My mom was a medical photographer. After hours, she would sometimes take pictures of me and my brother in her studio. When I look at those pictures, I realize I am posing. I have my hand on my chin and I'm looking right at the camera. When I was about 9, my mom started a business photographing women in our living room who wanted a glamorous picture of themselves. I held her light meters and her reflectors. My mom would bring me into the darkroom, which was on our back porch, and develop the film. I was fascinated watching the pictures appear with that red light shining. It's so funny that the little assistant holding the lights was a supermodel in the making.
Growing up, I didn't think I was pretty, but I didn't think I was unattractive. Then I hit a stage where I definitely felt very unattractive. I grew three inches and lost 40 pounds in 90 days. It was just this crazy growth spurt. I felt like a freak: people would stare at me in the grocery store. Eventually, my face and body started to change. On my first day of high school, a girl came up to me and said, "Have you ever thought about modeling?" I thought she was crazy, but I decided to try it. My first modeling job was for a magazine called Black Collegiate. I was so excited because there was a little picture of me on the cover, above the title.
I didn't think I was modeling because I was beautiful; I thought it was because I looked like a model. There's a difference. I try to explain that on "America's Next Top Model." Models are tall, they have a big forehead, their chin is small, they have full lips—I knew I had that look.
I applied to college because I wanted to be a film/television producer and writer. I was accepted everywhere and was ready to go to Loyola Marymount. But a model scout from Paris came to the modeling agency in L.A., saw my picture and said, "That's the only girl I want." So I decided to defer college for a year.
Paris was weird and confusing for me.
I felt overwhelmed by all that was happening. I was 17, and I didn't know how to take care of myself. I asked my mom to send care packages of Fiddle Faddle and Oreos. I ended up eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So I got sick. When my mom came to visit me, she saw all of that and refused to send me any more packages. She taught me how to shop and cook.
Modeling is very lonely. Actresses or singers travel with entourages, with their hair and makeup people and tour managers. Models are alone. Even when you're the biggest supermodel in the world, you're alone. I tried to get to L.A. and hang out with my high-school friends as often as I could.
I never lost the dream of being in TV. When I hit 32, I said, "Let me leave this industry before it leaves me." I didn't want to be like those boxers who continue to get beat up and say they're going to retire, but they don't, and then their legacy is marred. I wanted to leave on top.
I've had my glory in the modeling world. I want to use the power I have now to cultivate new talent in front of the camera and behind the scenes. I don't think I'm a mogul, but I have a lot of television shows. There's "America's Next Top Model" and the talk show. I have a new show, "Stylista," that premieres Oct. 22—it's a reality competition-based series in search of the next fashion editor at Elle magazine. I'm also executive-producing a series of direct-to-DVD movies based on The New York Times best-selling novel series "The Clique."
If you have entrepreneurial dreams, you have to live it and breathe it. You have to treat the idea like a baby, like your child. You don't sleep when you have a new baby. I didn't sleep. I didn't have weekends. I worked nonstop. You wouldn't let just anybody baby-sit your child. When I hire someone, I have to feel that I connect with them as a person. I'm looking for honest people. I'm looking for loyalty. I'm looking for people who respect people at all levels, from the people who clean the building to the people who own the building. Those are the values that my mother instilled in me