As soon as I hear that raspy voice on the other end of the call, I’m immediately transported back to 2003, watching Tyra Banks introduce her makeup artist Jay Manuel in the third episode of America’s Next Top Model. Contestant Nicole Panatotoni was having a minor freak-out after Manuel threatened to take out her brand new $1500 hair extensions as part of the show’s very first makeover sequence. “Whether you like it or not, you need to do what’s good for your career, not necessarily what you like,” Manuel told Panattoni, in his first utterance on the show. (She would be eliminated later in the episode.) This would go on to be Manuel’s signature: Tell it like it is, but with authority. Never bite.
Manuel would stay with the series as the show’s Creative Director for 18 seasons… or, er, cycles, per the ANTM nomenclature. He would become a familiar face and voice amongst the show’s revolving door of contestants and judges until reports that he was fired by Banks in 2012 (we’ll clear that up below). He went on to host Canada’s Next Top Model as well as serve as a Fashion Correspondent for E!. In 2014 he became the founder and CEO of Jay Manuel Beauty.
Now he’s gearing up for the release of his first book The Wig, The Bitch & The Meltdown, a novel loosely inspired by his time on Top Model. Below, we chat with Manuel about the similarities between Tyra Banks and the book’s ruthless supermodel boss Keisha Kash, Top Model memories and his thoughts on the show being scrutinized through a 2020 lens.
Jay, it’s an honor and a pleasure! We hear about the hard parts of writing one’s first book all of the time. Tell me about one of the unexpectedly easy parts of this process.
I think the writing process itself. People talked about writer’s block and getting stuck, but oh my gosh it was the opposite for me. I couldn’t wait to get to my desk in the morning and I would go all day. I would literally look insane by the end of the day. I found this place of joy that I’ve not experienced in such a whole way. My life has been a world of working in collaboration with some incredible creative visionaries and when you sit and you’re creating something by yourself it’s very isolating, it can be scary, but I found myself in a weird way and that is the best part of this journey for me and what became the hurdle was more of the taking it out there and people looking at this and saying, “You’re breaking convention” or, “We don’t want to distort the world of fiction writing and blur that line.”
And then there were more overt suggestions made like, “Oh, have you ever thought maybe you should make Keisha white?” And this is someone who professed “I’m not racist” because I told them that I was horrified they were saying this to me. And they said, “Oh no, you just don’t want people to think that Keisha is Tyra.” And I said, “Okay well did anyone go to [The Devil Wears Prada author] Lauren Weissenberger and say ‘Wow, Miranda Preistley… I think you need to make her Chinese or Spanish or Black because you don’t want them to think it’s Anna Wintour.” I found this double standard thrust at me after I completed the work. That to me was the struggle, and the writing was the joy.
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The book features a Jay Manuel-esque character, Pablo Michaels, and a Tyra Banks-esque character, Keisha Kash. Is that a fair characterization?
I mean… [sighs] partly. Keisha and Pablo are absolutely inspired by Tyra and I and in some ways, sure. I’m not even going to deny that. But a lot of it is not us. For instance my character Pablo is on antidepressants; I’ve never taken antidepressants. There are a lot of things that are not true but rather part of the character. And really when I was in the writing process, even in the first draft, I saw the characters and and not the people they are inspired by, which is really important to note because finding that line of delineation was important. What I look at as a similarity, which was very important to me, was to point out the career pressures of this Black supermodel which I know Tyra faced. And I watched her struggle with that because here you’re working in a world that’s run predominantly by white men that celebrates white aesthetics and here you’re in this pressure cooker of a world and really she forged a career where she becomes this diamond, but in the case of my book, a flawed one. And so there are similarities but in terms of what’s happening narrative-wise my book is not a Roman à clef. This is not just me switching names.
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people were expecting to get a Ladies Who Punch-type account of your experience on America’s Next Top Model. And this book certainly has shades of that. But what made you ultimately opt for satire as opposed to a tell-all?
Because — and I said it in my acknowledgements, I kind of used that page as a way to make a statement — I wanted to do as Shakespeare was so brilliant at and share my pain through comedy. It really forces us to look at ourselves and ask how we can be more humane to one another. The core themes to the book are the cost of fame, power struggles in the workplace, and looking at how the entertainment industry deals with intersectionality and Black women’s identities. I was writing this well before 2020 and now these are the conversations that we are having, but it’s always been there. And it was important to use satire because stories of substance always get overlooked for viral sensation and I felt like it was important to have this fun, crazy, salacious story with these deeper discussions and core themes buried beneath.
Let’s talk Top Model. The show became increasingly campy throughout its cycles, but in the beginning, particularly cycle one, the show was an earnest attempt to reveal the realities of working as a model. What was it like working on that first cycle and establishing all of the tropes people have come to know and love the show for?
Cycle one was a really great experience because we didn’t know 100% that the show was even going to be around for a season two let alone become this global phenomenon. I remember Tyra even saying, “Oh we’ll be lucky if we even do one other season.” In the beginning the goal was to establish what the girls would face in the fashion industry and all those early cycles definitely set-up what the girls would have to deal with. Yes, things did start to change and the show became more campy because it was so successful. And now it’s all of these different hands with opinions, like network opinions and what people wanted from the show so it was forced to change over time.
Of early Top Model, so let’s say cycles one to eight, do you have a contestant whose arc on the show is your favorite or the most memorable?
Tiffany Richardson tops the list of most memorable contestants and had one of the most difficult journeys on the show. The exit! She overcame personal issues, finally made it into the competition, and she truly worked her butt off. As for how she was eliminated, that infamous moment will remain shrouded in mystery as to why she received such a scathing dressing down
Well let’s get into that i-con-ique “Be Quiet Tiffany” Tyra monologue, because it’s one of those moments that’s transcended the show and become part of the zeitgeist. What do you recall from that day?
I had come to the judging set for a meeting and I was actually at that judging, and when that whole moment went down the entire room… the energy was palpable. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Everybody was freaked out. I know I’ve spoken to Nigel [Barker] about it several times. For him, even if he sees that moment played, it’s a little moment of PTSD. And even for me. I’ve known Tyra and worked with her well before Top Model. We were friends. This is someone who would stay at my home and we’d hang out. And I have never experienced that kind of energy. And of course what we see on air is edited. And that moment was a lot worse than what people see. And it was very, very difficult to experience for sure.
Do you have a favorite photoshoot concept?
Cycle five I loved the photoshoot called “Modern Interpretations of Classic Art.” This seemed like a very real editorial that fashion magazines would do. It gave the girls a taste of how clients may push them to bring something fresh to the table. But there are so many that I love. There’s actually two runways that I thought would be impossible to pull off: the walking on water in South Africa and also when we were in Amsterdam and we did the pink Willy Wonka runway.
And of course there is one photoshoot that’s gotten caught up in a bit of controversy lately but we really didn’t know at the time and I can tell the truth on that. It was the “Seven Deadly Sins” shoot in cycle four. That whole shoot was planned well before production. And I loved that concept because I knew we were going to have seven girls and I just wanted to really have them embody these sins. And of course the challenge factor: they were in a coffin at the bottom of the grave. And the controversy is that we made Kahlen do this shoot right after she found out that her friend had died at home. We did not know. That was not a thing that production knew. It came up that day. But the way it airs people think we make up these photoshoots on the fly. But then what’s really ironic is she does the shoot and her and Naima who won that season had the best photos that week. That was definitely one of my favorite shoots.
You and Nigel both left the series after cycle 18 in 2011, and let’s keep it 100: the show suffered in your absence. What can you divulge about your exit?
Basically what really went down but we couldn’t at the time talk about based on how our contracts were written, was that our contract renewal came up as it did every four cycles. And so when it was time to renew for cycles 17-20 I felt like I could not see the show through to cycle 20 due to other commitments. And so we went back and forth and it went right down to the wire as it always is in showbiz and we agreed on doing two more cycles.
So when I finished cycle 18 I knew that was my last cycle. There was a wrap party, it was very positive. But I was not allowed to talk about it because the show wasn’t set to air until the following spring. Then the following spring we all got on a conference call and it was discussed that we would put out a joint press release because the show was going in a new direction that meant Miss Jay and Nigel both would no longer be a part of the show. Then it leaked — and I’m going to put that in big quotation marks — that we were all fired, which is just not the truth, but I couldn’t say anything. It was just very messy and it was really poorly handled because of the dedication and time that we had all put into that show. And really part of the decision for that big change was financial at the time. CoverGirl was no longer a part of the show and they were the biggest sponsor, so as a result they had to really shrink the budget. But it was really weird hearing these rumors everywhere I went saying I was fired and I had left the show the previous fall. It’s unfortunately that everything had to go down that way.
The show and more specifically Tyra have been the center of a lot of discussions online, with particular clips from the show resurfacing that do not stand the test of time. One example is Danielle, the winner of cycle six, being told she needed to close the gap in her teeth. One argument I’ve seen in defense of the show is that it was showing the reality of life as a working model. Do you have any thoughts on that or any regrets?
I think nobody expected this pandemic obviously, and I think people are really searching for a piece of nostalgia and therefore wanted to rewatch the show, because it really did become one of the top binge watched shows on Amazon Prime and Hulu and now you’ve got this younger generation discovering the show and watching it through a different lens.
With a lot of the decisions and the controversies that has come up recently, these are things that Tyra has addressed several times and she’s even admitted several times that there are decisions that she’s not proud of because ultimately as the executive producer, host and creator of the show she has to stand by it — which is very honorable. There are certain decisions that people will bring up and say that it was a different time and I might argue that I disagree. I think some things should never have been put on air.
Of all the celebs you’ve done makeup for, who has been the nicest?
Like, it was a dream of mine when I was a teenager and I didn’t want to know, or rather acknowledge how much I wanted to be a part of the fashion world. But my walls in my room were papered with fashion ads and I remember looking at the Calvin Klein ad and thinking “If I could work with Herb Ritts one day.” And I got to work with him. And Richard Avedon. And [Francesco] Scavullo. Those were the dreams. And I didn’t know I’d get into makeup artistry. And I remember the first day I was called to work with Jennifer Lopez. I had to get her ready at the Four Seasons in New York and I remember walking into her room, her assistant opened the door, and then I walked into her bedroom in the penthouse suite and Oribe was there prepping hair pieces for her. And the penthouse suite has these huge windows and the sun was gleaming in the windows. She’d just come out of the shower. She was in a robe. She was laying on the bed, her hair wet, perfect glistening skin. That was a movie moment for me. Because usually when you meet a lot of celebrities they’re just rolling in in sweats, but J. Lo was the opposite. And we really hit it off and I to this day consider her the Jackie O. of today. She’s an incredible human being, talented and her style is off the chain amazing. I live for her.
Say this book were to become a film, who would you want to cast as Pablo and Keisha?
I shot a one-minute moodscape trailer as a peek into what the world could look like and I used the actress Nichole Galicia and she’s the perfect Keisha for me. And for Pablo… hmmm… you’re catching me on the spot with this… but you know someone who could really go through the journey of this character is Riz Ahmed.
I want to thank you so much for your time, and I just want to say as a baby gay watching you and Miss Jay and all the fabulous queers on this show strut about and be fabulous, you inspired me and so many more both in and out of this industry.
I certainly didn’t set out to do that, but gosh that means a lot. I am just a product of my upbringing. I was just being me, trying to do the best I could for these young women and this show, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to just be myself on television at that time.
The Wig, The Bitch & The Meltdown is out August 3
Welcome to “Wear Me Out,” a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he’ll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Photo courtesy of Jay Manuel