Next Top Model. Jacqueline Smith goes behind the scenes.' />

Competition is under way for the new flock of contestants vying for the title of this year's Next Top Model. Jacqueline Smith goes behind the scenes.

Clearly nobody bothered to tell the girls what to wear. They file out of the bus pulling their jackets and cardigans tight, blowing their straightened hair from their sticky lips. Those in heels wobble on the metal drive. Quivering knees extend from miniskirts. It is no more than 10C and the Kapiti Coast wind bites.

This is Boomrock Station, a place where the land falls into the Tasman Sea and the South Island blinks in the distance.

Thirty three long-legged ladies from all over the country are here to bond, supposedly. New Zealand's Next Top Model judges Colin Mathura-Jeffree, Sara Tetro and Chris Sisarich have not joined them on the windy, early-morning trip to the countryside. But a row of production vehicles and producers scanning clipboards suggest this field trip might be as much of a chance to judge the contestants as their initial catwalk challenge was yesterday.

This year's bunch is noticeably younger than the last and could easily be mistaken for students on a class trip. Tetro later says that judges noticed a generally younger turnout at castings held in the main centres over the past few weeks. She puts it down to the influence of the previous winner, Christobelle Grierson-Ryrie, who was just 16 when she won the modelling competition.

It's Monday morning, and finalists moved into the ornate Museum Hotel on Saturday night. Yesterday they catwalked along Oriental Parade for Mathura-Jeffree. Over the course of the next five days, judges will chop the group to 13. Those who make it will be shipped to Auckland to be holed up in one of Seeby Woodhouse's North Shore mansions.

Lounging around the fireside in Boomrock's headquarters, the contestants seem to forget they are part of a competition. They chirp away about last night's television - District 9 was on Sky - and eye up the producers' mobile phones, dreaming of the floods of text messages that must await them on theirs.

Contestants are under high security and won't be able to reconnect with the outside world until they are eliminated. They sigh as they express the feelings of nakedness and vulnerability that come with not being able to access their phones, music, cameras and Facebook.

Still totally baffled as to what they are doing on a farm estate, they are split into three groups. One piles into a couple of dusty Mercedes and heads to a bunker facing the ocean.

They swoop towards the hut's brazier, like midges to a torch in the bush. Ah, so that's how you attract a model - heat.

Instructor Andre holds up a shotgun. Today they will be shooting clay birds. Cue excited faces.

"Can we wear cowboy hats?" Heidi* asks, pointing to the set hanging on the wall.

They sure can, right after they sign their lives away.

"You girls look so, like, farmish," says Naomi to those in hats. She's one of the first up, and growls at herself when she misses the first clay bird, but goes on to obliterate almost every bird after that. She's clearly loving her gun.

Behind her, is Cindy, who, like a foal, is a bewildered little thing with juicy lips and flimsy legs strapped into hoof-like shoes. I notice her stockings have turned bobbly and she has little rip in the back of the thigh.

When it's her turn, she asks to keep the shells and starts stuffing them in her pockets. Of all her group, she looks the most overwhelmed, like nothing in her life compares to flying to Wellington, staying in a five-star hotel and letting go with both barrels.

Meanwhile another group, resembling a McLeod's Daughters casting in Driza-Bones and Akubras are tossing big knives into a log. "Did you see the anger in her face?" Gisele shrieks as one feisty girl flings her weapons. The other group has been racing cars.

Back at base they devour plates of croissants and venison sausages - they are ravenous. Network producer Andrew Szusterman says his team is very conscious about portraying the healthy side of modelling.

Yes the girls are young and tiny, but they are not skeletal. Claudia says it's been the most amazing experience so far, especially eating such wonderful food.

It's much better than what Kate would be doing if she wasn't here. She works full-time in a Wellington Burger King branch. Food, exercise, clothes, lack of technology - the conversation moves in circles as they nibble, down cans of V and Diet Coke and wait for their next instruction. They are directed back outside into the bitter wind, huddling together, where they wait some more. Producers check watches, then the sky, then pace on cellphones.

Finally the throbbing whirr of blades mincing cold air signals the arrival of Tetro. There she is, waving down on her new flock from a fiery red helicopter. This is her first appearance since the auditions, and in keeping with the American format of the show, she's playing up her tyrant judge persona. "The audition got you here but it's not enough to keep you here," she says as she strides over to the group. The girls shift about, striking their best listening faces. "You have to impress me every time you see me."

With that, Tetro, her stylist and her makeup man climb back in the helicopter and buzz back to base, and the girls chug behind on the bus.

Next up, parading about in a bikini ...

Back in the hotel the contestants' bubbly girl-power has made way for the focus of gymnasts chalking their hands before a competition. They fix each other's hair, and give each other nods of approval, but there is no longer time for banal pleasantness.

"I love your boots" one says to Kate.

"I think they make me look like a drunk, really tragic girl." she says, as she tugs nervously at her outfit.

One of the clipboard holders in a puffer jacket reads out a name-poem: Tara, Lara, Chloe, Zoe, Sarah, Farrah ... are all to go back to their rooms as they are not wanted today. They slump with relieved deflation - it's like gearing yourself up for a school speech contest only to hear the bell ring, and know you will have to harbour your nerves for another day.

One by one, those remaining are summoned next door, to be scrutinised in their swimsuits by the full panel of judges. As they will learn, a great body's only half the ticket to the next round.

"Hot legs are not the only thing that's important," Tetro tells a particularly bland specimen.

Tyra is from "Roh-ru" she repeats, three times before the judges get it - oh, Rotorua. She can't bring herself to scream and she can't string a sentence together - she's crumbling with nerves. But when she gets down to her bikini, she comes alive.

Tetro is particularly excited about Claudia, a unique beauty, but it turns out she is so unconventionally pretty she doesn't know why she is there. Her friends put her up to the competition, she mumbles, hands in her pockets. She goes through the motions, bikini, pose, walk, with the understated flatness of a water cracker.

Milla on the other hand, has always wanted to be a model, and compliments herself on her unusual upturned nose. Like most of the others from Auckland, she punctuates her sentences with a question mark and extends her "r"s like they do on E! channel. She won't say who she thinks is her most dangerous rival, she thinks everyone is really beautiful, but when pushed admits the red-headed twins probably have the biggest competitive advantage - they have each other for support, and a point of difference.

So Tetro brings them out. Dunedin's tall, red-headed version of Mary-Kate and Ashley. They finish each other's sentences, and compliment one another on everything - she's better at this, she's better at that. What will they do if they are split by the competition? They turn to one another - it seems that's a prospect they haven't considered.

It will make a great TV moment.

Some of the contestants are overwhelmed by the cameras, the hot lights, the long day, the interview. They confess they are tired. They confess they don't really think they deserve to be there. "Some girls will become accustomed and some will wither," Tetro says.

Mathura-Jeffree dishes out pieces of advice - mantras for the mirror, tips for improving their stance - he wishes someone had helped him with when he started out as a model and had his confidence knocked about by the people at the top.

"But in saying that, this is the industry," he says. "You are just put out there, that's the way it is."

Asking the girls to dob each other in is not about looking for New Zealand's Next Top Snitch, but a tool to help them loosen up and stop being so considered in their answers, Tetro says. "We don't know these girls," she says. Yet in a few days time, they will have sent 20 of them packing.

Three hours of lights, cameras and bikinis and 10 girls later, no contestant stands out as the next people's favourite Ruby, or as Christobelle's successor. There's not even a clear Hosanna or Laura. But that, Tetro says, is the point. She isn't sure what she is looking for yet. "This is an open slate."

LOWDOWN
What: Sara Tetro, Colin Mathura-Jeffree and Chris Sisarich search for New Zealand's Next Top Model.
Where and when: Premieres Friday August 6, at 7.30pm on TV3.

* Note: Contestants' names have been changed. They are not all named after supermodels.