The Real Reason Why Jay Manuel Left America's Next Top Model

Jay Manuel was with America's Next Top Model from the get-go, dating back to the 2003 series premiere on the now-defunct UPN network. Manuel was brought onboard as the show's creative director and for the next 18 cycles (the show's preferred nomenclature for what most TV series call "seasons"), he guided the aspiring models through the photo shoots that were at the heart of the show's competition, until he parted ways with the series in 2012.

Eyebrows were raised when Manuel's exit coincided with the departures of photographer Nigel Barker and runway coach J. Alexander (aka Miss J). Rumors arose about the suspicious timing, and ANTM executive producer Ken Mok didn't exactly make things any less murky when he issued a statement that offered no explanation for why they left, but simply praised them for what they had brought to the show. As Page Six reported at the time, Mok insisted the three would "always be a part of the Top Model family," promising the show would "continue to actively work with each of them on future projects."

So, what really led Jay Manuel to exit the show after 18 cycles? Read on to discover the real reason why Jay Manuel left America's Next Top Model.

Initial reports claimed Jay Manuel was fired from America's Next Top Model

Jay Manuel began his stint as creative director on America's Next Top Model in the show's first cycle in 2003 and was responsible for conceptualizing the models' photo shoots and guiding them through the process. When he and fellow judges, J. Alexander and Nigel Barker, simultaneously parted ways with the show in 2012, Page Six described the departures as "ugly firings." According to Page Six, the three were informed that their contracts were not going to be renewed, with producers "dismissing" the trio in "one fell swoop" after the series' 18th cycle.

ANTM exec producer Ken Mok, however, had nothing negative to say, lauding the three as "amazing assets" to the show in a statement released to Page Six, praising them for transforming the series "into the household name it is today." 

According to the Page Six report, however, an unnamed "insider" claimed that the three were blindsided when their contracts weren't renewed as the show prepared to make "major changes" in the next cycle. As Deadline pointed out, the departures came after "historically low ratings" for America's Next Top Model, while Page Six's insider claimed that getting rid of the three was "a production decision." 

How Jay Manuel announced his exit from America's Next Top Model

At the time of his exit, Manuel didn't directly address Page Six's report that he was fired from America's Next Top Model. However, in a since-deleted blog post (via Reuters)Manuel declared, "It's a wrap everybody." He continued, writing, "Nigel, Miss J and I had a great run, and now it's time for us to move on." According to Manuel's blog post, noted The Toronto Star, he already had "many interesting projects" in the works. "I look forward to sharing with you soon!" he added.

Manuel's fellow judge, photographer Nigel Barker, also seemed to take the whole thing in stride, appearing to downplay reports that he, Manuel, and J. Alexander had been axed. "It wasn't a shock. I'm friends with Tyra [Banks] and the producers," Barker told E! News of his exit. "There had been a discussion that ratings were down and that something like this would happen."

As Barker explained, the trio's exit wasn't as big a deal as the media had been making it out to be. In fact, he said that in earlier cycles he and the show's producers had already discussed the possibility that he might be "eliminated" from ANTM. Barker even revealed that he "had actually survived the chopping block before."

Jay Manuel found this critique on America's Next Top Model to be confusing

In early 2020, Tyra Banks was hit by backlash after years-old footage from America's Next Top Model resurfaced that, to put it mildly, did not age well. One Cycle 5 clip, in particular, featured an openly gay model telling Banks she was "proud" to be out. Banks' response was cringeworthy, telling the model that even though she is personally "black and proud" that doesn't mean she walks down the red carpet declaring, "I'm black, I'm black."

Jay Manuel, who was sitting at the judges' table at the time, was asked by Variety to share his thoughts about that incident. Recalling that he felt "a little uncomfortable with the statement," he admitted he found what Banks was saying to be "confusing," given that the models had been "coached to speak their truth and tell Tyra who they are ... it seemed a bit unfair." 

As for why he didn't react in the moment, Manuel admitted at that point he was something of a neophyte when it came to reality television, still just figuring it all out as he was going. In addition, he was being "guided by Tyra and [exec producer] Ken [Mok], and you have to trust your producers to follow their lead."

Jay Manuel was afraid to speak up to producers of America's Next Top Model

One of the most infamous moments in America's Next Top Model history took place during the show's fourth cycle, when the models were made to swap races for their photo shoots. This concept led to the skin of some models being painted darker, with host Tyra Banks immersed in a blackface scandal that reignited more than a decade later when photos and video from the episode resurfaced on social media in early 2020. 

Looking back at that infamous race-swapping shoot in an interview with Variety, Jay Manuel admitted he had serious reservations, but felt too intimidated to speak up. Given that his parents grew up in South Africa under the segregationist Apartheid regime, he was appalled by the entire concept. "We're really doing this?" he recalled asking himself. 

However, by that point he had learned to keep any apprehension to himself. "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," he told Variety. According to Manuel, he initially approached a co-executive producer "because I was too scared to even take it up higher to an executive producer."

Behind-the-scenes changes created problems for Jay Manuel on America's Next Top Model

Discussing his time on America's Next Top Model with Variety, Jay Manuel revealed that as the show grew more successful, some changes began to take place that affected the show's inner workings — and not for the better. "The culture behind the scenes of ANTM was something that shifted over time," Manuel explained, adding, "It became a culture where you could only speak your mind so much."

Manuel pointed to Cycle 4's infamous race-swapping photo shoot, for which host Tyra Banks subsequently offered an apology on her daytime talk show, as chronicled by NBC 4 Washington. According to Manuel, the original concept had nothing to do with race-swapping and was far different than what viewers ended up seeing on television.

"I was so, so, so uncomfortable with this," he said of darkening models' skin, pointing out that even though he was ostensibly creative director, the race-swapping aspect was a "layer" that was added along the way and "was not [his] idea.". At that point, he felt he'd lost control of the photo shoots. Still, he feared that if the show was hit by backlash — which it absolutely was — he "would wear that" as the show's creative director.

Jay Manuel refuted claims that leaving America's Next Top Model wasn't his decision

Nearly a decade after his exit from the show, Jay Manuel finally cleared the air about reports claiming he was fired from America's Next Top Model. He insisted those stories simply weren't true and in a 2020 interview with Varietyhe explained what was what. "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 people didn't know," said Manuel. The decision to exit ANTM, he said, was "100%" his.

As Manuel explained, he felt it was time to move his career "in a different direction" from the path he found himself on after 18 cycles of America's Next Top Model. At the time, however, he was contractually forbidden from discussing his exit from the show. So, when it "was misreported to the press," he had no choice but to keep his mouth shut. 

By 2020, however, he was no longer under any legal obligation to stay silent and could finally confirm that his exit "was one of choice" and his "primary focus was to shift [his] career."

The surprising reason behind Jay Manuel's exit from America's Next Top Model

Addressing his departure from America's Next Top Model in a 2020 interview with Variety, Jay Manuel explained the reasoning behind his decision to leave. As the show's popularity grew, he said, so too did the size of the sponsors brought in, which necessitated the sponsors' products be integrated into the show. He also pointed to added "pressure" to increase the show's ratings as viewership waned. As a result, Manuel said, "everyone was adding layers" to the photo shoots, which he saw as a departure from the "realistic fashion challenges" of the earlier seasons.

By the time he made the decision to leave, he admitted he'd been finding it "increasingly difficult" to maintain what had become a juggling act, balancing what the sponsors were asking for with the demands of the show's producers to create entertainment while also maintaining his own creative vision for the photo shoots. By that point, he said, "it just became very difficult to manage." 

Manuel came to the difficult realization that, from a creative standpoint, he was on a downward trajectory and "wasn't offering anything new to the show," he said. 

Will Jay Manuel ever return to America's Next Top Model?

In 2018, Manuel spoke with Newsweek about his experience on America's Next Top Model, looking back fondly on his years with the show as "such an incredible journey and learning experience on many fronts." As he explained, his role on ANTM encompassed far more than what viewers saw on their television screens; he was more than an on-air personality. "I actually produced. I did the product integration, especially when we first brought in CoverGirl and all these big brands," he revealed. "I did that for the first 10 seasons of the show, which was an enormous amount of work."

Admitting he had no problem with the long hours spent on set with the models during their photo shoots, there were also a lot of behind-the-scenes details he needed to contend with, such as scouting locations, attending meetings, and dealing with the demands of sponsors. "I ultimately feel like I reached this point where I brought all that I could bring to the format," he admitted.

While Manuel wouldn't close the door on possibly returning to America's Next Top Model, he was adamant that the only way it could happen would be if he "was inspired to bring something altogether new to the table."

This is why Jay Manuel fictionalized his experiences on America's Next Top Model

Jay Manuel might have been tempted to cash in on his deep behind-the-scenes knowledge of America's Next Top Model by writing a salacious tell-all. However, he decided to take a different route entirely by fictionalizing his experiences in a novel titled The Wig, The B**** & The Meltdown. As Manuel told Variety in May 2020, he'd been working on the novel since 2014. 

The fictional story focuses on a young man named Pablo Michaels, who sets out to make a name for himself in the New York City fashion industry and winds up on a reality show called Model Muse"I wanted this book to entertain and that's why I used satire, and had a lot of fun with it," Manuel told Variety, explaining that the characters in the book were inspired by actual people in his life. 

According to Variety, an entire chapter — titled "The Meltdown" — is about the reality show's fictional host losing it on a contestant. Manuel confirms the chapter drew inspiration from the infamous ANTM moment when host Tyra Banks furiously lashed out at contestant Tiffany Richardson, yelling, "I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you."