Sometimes it’s God-gifted bone structure, sometimes it’s an unbreakable bond shared with an oversized shrub named “Cousin It;” Regardless of what endearing quirks they might possess, the most memorable contestants in America’s Next Top Model history often fall short of winning the reality competition series’ top prize, but that doesn’t mean their stilettos don’t leave a lasting footprint on the show’s legacy along the way.
Week after week, Courtney Nelson, ANTM‘s latest casualty, consistently delivered some of the best photographs in franchise history across its current reinvention cycle on VH1. While her high fashion look wasn’t enough to secure the crown, Nelson rose to prominence as a fan-favorite model hopeful while marching to the beat of a different drum — not in meticulously-crafted designer gowns, but in a unicorn onesie from Japan, of all things.
Following her elimination on cycle 23’s penultimate episode — during which she hilariously improvised a makeup tutorial challenge by telling Rita Ora to “drink through a straw” after the head judge asked for advice on maintaining lipstick’s lasting power — Nelson chatted with EW about her time on the show, including her past struggles with homelessness, launching a non-profit, Beneath the Beautiful, to help patients pay for scoliosis-related treatments, and, of course, the not-so-runway-ready fashions that firmly cemented her status as one of the show’s most unconventional personalities to date.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s just get this out of the way — can we please talk about your unicorn onesie?
COURTNEY NELSON: It’s like wearing a blanket! Why wouldn’t you want to be warm and be comfortable? It’s a part of my childlike sense of self, so it wasn’t weird to me to be wearing it, but it threw some of the girls off because they’d never seen someone wear one. I brought four!
Oh my God, you have four?!
Yeah, it wasn’t like I just had the one! They’re from Japan. They’re really big in Japan!
I feel like you were purposely trying to create memes or something while you were wearing them, like that time you walked in on Ashley and Krislian having a serious conversation in the kitchen!
No, that was an accident! When I turned the corner, I was like, “Oh, snap.” It’s not weird for me, so I didn’t think of the fact that they were having a serious discussion… I was just going to get another glass of wine!
… as one does in their unicorn onesie. Totally normal.
It was a great moment. In all seriousness the narrative for a while is that you were actually a “complainer,” but I think that episode where you revealed your struggle with homelessness changed people’s perception of you.
[I wanted to] bring a voice and be able to have people relate to me because of the things I’ve been through. I wanted to open up, and I feel like I did… [The other girls] had a completely different idea of me, because nobody knew about my past. Once I opened up, they got a clearer picture of who I am and it completely shut down any preconceived ideas about who I might’ve been… Talking about having scoliosis and [back] surgery, I’ve had so many kids reach out to me who are either having the surgery, have had the surgery, or can’t have the surgery. They just say thank you so much for opening up… it’s been touching. I was able to connect with so many people. I didn’t realize I was going to be able to do that.
Outside of your personal story, I think your determination to win came across this last episode. I know the judges didn’t like it, but I loved your “drink through a straw” line during the challenge. I thought it was so funny. They didn’t understand your humor, did they?
The judges see us in the judging room… they don’t know us outside of that room. It’s hard for them to understand who we are. My humor is sarcastic and kooky. When I said that, I meant it to be funny. After I said it, I realized I probably shouldn’t have. It might’ve come off as snarky or unprofessional, but I was just trying to cover up the fact that I didn’t know what the lipstick did. I don’t wear lipstick, so quizzing me on lipstick, I’m like, I don’t even know how to apply it!
Do you think the judges knew what to do with your look? This cycle’s shoots weren’t complimentary to your look. It’s not that you weren’t doing a good job.
I feel like this season was the most commercial they’ve ever had. Going on the show, you don’t know what the objective of the whole season’s going to be. When I found out [it was commercial-oriented], I definitely felt intimidated because that’s been my ultimate problem within the industry. People want me to be more commercial and it’s just my face, man. I can’t fix it! I try! And even when I try to appear happy it sometimes comes off as angry in photos.
Yes, you were talking about Resting Bitch Face! I have to admit I also suffer from RBF, and I truly commend you for shining a light on this condition. How are we supposed to overcome this thing? Do we just have to live with it for the rest of our lives?
Just… smile… at people more? [Laughs.] I’ve had people say things to me like, ‘Are you okay? Are you upset? Is something wrong?’ And I’m like, ‘Nope, it’s just mah face! I’m happy as a clam!’”
Noted. Alright, Courtney. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
No, other than I think everyone should buy a onesie before judging a person who has one.
America’s Next Top Model‘s cycle 23 finale airs Wednesday, March 8 at 10 p.m. ET on VH1.