Yaya DaCosta had a near-perfect streak on America’s Next Top Model, but there was one screw-up that almost got her eliminated. In 2004, she competed on the third cycle of the Tyra Banks-hosted modeling reality show, eventually getting crowned runner-up. Along the way, she performed exceptionally well, her ANTM persona marked by her Ivy League schooling: worldly, overachieving, and slightly snobbish, perhaps because she was too smart for your stereotypical model mold. Case in point: When petty drama broke out in the models’ house, she showed up wearing a shirt that said “RESPEITO”—“respect” in Portuguese, a language she speaks fluently—bilingually schooling the other contestants.
Yaya was only in the bottom two once during ANTM and in the ninth episode, which aired November 17, 2004, it was an acting challenge that got her there. After winning a previous acting challenge that same episode—her fourth win in a row, much to the other contestants’ eye-rolling dismay—she almost lost it all due to a disrespectful gag. Asked to simulate a Japanese commercial while eating umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum), Yaya was unable to fake her way through it, and spit the plum out in front of the judges. She was saved at elimination, but not before Tyra put Yaya in her place, telling her to go find the nearest bakery and eat a slice of humble pie.
Before our meeting, my idea of the “real Yaya DaCosta” was purely shaped by multiple viewings of America’s Next Top Model. She can come off private and prickly, a bit of an ice queen. Other contestants on Top Model complained that it wasn’t easy getting to know her, that she always seemed to have a wall up. Maybe I wanted to break down that wall, or maybe I wanted to see for myself, confirm what a reality show star is actually like. But I definitely wanted to meet her.
When I finally do, my presumptions crumble.
Yaya greets me not with a handshake, but with a big hug. As we leave Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, she has friendly chatter with a man selling water on the street. We had spent the earlier part of our afternoon shooting photos there, in the park. “Plain heels or blingy?” she asks as she holds up two different high-heeled pairs. We agree that the more low-key G-Star RAW sneakers she already has on are best. She’s styled herself today, looking très cool—but not unapproachably so—in a ribbed white shirt and ripped acid wash jeans.
Our photographer looks up a hill, envisioning Yaya sitting atop a small bridge. Immediately Yaya runs up, barely aided by the photographer’s gentle persuasion. Today, I feel like Jay Manuel, a.k.a. Mr. Jay, the flamboyant creative director on ANTM who, for 10 years, aided all contestants on their shoots. I light up like Jay does when he finally finds a model who gets it. A happy Jay barely talks—because he doesn’t have to bark orders about how to model—and I, too, spend most of the time in the park in awe-filled silence as Yaya does her thing. And damn, she does it well.
Yaya has no diva streak as far as I can tell. She’s down for whatever, even if that means getting a little bit of dirt on her. She lays down in the grass, covers herself in cherry blossom branches; she even climbs up a tree, despite a sassy park ranger driving by and yelling, “Helloooo, you can’t be up there!” She giggles and she hops down, apologizing—but not before getting in a few fierce shots. Like the sunny 69-degree day we meet on, there’s only warmth to Yaya. As we walk, she talks engagingly about her love for dancing (something she was critiqued about in regards to her modeling on ANTM), and how she’s careful about her exercise because she’s biologically shaped to be buff. Then she lifts up her sleeve to unveil the gun show. Bam.
One look at Yaya and “model” isn’t a hard guess. But what we just did in the park isn’t really her day-to-day anymore. Twelve years post-Top Model, Yaya DaCosta’s rebranded herself as an actress. She’s one of the most well-known Top Model graduates, rivaled only by Analeigh Tipton, third place contestant on cycle 11 who starred in Lucy with Scarlett Johansson and led the short-lived ABC rom-com series, Manhattan Love Story. In 2014, Vulture ranked Analeigh just ahead of Yaya, with her “power point” being her “part in a Ryan Gosling movie.”
Now, Yaya’s about to usurp that “power point,” co-starring with—you guessed it—Ryan Gosling in her next movie The Nice Guys, also starring Russell Crowe. She plays the assistant to a woman (Kim Basinger) looking for her kidnapped daughter. If a preview of Yaya wearing a smashing pink ’70s-era gown and holding a stylish spy gun in the trailer is indicative of anything, it’s probably that she’s not just any old assistant. “There’s a little plot twist in there,” she hints, but doesn’t give much more than that. We’d both rather talk about Gosling anyway.
Yaya gushes about Gosling over lunch at Cheryl’s Global Soul, a small soul food eatery next to the park. We’re both famished but Yaya can barely get a bite in, as she also excitedly talks about everything she’s been up to lately.
The Nice Guys is kind of a big moment for the 33-year-old actress, but it’s not like this is her first time around the Hollywood block. Her first big post-ANTM moment was a spot alongside Antonio Banderas in 2006’s dance movie Take the Lead. In 2010, she shared the screen with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right. Still, I get the sense that Yaya’s on the up and up. ANTM wasn’t her peak, nor were any of these movies—that’s still yet to come.
If there’s one big myth about Yaya DaCosta’s career, it’s that none of this could have happened without Tyra Banks or America’s Next Top Model. Yaya stands on the other side of that fence, insisting that her appearance on ANTM almost hurt her chances at becoming an actress.
“There was such a stigma in Hollywood, and people don’t realize that,” she says. “The very directors and writers that were hiring me had just gotten their shows denied by a network because a new reality show was taking up that time slot, so the stigma didn’t just have to do with being a model, it was reality TV in general. You didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t on your résumé. Producers for Take the Lead and Honeydripper told me that if they had known, they wouldn’t have hired me.”
“I still haven’t gotten to show all of what I can do.”
Yaya is very concertedly trying to erase her Top Model past. “Yaya DaCosta Slams ‘ANTM’” was a headline last year. She told VH1 she had intentional “ANTM amnesia.” She hasn’t watched the show since, and she doesn’t watch back on her own season. Fully aware of this, I tread lightly on the subject of America’s Next Top Model, but as someone who’s watched all 22 cycles, I can’t not bring it up.
She tells me how it happened. Senior year of college, at Brown University, Yaya’s roommates encouraged her to apply, and before she knew it, she was in New York, auditioning for a coveted spot. She made the next cut, and then the next; eventually it was just down to her and Eva (“the Diva”) Pigford, who took the title home in the finale.
“They give everyone their application, which we walk into the room with,” Yaya says, recalling the early moments of the ANTM process. “Mine had a post-it on it and it said, in caps, ‘READS LIKE A BOOK.’ I’m a writer! I love to write! I was answering questions really in depth. And I should never have done that, because it set me up with the role that I was going to play: the brainy one. I was like, ‘Ugh.’” Still, she fit that typecast well, with eloquent confessionals and an above-it-all attitude towards the reality show drama. She also made sure she was never anything but herself, from sticking to her own wardrobe or being adamant about keeping her hair natural—something she still rocks as an afro now, and was excited to keep in The Nice Guys.
Winning second place can still get you a modeling career, but people should have figured out by now “top model” is a bit of an exaggeration. America’s Next Top Model has yet to produce the next Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell or Cindy Crawford, or hell, the next Tyra Banks. “I did sign with an agency, and I did it for a little while,” she says. “But it was right along with bartending, hostessing, teaching, Portuguese class. All these things were going to support my acting career. So I kept it up for as long as I could and then I stopped everything, and just focused on my acting.”
After the show, she basically pressed reset on her rising fame, a choice that nine out of 10 reality stars likely wouldn’t make. In that way, Yaya really is a rare breed of former reality star—neither tainted by her 15 minutes of fame nor propelled to ubiquity by it. Right now, much of her life right now is playing a lead in NBC’s medical drama Chicago Med, Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire spin-off. And of course, there’s this big movie coming out. “My artwork has paid off, right?” she asks. “I would say that I’ve proven myself. I still haven’t gotten to show all of what I can do, but that’s just about finding those roles.”
When our food comes out, Yaya gawks at my fried chicken sandwich. Meanwhile, a mushroom quiche and a plate of French toast sits in front of her. She couldn’t make her mind up, so she ordered both.
“I eat way more than any other petite woman that I’ve seen except for maybe my sister, because we have similar genetics. We just have very high metabolisms,” she says.
That’s such a rude thing to say, Yaya, I think. But “Blessed,” is the only thing I manage to say in response.
“That’s what everyone says! But I’m like, it’s actually expensive. We go out to dinner and then I have to go out to dinner a second time ‘cause I’m not full.”
She continues: “In the so-called ‘black culture’ of America,” she says with air quotes, “a beautiful woman was curvy. Actually being told that I have to lose weight was when I knew I was in the wrong business. That was very strange. So yeah, now if I have to gain weight for a role it’s very exciting, if I have to lose weight for a role, I’m open to that. If it’s for a movie.”
Despite appearing on a modeling show, she didn’t realize her body was objectified and idealized by American culture until she was older. “I heard all these women complaining about getting fat, and I just could not wait to get fat,” she recalls. She was bullied, getting smacked on the forehead by mean girls in the school hallways, teased about her hair (which, even then, she refused to straighten), and mocked for being a late bloomer. “Skinny was not cute,” she says.
The constant scrutiny of her form might explain why Yaya’s shied away from modeling and jumped headfirst into acting. But she's always been fully committed to that craft, despite that slight slip-up on ANTM. She took an acting class in high school as an elective, even before modeling, and it became her “safe space.” Acting is still that safe space for her, it's just a very public, high-pressured safe space.
“What is it about fame, about the entertainment industry, that makes it difficult
for people to live
happy, satisfying lives?”
When I ask her about her most challenging role, she answers as I’d expect: Whitney. Last year, Yaya passed the ultimate actor’s challenge by stepping into the shoes of an icon for a biopic. A big one—Whitney Houston. “There was so much pressure to do her memory justice,” she says. “And the circumstances were not ideal. I mean, I did have the best director I could have asked for. Angela Bassett was amazing. But we had such little time.” Despite lackluster reviews on the TV movie, Yaya’s acting is easily the best part of Whitney. Many critics have noted the way Yaya nailed Whitney's mannerisms and cosmic presence, something that can’t really be taught.
But there’s another movie that was even harder for her personally. That would be 2013’s Big Words, a film that coincided with her brother’s death. “I was only on set for five days,” she says. “The night before [shooting], I had learned of my brother’s accident.” Yaya doesn’t disclose her brother’s name or the exact cause of his death, but she has previously spoken about Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown’s death, and knowing the pain of losing a family member. “And those five days, I was being told that he was in a coma, although I knew that he had already passed.” Yaya’s trying to hold it together but she’s tearing up. All those episodes of ANTM, but Yaya’s never been realer than she is right now, right in front of me.
She continues: “I wanted to just be with family and be quiet and not say anything and not see people. I just wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. And I had to perform. And it was a bubbly character. But it was an amazing exercise, and I thank my brother for the strength. He helped me get through it. He told me in a dream on Sunday that he had passed. So I was dealing with family members telling me what’s happening in the hospital, but me knowing that any day they’re going to realize that he’s been gone. Playing this stripper with an attitude, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ But I did come out of that experience feeling like, if I could do that, then I could do anything.”
“It’s helpful,” she says, wiping tears away. “The anniversary of his passing is in a few days, so I’m feeling it right now.”
Yaya needs to be stronger than ever now, parenting a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, with whom she lives in Chicago most of the time while shooting Med. Playing Whitney, and more recently, with Prince’s death, staying grounded is something that’s been on Yaya’s mind lately. “What is it about fame, about the entertainment industry, that makes it difficult for people to live happy, satisfying lives?” she says. “What is it that moving forward we need to protect ourselves from? What do we need to hold on to? What do we need to let go of? We should be constantly checking in and making sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. Because if it were really as fabulous all the time, as the media would have you believe, why are we losing so many people so young?”
There’s one last thing Yaya wants cleared up before we part ways. It’s about her divorce—a Page Six story last November about her and her husband Joshua Bee Alafia separating. “You get to read that you were divorced a second time when you were never married in the first place!” she says, exasperated.
“We had a relationship and a beautiful child came out of that, but it’s really interesting to see how much more power strangers have over your narrative on the internet. I called Wikipedia and tried to correct it and they said, ‘No, some article said—’ and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, this is me talking right here!’ I’ve just made it my practice to kind of ignore it because if I worry too much about what other people say, then I wouldn’t be able to spend the energy necessary on what I’ve been doing.”
As always, Yaya DaCosta is above the drama. And after an hour and a half talking, she can finally dig into her quiche.