Seany Smiles just wanted a way to pass the time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Little did he know that the online modeling game he created would spread far beyond Houston, gaining a worldwide following of thousands.
“I really never expected this,” he says. “It has been absolutely amazing to see this grow.”
Smiles, who has lived in Houston for more than five years, is the creator of Seany’s Next Top Model, an online modeling competition similar to Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model. The game, which is in its fourth season, has around 15 players (“models”) who compete in weekly photo challenges until a winner is eventually crowned.
Smiles’ own modeling and professional photography experience began when he was approached by a prominent LGBTQ photographer in Houston.
“I was honestly shocked that someone would ask me to model for them,” he recalls. “The project I was a part of was called As Is, and the photographer really did just that—he photographed all types of guys as is, regardless of how their body looked.”
The photo shoot changed his outlook about modeling, and he realized that anyone can have a positive experience as a model.
“It made me realize that you don’t have to be a perfect 10 by Hollywood standards to be a model,” he emphasizes. “I always thought in order to be a model or be in magazines, you had to be this stereotypical gorgeous, muscular man. But it turns out that is not the case at all.”
Soon after the As Is project, Smiles started exploring modeling and creative photography. That’s when ideas for creating a competitive online modeling game quickly started swirling in his head.
“I wanted to find a way to stay in a creative headspace during lockdown, and to help my friends do the same,” he says.
The first season of Seany’s Next Top Model had a more casual feel to it, with Smiles mainly casting Houston locals and a few online friends. By the third season, however, the photo challenges became more advanced as the overall competition structure became more regimented.
“Originally, I made it so that the game was very quarantine-friendly, and all the photo challenges could be done at home without spending much money,” he says. “I obviously did that so people would have easy access to playing, and nobody was putting themselves at risk by going out in public. Now that things are mostly back to normal, though, I am no longer limited on what kind of photo challenges I give my models each season.”
When it comes to the players who participate, Smiles makes sure the casting process is open to anyone.
“I have cast people of all types of backgrounds, ages, races, gender identities, and body types,” he says. “I have even cast people with disabilities. This competition is really open to anyone and everyone, and my casting process is entirely based on a person’s commitment and the willingness to learn and grow, rather than what they look like or where they come from.”
With the competition gaining international attention and close to 3,000 members on the official Facebook page, Smiles is still in shock over how far it has come.
“I am very surprised, but very happy,” he says. “This all began as a simple idea to keep me and my friends occupied during quarantine. I never thought it would catch on the way that it has and become a widespread global sensation. Each season keeps getting bigger and better, too. I am extremely humbled.”
Smiles believes the best aspect of his competition is watching the models gain more self-confidence and loving who they are—inside and out.
“You can be a model, no matter who you are,” he says. “I personally believe everyone has an inner model just waiting to be released.”
Going forward, Smiles has plans to expand the game into a live local event featuring new and existing players who travel to Houston and do competitive photo challenges in person.
“I am really interested in doing a live version of the game,” he says. “It would basically be a whole weekend [with all the players
working on] various photo shoots around Houston. I am very curious to see how that would turn out.”
Smiles is also working to make the online viewing experience more accessible. “One of my goals is to find new ways of attracting viewers,” he says. “I would love it if I could create a YouTube channel, or just expand the game past the Facebook group so that more people have the ability to follow along and celebrate the photos my models create.”
As the recently crowned Mr. Gay Pride Houston 2021, Smiles is positively impacting both the Houston community and communities across the world with his online modeling game.
“The most beautiful thing about all of this is that I have created a unique platform that empowers people of all backgrounds to break out of their comfort zone and release their inner model,” he says. “I am so grateful that the game has such a positive impact on players and viewers alike.”
To learn more about Seany’s Next Top Model, go to the official Facebook page at facebook.com/groups/seanys.next.top.model.
Take a look at some of Seany Smiles’ favorite photos from the past four cycles of Seany’s Next Top Model below:
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.