Tyra Banks is back with cycle 21 of her hit show America's Next Top Model. Miss J and Kelly Cutrone both have returned as judges from the past and there's a new kid on the block with mentor Yu Tsai. Not only does he guest-judge on the panel at times but is the photo shoot creative consultant.
This openly gay photographer with an eye for the extraordinary has launched the careers of supermodels such as Kate Upton and Alessandra Ambrosia. He's photographed celebrities like Zooey Deschanel, Anne Hathaway and Ryan Gosling. He's been featured in magazines including Marie Claire, Harper's Baazar, and Vogue Japan.
WCT called the opinionated Tsai to go behind the scenes of his life and journey to Top Model.
Windy City Times: Hi, Yu. Let's go over your history. Your family is from Taiwan?
Yu Tsai: Yes, I always say I was made in Taiwan but bred in the U.S. I grew up in Indiana. I'm a cornfed Asian boy! We moved to California about 15 years ago.
WCT: How was being gay in small towns?
Yu Tsai: I have to say I'm really glad we moved out of Taiwan because the educational system was very different with me. I was very artistic in my way. I was isolated and anti social growing up. I didn't have many friends but lots of imaginary ones. I'm the kid that played in the sandbox by himself when other people are playing together.
For me, I didn't know there was something awkward or different about me. That was just who I was but in school I was not accepted. I was always a troublemaker because I had a lot of questions. I had way too much energy for my own good.
In the traditional Chinese and Taiwanese school system it doesn't work. When I came to America, my awkwardness turned into pure creativity. That is when I really bloomed and blossomed.
I always say that if I grew up in Taiwan I wouldn't know where I am today. I don't know if I would have gotten into college at all.
WCT: Was your family accepting of you coming out as being gay?
Yu Tsai: We never had a coming-out discussion. I grew up very independently. I left my home early enough that there was never a moment when I sat down with my parents to tell them I am gay. There was never a moment where they had to ask me about it. When I was fifteen I was auditioning as a dancer at Disney. I would prance around the backyard and do my routines so I think they knew but there was never a discussion about it.
When I was in college there was a question if I was going to get married but I just said, "It's not legal yet" then I would walk out of the room!
I do remember my mom accepting it and was glad for someone to help her with makeup, and take her to Barneys to go shopping. That was her coming out moment to me and not me coming out to her.
WCT: How did you get on America's Next Top Model?
Yu Tsai: I have been a fan of the show for many years. Cycle one was when I first started in the photography business. Being such a novice that is where I learned about models. Tyra had put a huge footprint in my brain what modeling was like. I don't know if it was a hundred percent accurate but that is what inspired me to shoot. It was years later that I wanted to do and lobbied it with my agent. I heard there might be positions open a few years ago. When Jay Manuel left and Johnny Wujek took the spot he asked me a year ago to come in as a guest photographer since I was his friend. I guess the team and the network loved me.
WCT: I can tell Tyra Banks has an affection for you.
Yu Tsai: I love Tyra. I get her. I embrace and admire everything she has done.
WCT: You described one model in a past episode as "dead inside." I can't believe you said that!
Yu Tsai: [Laughs] I'm not defending it. Everything I said on that show came out of my mouth. It was not someone else talking for me. One rule I gave to myself is give this show everything I got or don't do it at all. I actually want people to hear my thoughts. Whether that thought is negative or positive I want to put it out in the world. Hopefully editing puts it in the right places. I'm known for having very unfiltered vocabulary.
WCT: People like an honest opinion sometimes.
Yu Tsai: We will see about that. There are lots of haters!
WCT: The photo that did with all of the models on top of each was brilliant. Was that inspired by the Kylie Minogue video?
Yu Tsai: Everything that we do on the show is to make sure we are relevant. There are so many videos and movies that have been made with people entangled with each other. Tyra really inspired that concept. She wanted the models to engage with each other. Tons of them want to stand around and do a cover of a magazine but the idea came from them having to touch each other.
I'm sure you heard on the show when I said that it's about getting everyone's energy. That is what this show is about not just modeling but relationships with the judges and contestants. There are so many layers to the show. To be a great contestant you can't just be a model there's a lot more to it. They have to deal with me on the challenges so there is a lot to do! I feel for the contestants.
WCT: Are you on the judging panel more?
Yu Tsai: The mentor is not supposed to do the judging to remain impartial. I am on the final panel to pick the winner.
WCT: There has been a lot of eye candy, with male models again on this cycle.
Yu Tsai: Oh, with Matthew, Ben, Denzel, Keith and Will. To be honest, I try not to let that distract me. I took my job very seriously. One time I screamed at Denzel and it is true because I think he's amazing. I think he should do much better every single time he's at challenges.
I don't see what is at the house so if they have a fire at home I want them to leave that behind. That energy they should not bring on set. I want them to be the model I expect them to be. That is how the real world is.
Tsai and America's Top Model walk the runway Fridays at 8 p.m. on The CW.