Since time immemorial or at least since Kelly betrayed Sue back on the first season of Survivor, reality TV has positioned women, be they aspiring models, housewives or daters, as catty adversaries competing over men or for a place in the spotlight. Tears, finger-wagging and table-flipping have long been the order of the day. The feminist notion of women lifting each other up to achieve greater success for the group than they could as individuals rarely factors into the recipe for reality TV success. This makes what happened on season eight of Spike’s hit tattoo competition show, Ink Master, all the more noteworthy. On a network largely aimed at younger men and known for mixed martial arts, action movies and shows like Bar Rescue, a group of four women from the male-dominated tattoo industry banded together to destroy their male competition by producing high-quality work and staunchly championing themselves and each other in the face of sexist criticism. And, unlike almost every other alliance we see on competitive reality shows, this one held strong until the very end of the season. Wonder of wonders, the other shoe never dropped. One woman finished fourth, two others made the top three; one of whom, Ryan Ashley, became the first woman to win Ink Master.
The powers that be at Spike are no dummies. They’re trying to recapture lightning in a bottle by building a new show, Ink Master: Angels, around Ashley and fellow contestants Kelly Doty, Nikki Simpson and Gia Rose. Angels, which premieres October 3, features the four artists traveling around the US, where local tattooers will face off for the chance to tattoo head-to-head against one of the Angels. Beat her and you secure a spot on season 10 of Ink Master.
I caught up with all four Angels stars last week to ask them about what life has been like since Ink Master, how they’ve built their careers in the notoriously tight-knit (and masculine) tattoo industry and what sparked their unexpected sisterhood.
“I was really worried it would be like me reliving high school, trying to pick out where I ate lunch and that entire hell raining back down on me,” Doty, the resident wit, jokes about her time on Ink Master. She, along with the other women, says that their alliance came about organically, the result of sharing close quarters, getting up early to do their hair and makeup together and, most importantly, respecting each other’s work.
“We were each other’s support system in that environment, because it is a very difficult scenario to be in. We all definitely respected each other and found each other to be very talented, very driven women, so we identified with each other in that way,” says Simpson.
“We became friends because none of us wanted to put each other down to bring ourselves up. We became friends because we all felt we had been through similar struggles and we understood each other,” says Ashley, who cites the bond she forged with her fellow competitors as an even bigger prize than claiming the Ink Master title itself.
Lest you think their reality TV experience was all friendship bracelets and hair-braiding, nothing could be further from the truth. Simpson in particular had no qualms about going toe-to-toe with male competitors threatened by female success, despite being one of her season’s youngest competitors and a relative newcomer to the industry.
“I wasn’t there to see my work kicked down or see other people put in shitty scenarios. If I see another person who is a great artist, who has put everything they have into the competition and that person has my back, I’m going to stand up for them,” she says.