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.

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