Sitting in her parents’ backyard in the quiet village of Scotia, Laura LaFrate looks like an average girl. She is a very pretty young woman who on any given day wears little-to-no make-up and piles her platinum-dyed hair messily on the top of her head. In a black tank top and cropped sweat pants, she could easily be any college-age girl in Small Town, U.S.A.
She lives with her mother, Marilyn, and her father, Tom, in the modest home that they have owned for years. “There’s no DNA test to prove they’re my parents yet,” Laura jokes. Her father laughs and points out that they share too many characteristics to deny their relation. “I’ve always been good with going up to people, I get that a lot from my mom and my dad,” Laura concedes. “My mom more so, she just talks to strangers. I’m always afraid she’s going to bring one of them home. She adopts everything.” Which partially explains the many animals that share the house.
Also living with the LaFrates are the family’s two large German shepherds, four cats, and two guinea pigs. One of the pigs was a recent rescue; the other was adopted so that the first wouldn’t be lonely.
Somewhat of a wild child, Laura always has surrounded herself with untamed things. “I always tried to bring strays home: mice, moles, voles, birds, turtles; rats were my favorite,” she says. Part kindred spirit, part co-conspirator, her mother obliged her daughter’s tendencies. “We’d set up a cage and nurse them back to health,” Marilyn LaFrate recalls. “Some we’d let go and some we would keep as pets until they died.”
In addition to being an animal lover, Laura also is a fierce competitor. She played solo sports like horseback riding and archery while growing up, because, she says, she can “get a bit nasty if things get too competitive.” Once while playing basketball, she “accidentally” elbowed another girl in the chest.
The biggest difference between Laura LaFrate and, well, most people, is that she’s now a famous model and television personality. Thanks to the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model, hosted by ’90s supermodel Tyra Banks, Laura is a well-recognized young woman as well as a brand name. Her appearance on the show won her the admiration of fans across the globe. Tribute videos about her appear on YouTube, multiple Tumblr blogs document her successes, and Facebook fan pages give those who “like” them updates about her public life.
LaFrate was scouted through her online portfolio at ModelMayhem.com, a networking site for models and photographers, and was asked to go to New York City to audition for ANTM Cycle 15, the ninth season of the show. She didn’t meet the show’s weight standards, and went back home. After landing a three-month modeling contract in South Africa, and two more cycles of the show, she was asked to go straight to Los Angeles along with 30 other girls for the casting week of cycle 18, known as ANTM: British Invasion.
After landing in California, Laura was able to call her parents to tell them she was safe before her phone was taken from her. “There’s no phones, no Internet allowed, no contact with your parents or anybody else,” recalls Laura. “You can’t call out to anybody, if they find out that you do then you can get kicked off the show for breaking confidentiality. This is all to prepare you for when you’re on the show because it’s the exact same way, but even worse because you don’t get TV and you can’t listen to music.”
“It was hard,” says Marilyn. “She told us before she got there that she was going to be under 24-hour supervision, so at least I knew that someone was always watching her.”
And watch her they did. Placed in a hotel room by themselves, the finalists were not allowed to communicate. “You cannot speak to other girls, you’ll get in trouble if you get caught,” remembers Laura. “You have to be in your hotel room at all times and there are people that sit in the hallways all day long to make sure that you don’t leave your room.”
It wasn’t an easy situation for the self-professed tomboy who was used to being outdoors. She paced her hotel room like a caged animal, and as the week went on she grew unbearably restless. “I went nuts. I ripped up all of the magazines in the room and made a big basketball hoop. I took a wheeled chair and stuck it on one side of the room and just ran and smashed it all the way to the other side. There’s only so much Jerry Springer you can watch in a day.”
At the end of the week of isolation, which also included psychology, personality, blood, and drug testing, two buses whisked the 30 girls away from their “holding cells.” One was full of girls who didn’t make the cut, the other carried those that had been selected for the show. Laura didn’t know until they arrived at their destination that she was on the winning bus.
America’s Next Top Model is a modeling competition, but it’s also a show that depends on good ratings to stay on the air. In reality television, it’s high drama that brings the viewers in. Considered a relatively novice model, Laura was thrown into the ring with six other Americans and seven British girls; the latter had experience having already competed on the show Britain’s Next Top Model. LaFrate, who is anticipating her 21st birthday this July, was beginning to realize that, although it is called reality television, it doesn’t mean that it represents the truth.
“It’s a strategy game, like anything else,” says Laura. “You’ve got to know when to play your cards, and there are certain things to say. You need to open up, or you’re off the show, they’ll kick you off purposefully.”
She was a front-runner from the beginning of the show to the end. She took great photos and also showed enough of a fiery personality to keep things interesting. Though often criticized for being rough around the edges or too sexualized, her candor won her fans and plenty of air time—which didn’t always go over well at home. Laura claims that she has never watched the show as it aired, but her parents did.
“My mom is seeing this from an outside perspective, so she doesn’t know the editing that goes into it,” she says. “She just sees her daughter bashing her on TV.” Her parents had little contact with her during the span of the show’s taping, which was about four and a half months. What they saw was what looked like their daughter telling the world that they didn’t help her achieve her dreams and that she had a troubled home life. “My mom was extremely hurt by it. What I originally said was, ‘At first my parents gave me no support for this—pursuing modeling. They are really into getting an education.’ They edited it as, ‘My parents gave me no support.’”
She also learned quickly that it wasn’t always the model with the best portfolio that stayed in the game. “I remember sitting at a photo shoot with Kyle [another contestant],” she recalls. “I didn’t like her, but she did excellent—she rocked it out. When we got to elimination, they picked a horrible photo of her, and I realized what was going on. I thought, ‘This is making sense now. I’m not crazy.’ ”
After making it to the final episodes of the show, LaFrate suffered an anxiety attack on the set. “They only let us sleep for around two to five hours a night, we didn’t get fed on a regular basis—when we did it was with junk food,” she recalls. “I gained 12 pounds on the show. We weren’t allowed to exercise. [The day of the attack], I told them that I was shaking and that I felt sick. They wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t let me sit down. I think a few people knew what was going on but no one would tell me. I thought I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t breathe and my heart was pounding. They all rushed in, people I didn’t want around. The only person I wanted was the “wrangler,” she was the one who had been taking care of us the whole time. They ripped her away from me so that the camera crews could get to me.”
After being taken to the hospital, Laura was quickly released. She made it back to the show and later took second place to British model Sophie Sumner.
When LaFrate returned home, she was worried how her small town would receive her. So far, she says, she has been embraced by the community. “The other day, I was walking down the street, and this 90-year-old firefighter at the station said, ‘Hey, are you Laura? Congratulations, we’re so proud of you. We watched every show just because we knew you were on it.’ ”
Laura recognizes the impact the experience has had on her life, and she utilizes the platform that the show has created by reaching out to young women to encourage their self-esteem. “I hear her in the office when she’s on Skype,” says Tom LaFrate. “She’s telling fans, ‘You are beautiful, you are a beautiful person.’ It’s almost like she’s convincing them.”
She will continue to pursue modeling and acting, and hopes to start her own clothing line one day. Ideally, she would love to secure a modeling contract in South Africa so that she could work with organizations that help to rehabilitate large cats, such as cheetahs. This locale also appeals to her because there is a “drop zone” there, and she is trying to get her skydiving license, another solo sport that she is passionate about. “When you jump out, nothing else matters, you’re the only person that can take control of your life,” says Laura. “You get on the ground and think, ‘If I can do that, there’s nothing that can stop me.’”
While on the show, Banks dubbed the rising young model as “zagalicious,” and fans often refer to her as the “zagalicious pirate.” “It’s because Tyra was naming us after characters in her book, but since I wasn’t like any of the characters, she made one up for me,” says Laura. “It basically just means that I do what I want. I have a pirate tattooed on my inner lip, which, to me, means to live free and break rules when it’s necessary.”