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March 26, 2018 at 06:09 PM EDT

Noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker is making a noteworthy return to America’s Next Top Model. Six years out from his shocking departure from the program — which came after he’d served as a judge across 17 cycles — the 45-year-old is set to mount a comeback on the long-running reality competition series this week, bringing with him ANTM cycle 3 champion Eva Marcille for a terrifying photo shoot that sees the remaining contestants posing with tarantulas.

Ahead of his first appearance on the show since 2012, Barker had an exclusive chat with EW about his “teary” reunion with the cast and crew, dealing with cycle 24’s new batch of Top Model tear droplets (including some of his own) during the challenge, and whether he’s planning a future on-camera get-together with Banks and the Jays. Catch Barker on the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on VH1, and read on for the full interview.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s so great to see you back on Top Model! I miss Tyra’s weekly introduction for you. Noted fashion photographer. How did that even start?
NIGEL BARKER:
She has a very uncanny way of inventing words and giving people nicknames that stick. It was something she just decided to say: “You’re a noted photographer!” Also, my initials, N.B., stand for “nota bene” in Italian. That means “note well,” or “take note of this.” So she was joking around [with that]. And then it became a thing when she introduced me like that [on the show]! To this day, all these years later, I’ll walk into an airport and I’ll hear people going, “Isn’t that the noted fashion photographer?” [Laughs]

It’s still following you! But it’s appropriate now that you’re back. I remember when you first left the show, I saw it reported as you being “fired” alongside the Jays. Is that an accurate way to describe your departure?
I would argue that it was a mistake that we left the show! Other fans might say the same thing. But hey, things change. It’s hard to keep a show relevant. I had 17 seasons with the show, and I think in general, they had to try something different. Six cycles later, whatever they did by removing us didn’t end the show. We had an incredible time…. And it was hard for everyone [to leave]. Changes needed to be made, and we were asked not to come back. … it was something I’d done every single day for years. It came as a shock to the cast, crew, and the fans…. but ultimately there are no hard feelings. I see the Jays regularly, I see Tyra, and we’re all friends. I even work with them on various projects! It’s business…. but we’re all big enough to realize we had a great, lucky opportunity. 

How did the conversation come about with Tyra that you’d come back for this episode?
I was excited to come back. Which is why when Tyra and [producer] Ken Mok called me and asked if I’d be interested, I said I’d love to. What a fun thing to come back! You don’t see it in the episode, but they introduced me to the cast and the crew before we started filming, and I asked if I could have a moment. I spoke to the whole cast and crew, many of whom were the same people who filmed me and did my sound and audio back when I was a judge. We had a few tears and everyone felt nostalgic to have me back!

Aww, that’s so sweet! I wish we could’ve seen that.
It was a special moment. I wanted to say thank you to them for all the years of working together and for how much they taught me. I went on to work on The Face and other things after that, so it was a great springboard for the rest of my career, just like Tyra tells the models.

Was it a surprise when she asked you to come back?
Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise! I heard that Tyra was coming back. I’d always been in touch with Ken for various other projects, so there was never a lack of communication over the years. We’ve always been in touch… I remember saying, “Hey, if you’re interested in a guest spot, I’ll come back if Tyra comes back!” There were a couple of chuckles, but then they called and said, “Hey, actually, that would be a really sweet idea!” And here I am. If they want to make it a regular thing, why not? I told these other guys they better watch out, because now they had an old crow on the set! [Laughs]

What did it feel like being back in the mix of photographing the girls? Did it feel like a different show?
No, and that’s the fun thing! I do everything from the heart. I’m passionate about what I do. When I do any shoot for Top Model or any shoot I do, I treat it very much like the real deal. Some of the models said it was so different than other shoots they’d done so far on America’s Next Top Model. I’ve got children of my own now, both of which were born during my original filming of America’s Next Top Model, so there’s an element of being a slightly parental figure. On the show, I’m like an OG. So I’m there, I know how important it is, I know what a difference this can make on their career, so I don’t take no for an answer, I push them hard, and I care about their results.

It seems like you were getting a bit impatient with the models during this throwback shoot with Eva and the tarantulas, of course inspired by the infamous cycle 3 shoot. Are these typical circumstances for a fashion shoot?
Yes and no. This is the thing about Top Model…. We’ve been accused of doing fashion shoots that are way over the top, highly unusual, and wouldn’t happen in fashion. But the reality is that all of these shots have been adapted from actual photo shoots from fashion [history], one way or the other, whether it’s walking on water down a runway or walking in a bubble in a swimming pool to posing with a spider on your face…. People aren’t interested in watching the most average shoot that ever happened…. We’re trying to set you up to see that these are the most outrageous and extraordinary things, and sometimes that means working with animals…. if you’re lucky enough, it happens. For the average person? No. But we’re not looking for average. That’s why it’s called America’s Next Top Model.

VH1

 

But Shanice was crying, some of the other girls were crying…. Is that typical behavior from a model if they’re afraid of doing something?
I thought that’s because they were scared of me. [Laughs] You should have seen Drew Elliott. He was crying as well!

Normally, we’d tell an agency we’re shooting with spiders or that it’s a nude shoot or…. whatever it might be, and the girls make the decision…. But, I’ve done shoots, for example, there was one with a big albino python. We had two models, both of whom said they could do the shoot. One was absolutely fine and he had it all wrapped around his head and his body, and the next one came on set and wouldn’t go near the thing. He was terrified. I said, “Well, you said you were fine with snakes!” and he said, “I just did that get the job.” This happens, even in the world of fashion. You get irritated when things go wrong, so some of this [on Top Model] is very much the real world. And the real world isn’t perfect.

Thankfully the cycle 24 girls didn’t push you to the breaking point like CariDee or Jenah. We’ve seen some intense reactions to on-set drama from you on Top Model, so thankfully it didn’t get there!
No, it didn’t get there! [Laughs] CariDee is still one of my better friends from America’s Next Top Model. I don’t hold a grudge! No matter what was said at the time — and it was totally out of order — it’s all about moving forward. I actually loved the fact that Jenah even had the guts to say [what she said to me during cycle 9].

Tyra told me last year she plans to continue the throwback trend with Top Model. Maybe you’ll be able to keep up with the Jays once again for a judges’ reunion on camera in the future?
Anything is possible. I can’t say that it’s happening because it’s not at the moment, but there has been talk of it. I see the Jays on a regular basis. We hang out at least four our five times a year. Whenever we do, it pops up. Tyra talked about it with me when I was filming this last episode. So did Ken. But the stars have to align. Everyone’s very busy and got different careers now and have moved on. We’d certainly do it and entertain it for old time’s sake and for the fans, whom we all adore and appreciate.

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