The novel, titled, “The Wig, The Bitch & The Meltdown,” published by Wordeee, will be released this on Aug. 3.
“America’s Next Top Model” has recently been in the headlines, facing criticism for out-of-touch commentary that has not aged well with viewers calling out the show for racial insensitivity and body shaming on social media, thanks to renewed interest in “Top Model,” in light of quarantine-enhanced binging on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Despite the resurgence of the “America’s Next Top Model” in the pop-culture zeitgeist — for better or for worse — Manuel, who spent 18 seasons on the series as the creative director, has been working on his novel since 2014.
“I never saw that coming. My novel has been in the works for quite some time, so this really is a surprise to me,” Manuel says about the heightened interest in “Top Model” throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Manuel’s book is inspired by his own career path and time on “America’s Next Top Model,” and takes a satirical look at the behind-the-scenes culture at a modeling competition show. Described as a cautionary tale about the seduction of fame, the novel centers around a fictional reality show, “Model Muse,” hosted by supermodel Keisha Kash, and the story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, Pablo Michaels, a young man who sets out to discover himself in the world of fashion in New York City.
“I wanted this book to entertain and that’s why I used satire, and had a lot of fun with it,” Manuel says. “All of the characters in the book took on a life of their own and were just inspired by people in my life, but we write what we know and, as they say, art imitates life — and is often larger than life.”
While the book is not an exact replica of “Top Model,” there are stark parallels. For starters, the font on the book cover mirrors the logo of the real show. Inside the book, an entire chapter, aptly titled “The Meltdown,” features the fictional host going berserk on a contestant, which Manuel confirms was inspired by the infamous, “we were rooting for you!” scene. The book also dedicates a few pages to botched makeover scenes, which Manuel suggests, “Might be more for ratings, as opposed to truly benefitting that model.”
The first-time author did not consult Banks or any former colleagues from “America’s Next Top Model” about the book, nor does he have much of a relationship with Banks, who has faced severe criticism on social media in recent weeks for resurfaced clips that have been scrutinized under the zero-tolerance lens of 2020.
“Over the past few years, we’ve emailed,” Manuel says about Banks, recalling that the last time he saw her was a run-in at BeautyCon in 2017. “To be very honest, we really have no relationship to speak of, which is really sad. Our time together on ‘ANTM’ was amazingly productive and, at times, magical. We got to experience being part of a global phenomenon.”
One moment that has been the source of widespread backlash online features Banks reprimanding a Cycle 6 contestant for choosing not to close the gap in between her teeth. “Do you really think you can have a CoverGirl contract with a gap in your mouth?” Banks asked in the episode. In the season that aired in 2006, Banks tells an African-American contestant that she needs do her job, despite the young woman sharing that a male model she was asked to kiss during a photoshoot said he didn’t like black girls. In another ill-received scene, Banks tells a lesbian model in Cycle 5 that she shouldn’t flaunt her sexuality. “I’m black and proud, but I’m not, like, walking down the red carpet [saying] ‘I’m black, I’m black,'” Banks advised.
Banks did not respond to Variety’s request for comment, in response to Manuel’s interview, and neither did the CW or CBS Television Studios, which produces “America’s Next Top Model.” (The show originally aired on the now-defunct UPN network and spent most of its life at the CW, before heading to VH1 in 2016.)
Earlier this week, Banks tweeted that she agrees with criticism regarding the show’s insensitivity. “Looking back, those were some really off choices,” Banks tweeted. “Appreciate your honest feedback and am sending so much love and virtual hugs.”
The show’s co-creator, Ken Mok, backed up Banks’ tweet and apologized to viewers, tweeting this week, “I look at some of those moments and cringe. Just a FYI – the entire creative team made the choices on those shows – not just Tyra.”
Manuel disputes Mok’s stance, telling Variety that while the team was able to voice creative concerns, all final decisions were made by Banks and Mok. He recalls times when he felt uncomfortable with creative decisions, such as the race-changing photoshoot in Cycle 4 where contestants painted their skin darker colors for a challenge on which Manuel was the creative director.
“Many times when you’re working in an environment like that, you have to listen to your executive producers, and ultimately the two voices at the top were Ken and Tyra. There were sometimes several objections by other producers and myself about layers that were added to creative, and we were just told to execute,” Manuel says. “I think it’s a little unfair to throw the whole team under the bus. The whole team wasn’t there on the front side when they were making decisions about the show in its heyday. The team wasn’t really supported, so to speak.”
In response, Mok provided a statement exclusively to Variety, saying, “As Creative Director of the photo shoots, Jay was involved in many creative decisions throughout his time with the show. However, the ultimate decisions always rested with us, the creators of the show, and we continue to take full responsibility. Jay’s artistic contributions to the show were always appreciated and ‘America’s Next Top Model’ wouldn’t have had the same initial success without him.”
Here, for the first time ever, Manuel breaks his silence about the real reason he left the show after 18 seasons. The author and TV personality also shares his thoughts on the perceived insensitivity towards “Top Model,” and discusses his upcoming novel, “The Wig, The Bitch & The Meltdown.”
You were one of the original judges on the show, and you left “America’s Next Top Model” after Cycle 18. At the time, reports suggested you were fired. Was there bad blood between you and Tyra? What was the reasoning for your departure?
When we parted ways, I had already completed my contract after Cycle 18 with no plans to return for Cycle 19, and that’s something that people don’t know. It was 100% my decision to leave the show, as I was ready to move my career in a different direction, but unfortunately at the time, my departure was misreported to the press, and contractually, I could not speak about leaving the show. Now, I can speak about it, so I can be clear that my departure from the show was one of choice.
You wanted to pursue other career goals, but was there anything about the behind-the-scenes culture on the show that caused you to depart?
My primary focus was shifting my career. But, initially when the show started, creatively, it was just a conversation between Tyra and myself. As the show grew and big sponsors came on board, everyone felt the pressure now to build the ratings, so then everyone was adding layers to these shoots and taking it away from realistic fashion challenges, which became increasingly difficult for me because I had to juggle what the sponsor wanted and what production wanted for TV ratings and also create the creative, so it just became very difficult to manage. By the time I finished with Cycle 18, there was just so much more I needed to do with my career and I wasn’t offering anything new to the show, at that point.
So, to be clear, the show wanted you to stay on and renew your contract, but you made the decision to leave?
The show would negotiate four cycles at a time, and when they came to me for Cycles 17 and 18, they actually wanted Cycles 17 through 20, and we settled on 17 and 18, but that is something that the public was not aware of, and it was misreported.
Do you think this severe backlash on social media, specifically towards Tyra, is fair?
I do think it’s a little unfair for people to persecute Tyra now, especially because she has already taken heat for her past executive decisions in past years. However, I can’t really defend her either because when ratings were high and things were great, she remained a clear figurehead, because it was her show. Consistently, when s–t hit the fan and people wanted to talk about some of the things that were said on the show, we would have another singular EP come forward to claim that all creative decisions were made as the team, and I really wish that were the case, but that just simply is not true.
You were in the room when Tyra was talking to a gay contestant in Cycle 5, and suggested she shouldn’t put a spotlight on her sexuality. What do you recall about that moment?
I was in the room, and I was sitting right next to her. I remember feeling a little uncomfortable with the statement. I could see Tyra trying to draw the parallel and what she was trying to illustrate, and I was confused by it because we ask these girls to come in the room and the producers remind the girls before they come in, “Tell them who you are. You’re not just a pretty face. You have to have a discussion about who you are.” These girls are coached to speak their truth and tell Tyra who they are, and then Tyra said that, so it seemed a bit unfair. You can see it on that model’s face, like, “Wait a minute, I was told to say everything about myself, and now you’re telling me to not say this?”
Do you recall thinking Tyra’s comment was inappropriate, during that moment?
It was confusing. That is my recollection. At the time, I had not done reality TV, and I was also learning as I went along, and I was guided by Tyra and Ken, and you have to trust your producers to follow their lead. It was a struggle to process some stuff at times.
Did you feel like that you could object to situations that made you feel uncomfortable, or was it a culture where you couldn’t speak your mind?
The culture behind the scenes of “ANTM” was something that shifted over time. That is something that is reflected in my novel. Halfway through my book, there is a very big tonal change. It became a culture where you could only speak your mind so much.
Are they any moments to which you specifically recall objecting?
I do remember, and it was very uncomfortable for me, in Cycle 4, it was a photoshoot where the girls had to swap races. I was so, so, so uncomfortable with this. I was never scripted for my intros or anything, and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to set this up — I was so afraid that I would wear this because I was the creative director, but it was not my idea. That swapped race was a layer added in. It was supposed to be a different concept. I remember that very, very clearly. I was basically told that I had to execute the creative, and it made me very uncomfortable.
What was the original concept for that shoot?
The original concept was to always do something with the girl holding the baby doll, and we knew we were going to do the Got Milk part. The layer of swapping races was something that I remember being added in a pre-production meeting. Initially, I didn’t speak up. I was slightly horrified. I’m biracial, but I grew up identifying as black. My parents grew up under Apartheid in South Africa. So, to me, with understanding our own country’s history around race, I thought, “We’re really doing this?” There were just certain people working on the show in a senior position where several producers, not just myself, became very scared to speak up. I actually brought my concern first to another co-executive producer because I was too scared to even take it up higher to an executive producer.
Some people say the episode with the race-swapping photoshoot was in 2004, and it was a different time. Of course, we knew long before 2004 that wearing blackface is not okay. Do you agree with the defense of “it was a different time?”
I disagree with that statement of people saying it was a different time. I really do. It didn’t fly then. That wasn’t cool in 2004. But, I guess the mentality, at the time, was that the show took off in a way that no one could expect, so in Cycle 4, the pressure was on to deliver bigger than even Cycle 3. The mentality was that it’s got to be bigger and it has to be the water cooler.
Another defense is that the modeling industry is tough, so you have to “just deal with it.” What is your take on that?
When “America’s Next Top Model” started off in Season 1, Tyra’s vision was to put these young models in tough situations that they would have to deal with in the fashion industry, and I think she very earnestly and honestly wanted to push that forward. I remember conversations with Tyra where she was like, “I had to do this type of photoshoot back in the day, so the girls should do that.” Girls shooting with a snake or shooting outside in a bathing suit when it’s freezing, that’s not crazy. That’s not out of the box. That’s something that would happen. If you didn’t have the budget to fly to a tropical location, you do have to shoot out in the cold in skimpy clothing. Those things, I thought were very fair.
Do you think that any of these comments would have passed by the network in 2020?
Reality TV is the birth mother of social media. Viral sensation is what leads. So often, stories of substance are sacrificed for ratings. I do believe that networks look at things differently today than they would have then. In this world of cancel culture that we live in, we see how networks response swiftly and immediately to public outcry. I do think it would have gone through a different scrutiny.
The #MeToo movement has made workplaces safer across the entertainment industry, but the fashion industry is notoriously cutthroat. We’ve seen progress towards body inclusivity, of but do you believe there’s been real change?
The industry has not changed as much as people would like to give it credit for, but I also don’t want to undermine the progress. It’s still a very difficult business. If an advertiser is looking for someone who is blonde and blue eyed, that’s all they’re looking for and they won’t consider a model of color. If they’re shooting a spring campaign, they want black models because they look better in brighter clothes. Those sorts of standards do still exist.
For all of the backlash, Tyra consistently pushed diversity forward — she cast trans models before trans people were seen in mainstream media, she cast plus-sized models and contestants of all races and sexual orientation throughout the seasons. Despite the recent criticism, do you think “Top Model” was ahead of its time, in some respects?
Absolutely. Tyra is a pioneer in many respects and I have nothing but respect for her in everything that she’s accomplished in business. The fashion industry is a difficult industry.
I’ve interviewed Tyra many times, and she has always expressed her passion for coaching young models. Do you believe that some of her commentary that comes off as harsh genuinely came from a good place?
Tyra was an incredible model. She understands the business. I think what she was trying to do was give the girls a taste of tough love of what they had to experience. When she stepped into the industry, no one prepared her for a lot of the initial backlash that she got as a young, black model trying to make it. It was very difficult for her, and so I really respect that part of her journey and for wanting to communicate that to the girls.
The novel sounds like a fun, easy-breezy summer read, but what is the deeper meaning behind the storyline?
Using satire, the story is a metafictional journey of self that we all must embark on. The narrative follows the path of awakening to our own power and self-validations, and in today’s fast-moving world of social media, finding one authentic voice is challenging. We constantly seek outside validation on a daily basis and forget to listen to the voice that is the most important, which is our own.
Is the book just for fans of “America’s Next Top Model,” or can non-viewers enjoy the story?
Anyone can enjoy this book without ever seeing an episode of “America’s Next Top Model.” The story truly does stand on its own. But for fans of the show, there are several Easter eggs throughout the book that will peak their attention, and as you’re reading, it may become a game of what seemed like fact versus fiction. And that’s all for the reader to decide.