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Looking ‘Fabulous’

Martin is a Times staff writer.

In the pursuit of perfection, “America’s Next Top Model” coaches Jay Manuel and J. Alexander have cut many girls down to size. “I’m seeing a carcass on a fence,” Manuel, the show’s creative director, once told a contestant while she posed during a photo shoot. Runway trainer Alexander doesn’t sugarcoat his words either: “Your walk is as useless as a flashlight with no batteries in it in the dark.” ¶ The girls competing to win a modeling contract don’t mind the critiques, however catty they may be. Manuel and Alexander seem like the gay best friends they always wanted: stylish, opinionated and happy to coif the contestants until they’re stunning. In truth, Tyra Banks’ sassy sidekicks, affectionately known to fans as Mr. and Miss J, are the unlikely heroes of “Top Model,” keeping viewers laughing, models in line and ratings high for 11 editions and counting. (The reality show, whose season finale airs tonight, trails only “Smallville” as the CW’s most-watched program.) ¶ So if Banks, the series’ executive producer and host, wants them to greet the girls looking like frosted-haired members of the Starship Enterprise, as they did during this season’s premiere, they say all the better. Manuel and Alexander have, after all, been indulging her every wacky whim for the last five years, and now the pair are getting a chance to star in their own show, “Operation Fabulous,” described as a cross between “Top Model” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” ¶ “At the start of Cycle 7, which kicked off with a prep school theme, she had me go from marching band member to schoolgirl to prom queen in one episode,” said Alexander, who often appears on the show in drag. “That was a long day, and I had to go to a surprise bat mitzvah [party] afterward too.”

“You’ll never see us boring,” Manuel agreed.

The two were taking a break from filming “Operation Fabulous,” which, if it is picked up by the CW, will follow them as they ride into small towns across the country to advise everyday girls on how to work it in the real world. As the sun set on Glendale’s Descanso Gardens, Manuel and Alexander were eagerly waiting to see what the female participants had selected for their final looks -- a test to determine what they’d learned from the infamous Mr. and Miss J.

The feel-good nature of the project is a slight change of pace from the snark of “Top Model,” but CW President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff says that behind the shtick are two guys who are always rooting for women. “Jay is your parent in tough love. He tells you the way it is, but only because he wants you to be the best you can be. As much as Miss J criticizes and rolls his eyes, deep down, he’s just looking for the girl who can get it done.”

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Cracking the whip

Both men began separate careers in fashion long before being recruited by Banks for “Top Model” -- Manuel as a makeup artist and Alexander as a model turned runway walk instructor. On “Operation Fabulous,” the pair would do for the plain Jane what “Queer Eye” did for the straight guy.

“On ‘Top Model,’ they’re competing for a demanding job, so we have to crack the whip,” Manuel said. “But we like working with real women too. We want them to feel good about themselves. We aren’t giving them makeovers on ‘Operation Fabulous.’ I actually hate the word ‘makeover.’ We’re teaching them to enhance and maintain what they’ve already got.”

In their previous lives, Manuel was pre-med and studied opera singing, going so far as to work with New York’s Metropolitan Opera for a time; Alexander thought he would follow in his older sister’s footsteps into an accounting job, though his father knew better.

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“He used to say, ‘I wish I had a lot of money; I’d put you on television,’ ” Alexander recalled. “Accounting. Ha!” The South Bronx native (born Alexander Jenkins) was plucked from obscurity to model for Jean Paul Gaultier, which led to jobs in Tokyo and then France, where he now resides. He speaks fluent French.

He says the big mouth that serves him well as a “Top Model” judge is what led to the career teaching catwalk. “I’d see girls crying all the time because they couldn’t walk. I’d show them how. I’d butt in and say, ‘No, honey, that’s all wrong.’ I can mimic anything, and having my long legs helps.” (Alexander is 6 feet 4, and his inseam measures 37 inches.) The first designer to pay him for the service was Valentino.

Manuel, who grew up in Toronto, said it took him longer to choose fashion, “but looking at my bedroom growing up, I should have known I would. I had all these ads up on the walls of Paulina Porizkova [also a judge on “Top Model”] and Saks Fifth Avenue. I didn’t even know what that was. I thought ‘Saks’ was a typo.” Clients he has styled over the years have included Banks, Jennifer Lopez, Iman, Rebecca Romijn and David Bowie.

Ostroff, who green-lighted “Top Model” for UPN in 2003, recalled that Banks’ initial pitch relied on the pair’s participation. “I couldn’t even believe there was such a job as a runway-walk teacher. But Tyra assured us these guys were both experts who happened to have big, outrageous personalities. When we saw the finished product, they truly were unlike anything we’d seen on TV, refreshing and hilarious.”

A comfort level

Since 2003, Manuel and Alexander have coached aspiring models on being comfortable in their own bodies whether they were walking down a runway blindfolded, posing underwater or on top of elephants, dangling from high wires or modeling clothing made of raw meat as though it were couture.

“It was always clear that there was another show to do around Mr. and Miss J,” said executive producer Ken Mok. “There was always so much good stuff left on the editing room floor.”

With production having just begun on “Top Model’s” 12th cycle, the pair are grateful for the new mission “Operation Fabulous” presents.

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“We both get stopped all the time for advice,” Manuel said. “I’ve had women with weddings come up and ask me to flip through snapshots of their gowns to weigh in. I’m excited to work with all kinds of women on this new show.”

“Top Model” fans need not worry that Mr. and Miss J have gone soft for the feel-good show. When Mok arrived at the break area to report that some the “Operation Fabulous” contestants had reverted to their old habits, he said, “They’re making bad fashion choices, guys.”

Alexander stood up and shook his head. “Oh child, are they going to be sorry!”

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denise.martin@latimes.com


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