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December 08, 2017 at 09:30 AM EST

A version of this story appears in the First Look issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday. For more exclusive interviews and First Look photos only in EW, buy it here or subscribe now.

Every monarch needs a royal court, so when Tyra Banks sought to reclaim her rightful spot atop the America’s Next Top Model throne, she enlisted a squad of drag queens to herald her return.

In an upcoming photo shoot during the series’ 24th cycle, contestants are paired with RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Katya, Valentina, and Manila Luzon, which proved to be a trying task for some of Banks’ model hopefuls.

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“They’re so friggin’ gorgeous and can pose their asses off,” says Banks, who hasn’t hosted ANTM since 2015, relinquishing her duties to pop star Rita Ora for the program’s debut season on VH1. “That’s a difficult model to be in a shot with.… Not all of my models prevailed. Valentina killed it. I’m sitting there editing film and I’m like, can I get a shot of my girls looking at least half as good as Valentina?”

Previous judges Nigel Barker, Drew Elliott, Ashley Graham, and cycle 3 winner Eva Marcille are also back for a season that’s as much about pushing ANTM into the future as it is rooted in the show’s storied history.

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“We were inspired by Throwback Thursday on Instagram and how popular that is, so we decided to dedicate an entire episode to Top Model throwback, and that’s something I want to continue on the show in the future: to always have an episode that’s all about the throwback,” Banks continues, noting that Barker and Marcille return for the special episode. “We threw it to the fans and asked: Out of every single America’s Next Top Model challenge or photo shoot, what’s your favorite? They gave their answers via a poll, and you’re going to see [the results] reenacted, but in a new way. We had to make it new and flip it.”

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Judging by EW’s exclusive photos above, it seems as if the infamous tarantula shoot that originally set Marcille apart from her cycle 3 castmates may or may not play a role in the episode as well.

When conceptualizing for cycle 24, Banks didn’t stop at stoking nostalgia for steadfast fans, either. She’s also flipping the script with the new crop of contenders vying for the ANTM crown as, for first time in the show’s 14-year history, models of all ages were eligible to compete. This year, the oldest is in her 40s, and there’s a grandparent in the mix, too!

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“This is in alignment with me always wanting to break down barriers when it comes to beauty and acceptance,” Banks explains. “As you get older and as your face and hair show signs of age, there’s beauty in that, too, and it kind of pisses me off that men aren’t running to dye their hair as fast as women are. So many male models work forever with salt-and-pepper hair, and I see 20-year-olds going, ‘Oh my god, he’s so hot!’”

“I’m like, screw that mess, now it’s time to celebrate the women,” she concludes. “As we mature, we get better… so why cut off that age?”

America’s Next Top Model cycle 24 premieres Tuesday, Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. ET on VH1. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with Banks.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The last time we talked, you told me you didn’t think you’d return to Top Model. What changed your mind?
TYRA BANKS:
A lot of it had to do with the fans. I didn’t realize how vocal, passionate, and influential they are! In the beginning I knew they’d be like, “We miss you!” I knew that would happen: I created the show and I’ve been on it forever, but I thought it’d disappear, because change is hard and then people get used to something new and they move on, but that wasn’t the case, and [the response] got louder. People were saying, “Come back! How could you desert your baby? You left all of us behind! You made me feel better about my forehead, my butt, my lips, my eyes, my legs, and you just left us?” [Top Model] is my baby and my creation [and] I needed to come back to preserve the baby and to listen to these damn fans! Their opinion matters!

Was the age limit something you’d incorporated after hearing it from other people too?
I didn’t hear that so much from fans. The No. 1 thing I hear from fans is doing a Kids Next Top Model, and then they send their kids’ pictures.

The age thing, I don’t think they asked about that because they didn’t look at it as an option. The fashion industry cuts you off and it’s over, that’s kind of a known thing, so it wasn’t being asked in droves. This is in alignment with me always wanting to break down barriers when it comes to beauty and acceptance. Why are we so caught up in this number? Why did we come up with the 27-year-old age limit? Honestly, I don’t know. I remember pushing it later than we were thinking, initially…. it’s not how old you are, it’s how old you look. As you get older and as your face and hair show signs of age, there’s beauty in that, too, and it kind of pisses me off that men aren’t running to dye their hair as fast as women are. So many male models are working forever, and they have salt and pepper hair! I see 20-year-olds going, “Oh my god, he’s so hot!” I’m like, screw that mess, now it’s time to celebrate the women, because as we mature, get better… so why cut off that age?

How did adding women of all ages affect the dynamic of the competition?
There were some advantages to some of my girls who were older. There’s one girl who’s concealing her age, actually, and for a while she doesn’t say how old she is. It’s a testament [to what I said before]: all the models in the competition think she’s in her twenties, but she’s not! She’s 10 years older than what they assumed. There’s also a disparity of maturity, where there might be some girls twerking in the living room and the older model is over there thinking, what the hell is that, what’s going on with this twerk contest? There’s a competitive advantage the older woman has. When it comes to technology and social media, however, a younger model will have a leg up on that, so you’ll see some challenges there. We have a good amount of girls who are over the age limit, so it’s really nice… I’m always trying to break the mold of what is considered beautiful, and you’ll see different things and different types of girls that you haven’t seen before on Top Model, in terms of physicality.

You also have some RuPaul’s Drag Race queens this cycle, too — you had future Drag Race winner Raja on Top Model as a makeup artist before Drag Race was a thing — so what inspired you to bring more Drag Race queens into the fold this year?
Something popped into my head: princesses and queens! I told my team, “Okay, give me a photoshoot with that theme, but with our girls and the drag queens!” They took it from there and did a really good job. The girls we got from Drag Race are so friggin’ gorgeous and can pose their asses off, so that’s a difficult type of model to be in a shot with. And not all of my models prevailed. Particularly, Valentina was killing it. I’m sitting there editing film and I’m like, can I get a shot of my girls looking at least half as good as Valentina?

You’re also bringing back Nigel and Eva, too, right?
We were inspired by Throwback Thursday on Instagram and how popular that is, so we decided to dedicate an entire episode to Top Model throwback, and that’s something I want to continue on the show in the future, to always have an episode that’s all about the throwback. We threw it to the fans and asked: Out of every single America’s Next Top Model challenge or photoshoot, what’s your favorite? They gave their answers via a poll, and you’re going to see [the results] reenacted, but in a new way. We had to make it new and flip it… Nigel is the photographer in that episode, and Eva makes a special appearance as well, looking fantastic and giving the models a run for their money.

What about the Jays or anyone else from past seasons?
I would absolutely love that. I keep in very close contact with Miss J and I have a little bit of contact with Mr. Jay, but Miss J, we text often and talk, and unfortunately he wasn’t able to do this season, but if we’re back, I gotta have him back! I love him personally and professionally.

With all the changes, what are you looking for in a winner this year? How has the idea of what a Top Model winner is changed over the years?
I’ve always wanted somebody who’s not super cookie cutter. What’s her story? Who is she beyond a photo? Particularly in the day and age of social media, models aren’t just a face on the cover of a magazine or in a spread. There’s a life and a mission behind them that they’re able to share with the world. It’s important that my models, particularly my finalists and winners, have something the audience at home can connect to, because there’s always a prettier girl, there’s always a fiercer face, and there’s always some sharper cheekbones. That stuff starts to get boring after a while. What else are you bringing to the table to make you interesting and to make people care? That’s what I’m looking for.

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