fashion world on fire.

For a few months last year, "Runway" fans may have cared deeply whether Sebelia and his fellow designers were "in" or "out," but as far as most are concerned, once the Bravo show's season ends, they're all out.

As in out of sight, out of mind.

The same goes for just about every "reality" competition but Fox's "American Idol," whose record of post-show achievements now includes an honest-to-God Oscar for distant runner-up Jennifer Hudson.

Assuming, though, that you're not an "Idol"-caliber singer, your chance of achieving lasting fame and fortune via a TV competition is roughly the same as the chance that Rob and Amber will ever get the message that their 15 minutes are up, take their money and run away from the cameras.

Yet as the CW's "America's Next Top Model" begins its eighth "cycle" tonight, Tyra Banks and company have once again rounded up a bunch of women deluded enough to believe they're there to interview for a job that actually exists.

Which is, I suppose, at least half the fun.

Process, after all, is everything in "reality" television, where the ends don't really matter as long as the means are really mean.

Not being able to imagine anything much meaner than putting other people's physical flaws under a magnifying glass on television, I've never been much of a fan of "Top Model," or of Tyra's judging style, which often seems as arbitrary as Donald Trump's.

Though she does have much better hair.

(I know, I know. Mean. Because it's not like the poor guy can afford a better haircut.)

But if "Runway" intrigues me, it's because the process - the competition - is presented in such a way that even someone who doesn't know or care much about fashion can feel temporarily invested.

"Top Model," where the competitions tend to reinforce my suspicions that modeling is more grind than glamour, doesn't have much to say about creativity, so it's forced to rely even more on the clash of personalities that inevitably occurs when attention-seeking young people are thrown together.

Among tonight's standouts: a young Russian mail-order bride who defends her fortysomething husband as the man who changed her life; a midriff-baring mother of a 7-month-old whose flat tummy, if not an actual affront to nature, is one of its marvels; a young woman who'd lent her hair - a weave - to a friend and had to sew it back on her own head for the show; and a couple of plus-sized hopefuls (plus size being defined here as a size 12 or 14).

Tyra, who, whatever she weighed during the filming of the two-hour premiere, looked pretty good, nevertheless seems to have body image on her mind, remarking after one candidate's interview, "If she loves herself, then that means that I can love myself, too."

I'm not sure, though, that anyone watches a show like "Top Model" in the name of love.

Ridicule, maybe.

And, OK, I'm glad I didn't miss the girl who claimed to love Audrey Hepburn, particularly in the movie "Dinner at Tiffany's."

This season, we're told, the winner will get a $100,000 Cover Girl contract, the cover of Seventeen magazine - a far cry from Hudson's Vogue debut - and a deal with a modeling agency. Here's hoping all that's enough. *

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