Entering its 12th cycle, the CW's "America's Next Top Model" returns tonight to see who has that special something to become a supermodel a la head judge (and executive producer) Tyra Banks. Producer and photo shoot director Jay Manuel talked to our Jim Halterman about how personality is a key factor in a model's success, his response to critics of the competition show and why the new First Lady is beating supermodels for magazine covers.
Jim Halterman: As a culture, why do you think we're so interested in models?
Jay Manuel: First of all, I think the whole world of fashion is so aspirational and what I think ends up fascinating so many people is that they're looking into the world that is the next thing and we're always fascinated with what's coming up next. With models themselves, we see all these girls and I think, especially now with shows like "America's New Top Model," we realize that a lot of these girls come from all these different places, different towns and we try to find a bit of ourselves in them and I think that fascinates the average, everyday person.
JH: Personality is such a large part of the appeal of the show. How does that figure into the models being chosen for the show and even succeeding in the industry overall?
JM: That's a very interesting debate that constantly goes round and round, not even in the industry but just on our judge's panel. Personality is key. As a model, there's a certain physicality that's expected. Looks in general are somewhat subjective but in terms of a model, we expect them to be tall, we expect them to have certain proportions, more importantly. In terms of personality itself, if you look back to some of the great supermodels � like a Cindy Crawford, a Christy Turlington, a Kate Moss, a Naomi [Campbell] or a Tyra � what is it that really sets them apart? Of all the other beautiful modelesque girls, why did they step into the spotlight and become household names and, really, it was their personalities that grew and came forward. And that's why I think a lot of those models, especially that I just mentioned, they broke the mold. Cindy Crawford was told to be a top model she needs to lose that mole and improve her runway walk and she became a household name. Tyra always says everyone thought her forehead was too big and this and that; she became a household name. Kate Moss was too short. She is a little bull-legged. Why did she become a household name? It was this kind of personality and this... inner guide or power or essence that came forward and came through to allow their personalities to come forth and become big players in the game.
JH: With this new crop of contestants on the new cycle of "America's Next Top Model," do you get a sense early on who is going to do well and who is going to have to work a little harder or are your surprised week after week?
JM: Certainly there are surprises week to week however the truth is the casting... J. [Alexander], Tyra and myself really get the opportunity to talk and meet the girls outside of the realm of the set. Obviously on television you're seeing snippets of moments but we really are spending time talking to them and that time is, I think, paramount in trying to figure out who these girls are not only as young women but also as to what really drives their ambition to be a part of this industry. You really do get a sense as to who has the raw potential but, most importantly, the drive so I think I do get a really good sense in that casting... it's an important part of the process that I think is important for the viewers to see.
JH: How privy are you and the judges to some of the drama that goes one between the models? Does that influence what happens at the judge's table?
JM: Season to season, we initially would hear gossip through the grapevine with the production side. One of the things that I admire Tyra and [executive producer] Ken Mok for is upholding that this is a bubble; the girls exist in a bubble and to kind of break that really breaks the reality. Let's say two girls have a big fight at the house the night before a photo shoot and that might come to me via the producers... it's more important to let it play out. If that energy comes into a photo shoot and it's something that I can pick up on then it's worth me bringing it forward at that moment. However, if the girls are respecting one another and honoring the process and what we're doing professionally at that moment, then it really doesn't make sense for me to rehash something that I wasn't a part of or something I heard through the grapevine off camera.
JH: During the competition, why don't the models get to choose the pictures that the judges see?
JM: First of all, with everything we do in the show, here's what happens in the real industry. A model goes to work, she does her job and she leaves. The next time she sees what she produced that day is when it hits that magazine or that billboard. She is not the part of the creative direction of the process. Her job as a model is to follow the direction of the client, the creative director or the advertising company...it's their job to choose and find what it is that they needed from that model, that's why they cast that model and they produce the work. That is how it is and I think even though Tyra has said it many times, a lot of people forget that we set it up that way so it would mirror what the girls would go through in the world. They do a shoot and the next time they see it it's in the magazine and that's how the judges judge them. They judge what the girls produce and the end product. A model stepping into the industry really won't know hide nor hair what is a good shot, what would be the best thing, what does the creative director really want so why would they choose the photo? Even when someone like Tyra would do the cover magazine shot for the New York Time Magazine, she did not get to edit herself even as a celebrity and supermodel.
JH: The show has gotten some critiques about the fact that a true supermodel has yet to emerge from the show. What do you have to say to those critics?
JM: I have a great answer for that and my answer is actually a question. On the last month of Vogue, who was on the cover?
JH: Um... I have no idea. [Laughs.]
JM: Michelle Obama. Who was on the cover of Harper's Bazaar? I can go on and on and on but I won't. The fact is right now the world is obsessed with celebrities. That is what everything revolves around and marketed around... supermodels are not on the cover of magazines anymore. What people don't realize is that this is a different era from the '90s and going into the early 2000s. This show is a competition and can give these girls a great opportunity to get their foot in the door to an industry that is very, very difficult to be a part of but what we don't see necessarily are what the girls are doing. I'm not even talking about just the winners but the girls that might be in the final two or three... if they're out there, they're working and they can earn a living being a model, then they're successful. It's just the spotlight of the world of magazines and such is just focused on celebrity right now.
JH: If you had the power to change one thing about "America's Next Top Model," what would it be?
JM: You know, we're so blessed with the fact that we're now twelve cycles in but, with that, comes the challenge of how do we bring something new to the competition and the cycle? With that comes the real challenge of what most people say from the world of fashion - how do you reinvent the wheel? It's keeping it new, keeping it fresh, keeping it current and somewhat rooted in the fashion industry as for what we see right now and that, in itself, is a challenge. I wish we could literally go back and say we've done this before and it's okay to do it again but in the world of TV you can't really do that but in fashion certain things do come around. You know, skinny pants are out today but they were in last season and they'll come back three seasons from now but we can't do that on "America's Next Top Model." I wish we could recycle trends because I think there were some really great lessons and stories and as our audience and fan base has grown I think it would be wonderful to revisit some of the creative places.
"America's Next Top Model" returns with a two-hour event tonight at 8:00/7:00c on The CW.