Stowers denies "favoritism" after it was revealed that she appeared on The Tyra Banks Show and in a Wendy's commercial ahead of ANTM: "I genuinely worked for it."

It's a tale as old as Janice Dickinson's claim that "supermodel" is a word she coined in the 1970s: America's Next Top Model alums regularly complain that working after ANTM is a tough gig. For cycle 9 winner Saleisha Stowers, however, controversy erupted over her ability to work (quite a bit) before the show.

Stowers — who now goes by Sal — doesn't (and never did) hide the fact that she booked jobs, including a non-speaking role in a national Wendy's commercial or a runway booking modeling a Rami Kashoú dress on ANTM host Tyra Banks' The Tyra Banks Show stage, before contending on Top Model. She also participated in Banks' TZone leadership camp at age 14, but denies that "favoritism" factored into her December 2007 victory.

"I don't think that's true. I genuinely worked for it. I was put through the entire audition process, as every other girl was. Did I do things prior to it? Yes. Did I have modeling campaigns? No. I was growing and learning, as all of the girls were," Stowers tells EW in an interview tied to the show's 20-year anniversary, revealing that she was scouted on MySpace by a member of the ANTM casting team and had no pre-established communication with Banks.

America's Next Top Model
Chantal Jones and Saleisha Stowers on 'America's Next Top Model' cycle 9
| Credit: THE CW

"It was never Tyra calling me to be like, 'We want you to be on this show!' I don't know if the fans will ever recognize that," she continues.

She points naysayers to the cycle 9 premiere, where, during final auditions, Banks brought up Stowers' TZone enrollment — information that, Stowers claims, she didn't volunteer to production but suspects was uncovered by staff during the routine background check every contestant must complete. "I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I don't know you. You went to my TZone camp, years ago, and, because of that, I'm going to be harder to you," Banks told Stowers, before ultimately welcoming her to the main cast.

On the show, Stowers performed well, earning two first place finishes in the weekly cast ranking, and even became a bit of a meme before meme culture took over, thanks to her "extreme" makeover that many have likened to a pop culture icon.

"I've always been told [it looked like] Dora the Explorer," Stowers says with a laugh, adding that fans often ask her how she felt about the bowl cut Banks gave her at the start of the cycle — and admits that she kept it for a few years after the show. "I never thought anything negative toward it, ever!"

Stowers went on to become a soap star with regular roles on All My Children and Days of Our Lives, but still gets emotional as she comes to terms with the reality that, 16 years after taking the title, many still discredit the work she put in to come out on top.

"I understand people's concerns that I did stuff prior, but I believe there were certain guidelines within those contracts, and I was within the guidelines of the contract. If I weren't, they wouldn't have let me on the show," she explains, tearing up before continuing. "I hope people will hear me and understand when I say I really did work for it. I put a lot of pressure on myself."

She finishes: "It's a lot, what you're going through on a show like that." And, apparently, over the years that followed, too.

Banks, also a producer on the show, declined to comment on Stowers' victory, while representatives for producer Laura Fuest Silva did not respond to EW's multiple requests for comment. Executive producer Ken Mok did not address EW's inquiry about Stowers, but provided one statement through a representative: "As this story has been reported on numerous times over the last 20 years, I have nothing left to add except that I have nothing but respect for everyone who has appeared on the show," he says through. "I wish all of them nothing but health and happiness in their future endeavors."

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