Mea Shearim’s next top model? Not quite…

Exclusive: Modern-Orthodox model Esther Petrack responds to backlash following her reality TV debut.

esther petrack 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
esther petrack 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Forget everything you have heard about Esther Petrack. It’s probably not true.
The Modern-Orthodox 18- year-old, who drew fire after participating in the 15th season of “America’s Next Top Model,” told The Jerusalem Post the truth about her religious observance, that YouTube video and Tyra Banks in an interview on Monday.
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Petrack, born in Jerusalem and raised in France and the US, became famous for participating in one of America’s hottest reality shows that aired in September, but in other circles, she’s infamous for supposedly flouting Jewish tradition.
A YouTube video of Petrack’s television debut went viral in Orthodox communities around the world. The clip shows her explaining the importance of Shabbat a moment before she is heard saying she would breach the laws of Halacha. She then lifts her shirt to show a 30G bust, which very much impressed the show’s host, supermodel Tyra Banks, but upset Orthodox viewers.
The Jewish blogosphere ran with the story, portraying the aspiring model as a heretic and bad role model. Israeli media sources even reported that Petrack had once been haredi and excommunicated from Mea Shearim, where they claimed her family is from.
“Who in Mea Shearim is watching the show?” Petrack wondered. “How did they even find out about me? The video was on the Internet, which they’re not fans of, anyway.
“I’m not haredi,” Petrack said.
“It’s unfortunate if there is a herem [boycott] on me, but I’m from Katamon. I did not live in Mea Shearim.”
Petrack attended Maimonides, a Modern-Orthodox high school in the suburbs of Boston, where “modeling isn’t really on the radar,” she said. She was always the tallest and thinnest of her friends, and had dreamed of modeling, so she decided to email the show’s producers. After a rigorous audition weekend in New York, Petrack found out that she was one of 14 girls chosen to appear on America’s Next Top Model.
“Religiously, I knew it wouldn’t be the easiest thing,” Petrack said, but she tried to find “ways to work around things with the show and religion.”
The notorious YouTube video was a product of heavy editing, pieced together from “a 15- minute conversation about Shabbat and Judaism. I told them what I can do and what I can’t, what I feel comfortable doing, and what I don’t.
“The people on the show were really accommodating,” Petrack said. “They would bring me kosher food whenever the girls got catering, so I wouldn’t just have to eat salad every night.” In fact, Petrack saw keeping kosher as an advantage.
“There were times that I looked around and could honestly say my food is better than [the other contestants’]. I really am lucky the show is in LA,” because there are so many kosher restaurants in town.
Petrack also found it surprisingly easy to observe Shabbat.
“In the house, you physically don’t do that much,” she explained. “If you watch the show, you mainly see us talking and eating, because that’s all we do. We’re not even allowed to touch any of the lights, because [the crew] wants to control how they film; so there were no issues that I was going to fall because the lights were out. It’s stupid things like that, which made it turn out so I didn’t do anything [that would desecrate] Shabbat. There’s even an eruv in LA!”
As for the part of the video where she picks up her shirt, Petrack says, “That is a bathing suit! I’ve been stressing that point. I don’t really do that in the middle of the street.” She added that although “the show is less [within] the realms of tzniut (modesty) than I’m used to, I didn’t grow up wearing stockings, skirts that hit my calves and three-quarter length shirts.
“When I went on the show, I was so nervous about coming home, and what people would think, that I was scared to let loose,” Petrack explained. “Part of the reason I went home [at the end of the eighth episode] was because I was psyching myself out and not letting myself give 100 percent, even though I was really invested in the show.”
The backlash was worse than she’d imagined. “Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid, but it really was a bit harsh,” she said.
She was most hurt by the public criticism from people that she knew growing up. “It’s weird, because these people used to like me and think I was a great kid,” Petrack said, “but all of a sudden, they think I’m just this evil, awful person,” she bemoaned.
Petrack is currently enjoying a gap year in Jerusalem, where she is studying at Hebrew University.
She is often recognized by other students on year-long programs in Israel. “Guys always say their friend made them watch the show,” she said, laughing, “and girls always want to know what Tyra is like, and if I got free clothes. Seminary girls love me!” To answer her female fans’ questions, Petrack said: “Tyra was actually really nice and helps us a lot. She gave great advice, and knows how to bring out your best” in photo-shoots.
The only article of clothing Petrack was allowed to keep was a one-piece bathing suit she wore for a shoot, but she did win a CoverGirl makeup shopping spree on one episode.
Though she didn’t win the grand prize – appearing on the cover of Italian Vogue – this is probably not the last we’ve seen of Esther Petrack. She plans to pursue modeling when she returns to the US next year for college and hopes to find some work posing in Israel as well.