When supermodel Tyra Banks hosted the first season of America’s Next Top Model in 2003, she likely never imagined that 13 years later, aspiring models would still be clamoring for a chance to compete on the series. After 22 seasons, the show was canceled by The CW in December 2015. Then news broke that VH1 had agreed to bring it back — this time with a new host.
Slated to premiere on Dec. 12, the new season of ANTM is back with all the catwalks, backstabbing, and “smizing” — smiling with your eyes — that you could ever hope for. This time around, British singer-actress Rita Ora will serve as host to 14 new contestants, including a pair of identical twins. Model Courtney Nelson, 25, will also be competing, representing her hometown of San Francisco and bringing greater awareness to those who suffer from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine.
At 16, Nelson underwent spinal surgery to correct a curvature of her spine due to scoliosis. The resulting scar left Nelson unsure whether she could successfully pursue her dreams of modeling. But now, as she awaits her reality television debut, she is more passionate than ever about her future and what she wants to accomplish. Before anything else though, she’s preparing for the surreal experience of seeing herself on a show that she grew up watching.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Nelson shared her experiences filming America’s Next Top Model, what inspired her to start a nonprofit, and her thoughts on what it means to be a model.
SF Weekly: Were you a big fan of America’s Next Top Model growing up?
Courtney Nelson: I was a very big fan of it when I was younger. My friends and I used to watch it in high school, and I always wanted to be on it, but I never actually thought it would ever happen.
SFW: What made you think you couldn’t be on the show?
CN: Well, I’ve always wanted to model, but I never thought it would be possible because I had scoliosis. I had surgery for it when I was 16.
SFW: Wow. Was the surgery something that you knew you’d have to have at some point?
CN: Yeah. It was for both cosmetic and medical reasons. The curvature was pressing my ribcage into my lungs and causing breathing problems. To prevent the curve from getting any worse, they did the surgery at Shriners [Hospitals for Children in Sacramento]. It stunted my growth and everything. Obviously, having spine surgery, you have a huge scar, so I didn’t actually think that I would be able to model with that on my back.
SFW: It seems like in the years since America’s Next Top Model first aired, our culture has become more welcoming of a wider definition of what a model can be.
CN: Yes, definitely. I think that the modeling industry is opening its eyes now to different forms of beauty. Scars are beautiful. Scars are not a flaw. It’s just like being plus-size or having a skin condition likevitiligo — it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
SFW: Do you see your involvement with America’s Next Top Model as a chance to bring publicity to your experience with scoliosis?
CN: Since filming, I’ve created my own nonprofit to help fund kids who can’t afford to have scoliosis surgery, to help their families pay for it. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. I do want to use the show as a platform to help me get traction to bringing attention to scoliosis. Having scoliosis is a very big deal. It is a disease, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that, and they don’t understand the toll that it takes on people. My nonprofit, Beneath the Beautiful, is going to give grants to help kids who are from low-income families fund their surgeries. I was lucky enough that mine was free — it was funded through Shriners — but not everyone gets that opportunity. It’s a big thing for me to be able to say that having scoliosis doesn’t have to be a disability and to hopefully inspire others and show them that you can have scoliosis and still be able to achieve what you want to achieve.
SFW: VH1 is advertising the “diverse” nature of the cast for this cycle of ANTM. Did you find the women you competed with to be a diverse group?
CN: I think they did a very good job at grabbing people that fit all different types of categories, all those different little boxes. Everyone fits into her own box, and none of us are alike. At the same time, we’re all very similar.
SFW: Were you surprised to learn that Tyra Banks wouldn’t be the host for this new season? Did you know that Rita Ora was going to be the host at the time you auditioned?
CN: I had heard rumors about a different host, but no, I didn’t know it was going to be Rita Ora.I knew about Rita as a musician. I’d heard her music before. I didn’t know that Rita was going to take Tyra’s place.
SFW: That must be scary to have to take Tyra’s place.
CN: Oh, I’m sure. Tyra Banks has been a role model in the modeling industry for years and years and years. She’s broken a lot of barriers. Those are big high heels to fill!
SFW: Before you filmed America’s Next Top Model, had you had much experience being on television?
CN: Being a model, I’ve done TV commercials, and I’ve been on set and things like that, but I’ve never done something like this. I’ve never worked on a television show, and especially not a show that is so well-known and that so many people watch.
SFW: I know you can’t discuss exactly when you filmed your season, but even though it hasn’t aired yet, does it already feel like a million years ago? Do you feel different or changed having gone through the competition?
CN: It was a lot different than what I thought it would be. I don’t think I expected myself to grow as much as I did from doing the show. I grew a lot as a person from doing the show, and I didn’t expect that.It’s like when you’re doing it, you’re doing all these things, and it seems like it’s taking forever. Every little situation and every day just seems like a year. And then when it’s done, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s done.’ It was actually very emotional for me. That was my life for months, and then I have to go back to being normal.
SFW: Normal for now, but I’m sure being on this show opens its fair share of doors, career-wise, right? I guess you might be in a holding pattern for now though until the season finishes airing.
CN: Exactly. I think it’s more just a relief that people don’t think I’m dead. I kind of went off the map there for a little bit, and I had a couple of people who were concerned about my existence, so being able to say that this is what I was doing is a relief in the sense that people aren’t worried anymore. It’s about to air, and I’m excited to see what’s going to come from it, just everything that’s going to happen from being involved with such a prestigious show.
SFW: Are you at all worried about the internet’s insatiable appetite for being very cruel to people who appear on television? Is that something you’ve prepared for?
CN: I know, right? I think mentally I’m prepared for it, because I’m a strong person, but I’m also a very sensitive person, as you will see on the show. I’m very sensitive. So no, I don’t think I’m fully prepared for some of the negativity that’s going to come, but at the same time, I think that’s what I have to come to terms with. With reality television, not everyone’s going to like you. It’s like a pair of pants, you know? Not everyone’s going to fit into those pants.