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What It's Really Like Being on America's Next Top Model

The Biggest Surprise About Being on America's Next Top Model, From a Former Contestant

Image Source: Getty / Nicholas Hunt

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be royal like Princess Diana. I was bullied as a child and I had very little self-worth. I saw Diana on television: beautiful, glamorous, and on a mission to help people all over the world. Deep down, I believed that — just maybe — if I were on TV like Diana, people would love me too.

As I grew older, the dream of glamour and television stuck with me. It was buried deep down, something in my subconscious, which I didn't think about often. That is, until it happened.

The call came at the worst possible time. It was early 2013, and I'd just arrived in New York City from my home in Florida. I was 24 and returning to Manhattan, where I lived in a "model apartment," a crowded, dormitory-like setup for models who haven't quite made it yet.

My career, at that point, was a struggle. In one sense, things were going well. I was signed and working at least once a week. I traveled around the world.

But what I really wanted was a big career — and to be able to afford a life for myself. I wasn't seeing any progression. The only thing that kept me going was the fear of having to go home a failure. I had started at 18 years old and, six years later, was still not a supermodel or even close.

I confided in a former agent about my struggles. He was sympathetic, but he did something more that just encourage me. Without my knowledge, he submitted me as a contestant on America's Next Top Model. When he told me what he'd done, I was thrilled. I'd never considered applying, but it suddenly seemed like the best way forward.

But then the deadline for my hearing back from the show came and passed; I filed the show away as just another dream I would not achieve.

On that fateful day, I tried to pick up my phone, but it fell and promptly turned off. I was struggling with getting luggage into a taxi. I just put the phone in my pocket to call whomever it was back later.

But then the phone rang again — and it was Tyra Banks.

Well, it was someone calling on behalf of Tyra. The call was from the production team, telling me to ring back right away and informing me that the call would be recorded.

I waited to dial until I was back in my apartment, with a friend documenting the memorable call on her camera phone.

The phone rang. A producer answered.

"You did not make the cut for America's Next Top Model," she said.

My heart sank. I couldn't even respond.

"Just kidding," the producer replied. "You're in."

At that point, I could respond. I screamed so loudly that even my friend joined in.

"One more thing," the producer added after telling me all the next steps. "It actually was Tyra who rang you before. You missed her call."

When those closest to me heard about my casting, their usually skeptical attitude about my career turned hopeful and supportive. In that instant, I forgot the past. I wanted to make my friends and family proud. I turned into beast mode and got myself ready for war — that is, America's Next Top Model.

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A photo posted by Official Renee Bhagwandeen (@reneebigtime) on

Everything I expected about the show was wrong. I thought everyone would hate each other, and that I'd have to fight for a bed or steal someone's cab in a challenge. But to my surprise, being on the show was refreshing and awesome. I'd never been in an environment where people were so encouraging; even my fellow contestants believed I would succeed. I was overwhelmed. I'd never really had people support me like that, and it felt amazing.

Being on the show gave me a lot of time — two and a half months, to be precise — to talk and think about my growth. The application alone had been 10 pages to fill out, all about me. Then there were the confessionals, which were all about how I felt about my work. I spoke to the judges about my performance and my hopes. I learned so much about myself and started to believe in my own strength and potential.

What I couldn't escape, however, was that on America's Next Top Model — and in the industry as a whole — women are judged based on their looks. The one thing that's craziest to me, in retrospect, is how badly I wanted my looks to be appreciated. Weirdly enough, during my time on the show, I started to see more and more of my own inner value even as I was being judged superficially. Each photo shoot made me want to be better. At every challenge, I gave more than I thought I could. All I wanted was to be good enough to work consistently.

I think I did pretty well on America's Next Top Model. I can honestly say I'm proud of myself for sticking in there. I did not win, but that fueled my fire to succeed even more. I met amazing people, many of whom are still great friends. The experience is one I'll cherish forever. Being on the show helped me finally be comfortable with myself. And that dream of being on television finally came true.

The only true challenge came after the show aired. Considering the show's popularity, viewers and the press wanted to know about my life. America's Next Top Model had portrayed me as a loud and outspoken girl — and thank God for that! Fans grew to enjoy hearing me speak; they were listening to what came out of my mouth. I hadn't had any guidance on managing such interest, and I had to learn how to handle things on my own. I was grateful for my dreams coming true, but there was a time of adjustment. Slowly, I got to know myself and found out what I wanted to say. Social media has proven to be a great place for a former "television model," and I can now communicate directly with people who have followed my journey.

Looking back on my experiences on Tyra's show, I can't help but feel glad. I understand now at age 27 that, to be happy in life, you have to figure out why you're here. Princess Diana probably had many purposes, but I'm so thankful to have seen her example of how life can be a glamorous adventure. On my modeling journey, nothing can stand in my way as long as I have good intentions.

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