Before she donned platinum blonde locks, feathered headdresses and posed amidst a tangle of dry brush, Laura LaFrate was a no-frills girl who would rather not sit in front of a camera all day.
She had brown hair and wore little makeup. She fostered cats with her mother at their house in Scotia. And she dreamed of moving to South Africa one day to take care of sick lions and tigers.
On Wednesday, we’ll see LaFrate make her television debut in a not-so-subtle manner. The 20-year-old is one of 14 young women competing on the upcoming cycle of talk show host and model Tyra Bank’s hit show, “America’s Next Top Model.”
The Cycle 18 premiere will air on the CW network Wednesday at 9 p.m. Each week, a panel of judges will eliminate a model, so LaFrate’s family and friends will be tuning in every week to glimpse a face they’ve always known, now all glammed up for the cameras.
The theme is “British Invasion” and pits seven American women against seven former contestants of Britain’s Next Top Model — making the Scotia native one of the few lucky women to make it onto the show.
“At first, I was really annoyed by the fact that the British girls had done this before,” said LaFrate, “but the great thing about having them is they could tell us a lot of the secrets of the show and they really prepared us for what we were about to go through. They could get us emotionally set for what was about to come, and nobody truly knew what was to come.”
Any regular viewer of the show knows this is an understatement.
They know there’s always the big makeover, the CoverGirl commercial, and they know there’s always an international trip toward the end of the competition. But the front-runners can change in a heartbeat, and friendships can be forged and broken over the smallest perceived slight.
Even Banks can’t stand the same old things on the show, which has suffered a gradual drop in viewership since its inception in 2003. So she brings in surprise guest judges (some of this cycle’s guests include Kelly Osbourne and Kris Jenner) and over-the-top photo shoots (on top of an elephant or with a tarantula or a slithering snake).
But since they’re all vying for the title of “America’s Next Top Model,” they’re usually willing to do what it takes — oftentimes with a few on-screen meltdowns and humiliations.
LaFrate swears the TV crews never encouraged the women to stir up drama for higher ratings, but she was also aware that the extreme circumstances each woman was under could cause tempers to flare anyway.
“Any drama that did happen was from our own doing,” she said. “But what a lot of people don’t get is that it is overplayed with editing and music and that kind of stuff.”
The exposure LaFrate is already experiencing before the premiere has aired is a far cry from her first shot at modeling. She was 17, and it had come essentially by accident.
Her mother pushed her to enter an Albany pageant. It would be good scholarship money if she won.
“So I took the chance, and I ended up winning,” she said.
She was then approached by a modeling agent who wanted her to work up a portfolio. She did, even though up until that point she viewed modeling as “a bunch of B.S.”
“I thought it was a bunch of pretty, thin girls just sitting in front of a camera all day,” she chuckled. “But there’s a lot of acting that goes into it. And so I became hooked.”
A year later, she tried to make it onto Cycle 16 of “America’s Next Top Model,” but said her lack of exercise kept her from really getting anywhere. The show called her back for the next cycle, but she wasn’t chosen then, either. Last summer, though, she got a call from the show asking her to come out again for casting week. This time she got the nod.
From the moment she flew out to Los Angeles and well past her final episode (the results of which no one will know until it airs), everything was kept very hush-hush. In fact, any interviews with LaFrate involve the show’s publicist, who quashes any questions that might reveal a photo shoot, a specific episode or a pivotal moment in the cycle.
“It was horrible,” LaFrate said of all the secrets. “We were doing all these crazy things in different places, and the only thing we could tell (family) was how our day was. We couldn’t tell them anything.”
For the contestant who makes it to the top, the grand prize comes with a lot of exposure: a modeling contract with LA/NY Models, a guest correspondent spot on television show “Extra,” a fashion spread in Vogue Italia, the cover and a spread in Beauty in Vogue, the face of a new perfume, a single to be released with CBS and a $100,000 contract with CoverGirl cosmetics.
All of the winnings mean financial options for LaFrate, who wants to pursue veterinary school to care for large animals.
“This show, it really gives you a lot of exposure that you normally wouldn’t have,” she said.
“And with so many people seeing our faces, it gives us an opportunity for hosting, for acting, for lots of different stuff. But my main goal is to have the modeling to help pay for future schooling.”
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