Jay Manuel's Truth is Out There

Illustration for article titled Jay Manuels Truth is Out There
Image: Slate PR

“Post-truth” may not be the first phrase that comes to mind when you think of Jay Manuel, America’s Next Top Model creative director and on-air staple. And yet the label fits his new novel The Wig, the Bitch, and the Meltdown like couture. Consider the layers of reality at work, and then consider how one obscures the next. Manuel’s book is a fictionalized rendering of a show that presented a contorted version of modeling world, which itself is a bizarro version of the real life in which the majority of the world’s population functions. The effect is as disorienting as an infinity mirror that distorts as it expands. At a certain point, you don’t know what you’re looking at.

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Complicating matters is Manuel himself, who obfuscates as he discusses his book. In a May interview with Variety that announced the novel, Manuel said that reading the book “may become a game of what seemed like fact versus fiction. And that’s all for the reader to decide.” It is, of course, a game that cannot be won, only attempted. During a conversation with Jezebel last month, Manuel stated repeatedly that his book, which seems to fit the definition of a roman a clef to a T, is not a roman a clef recounting his 10 years (and 18 cycles) on the show.

“I’m writing what I know and I wanted to keep the story authentic but by no means is this book a roman a clef where I just changed names and this is what happened,” said Manuel. “That’s not the case. But I’ve used [people on the show] as inspiration to tell this overall story around identity, flipping the script, so to speak, and breaking the fourth wall.”

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You’d be forgiven for mistaking it as a barely veiled tell-all. Its protagonist, Pablo Michaels, is (like Manuel) a creative director with (like Manuel) peaks of dyed silver jutting out of head, who was (like Manuel) adopted as a baby (like Manuel, his character’s birth name was David). He lands a gig on the competition show Model Muse, which like ANTM, pits a pool of young women against each other in hopes of becoming America’s next top model, or something like it. The show’s executive producer, Joe Vong, is, like ANTM’s Ken Mok, Asian (Mok is Chinese-American, while Vong is Korean). Its judging panel includes a Nigel Barker-like fashion photographer named Mason Hughes (who, unlike Barker, is blonde and not buzzed), a sharp-tongued runway expert called Miss Thing (a la “Miss” J. Alexander), and Sasha Berenson, a supermodel turned plastic-surgery-addled, slurring spectacle, much like Janice Dickinson.

And then there is the creator-host of Model Muse, Keisha Kash. The similarities to Tyra Banks go beyond their money-invoking names. A supermodel herself, Keisha attempts to launch a singing career (remember “Shake Your Body”?) and writes a young-adult novel that bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games (remember Modelland?), both of which she promotes shamelessly on the show (like Banks did). She throws a terrific “We were all rooting for you!”-esque tantrum at one point, scarfs down ribs, rocks lacefront wigs, and spouts catchphrases that would make an 80s sitcom character cringe (such as “Duck Face,” which is similar to but not to be confused with smizing). Keisha Kash is mercurial, manipulative, self-obsessed, and a thief of intellectual property.

To promote the book on Twitter, Manuel recently posted a picture of himself holding a mug inscribed with the hashtag #WhoIsKeishaKash. The answer seems obvious: She’s Tyra Banks. However, Manuel, who departed the show after Cycle 18 (which he said was his decision, in response to reports that he was fired), claims he didn’t have Banks in mind when writing the character.

“When I wrote the character of Keisha Kash, I actually saw the actress who was in the [book] trailer, Nichole Galicia,” he said. “I wasn’t sitting there trying to make this like anybody else. I wanted Keisha to be her own person. She’s pretty crazy at times but she’s also vulnerable and has a lot of pain. I found that interesting to explore.”

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Very innnnnteresting, indeed. Manuel is no longer in touch with Banks, and says he didn’t hear from her after the announcement of his book. He says the book is not indicative of any ax he has to grind with her. “I really respect her and I always have and I always will,” said Manuel.

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Manuel had very few words for Banks, but talked at length about his writing process. He said getting the right balance of showing and telling was a challenge, and that the book’s fast pace “mirrors the relentless world that it’s set in.”

“I was going against some literary conventions and it was a big risk in blurring some lines and breaking the fourth wall with that kind of metafictional mechanism I have in the last third of the book, but it was a something I wanted to do,” he said of his craft. He calls his book “an identity piece.” He says he was mentored by a creative nonfiction writer (whose identity he would not reveal) with no background in reality TV, thus providing a fresh springboard for the world he was creating. Or recreating. Or whatever.

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The announcement of The Wig, the Bitch, and the Meltdown came in the thick of the social media reassessment of ANTM early in quarantine. The timing seems felicitous, and Manuel’s book is out via Wordeee, which is not self-publishing per se (there is an approval process and there are editors, according to the website of the “360-degree publishing platform”), but it’s not exactly coming to us through a deal with major publishing imprint, which generally takes about a year to turn around. Manuel claims he’s had the idea for the book since 2014 and then dove back into it in 2017. He denied that the expiration of the ANTM nondisclosure agreement he signed (which he said occurred in 2018) had anything to do with his putting pen to paper, but did concede that the ensuing freedom provided a “safety net.” He even expressed empathy with Banks for weathering the retrospective callouts of the show’s perceived indiscretions, like her harsh assessment of the gap in Cycle 6 winner Dani Evans’s teeth and encouraging her to get it closed.

“Now that we have cancel culture in full effect, I really did feel that, especially on Twitter and social media in general, they were very unfairly throwing Tyra under the bus when she’s spoken many times and taken responsibility for decisions she’s made in the past,” said Manuel. “It’s very difficult when things come around like that. I’m sure it’s been difficult for her.”

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Buuuut...

“But at the same time, it brings up moments,” continued Manuel, recalling how his role as the coordinator of the show’s photoshoots became increasingly difficult as the demands of sponsors and executive producers became louder. Overall the imperative was for ANTM to continue to outdo itself.

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“There were certain things that I feel weren’t fully thought through,” he conceded, pointing to an Adam and Eve-themed photoshoot in Cycle 2 that he says offended people. He told Variety that a race-swapping shoot in Cycle 4 that effectively featured blackface on a white model made him uncomfortable at the time of shooting, but that it was out of his hands. He further accused Mok of throwing “the whole team” under the bus when Mok tweeted in Banks’s defense, “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.” “Ultimately the two voices at the top were Ken and Tyra,” said Manuel.

Manuel told Jezebel that the race-changing shoot was “when the culture started shifting behind the scenes.” And yet, he stayed on for another 14 cycles. Manuel offered no specific explanation as to why he stayed on a show that became a different animal—one that made him uncomfortable—but he claimed that at one point midway through his run, he attempted to leave only to offend his colleagues.

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I wondered if Manuel regrets anything from his time on the show. Even if we accept that he could only guide the show’s creative so much, he said things to the contestants that haven’t aged particularly well, like when in Cycle 15 he guided sexual abuse survivor Kayla through a photoshoot, in which she had to kiss a male model despite her protestations.

“I have no regrets with being part of the show,” said Manuel. He blamed the Kayla incident and, for that matter, seemingly anything he did that could offend, on editing.

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“I was really frustrated with the editing of the show,” he said. “I spent the most time with the girls, so I ended up really bonding with all of them. I learned what makes them tick. I had their back. I may be your best friend and then I might make a snarky line, like, ‘Oh girl, get it together.’ That’s what ends up on the show. I was like, ‘If I continue being presented as this snarky, smart-mouthed person, then I can’t continue here either.’”

“In the case of Kayla, it’s all how that whole scene and the scene after is edited,” he continued. “I didn’t know about her sexual assault. The producers didn’t know about it, either. It is one of those cases where it evolved on camera and then in the way it was constructed in the edit, it looks like I’m coercing her to do this. Actually, I said to her, ‘You don’t have to do this.’ It’s one of those things where it’s like, look, I’m on a reality show and I can push back so hard on how they edit, but at the end of the day, I have no control over editing. It was hard for me to watch. I was definitely upset with how that was changed. But Kayla and I, the girls, everyone else around knows how that happened.”

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Sometimes the machine you’re a cog in deprives you of accountability you’d otherwise gladly accept. That’s showbiz. Benefit of the doubt extended. But what about Manuel’s decision to use the pejorative “bitch” in the title of his book?

“In today’s culture, stories of substance are always overlooked for viral sensation,” he began, his breathiness sounding weary from a controversy that had not taken place, to my knowledge. I just asked because I found his audacity striking. Manuel told me that he’d been inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’s title, though the bitch in question is not a bitch but an idea. So no Turkish delight for any of us, then.

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“The word ‘bitch,’ I think people are making the assumption that it’s speaking about a person, but I think when people read the book, they realize that that actually has to do with the situation,” he said. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘Life’s a bitch,’ or, ‘Payback’s a bitch.’ The word ‘bitch’ to me represents this idea of payback, retribution, all of that. It’s not a person. People make assumptions and they think that applies to the character Keisha Kash but it doesn’t.”

Manuel was unfailingly polite, converting whatever suspicion my questions bespoke to a more generalized misinterpretation of “people.” In my research, I found a lot of descriptions of him as a gay man but no direct quotes about his sexuality from him. He told me he’s always been open about identifying as such and doesn’t understand why people don’t get it. I told him it didn’t surprise me, I just couldn’t confirming direct quotes. I asked him about identifying as Black, which he discussed with Variety, and he told me the resulting surprise and skepticism on social media was something he’s long faced. (Manuel’s father is South African father of mixed Cape Malay descent.) “I’ve always spoken about it,” he said, but in the dozens of examples of coverage of him that I read and watched before we talked, I couldn’t find any instances of that. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that I’m one of the skeptics, but it does suggest that Manuel’s perception of himself is not necessarily aligned with the public’s. What seems to be obvious to Manuel often had eluded me.

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In The Wig, the Bitch, and the Meltdown, we get more of a sense of what that self-perception looks like...perhaps. Jay Manuel was never the star of America’s Next Top Model (though he did host the Canadian version of the show for two cycles), but Model Muse creative director Pablo Michaels is the center of Manuel’s book. Manuel’s song is of the unsung. And when asked about whether he experienced some of the things Pablo goes through, fact and fiction seemed not at all at odds.

Was Manuel, like Pablo, asked to work for free during the show’s early days? Not in the same way, buuuut...

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“That first season, I wasn’t being paid to produce but I was producing and bringing all the creative talent on and setting all that up,” he said. “That’s when Tyra said, ‘Oh, Jay needs to be paid for this.’ That first season I did a lot that was way outside of my job description.”

Did Manuel not receive credit for his ideas? He didn’t think of it that way, buuuut...

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Before they settled on the title of America’s Next Top Model (and indeed, the show was announced months before its premiere with Supermodel as its working title), he explained, Manuel created mock-up magazine covers of the final two contestants for the winner reveal on the Cycle 1 finale. “And then basically a version of that logo [on the cover] became the logo for the show, which I thought was really funny and I never got the credit for it,” he said.

Was Manuel promised a talk show that never materialized? There are no buts about this one.

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“Tyra knew my aspirations of doing a talk show,” he said. “She wanted to do a show for me. I had created this pitch document. ‘If Will and Grace met Regis and Kelly,’ is the way we were pitching it. Everyone seemed interested. Telepictuers said to Tyra, ‘Would you come on the show?’ She was like, ‘I don’t want to do daytime talk right now, but I would come on the show now and then as an executive producer.’ That was the last I heard. Everyone was very interested and then I got a call from her that she was announcing her own show with Telepictures. I remember never getting any more information.”

And that, according to Manuel, was that. The Tyra Banks Show ran from 2005 to 2010.

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Manuel said he doesn’t think Banks has read his book. He did leave a message for her, though:

“I guess the thing I would want her to know is for me this was about looking at all these kinds of characters—and they are characters—and looking at what makes them tick. This was about exploring how we interact together as a unit, meaning people. That was my intention behind it, and having the opportunity I had to share some thoughts about society as a whole. That’s really what the book is about.”

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Buuuut...

Was this fictional, non-roman a clef, that’s not based on real people or indicative of true behind-the-scenes events nonetheless therapeutic to write?

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“You do feel that catharsis,” he admitted. “Like you’re exorcising some demons.”

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

burnsthemall
BurnThemAllLostHerKey

As long as we’re here to be petty- I loathe the cover illustration on the book. The Not-Tyra seems to have limbs only on the left side of her body, and Not-Mr.Jay lools like a knock-off version of Karl Lagerfeld.

Still, he’s come a long way from Scarborough, Ontario. (For anyone not familiar with Toronto suburbs, Scarberia is like if Brooklyn was boring.)