By Gil Hernandez
In high heels and a tight skirt, J. Alexander, the premier modeling coach, is lending his expertise to season four of the hit UPN show America's Next Top Model. He talks to Out.com about fashion, models, and men in prison.
How did you get started in fashion?
I went to school to be an accountant and I was just floating and got into designing clothes. I started running around in drag, doing the club circuit. Then this whole runway thing happened by meeting Monique Pillard, the president of Elite. She is the one who recommended me to go to Tokyo, and that is how the whole fashion and modeling thing happened. I ended up modeling for the Japanese a bit. I was in Tokyo for three years.
Then I went to Paris. I got involved in the whole fashion thing in Paris and that's when teaching the girls how to walk came in. Sort of like watching the girls and making fun of them and looking at them and saying, 'You should walk like this, it looks so much better.' Of course, Tyra Banks was one of the earliest students. It was the whole period where you had girls who did runway and girls who did pictures. And then when Naomi Campbell and those girls came into the picture, it turned into the editorial girls getting all the shows. Then all the runway girls hated me for giving those editorial girls lessons and advice and I would just hang out at shows with girls I knew and became friends with.
Since you have been on America's Next Top Model, have there been any fans recognizing you in odd places?
I hate to disappoint you, darling, but they were recognizing me before Top Model!
What about new fans?
Um, I guess, prisoners. I've been getting a lot of mail from prison.
There have been a lot of people who don't have cable who recognize me. Every now and then I jump on the subway in New York City. First they look and are not sure if it is me. They look and I can hear them saying, 'It's not him!'
I always get 'Oh, my God!' 'You are so tall.' 'Oh, we love you.' Or they scream out 'Miss J.' But my favorites are the heterosexual boys, or men. Oh, yeah, those are my favorites because they don't want to be called out that they watch the show and that they admire me or ask for advice or think I'm great.
But those on the down low. 'Yo, yo, Miss J. You're funny, man, love your legs, great walk, keep up the good work.'
Amongst the gay kids, I mean, that's the gay boys' dream, I think, for most of them: to be involved in fashion in some kind of way.
What has been your favorite moment on the show?
There've been so many moments. I just have fun all the way around. To be honest, you know what my favorite moments are? The casting. You know? Favorite girls to work with on the show? Eva was quite smart taking a lot of information in. Toccara was great at it, too. Just listening to them talk. I mean, I could go on with you all night long about each of these girls, what I got from them, and what they got from me, their personalities, and just what little they do know about fashion and what they don't know about anything at all. Yet they have a dream to be a model, yet there has been no research. When Ann didn't know who Linda Evangelista was, that kind of threw me. But at the same time it was refreshing that she didn't.
What designers have you worked with?
The first designer to ever actually ask me to teach girls for them was Valentino: 'Yes, darling, we see you in the corner backstage in the corner helping the girls, yes, darling, you must do that.' Lars Nillson at Bill Blass and now Nina Ricci, I've worked with Galliano, they've asked me to teach girls for them. Alexander McQueen, I think he's really brilliant, very talented. Of course, Baby Phat, with Kimora, that's always a treat, because she almost likes an old school way of walking. So you get to carry on and really let them have it.
What do you think of today's runway with the straight walk and motionless face, compared to the way they walked in the early '90s with turns and posing at the end of the runway?
That's fine because I teach them that, too. But I also teach them they need to have presence when they do that, they need to have stage presence and not just walk down like they just been slapped in the face before they went out. You know, um, they also look constipated. And you know what I always say what they need, honey, but you'd say my mouth is just a toilet. But they are all so young. 15, 16 years old. Picture yourself working in the outskirts of Mexico and you're working on a farm and Steven Meisel comes to town and decides you're 'it' and he needs to have you in the next show. These girls are plucked from the farm and tossed into hair and makeup on the runway after being just photographed for Italian Vogue, and you have no idea. You'd be petrified, too.
When they ask you to walk natural, what is natural for most of these girls? Be sexy, what is sexy for a 16-year-old girl? Feel sensual, make love to the camera? Well, how does one make love to the camera? My advice to most of the girls, just give it your best shot and basically keep the body positioned.
Out of all the models you've worked with'or even before you got into the indusry'who's had the best walk, past or present?
Pat Cleveland was a performer, an absolute performer. Another model was Billie Blair who I thought was graceful. Then there is my favorite model, Katousha from Senegal. She walked like she was walking on water, she was absolutely amazing. Then you had a model named Guermet who I thought was absolutely incredible from Singapore. She had long dark hair down basically to her ass and you didn't know if her hair was moving or her hips were moving, then, of course, you had Yasmeen Gueri, of course, and Shalom was great on the runway as well. The list goes on and on, because they all had something special that stood out, and the trick is not to try to create a signature walk as Camille on season two did. 'This is my signature walk that's going to make me famous.' Well, it did make her famous, it became a famous quote for sure, but one that people always laugh about and make fun of.
What excitement can we expect from season four of Top Model?
There has been some drama right at the beginning, I think. Once I shoot I'm on to other projects. There is one girl who I have my eye on. Her name is Kahlen and she reminds me of a baby Camen Kass. There's Lluvy, the Mexican-American girl who was in a gang, who I'm crazy about. She's a cross between Shelley Duvall and Liza Minnelli, but I'm really gung ho for her. But as for most of the drama, when I'm not shooting I detach myself from it. I don't need to shoot every day and it costs money to have my black ass on the set every day. Every time the camera comes near me, it's 'catching.' So they make sure that Miss J. is only there when need be!