Photos: (top, middle) The CW, (bottom) Yu Tsai for Flaunt
When America’s Next Top Model returned for cycle 21 in August, it also welcomed some new faces. In addition to runway diva, J. Alexander, taking over model Rob Evans on the judges’ panel, openly gay photographer Yu Tsai stepped in as creative director of the competition’s weekly photo shoots. Tsai replaced Johnny Wujek after two cycles of playing mentor to the contestants vying to be on top.
Almost immediately, it was clear that Tsai’s brand of mentoring was in stark contrast to Wujek’s often-sassy tone and the series’ previously long-running creative director Jay Manuel’s compassionate but belabored attempt to shape the show’s doe-eyed competitors. Tsai, while fiercely honest, has come off as harsh on this cycle’s contestants often yelling during shoots and lobbing barbs their way. “I want the best of them,” he explains.
“My job is one to make sure the models are comfortable in their own skin so they deliver, two, push them as hard as possible if that’s what required to get the best photo possible, three, take an amazing shoot,” Tsai says of his role in the competition.
The feedback may be tough for some — he did tell one contestant they looked “dead inside” — but after a couple of snoozy cycles, it has been a welcome jolt of energy. Audiences may have mixed reactions but Tsai isn’t too worried about what they think or how potential clients may react to what’s seen on TV. “It is a reality show and if I was boring, you wouldn’t be watching — you wouldn’t be calling for interviews,” Tsai says. “My job is to be as engaging and real as possible. If you were my client on set and acting the same way the models were behaving then you’d probably get yelled at the same way.”
While new to Tyra Banks’ world, the Taiwanese-born American photographer is hardly new to the industry. In fact, his career got started in 2003, the same year the reality competition first debuted on TV. In the decade since, Tsai has made a name for himself by photographing top models and celebrities, such as Chris Hemsworth, James Marsden, James McAvoy, and Kate Upton, for the pages of Esquire, Playboy, and Vanity Fair as well as creating iconic imagery for Apple and Guess (and shooting for this magazine).
Tsai most recently sparked a frenzy with a pants-less photo shoot of Nick Jonas for Flaunt magazine. In a recreation of Mark Wahlberg’s famous Calvin Klein underwear campaign, the youngest Jonas brother — very much an adult now with a role in DirecTV’s MMA fighting series, Kingdom, and a sophomore album hitting stores on Nov. 10 — showed off his newly buff body. “He took off his shirt and dropped his pants because it was the right thing at the right time,” Tsai says. The point, as the photographer explains it, was to play up Jonas’ sexuality and the singer was game to do it. “[It was] ballsy.”
A shirtless Jonas is hardly the first time Tsai has got one of his celebrity subjects to shed clothes in front of the camera. In a September 2011 Out cover shoot, he did a similar thing with Adam Levine. “A lot of it has to do with trust and knowing I would never take the image and exploit it,” Tsai says. And when it came to shooting the Maroon 5 front man and current judge on NBC’s singing competition, The Voice, disrobing was necessary.
For Tsai, the unclothed shoots are fun but it’s really about knocking it out of the park. “You get up to home plate and try to hit a homerun,” he says of his approach to every photo shoot. With ANTM and Jonas, Tsai's now done it twice.