Angelea Preston describes the moment she won Season 17 of America’s Next Top Model: All Stars with levity. It was mid-summer 2011 and she, along with the other finalists, was in Crete, Greece, the season’s international destination. Preston remembers her then-25-year-old self, wearing a bespoke designer gown, seeing her face appear on a large screen behind the judges panel to indicate she’d won. “I screamed. I just could not believe it was me,” she tells me. “I almost ran off the set. I was like ‘Are you serious?!,’ breaking the fourth wall and looking in the camera.” It had taken Preston three tries — she’d previously competed in Seasons 12 and 14 before coming back for All Stars — but she’d finally clinched the crown, and with it prizes including a Vogue Italia spread, a fashion campaign for Express, a guest correspondent gig on Extra, and the coveted $100,000 CoverGirl contract. “I hugged the other girls, but at the same time I was like, ‘Bye, y’all! Peace out! Y’all can go! I just won, and my life is about to start!’”
But fans have never seen Preston’s victory. After producers learned that she’d briefly worked as an escort, her title as America’s Next Top Model — and all the prizes that came with it — were taken away. In the finale that aired on television, host Tyra Banks and her fellow judges informed viewers that Preston had been disqualified under “unusual circumstances,” and another model, Lisa D’Amato, was named the season’s victor instead. “They made me feel like I’d be a failure for the rest of my life,” Preston says.
America’s Next Top Model has cast a long shadow on reality television. From on-air fights to outbursts that are still talked about nearly two decades later, Top Model was a major chapter in the evolution of scripted reality competition programs. It landed on a formula that worked, first in the United States, and eventually the world, with over 40 international spinoffs.
During the early days of the pandemic, Top Model’s availability to stream online spurred a renewed, more critical interest in the show and its treatment of cast members, including Preston. As fans returned to her story, she started writing a memoir.
“When you Google my name, the words ‘disqualified’ or ‘escort’ pop up,” she says. “It annoys me sometimes. This one moment has been following me for a decade, and people really want to know what happened.”
I first met Preston in September 2021, at a hotel in the West Seneca suburb of Buffalo, New York. At nearly 6 feet tall, with limbs akin to Pirouette wafers and an endearing, toothy smile, it’s clear she was born to be in front of a camera. In many ways, she was the same “716” girl (a cheeky reference to her Buffalo area code) who America saw on Wednesday nights at 8 o’clock.
Preston grew up a few miles away on Buffalo’s East Side, which she lovingly calls “the ghetto.” She moved back in 2012 and has spent the subsequent years raising her 9-year-old son and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Buffalo State College. That morning, she was up with the sun for work at a local radio station. Her lime green wide-leg jeans, white T-shirt, and espadrille flats, she said, were chosen for comfort.
Thirteen years before our meeting, when she first auditioned for Top Model at 22 years old, she believed the show was a one-way ticket to stardom. After making it past the first open call for Season 12 at a nearby college, Preston spent all her money on a bus to New York City for the second round of casting. She slept in a bathroom stall at the Port Authority Bus Terminal for two nights, something that became part of her narrative on the show. Despite making it to the on-camera portion in Las Vegas, she didn’t make it into the Top Model house, where contestants live during the competition. She says an argument with another contestant made producers worry that she couldn’t control her temper. Preston says she was urged to seek out anger management training and audition again, particularly by Michelle Mock, Top Model’s long-time supervising talent producer. (Mock declined to comment on this story.)
Two seasons later, in 2009, Preston made the cut. This time, the producers pulled her aside to say they felt her new outlook was too serene, she says, and that she’d need to amp up the drama if she wanted to stick around. “Basically, they said I’d go home if I wasn’t giving them good TV,” Preston recalls now. “I started to realize what this Top Model game was about. It’s about staying on the show as long as you possibly can by playing the game.”
In Season 14, she was eliminated in the penultimate round after a fiery, successful sprint. Preston was proud of how far she’d made it and felt sure that this was the beginning of a successful career. Banks seemingly agreed. Her last words to Preston as she exited the judging room were said with a smile: “I have high hopes for you.”
It was too good to be true, but I still went along with it.
In 2010, shortly after her second run on Top Model, Preston moved to New York City to continue modeling, but found it exceedingly difficult to break into the industry. “It started to feel like a joke to me,” says Preston, who was 24 at the time. “I would bring my portfolio to an agency, which had all my Top Model photos in them. That’s all I had. I remember going to an agent in New York, and he asked, ‘This is a Top Model portfolio, isn’t it?’ After I said yes, he scoffed and closed my book. He said, ‘If we like you, we’ll call you.’”
He never called. Preston believes this was partially because of a stigma associated with the show. In her experience, agents viewed former Top Model contestants as reality stars, not models, and back then, the fashion industry wanted little to do with them. She says it also didn’t help that the on-air edit made her seem volatile and difficult to get along with. “I felt like a failure. I wasn’t making it in the city as a model, and no one from the show was helping me out,” she says.
She remembers being recognized at a bus stop shortly after Season 14 aired. A woman asked what she was doing all the way in South Jamaica, a predominantly working-class neighborhood in Queens. Preston told her she lived nearby, and the woman was shocked. “She didn’t get why I was living near Rockaway Boulevard in Queens, and not on Fifth Avenue or somewhere in Manhattan, because I had just been on Top Model.”
Preston became desperate for work. One day, while walking down Jamaica Avenue in Queens, a stranger pulled up beside her in a luxury car. He introduced himself as T* and asked Preston if she was a model. She described him as “super attractive,” and they exchanged phone numbers. However, during their early conversations, she felt something was off. She remembers feeling like she was being recruited for something unrelated to modeling. “I straight up asked him if he was a pimp, and he was like, ‘Are you a ho?’ And I was like ‘What? No!’” she says now. “But it all felt kind of playful. I was very naïve.”
T told Preston to come meet two of his friends, both of whom went on “dates” in exchange for money and luxury goods. The women she met were, as Preston remembers, “very beautiful.” One had a designer dog in a Louis Vuitton bag. Both had their hair and nails impeccably done, and wore designer shoes and Rolex watches. They told Preston that all she had to do was go on dates to reap the same benefits; there was no sex involved. “It was too good to be true, but I still went along with it,” she says.
T soon flew Preston and the other two women to North Carolina. Upon arriving, the women told her they were heading to a strip club — that’s how they found their “dates.” Preston became uncomfortable. She didn’t want to go, and used menstrual cramps as a reason to stay behind. They looked at her. One woman said, “Uh, girl, T’s not going to like that.”
At this point, Preston realized she had made a mistake. Very few people knew where she was. She’d told the rest she was traveling for a job in real estate. She wanted to leave, but didn’t have money to fly back to New York. “I didn’t want to tell [my family] that I’d gotten myself into a situation with this guy and now need[ed] money to get back home,” she says. So Preston stayed — and accompanied the group to Florida next.
In South Beach, Preston says she still hadn’t understood that T expected her to have sex in exchange for money, or the inflexibility of those expectations. One time, while in a car with T and his cousin, Preston flat-out refused. “[T] told his cousin to get out of the car. He opened my side of the door, and all of a sudden I felt a boom on the left side of my face,” she says. “[T] just punched me, and he broke the designer glasses I had on.”
Preston alleges that T assaulted her on multiple occasions. She describes them as out-of-body experiences, and a contributing factor to why she didn’t leave. She didn’t know how to advocate for herself against someone who wielded so much power, and part of her felt like she deserved it, she says.
The modeling industry is notorious for offering inadequate resources and protections for working models. “The industry is largely unregulated, but the other big problem, and I would say an even bigger problem, is that there really aren’t labor unions or a strong notion of workers’ protections available within the industry at all,” says Anne Elizabeth Moore, the author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking. “[There’s this idea] that you’re lucky to be a model so that people who start thinking about or advocating for their rights are shamed into silencing themselves almost immediately.”
Moore’s work looks at anti-trafficking movements, specifically within the fashion and sex work industries. (Preston does not describe her experience as “human trafficking,” a term that often refers to the exploitation of others through coercive measures like force or abduction, and can include being forced into work you didn’t agree to without means to leave.) According to Moore, human traffickers often target those lacking financial security. “It’s the only safety net being available for these people in a particular time of need,” she says. “One driving force for people interested in committing labor trafficking is, of course, to find the people in the most need that have the fewest reasons to ask any questions.”
A few weeks after joining T, Preston’s friends tried to intervene. By then the group was in Las Vegas — where Krista White, Top Model’s Season 14 winner, happened to live. One of Preston’s close friends alerted White to the situation. “I didn’t believe him at first,” says White, who thought Preston was working in real estate and was in Miami. “I was like ‘No, nope, no way.’ But he kept asking me if I could get to her.” She arranged to pick up Preston from the Palms Casino Resort and take her out for food, but as she was pulling up to the hotel, Preston called and canceled. T wouldn’t let her go. “So then it clicked,” says White.
White rescheduled her plans with Preston for a few days later. That time, T accompanied Preston to the car, peeking inside suspiciously. White drove around the corner to an Applebee’s parking lot by the Boulevard Mall. She locked the doors and called Preston’s sister on speaker phone. They sat in the car for a while, all crying, trying to convince Preston to walk away. They offered to pay for her ticket back home, but she refused. Preston was adamant about returning to T. With no resolution in sight, White acquiesced and dropped Preston back at the hotel.
“I wasn’t ready to leave with Krista when she tried,” Preston says. “I was very delusional, but I wanted to be with him.”
When White was unable to help Preston herself, she “reached out to everyone I knew that could help me get her out of there,” she says. It was around this time that White contacted Top Model, allegedly calling, emailing, and sending Facebook messages to multiple people associated with the show, such as stylists, Banks’ assistant, and even Banks herself. A few people responded and offered to do what they could. As far as White knows, no one ever took any action to help Preston.
“I understood how she came into that work, and what she needed to do to make money,” White says. “There was no way for her to find [modeling] work or take care of herself or anything. No one was hiring or booking her,” she says. “And for Tyra to be like, ‘I’m for women, I’m for girls, I want to have your back.’ When it came time for her to show up and really help someone, what happened?”
About a month later, Preston escaped when the posse traveled to a hotel in Hauppauge on Long Island. Until then, T had deliberately kept Preston from New York because he knew she had friends who could help her leave, she says. When they arrived in Long Island, T dropped her off at the hotel alone and left. He didn’t tell her where he was going. Preston immediately called a friend to meet her in Brooklyn, and got on the Long Island Rail Road. Preston recalls a huge sense of relief when she saw a familiar face at Atlantic Terminal: “My friend looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going back.’ And I was done.”
She and her friend successfully retrieved her bags from the hotel’s front desk without running into T, but Preston did see him one more time, about a week later, before parting ways for good. At a McDonald’s parking lot in Queens, Preston told T she was done working for him. He ultimately let her go, though Preston says he tried “once or twice” to coerce her back over the phone. She says it was difficult to say no. “This is going to sound so stupid, but a part of me wanted to go back because I was so infatuated with him.”
According to Preston, she traveled with T for “about a month.” White remembers it as “definitely longer” than that.
In late 2010 or early 2011, just months after leaving T, Preston was contacted by a Top Model producer about returning for the series’ “All Stars” season, which would bring back former contestants for another shot to compete for the crown — the season Preston would ultimately win. She flew out to Los Angeles in April 2011 to meet with supervising talent producer Michelle Mock again. According to Preston, during their conversation, Mock brought up her stint as an escort. In court documents, Preston would later allege that Mock asked questions like, “What have you been doing to get money?” “Were you being pimped?” and “Were you doing anything illegal?”
Preston was flabbergasted. “Up until this point, I didn’t know if Krista’s call had even reached anyone,” she says. “So when Michelle mentioned it, I realized someone higher up did know what was going on with me, and did nothing.” Preston denied the accusation. She didn’t want to ruin the possibility of returning to the show, she says, because she was “literally at rock bottom.” Mock accepted her answer in the moment. But according to Preston, during a second meeting with Mock and another member of the Top Model team, Mock said she had “heard what happened to you” but encouraged Preston to run with the opportunity nonetheless. Preston surmised that Mock knew the truth. “To my understanding, she knew what happened, but she wasn’t going to say anything to anyone else,” Preston says. “It was going to be our little secret.”
In Season 17, Preston’s arc was tenuous. She was ganged up on by other contestants and nearly eliminated multiple times. Still, she made it to the final round in Crete, Greece — and then won. But a few weeks after filming the finale, Mock and executive producer Laura Fuest Silva told her that they’d “heard rumors” about her past from a former contestant, Preston says. “They asked me to be honest with them so they could protect me because I was the winner,” she says. “So I was.”
Soon after, another producer asked to meet in person with Preston to “discuss sponsorships.” The cast had just been featured in Us Weekly, but the season hadn’t premiered on television yet. At the Mandarin Oriental hotel in midtown Manhattan, Preston says she was greeted by Top Model figureheads, including Mock, Silva, series psychologist Suzanne Zachary, and network attorney Andy Wong. According to Preston, after a few minutes of small talk, she was informed that Banks and executive producer Ken Mok were revoking her title as the All Stars winner. The season would still air, but she would not appear as the victor. All signs of Preston’s win would be scrubbed clean.
Preston spent the rest of the meeting sobbing. She had been counting on the crown and its accolades — including a $100,000 contract with CoverGirl — to turn her life in poverty around.
“They asked who I was staying with in the city, and Dr. Zachary straight up asked me if I was sleeping with [my friend] to stay there,” Preston says. But perhaps the most scathing words came from Wong. Preston says at the end of their conversation, he told her, “You know, Angelea, you have no one to blame but yourself. You did this to yourself.” (Silva, Wong, Zachary, and a representative for The CW did not respond to requests for comment. A representative from VH1, which aired Top Model from Season 23 onward, declined to comment.)
Shortly after the meeting, the producers contacted Preston again, this time, she presumed, asking to fly her back to LA so she could reshoot the finale with a different winner. She didn’t pick up. Preston alleges she was neither invited to the season’s premiere party nor asked to participate in an Express-sponsored event for the now-defunct Fashion’s Night Out in New York City, for which at least one other All Stars contestant from out-of-state was flown in. Given that Preston was living in Bellmore, New York, at the time, this snub was particularly hurtful.
“That very brief time [with T] caused so much chaos and turmoil after the fact. I didn’t know they were going to do an All Stars cycle,” she says now. “If I knew, you think I would’ve put myself in that situation? Hell no!”
Preston remembers the drama that circulated online when the Season 17 finale episode finally aired. “I remember everyone on Twitter was like, ‘What happened to Angelea?’ I thought that was so funny because the winner, Lisa, [was barely] trending. But I was trending. People want to know, ‘Where’s Angelea?’ But no one from that show said anything.”
And neither did Preston, not for about three years. In 2014, she brought a legal claim against Banks, Silva, Mok, The CW, and other entities involved with the show. According to the complaint, in addition to alleging that she’d been the rightful winner, Preston also alleged that contestants had been paid less than minimum wage, had been denied rest breaks, had been prohibited from speaking for periods up to six hours, and had been denied food and water for hours at a time. In one instance, it alleges they weren’t given food from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — and only then after a contestant complained. (Production assistants known as “house moms” were allegedly in charge of enforcing these rules. The complaint alleges that one “house mom” resigned in protest of the on-set conditions.) Further, the suit alleges that Preston experienced a panic attack while filming, and was denied medical care for 10 minutes “so as to make for better television.”
On top of the at least $3 million she sought related to her lost prize package, lost employment opportunities, and reduced marketability, Preston sought more than $1 million for violations of California’s wage and hour laws. The following year, she took her story to the British tabloid the Daily Mail.
Preston and her attorney, Ronald Tym, were unable to comment on any specifics about the case due to a non-disclosure clause in Preston’s Top Model contract. Three and a half years after filing the suit, Preston dropped the claim in 2018. “I realized I wasn’t going to win,” Preston says. “I didn’t get any money from it. The only good thing that happened [was that] people knew I was the winner.”
At this point, the only thing Preston wants from Banks and Mok is an acknowledgement that they messed up by revoking her crown. She also thinks their actions enforced the message that sex work is immoral. “It was already traumatic going through the sex-work stuff, and now to add insult to injury, they were punishing me for the rest of my life,” she says. “I was gutted.”
In a statement to Bustle, Mok said: “There’s really nothing I can add to Angelea’s story as this happened 10 years ago and it has already been reported on extensively. On a personal note, I thought Angelea was a wonderful addition to ANTM. She was talented and charismatic. … I wish her nothing but the best in her future.”
A representative for Banks declined to comment.
Back then you didn’t talk about [sex work] because it was shameful, and I felt ashamed. And [Top Model] made me feel even more ashamed than I already was.
In April 2020, in the initial height of the pandemic, Top Model’s former creative director Jay Manuel began hosting “Jay’s Chat,” a weekly Instagram Live series, which for a while featured the show’s runway coach “extraordinaire” J. Alexander. Together they rehashed all the behind-the-scenes “tea” from each cycle. Social media was soon buzzing about unflattering Top Model moments, from the mistreatment of contestants on set to the racial insensitivity of multiple photo shoots. Banks addressed the discourse, first on Twitter and later on the Tamron Hall Show. She has never appeared to publicly comment on anything pertaining to Preston specifically.
“I was still a model at the time, not a retired model yet, and still operating in this world that had so many rules,” Banks told Hall in September 2020. “I was trying to push boundaries, but was also torn to try to make sure that these girls could work … like, ‘Oh, break beauty barriers,’ but yeah, I can break them all I want on the show, they’ll graduate from the show and they won’t work.”
Since leaving the modeling industry, Preston graduated in the traditional sense. She’s the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree, which she earned summa cum laude in journalism at Buffalo State College in 2021. She now works as a Sunday host for NPR’s WBFO in her hometown. (She frequently posts reels of her work on Instagram.) She’s also writing the memoir, which will include more details of her time on Top Model and with T.
“It’s different now, because everyone can be more open about things [like sex work] and not be looked down upon,” Preston says over dinner in downtown Buffalo. “But back then you didn’t talk about it because it was shameful, and I felt ashamed. And [Top Model] made me feel even more ashamed than I already was.”
Preston looks down at her plate. “For me, all of that stuff could have really broken me down,” she says. “But I’m here.”
*Name has been changed for the safety of those involved.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org.
Photographer: Katie Addo
Hair & Makeup: Chantelle Nicole