America’s Next Top Model was thrust back into the headlines last week after a melee erupted during tryouts for the show’s 13th cycle in New York City. There were three arrests, six people hospitalized with injuries, numerous cries of foul, and finally a statement from the show’s star and executive producer Tyra Banks, saying that she and her producers are “doing everything we can” to audition “all the girls” who were dispersed by police and didn’t get a chance to audition.
According to reports, the problem broke out when people waiting in line yelled “fire” and “there’s a bomb. People panicked, and since producers apparently didn’t notify the NYPD of the audition, there weren’t enough police to control the frenzied crowd. “If you’re going to have an event where there’s the remotest chance that the crowd is going to be bigger than you expect … call the precinct and make sure they know,” says NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
It wasn’t the sort of attention the show expected after a recent announcement it would allow women 5’ 7” and shorter to audition for the first time. But ANTM is a show about women who want to be noticed, sometimes desperately. While the violence was unfortunate, the show itself has broken quite a few boundaries, too. The previous cycle included transgender contestant Isis King, as well as plus-sized girls; this season featured a girl with epilepsy, and then of course there are Next Top Model’s openly gay panelists, Jay Alexander and Jay Manuel, who have emerged with Banks as stars and role models
While the country has spent years embroiled in heated debates about the rights of homosexuals, veteran makeup artist Manuel and the cross-dressing runway expert Alexander, aka Miss J, have carved out places on prime time without eliciting any shock or protest. In fact, the opposite is true. “It’s something I’m very proud of,” says Manuel, 36, who directs the show’s photo shoots. Born in Toronto, Manuel started out as a pre-med student and worked for the Metropolitan Opera before becoming a full-time makeup artist. In addition to Banks, he has worked with Iman, Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Lopez plus famed photographers Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon.
Alexander, born and raised in the South Bronx, was 16 years old when he first met Banks backstage at a runway show in New York. Soon he began giving her walking lessons. While dressed in drag, something he began doing to get into clubs, he was befriended by the head of Elite Models and soon found himself modeling for design Jean Paul Gautier. By the early ‘90s, he was a sought-after modeling coach, working with Kimora Lee Simmons and Naomi Campbell, among others. Now he commutes between his home in Paris and L.A., and laughs at the outrageous character he’s created. “I just say what’s on my mind and on my tongue,” he says. “I’m not a yes man. “If people don’t like it, I say, well, honey, I’m on TV looking outrageous –what do you expect?”
We caught up with the two J’s – Manuel and Alexander – right before America’s Next Top Model began it’s latest season. Though pressed for time, both were open, warm and funny – and a darn good time.
To let our readers know we mean business, let’s start with the most intimate of details. What’s your take on underwear? Is it necessary?
Jay Manuel: every model’s survival kit should always include a pair of heels and a nude thong. You need a nude thong. I think it’s essential. Yes, I think you should at least have that with you at all times.
Miss J: Yes. Each girl should have a nude thong in her bag – and one on her ass. A girl needs those things. Also, always take a backup. You never know when you could use an extra one. They should have one in flesh tone, and one in white. For black girls, if you can’t get it in the right color, dip it in coffee, tea, or brown dye.
Why does America’s Next Top Model work? What’s the secret to its success?
Jay Manuel: Well I can’t tell you the secret, but I can tell you why I think it’s a success with the audiences!
Fashion magazines were supposed to be that bridge between what happens on the runways in New York, Paris and Milan and the consumer. But magazines started getting very competitive, and as much as I love them and the high art form, it ended up being too far beyond the everyday person. It felt very elitist. It was hard to belong there.
America’s Next Top Model, though, became that aspirational thing for the everyday person. It made fashion real and more relatable. Remember, we’re not just shedding light on what makes a great top model, but the industry as a whole.
Then there’s that whole Cinderella fantasy that everybody has. And that’s really what this show is about. Models really do come from everywhere. You find them at the Dairy Queen, Burger King, and they are propelled into this high paced fast world of glamour. It’s something that everyone dreams about and wants to be a part of.
What do you think about the way your show has handled some big topics – like body issues, gay and transgender roles, for instance Isis?
Jay Manuel: A lot of people see transgender and they say wow, that’s bold. I tip my hat to Tyra. That was a big issue to tackle. Whether the public or the press either like or dislike something, she ends up being at the helm of the show having to take the heat. She stood behind it 150%. It’s a very real part of this industry. I mean, everybody forgets…I’m surprised no one has written about this, honestly.
We talk about Miss J, who is really funny. I love him dearly. He doesn’t walk around in a dress and heels on a day to day basis. He’s actually kind of a normal sneakers and jeans guy, but he did pave his way into this industry cross dressing and actually walking the major runways for Valentino and Jean Paul Gautier. And that, I mean, even though he’s not transgender, he’s definitely male, that just shows you kind of how the industry accepts that kind of culture and always has.
So I think it was a very real story to tell and bring forward. I think that it’s something that I am very proud of. People need to understand how open this industry is. I always say that this is the industry of misfits. You think of some of the creative geniuses like Karl Lagerfeld to John Galliano – even Tyra, myself… we were all these creative, kind of odd people in high school and this is our life and our business. That’s what this business is made up of; there are a lot of people like that.
Miss Jay, you are such an important figure on television, in that you represent courage and hope to so many.
Miss J: For the gay, lesbian and transgendered people, of course, because I’m being who I am on television and that helps. Lets face it, you have a lot of people who would just love to be themselves. I think Top Model allows girls to try to be themselves, but try to be someone different, as well. If that makes sense.
In what sense do you mean trying to be someone different?
Miss J: Because you have to be in character. You have to convey what the client wants, or what the designer wants. So you have to do a little bit of you and be able to add a bit of a character into it to be in this industry.
Going back to the beginning of your “character,” you starting cross dressing in your teens growing up in the South Bronx, which is a pretty bold thing to be doing at that age and in that neighborhood. What inspired you and gave you the courage to do that?
Miss J: I was running around in drag because I wanted to get into clubs. It was all about doing something outrageous in order to get noticed in a crowd of people and get into a club. Then that graduated to a little bit more drag couture. I’d look through the magazines, or even a movie like Mahogony, and I’d get so inspired. And then I just took it and went to the end of the earth with it. To me, it was just being me. It was me just being crazy. That was just my personality.
So this was just a nighttime persona you’d adopted, you didn’t go out during the day looking like that?
Miss J: No, no, no, it was just for going out and having a good time. It was about being a club personality. I wasn’t going out in the daytime in tulle and taffeta, eyelashes and chignons and flowers in the hair. It wasn’t that. I’d be running around in jeans, a t-shirt, and shoes…whatever.
It was around that time that you first met Tyra, right? How exactly did you meet her and what were your first impressions?
Miss J: I had no impressions. She was just another one of the girls who was backstage at a fashion show. I was there helping out, giving the girls tips on how to walk down the catwalk, and I was making fun of them. I was making fun of girls with bad walks and I’d name the girl and name the walk. I’d be saying ‘be strong here, don’t do this in this dress, walk like this,’ you know just giving free advice backstage. I was actually watching the fashion shows and thinking wow, if I was here I would know how to walk in the dress.
What did you think of Tyra’s walk when you first met her?
Miss J: She was quite strong but in the meantime she was all over the place. She was just giving me the Tyra stomp. So I said ‘you need to be more confidant here, less confident there,’ and it worked. I mean, look at both of us today.
How has your relationship evolved since then? Are you guys very close?
Miss J: Tyra and I are very close only when I’m sitting next to her in judging. That’s because she sits right next to me. That’s how we’re close! [laughing] Once the show is finished I go home. They live in the US, I don’t live in the US. So the friendship is really maintained just through email and the phone.
Jay, a moment ago you referred to yourself and Tyra and misfits. Do you still see yourself as a misfit?
Jay Manuel: When I say misfit I don’t mean it in the negative sense of the word. You know how the norm is, people think oh it’s Friday night, I’ve got to go out. Nothing wrong with that. But I’m personally not that person. I was the kid in the photography club on Friday and Saturday nights.
My parents really supported that creative side of me. One Christmas, they bought me an enlarger, used. At the time there was no way to hand print everything for photos. I would be doing these photo shoots. I have them all still today. I would do these shoots and set these set-ups. I’d take these photos and be developing my film and I was just so driven to that. I wasn’t doing the kind of normal thing that everyone else was doing, like hanging out.
And still today I’m kind of like that. Tyra calls me the hermit. I work so much that when I have a moment I’m the one sitting at home, or I have a house in Upstate New York and I go hiking or something like that. Tyra’s gone with me and we go up, we sleep in, and we’re like so removed from what people think we’re doing, which is like hob-nobbing and rolling around and trying to be glamorous. We do that for work! It’s hysterical. Last time we were up there she was sitting up there in her pajamas and her robe and we ate breakfast and were talking until 3 in the afternoon before we even took a shower.
I’d love to see photos of that.
Oh no we don’t take photos on those trips!
You were on the pre-med track and then you broke into the world of fashion. How did that happen?
Jay Manuel: I am fascinated with the world of science. I was on that track. But if you went back in time to Jay Manuel studying in his room as a kid and you looked at my wall you wouldn’t find music posters or the typical teenage things. You would have seen every fashion ad possible. Even Saks Fifth Avenue ads. I didn’t know what Saks was; I just knew I liked it.
Luckily, I realized early on that that was my true passion. To be honest, I came to that realization in the middle of a calculus exam. I was sitting there kind of contemplating my life and thinking of this trip I was going to take to New York. I was so excited about going to New York, and I thought hey, you should be thinking about this calculus exam that’s being graded on a curve.’ But I wasn’t And I just realized if that’s where my mind was, then that’s where my true passion was, too. And I followed my heart straight into fashion.
That’s really my message to all those out there. That’s why I love being a part of this show. This industry is a viable industry, and there are so many options where you can truly be a success and have a life. Everyone thinks, when you’re a kid in school, they teach you to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, and those are great career paths, but you can also be a creative director, a hairdresser, a makeup artist, a model. This business affords many opportunities for those who don’t fit the traditional doctor-lawyer tract. That’s really the message.
Back to Miss J. You’re known for putting together some pretty crazy outfits and looks. Have the producers of Top Model ever told you to tone down an outfit
Miss J: First of all, no. What are we now, in cycle 3,212? Never ever ever have they said anything about me having to tone it down.
Number two, no one ever knows what I’m going to wear until I show up on set. They usually don’t even know what it is that I’m doing until, normally around the 4th judging when they go wait a minute, his hair is growing! Or, wait a minute, that corsage is getting bigger! Then wait a minute, is the collar getting lower? Oh Lord, what is Miss J. doing now?
Right, like the necklaces with the numbers from last cycle. Are they coming back?
Miss J: No, the numbers aren’t coming back this cycle. This cycle is all about the neck area. I’m very Ivy League and clean cut. I look like I’m 12-years-old. I’ll let you pay attention to that one.
Is there any one outfit that you look back on as the most outrageous, or the one you had the most fun with?
Miss J: I think the most fun was the Afro. That was the most hysterical for most people. It was heavy and I didn’t think about it in the heat. It was like Jesus, what was I thinking? That was a doozie. I’m my own worst enemy.
So what happens when the cameras stop rolling? Do you shed all of the layers of this character? Back in jeans?
Miss J: I’m back in jeans, a good shoe, and a bag. I’ve got a little Louis on the wrist and a nice leather bag. That’s work, but the personality is the same. It’s all about style and presentation and attitude and character.
Jay, on the past seasons have there been any contestants that you’ve really just disliked or not clicked with? And if so, why? Last season you had a lot of trouble getting Elina to let go…
Jay Manuel: You know I can honestly tell you throughout all the seasons, there’s nobody that I’ve disliked. This is a journey. When I’m working with the girls it’s a professional environment. I’m there to push them to be the best that they can be. That is my role on the show. My job is to make sure that each and every one of those girls walk into judging with the very best of what they can produce. I don’t stray from that line. I’m not there to say who do I like or who do I dislike? I don’t even think of it in terms of that.
Some girls need, their personalities kind of dictate, someone to hold their hand a little bit more.
Jay Manuel: Well Elina. You remember when we did the whole photoshoot which was based on the Fiercee Awards and all the unusual moments you don’t see around awards shows. That moment that I had with her on stage where she was supposed to be accepting an award and crying? That was a very real moment. I don’t think of taping a television show, I’m there to work. At that moment I’m there to empower these girls. Yes she would hold back her emotions so I just wanted to get to the bottom of that. Why is it that she feels she needs to put up this wall? For me it wasn’t about pushing or yelling or agitating her, it was just like why is this? What’s the root of this of not feeling good enough? Who told you this? Where did it come from? That was a real moment.
Afterwards everyone was like that was great, it was smart. I was like no, actually I was really there for her. Whereas other girls, they just need a push and a shove. I could go all the way back to cycle 3, you know, Anne. A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘Oh wow, you really hated Anne.’ And said, ‘No I didn’t!’ Anne and I got along and laughed a lot. She’s the type of personality that you have to push and shove her to get her to do her best. She’s one of those contestants even from cycles ago that I still talk to on a somewhat regular basis. She’s a successful model now, and I love her personality. So, it’s just how we deal with the girls on set. You have to suss out what’s going to help them be successful.
What’s your tip for a fierce walk for normal girls who don’t know anything?
Miss J: To teach a girl to walk down the street is not the same as walking down the catwalk. It’s not just about what you need, I want you to be sexy, I want you to be soft, masculine, strong, that’s what I teach. I don’t teach people how to walk to the office. People are like How do I walk to the bus? Well you just walk. Although some girls walk a little bit slumped over like a fladunkasaurus.
Miss, J, what exactly is a fladunkasaurus?
Miss J: A fladunkasaurs was some sort of mammal. What I think happened is some models were flying to an exotic island for a meeting, and the plane crashed and the survivors started breeding on the island. Then they developed a way of walking that made them all fladunkasauruses.
Have there been any that you recall from the show?
Miss J: There was one from cycle 200, 900. Lauren was scary. Then maybe Heather in cycle 9, she’s the one who had Aspergers.
So what do you do with these girls? They walk in and they’re fladunkasauruses. What’s going through your mind?
Miss J: Give me a shot of quick Top Model fashion. A girl walks in and I immediately size her up and try to see what her problem is. When a girl walks in to casting there is something to be discovered. So I can look and go her problem is going to be she’s crossing her feet too much, or her shoulders are too small, or she has no neck. Every girl has something different. Every girl should be confident. Every girl should walk like Tyra Banks or Naomi Campbell down the catwalk.
How horrified were you by Samantha’s style last cycle?
Miss J: Samantha, the linebacker. She walked like a defensive linebacker. And because she was bow-legged she was like a corn husk of a girl. She forgot about her walk. She didn’t quite get it together.
Was there anybody who was your absolute favorite, or had the whole package when you look back at all the other cycles?
Miss J: There were some girls. I don’t know if any girl had the whole package, but maybe cycle one…that was a rough season. In cycle 7 I wasn’t going for CariDee, I was going for AJ. She was my favorite. I just liked the way she looked. She was tall, but she didn’t want it.
Why do you say that?
Miss J: You can see it, they start to falter. The girls who don’t want it, they don’t push. In judging when we find something wrong with you, you start to collapse, you start to fade. You can see they want out. You know by the third or fourth judging they don’t want it. Their sense of drive isn’t there.
A lot of them blame it on the pressure, which speaks to the profession in and of itself. If you can’t handle it on the show, how can you handle the stress of the real job?
Miss J: You’re going to be judged by more than four judges and a guest judge.
What do you think a girl needs to have in order to win this?
Miss J: Well, I want a girl to have a fairly decent body and fairly decent legs to get down the runway, someone who can turn things into fantasy, but with a bit of a reality to it. Women need to be able to see a girl who’s 37 ounces walking down the runway and believe it. These girls have to go out there and bring some element of class to it. They have to be sexy and strong but also have a simple elegance.
Why do you think Twiggy didn’t work on the show and what do you think of Paulina?
Jay Manuel: I don’t even think it’s necessarily that Twiggy didn’t work. She’s off pursuing many other things. She’s a performer. She has a book. She has theater. Paulina is such a wonderful asset to the show and as much as I love working with her, I love hanging out with her. She was one of my childhood idols. She hates when I say that. She’s such a legend within the industry and she’s hysterical. She’s very opinionated and really knows this business inside and out. Even when we’re traveling from our abroad locations I always love being on her plane because she’s a blast.
Has there been one hysterical moment you remember with her?
Jay Manuel: There is one moment. We were standing once on set a few seasons ago, it was her first season and it was when we went to Rome and we did that special judging in the airplane hanger and I was on the judging panel. I was wearing this silver velvet Dolce and Gabanna jacket and my hair is silver and that hanger was all white. We were standing there and all the white reflects on you. She said ‘your hair is very white, that jacket is so silver and your teeth are neon!’ and she said ‘are they real?’ And I go ‘what? What are you saying?’ I’ve never bleached my teeth ever, which people don’t believe, but whatever. My teeth are totally all mine. I’ve never worn braces, they’re not veneers. She was so fascinated by that. It was really kind of funny. She wouldn’t stop staring at my mouth. I went ‘alright Paulina, enough! You’re driving me nuts here!’
Speaking of your hair. When you started the show your hair was dark. What made you decide to go platinum? And how long will it stay that way? Forever? Old age?
Jay Manuel: At 65, hopefully, I won’t have to dye it at that point. My hair is black. It was always something that I’d talked to Tyra about because I’d always been fascinated by this sort of superhero look that I’d seen. She kind of told me on a dare while we were doing cycle one to color it. I said lets just finish the cycle and I’ll do it right after. I promised her and then literally two weeks after we wrapped I colored my hair and the hair colorist at the time couldn’t really achieve what I was going for. It was really always supposed to be this silver look.
Once we got it to silver then I was happy. But sometimes when we travel and we’re on location you can’t find people that color, so I do it myself. Then it starts to go a little more blonde, but its supposed to be silver all the time and I try to maintain that.
Now with the whole fashion of it being en vogue with Calvin Klein and Armani all these designers coloring these male models hair in this silvery white. Everyone always says were you at the head of the trend? And my answer is it was just my schtick, I love it, and now its kind of iconic to me and I’m not going to change it…for now, who knows. At some point, it’ll go back to its natural color.
Miss J, next season the casting has been announced for all Kate Moss types, 5’7” and smaller. Do you really think a smaller girl can battle it out with the Glamazons?
Miss J: Yeah. Those girls don’t need to be 10’ 9” and weigh 7 ounces. They can do great beauty shots. They can sell beauty products. You might be walking down the runway with taller girls, but you can still walk tall. For the clothing challenges they might have to run to Baby Gap, though. OK girls, lets go to the kids department.
Do you enjoy the makeover challenges, where you can really get in a change a girls look completely?
Miss J: Well normally Tyra sits down with the team and decides that. I’m not normally a part of the process. But we definitely know that no one is perfect, and not every makeover is perfect. Lets face it, we’re not working with perfect girls, are we now?
Well no one is perfect anyway.
Miss J: Except for me, darling. I make no mistakes. Miss J. is perfect perfect perfect.
Do you think all women should have that attitude?
Miss J: All women should carry the attitude of I’m comfortable, I’m confident, and I can accept change. Sometimes we don’t like change, but you have to accept it. Women need to think this stuff, not just models.
Men, too. I know a lot of men who aren’t nearly as confident as some women. When you’re going to go into the fashion and modeling business, you can’t be weak. People will tear you down. You have to be strong and confident.
Did you ever struggle with your self confidence?
Miss J: No, I was born with it. I know certain things aren’t perfect, but because I walk on this level and have this attitude, you don’t know that they’re not perfect, now do you?! If I didn’t have this confidence I wouldn’t be on TV talking as outrageous as I do. People have said and written horrible things about me, but that’s fine. I woke up this morning without an ache or pain and I’m fine.
Who has the best walk out of all of you?
Miss J: Don’t be silly. You know of course I have the best walk and the best legs out of all of them.