By Joey Nolfi
January 05, 2018 at 11:30 AM EST
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A version of this story appears in the new, Winter TV Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

The future of fierce is here as Tyra Banks reclaims her throne atop America’s Next Top Model for its cycle 24 premiere on Jan. 9 on VH1, and in true ANTM fashion, she’s snatching wigs (yes, literally, in a classic casting moment from the episode) amid an evolved format that ushers in “noted fashion photographer” Nigel Barker’s return and a RuPaul’s Drag Race crossover.

“I’m always trying to break the mold of what’s considered beautiful. You’ll see different types of girls that you haven’t seen before on Top Model, in terms of ­physicality,” Banks, making her return to the panel for the first time since 2015, previously told EW of the cast, which features a grandmother, a young woman living with alopecia, multiple plus-sized competitors, and a Donald Trump supporter named Liberty.

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“Tyra’s a spokesperson for diversity…. That’s part of the diversity of America,” co-judge Drew Elliott adds. “It’s important to have people with different views. I don’t agree with Liberty’s views, but did they impact how I felt about her as a model? They didn’t.”

“I’m from Indiana, and that’s a red state, so I understand where these people are [from],” the Paper Magazine creative director continues. “It didn’t leave a negative impact as far as competition. It will be interesting to see how the audience takes to her and thinks about who she is. [ANTM] was also eye-opening for Liberty because she was born in Idaho and raised in a pretty sheltered life, so [we] exposed her to other women from diverse groups, activists, and those who are outspoken about their views and how they think. She seems like an old soul, like she’s so much older than the rest of the cast even though she’s not, just because of how conservative she is.”

Elliott admits that while Liberty, one of 14 model hopefuls who will compete for the ANTM crown when cycle 24 premieres, proved to be a worthy modeling talent, her controversial politics intimidated him before the competition even began.

“She’s a great model, and I think that she has a lot to offer in that sense,” he observes. “I was very interested in how [she’d react] to people in the industry. I’m gay, so what does she think about me? [Co-judge] Law Roach is an African-American guy from Chicago who’s gay as well, and Ashley Graham is not a typical beauty. It’s like the tables have turned: [She has] that Republican, white girl privilege.”

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The controversy is ­balanced, Elliott explains, by ANTM’s signature focus on empowerment across one of the show’s most eclectic cycles yet.

“The fashion industry still has a pulse, no matter what is happening in the political climate; all of that just impacts what style is. As things have shifted to video and Instagram, these social platforms have given models dimension, and we need them to work harder to be able to establish what their personality is and what are the pillars and tenets of what they believe in,” he says. “What people want to see is total fantasy, and what you’re going to see in this season is total fantasy. On the photo shoots and video shoots, we really take you into a different world, and that’s important to viewers…. Everyone is published. We all have Instagram, but we also have to come to work, and a model’s job is to bring the fantasy and the excitement. We’ve given [our models] the tools to demonstrate their activism, and you’re going to see it represented on the show.”

But Elliott promises they’re not “taking the fun out of” the competition, either: “You stick 14 girls into a house, put cameras on them all day — it’s gonna be bonkers.”

America’s Next Top Model returns Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.

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