She’s got the looks of a star and the tenacity of a social activist, but America’s Next Top Model cycle 24 champion Kyla Coleman’s most admirable quality might be her fearlessness. Whether she was effortlessly serving cover-worthy snapshots while a tarantula crawled over her body or unabashedly demanding that host Tyra Banks tell her when the hell Life-Size 2 comes out, Coleman earned every ounce of her ANTM glory with guts — and that’s the same way she plans to approach disrupting the modeling industry with her new title in tow.
“Times are changing, and Top Model is changing with the times,” Coleman, 21, tells EW. “I want younger girls to watch it and be able to identity with us in real life. Plus-sized women, older women, women with mental health struggles — that’s all very important.”
Coleman beat out 14 other women on the most diverse cycle in ANTM’s 15-year history, one that saw models with unconventional body types, a young woman with alopecia, a 42-year-old grandmother, a bisexual woman who lived in her car, and — gasp! — a Republican all competing against one another. But as a passionate champion for the rights of marginalized people, the biracial beauty feels that it’s her responsibility to break barriers for unorthodox models in the cutthroat world of fashion now that she proudly struts the runway with the gait of an ANTM victor.
“This cycle it was all about body positivity and diversity and the age barrier, and even now I still feel that I may be part of the problem,” the Lacey, Washington, native says. “I do perpetuate the problem of a tall, lighter-skinned beauty. … I feel like, even being the youngest, I was like, damn, we took off the age boundary and I’m the youngest one! My body isn’t a size 0, and I’m not a perfect size 2 either. Although I won, I still struggle with my body and I’m going to struggle in this industry, but it’s okay because the judges made it seem okay.”
It’s perhaps that ability to plug herself into real issues in a contentious political climate and reach beyond the page of a magazine to expand the standards of beauty that tickled Banks’ fancy. Coleman, who says she held a rally against police brutality instead of attending her high school prom, plans to better the lives of others with her podium, including public speaking engagements with high school students on issues such as suicide and mental health. Still, she thinks the key to change still rests in the ANTM creator’s forward-thinking attitude and readiness to assert that women who typically exist on the outer edges of the mainstream’s spectrum of beauty.
“It would be great if there was better representation for everybody,” Coleman says. “We got lucky on the show because Tyra is more accepting than the real world is. … Top Model is legendary, and I hope it can change the industry a little bit. If Tyra Banks can accept all of our alternative beauty, maybe everyone else can too.”
Read on for EW’s full interview with Coleman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on winning! How are you feeling?
KYLA COLEMAN: [Light shuffling] Sorry, I’m watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Let me turn it down.
You know what, I’m not even mad at that.
[Laughs] Sorry! But yeah, I’m excited for my family to finally know [the results].
You weren’t allowed to tell your family that you won?
You’re not allowed to tell anybody!
So your family’s pissed that you’ve kept it a secret?
Yeah, and people [tell] my dad like, “I know you know!” My dad’s so emotional, so I definitely didn’t tell him. I hardly told him I was going to be on the show.
He must be proud, though. Job well done. You also gave me one of my favorite moments ever in Top Model history when you asked Tyra when Life-Size 2 was coming out. What possessed you to ask?
I’m such a weird person. When I [watched that episode], I didn’t even remember asking that! Like, why would I scream at Tyra Banks? What’s wrong with me? We were screaming movie titles [to loosen up during the shoot], so I just thought, oh, Life-Size 2, we need that. It was a perfect opportunity because Eve was standing right in front of me. But I still didn’t get an answer.
She just sat there and smized!
But I was like, “No. I need to know when it’s coming.”
All of Stan Twitter was so proud. In all seriousness, though, I think what the show has looked for in a winner has changed so much over the years. Why do you think you’re the right winner for the show at this time?
This cycle it was all about body positivity and diversity and the age barrier, and even now I still feel that I may be part of the problem. … I do perpetuate the problem of a tall, lighter-skinned beauty. So there are times I know places where I should go and places I shouldn’t. So I feel like, even being the youngest, I was like, damn, we took off the age boundary and I’m the youngest one! My body isn’t a size 0, and I’m not a perfect size 2 either. Although I won, I still struggle with my body and I’m going to struggle in this industry, but it’s okay because the judges made it seem okay. I gained weight on the show, but they were never like, “Kyla you need to lose weight!” And on past cycles they’d tell the girls to lose weight. They were like, “As long as you’re happy and doing well, it’s okay.”
Even the girls who quit were treated much better by Tyra this time around. As Tiffany from cycle 4 knows, Tyra didn’t always like a girl who gave up.
It’s an intense experience, but they do value your mental health. If you genuinely went to Tyra and said you weren’t okay, she’d care for you. … There’s a lot behind the scenes that people didn’t see. … Times are changing, and Top Model is changing with the times, and that’s important. I want younger girls to watch it and be able to identity with us in real life. Plus-sized women, older women, women with mental health struggles — that’s all very important.
I know that’s all very close to your heart, as you were touted as an activist on the show. What kind of activism do you do?
When I was in high school, I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance, and from there I met a bunch of people who were interested in different things. I volunteered at Stonewall when I was 17, and through social media I met a man who was a victim of police brutality. … He was profiled, shot at point-blank range, and now he’s in a wheelchair, but the police weren’t charged with anything. … My dad raised us to be aware of that stuff. My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1928, so he was familiar with the KKK. He was the first black doctor in his hospital [where he worked]. He always taught us to recognize where we came from, and to realize that we have privilege. … So I always had that in the back of my mind.
I didn’t go to my junior-senior prom; I held a rally on police brutality [instead]. … I’m still trying to find the balance between where I should speak and where I should allow others. That’s my goal in this whole thing: Realize my place as privileged, but still help other people raise their voices because there are so many stories that need to be heard.
Where can you find an intersection of activism and modeling?
Representation is so important. [We need] diversity in models in general: some body diversity, more models of color, more gender-fluid models, and more models with disabilities. I was a reading tutor for special-needs kids in high school. There was a little girl in there [who] opened a magazine and she said, “I want to be pretty like her [while pointing to a model],” and it broke my heart. I can open a magazine and maybe see someone that’s close to how I look … but this little girl is not going to open a magazine and see anyone that looks like her. … To hear this little girl … not understand that she’s beautiful as she is [upset me]. When we see “ideals” of beauty, we don’t see people with disabilities. … It would be great if there was better representation for everybody. … We got lucky on the show because Tyra is more accepting than the real world is. … Top Model is legendary, and I hope it can change the industry a little bit. If Tyra Banks can accept all of our alternative beauty, maybe everyone else can too.
Someone who viewers assumed was not so much on board with that mindset was Liberty. She told me she learned a lot from you, though. Was there more to your relationship than what we saw on camera?
There are no hard feelings between Liberty and I. The situation [about feminism] on the couch was overly edited. … Liberty’s ideals were a little bit confused. She was a bit misinformed [and] I don’t think she fully understood what she was supporting. I wasn’t angry at her when she said she didn’t believe in feminism, I just didn’t feel like I needed to explain why [I did]. People in marginalized groups are expected to explain themselves and why they feel a certain way and why they’re offended by things. … I could have taken the moment to educate [Liberty], but having to have women or people in marginalized groups explain themselves perpetuates the idea that we have to explain why we [are] human, and that’s not fair.
What’s next for you?
I just finished school. … I’m going to move to L.A., hopefully sign, and start working. … I [also] wanted to speak at schools in the area about my experiences. … While I was filming the anti-bullying episode [of ANTM], it hit me. … I came home and someone I knew had committed suicide, and she was in high school. My brother also lost a friend to suicide, and my mom lost a friend to suicide. It’s something that was a little bit normalized, when that should never be normalized. So I want to speak about my own experience, [which] can be helpful to those kids!