I confess I’m kind of a book snob. Judge if you like, but I tend to avoid “beach reads” or novels that rely on plot twists, mysteries, or romance. But I have my guilty pleasures just like anybody, and one of my TV favorites is the absurd and outrageous competition series America’s Next Top Model.
So when I saw on Twitter that Jay Manuel, known on ANTM as “Mr. Jay,” had written a novel called The Wig, The Bitch & The Meltdown, it didn’t take me more than a hot minute to find a site that was selling it… and when I replied to his tweet “I’m pretty sure I need to read this immediately…” and Jay himself liked my response, the deal was sealed. With one more click the book was on its way.
If you’ve ever been a fan of America’s Next Top Model, and especially if you loved the earlier seasons when Mr. Jay was heavily involved in the photo shoots, you’re going to have a blast reading this book. Officially labelled a satire, the novel covers everything I’d hoped: the humiliations endured by the show’s contestants, the behind-the-scenes manipulations to ensure winners and losers, the bickering among the judges, and the legendary distance Tyra kept between herself and everyone else on her show.
Fiction, or So We Are Told
The main characters in the book have glaringly obvious real-life counterparts, and Manuel doesn’t even pretend to hide it. The main ANTM judges are well represented: “Sasha Berenson” is the world’s first supermodel, Janice Dickinson, “Mason Hughes” is noted photographer Nigel Barker, and “Miss Thing” is runway coach extraordinaire Miss Jay.
Sasha has an Adderall addiction, a lot of plastic surgery (“another frankenlift”), and passes out in her seat at the judges’ table. Mason is handsome, predatory, and has a noticeably absent Indian wife. Miss Thing is petty and spiteful, but funny… and sends dick pics.
And then there’s Keisha Kash. Keisha, the star of the fictional show Model Muse, is (you guessed it) a fictionalized version of smize advocate and supermodel Tyra Banks. She has a different family background—unlike Tyra’s, Keisha’s mom isn’t exactly a paragon of support—but there are enough parallels to keep every moment rivetingly juicy.
Are all the characters just like their real-life counterparts or are they parodies? Feel free to speculate—and then back up that speculation with some digging through tabloid archives, if you’re so inclined. Those articles won’t tell you if Tyra really steals every single one of her ideas from other people like Keisha, but they will reveal a significant lack of long-term, sustainable relationships with her co-stars and co-workers. Interpret what you will.
And then, of course, there’s the novel’s protagonist, Pablo Michaels—Manuel’s alter ego. Described on the back cover as a “moral compass,” Pablo shares Jay’s background, talents, and rise to fame, as well as his creativity, and dammit, I did love those photo shoots. They were a great mix of creative ideas, extreme challenges (spiders, snakes, heights, water immersion) and some I assume and some clearly designed just to be ordeals.
Manuel insists the book is satire, but I have no trouble believing that its most outrageous moments could have actually happened. Clearly, some of them did, like Keisha’s insistence that she launch a music career using the show and its contestants. On the real show, the only thing funnier than the final video was Tyra’s tearful speech to the wannabe models about how they were helping her realize HER dreams because of their [forced] participation.
Seeing these moments through Pablo’s eyes reminds me of how much I enjoyed Manuel’s commentary on the show itself. He was in the thick of things and yet always had that observer’s perspective at the same time, and he brings both to the tale he spins in this shamelessly scandalous novel.
Pablo helps Keisha formulate the whole plan for the breakthrough reality show during nightly chow-downs of her endless ice cream collection. The relationship changes over time as success, jealousy, and betrayal overtake ambition and creativity. When that shift started happening, this reader picked up speed, unable to resist the next page. And do I blame Manuel for making Pablo so clever, perceptive, and likable? Hell, no! If I were writing a fictional version of my life, I’d make myself charming, witty, and just a hair smarter than everyone else too. Why not?
I don’t want to spoil any of the more delicious moments… my two favorites involve a controversial hair makeover and the reveal of Pablo’s mentor. Along the way, there are as many snackable scenes as the show had, but with an insider’s view only Jay Manuel could offer up. I do wish his publisher had given a copy editor a fresh pass on it, but I don’t know if other people are as bothered by such things as I am. This book is like a ride you don’t want to get off, even as you race to the end. I couldn’t put it down! If you’re a fan of America’s Next Top Model, and like so many of us, in search of an absorbing distraction that will take you out of this Bizarre-O world we live in now and into a new (and no less freaky) one, I say: Treat Yo’ Self. You won’t regret it.
A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.