Jessica has the look

Asia's Next Top Model winner opens up on the contest, her ambitions and growing up an orphan

Jessica Amornkuldilok arrives in the lobby of the Centara Grand hotel in a fitted tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, oblivious to the need to pose for a photo shoot. Once the wardrobe problem was solved, thanks to an urgent loan from the Panumas boutique at the hotel, Jessica doesn't waste a minute. Her eyes pierce the camera, she works the outfit and dominates every single snap effortlessly, living up to her title as the first winner of the famous reality programme Asia's Next Top Model.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Jessica.

The 27-year-old half-German, half-Thai model triumphed over 13 girls from the Asia-Pacific region in the three-month competition, the Asian offshoot of the model-search reality show franchise created by US supermodel Tyra Banks. Banks joined the judging panel for the final episode.

"I cried hysterically when my name was announced as the winner. After the episode, Tyra teased me, saying that she never saw a winner who cried like she just lost the prize," she beamed.

After more than 2,000 statuesque women across the region applied, the list was narrowed down to 45, and Jessica was among those flown to Singapore, where the show was produced. A further selection whittled the hopefuls down and she became one of 14 contestants to appear in the competition.

"One day my friend sent me a link about this show," said Jessica, explaining why she entered. "I've been modelling since I was a teenager, and the show sounded like a great opportunity. I thought I'd give it a try, but was quite unsure whether I would be selected or not."

The first episode of Asia's Next Top Model aired in November, and Jessica was one of the two contestants representing Thailand. Monica Benjaratjarunun, 19, was another hope for the country, but unfortunately she had to leave the show in the second episode as her father battled a health issue.

"If you watched the show, you would have barely noticed me during the early episodes," Jessica said.

When the camera captured the situation in the model house, she maintained a low profile while others shared moments in front of camera.

"I saw the American versions before, and there were a lot of dramas. So, I was quite prepared and told myself that I'm here to win. You could see in the show that I was the quiet one in the house.

"But, whenever there was a challenge, I gave it my all." The proof came when she was judged to have had the best photo four weeks in a row.

From Japan to Indonesia and Nepal, the show housed beautiful ladies of different ethnic backgrounds, although there was criticism towards a number of mixed-blood models in the contest.

"When I first met all the girls, I thought that Stephanie and Sofia were going to be the strongest competitors," she said.

This proved correct, as Filipino model and mother Stephanie Retuy finished as the first runner-up and half-Swedish, half-Japanese Sofia Wakabayashi, the tallest girl in the show, left as the third runner-up.

"Although the other girls may not have appeared as potential threats at first, in challenge after challenge they unveiled their talents and I felt that I needed to focus."

Before entering the show, Jessica had experienced some modelling work, but she treated it as a part-time job while completing her degree at Bangkok University. However, she grew up picturing herself on magazine covers.

"As far back as I can remember, whenever I spotted a camera, I immediately posed. I love being photographed. I love doing make-up and styling my hair. Modelling has always been my dream job.

"I love Kate Moss. She's the best. My biggest dream is to be in a photograph with her, maybe an artistic nude shot like the one she recently did with Rihanna," she said, referring to the photo shoot and cover of the spring edition of V magazine, which hit the shelves on Thursday.

Jessica's first step into the spotlight came when she turned 18. With a beautiful face and a model's height to match, Jessica attended a search by Elite Models Thailand and nabbed the first runner-up prize in 2004. It opened up opportunities as the prize would have allowed her to strut the international stage in China. Unfortunately, at that time her beloved grandmother passed away and no one could sign the required consent forms.

"She was my everything," she said. "And shortly after, I also lost my grandfather. So, those days were tough for me. I was devastated and I had to abandon that opportunity."

Jessica moved from her home town Chai Nat and came to the capital to further a college education. After her appearance at the contest, Jessica became a freelance model, working with magazines and on television commercials, working mostly with international models.

"When people first see me, they usually speak English to me," she said. "And, I have never worked with Thai models because of my European looks. But, without make-up you can see an Asian essence in my face, right? I mean look at my cheekbones," she rubbed her face and smiled.

Throughout the hour-long interview, Jessica radiated her natural charm, something fans of the show may find surprising.

It could be that the interview was conducted in Thai and without the constant presence of the camera, allowing her to just be herself. Jessica admitted that, besides her shyness and reserved manner, being on an English-language show was not an easy task.

"I'm not comfortable with my English, since Thai is my mother tongue. And whenever there was a commercial video challenge, I felt nervous because I am not confident with my voice and my English," she revealed.

"But I know it is important for my career and I am up for an improvement."

During this exclusive conversation after her victory, Jessica opened up and shared her personal stories.

"I don't know about others, but I have a drive to succeed. I have this weak point in my heart since I was a child, because I am an orphan. And when you grow up, feeling like you are making it on your own, you immediately dream bigger and aim higher."

Jessica lost her mother when she was a toddler and has never met her father. Her grandparents, she said, provided substitute parental love. Jessica's foster parents, who are her cousins, also give her a family for which she is eternally grateful.

Thanks to her fame, she's now not only a girl whose family are proud of her, but someone who commands new admirers.

"Since I have come back, wherever I go many people recognise me. Some of them come up to congratulate to me. My fanpage on Facebook now has over a thousand messages from fans from many countries. I'm very thankful for their support," said Jessica.

As the winner of Asia's Next Top Model, Jessica was awarded a US$100,000 (3 million baht) cash prize, a Subaru XV and a three-month modelling contract with top agency Storm Model Management. The agency represents top models around the globe from the legendary Cindy Crawford to Jessica's favourite Kate Moss.

This year, Jessica will become the face of the Canon IXUS campaign, and she hopes to lend her piercing glare and statuesque appeal to international runways and magazines.

"I have a dream that one day I will show the world my talent," said Jessica.

"This Thai girl is going to make it big. Many people look at me and don't think of me as Thai, but I am Thai at heart. Winning this show is not only for myself, but I also did it to make my people proud."

About the author

Writer: Story by Yanapon Musiket and photos by Patipat Janthong