PAUL SMITHS - In May, Laura James graduated from Paul Smith's College with a degree in hotel, resort and tourism management and a minor in business administration.
By July, she had won the national reality TV competition "America's Next Top Model, Cycle 19, College Edition," earning several modeling gigs plus $100,000 in prize money.
"It still doesn't feel real," James told the Enterprise Thursday in a phone interview.
In “America’s Next Top Model,” Laura James competed in a series of challenges in which she had to model different looks, like this one from episode 7, in which the models had to pose for a Nine West campaign.
(Photo courtesy of The CW)
The show, which is The CW network's highest rated, was created and is hosted by talk show host Tyra Banks, who rose to fame as a model. James competed against 12 other women in a series of challenges in which they were required to model different looks in a variety of different situations. James survived the elimination of one contestant on each episode, until she was the last one standing.
She had to keep quiet about the win until the season finale aired Nov. 16, so she moved back to her home in Cambridge, N.Y., and has been working at a boutique called Miss Scarlet in nearby Saratoga Springs.
"I loved it, just kind of being on the down low," James said.
Now that the secret is out, James is planning to move to Los Angeles or preferably New York City to work with her agent and get busy with her modeling career.
James said she thought about taking a few years off before college to pursue modeling. Her mother had brief run as a model, and her father is former "Dynasty" actor John James. She grew up looking at her mother's books and dabbling in various areas of entertainment, such as acting in high school musicals.
"Even when I was like 12 years old, I loved getting all dressed up and taking pictures," James said. "It's something that's been a passion of mine."
But ultimately, she decided it was important to get a college degree first.
She loved being around people, so she thought it might be a good idea to study something like hotel or restaurant management. She found out that Paul Smith's is well-known for those areas of study.
"It was the only school that I really applied to," James said. "I went up there, I took the tour, and I just like fell in love with it."
The college was a great place to build character and relationships with people, James said. She didn't have a ton of close friends in high school, but she made plenty in college, and she still talks to them all the time.
"My Paul Smith's friends that I spent that last four years with are my closest friends," James said. "I loved my time at Paul Smith's. I loved everything about the college" - except maybe the snow and the cold.
She said hospitality was a good area of study because it's all about dealing with people. Those lessons can be used in all different aspects of life and various industries.
She said she feels like she got a good education through the tight-knit Paul Smith's community, and she appreciated the small class sizes that allowed for personal contact with professors and hands-on experiences.
"Paul Smith's motto is 'All about the experience,'" James said. "That kind of helped me prepare for the 'Top Model' experience."
She even did some modeling while she was at Paul Smith's. Director of Communications Ken Aaron said he remembers working with her on a photo shoot for admissions literature four years ago; he said it was obvious she was a natural.
"She was a terrific student here - Laura graduated magna cum laude - and we couldn't be prouder of her success," Aaron told the Enterprise in an email.
James noted the college was supportive of her throughout the "Top Model" season, sending her congratulations and supportive tweets and Facebook posts regularly.
As part of the show, she got a makeover that turned her brown hair into platinum blonde, so she looks quite different from when she was in college here. She said people who knew her in college might not recognize her if they haven't followed her TV run. But that's unlikely, because at such a small school, word passes quickly, James said.
While the show was airing, though, only her mother, father, brother and boyfriend knew the secret.
"It was really stressful, having to keep all that in for that long," James said.
She said it was "kind of crazy" to see herself on TV. She couldn't watch episodes with friends because she stressed herself out over what was going to make the show. She knew which weeks were good weeks and which were bad, but she wasn't sure which clips would be used. And being on the show brought out a lot of emotion from her, even though she said she's normally not an emotional person.
James said she's still overwhelmed by the win. After watching the show in the past, it was surreal to be standing next to Tyra Banks, and she had a hard time putting it into perspective.
"It's insane," James said. "I mean, when I first auditioned, I sent them a couple pictures by email, and I just kind thought to myself, 'There's no way they're going to get these pictures.' But they did, and the next thing I knew, I was on the show."
Now she's ready to move forward with the modeling campaigns she won with Nine West and Smashbox cosmetics, the spread she won in Nylon magazine as her final prize, and anything else that comes her way.
"I've got my education under my belt, and I finally want to pursue my dreams in modeling," James said.
That doesn't mean she's done with Paul Smith's. James said she definitely plans to come visit the college soon, maybe helping out with orientation or something like that. She went to an alumni party in New York City a few weeks ago and talked with college officials about some possibilities.
Either way, she said she'd love to come up and help get prospective students interested in going to Paul Smith's, "because I think it's a great college, and I'd love to help out as much as I can."
Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.