Vanessa Minnillo, True Beauty

You've all heard it: "Beauty's only skin deep." "Beauty's on the inside." Vanessa Minnillo certainly has and now, she's out to test those notions. The former TRL VJ serves as host and one of three judges — alongside Nole Marin and Cheryl Tiegs — in ABC's new beauty competition with a twist, True Beauty (premieres Jan. 5 at 10 pm/ET). Ten becoming contestants think they're vying to be named the most physically beautiful person, but they are, unbeknownst to them, also being judged on their inner beauty, behaviors and kindness, among other criteria. Minnillo, a one-time Miss Teen USA, chatted with TVGuide.com about why she jumped onboard the series, what she thinks of the "kids'" ugly behavior and how the show can be re-tooled for future seasons.

TVGuide.com: How did you get involved with the show?
Vanessa Minnillo:
My agent, who actually is now working at Ryan Seacrest Enterprises, told me about this project and I fell in love with the idea, but it wasn't until I actually sat in the room with [the producers] that I completely just got invested. It was to the point where I left the meeting, called [my agent] and said, "I don't care what we have to do. I have to be a part of this!" It's one of those things where I hope the ripple effect will take place and we'll make people think twice about what they say or how they act or how they treat others. ...I'm so proud of it. I never got what people said about being proud of a movie, but doing this show, I'm so proud of what we're doing.

TVGuide.com: A lot of them seem to be very, very confident and cocky —
Minnillo:
Oh, of course! That's the whole beauty of the show. That's what your first impression is because that's what they give you, but there are also many layers to people. If you saw a clip of me from MTV screaming and screaming at Spring Break, that doesn't mean that's me. That's me in that moment. There are just 10 contestants and after each gets eliminated, I'll just sit down and talk with them, and some of them get it and some don't. But in the overall scheme of things, I hope people in society get it. Even if one in 10 people is inspired by it, then that's great.

TVGuide.com: Were any of their behaviors just completely out of hand?
Minnillo: Oh my gosh, yeah! I was like, "I can't believe a person, knowing that there's a camera, would actually say that." We're judging their inner beauty and their outer beauty, but they don't know that. In a hidden camera situation, I get it, like if they acted a certain way, I get it. But when they were sitting there full-on looking at the camera saying what they were saying, I couldn't believe it. I'm like, "You're not even trying to be fake. You're just full-on: 'I'm hot! I'm a 10!'"

TVGuide.com: Why do you think some of them are that way?
Minnillo:
You know, my opinion is that it's the world that they live in. I've been fortunate to have my dad in my life, who probably is the most humbling experience anyone could ever imagine. He'll be the first one to put you in place and to tell you, "Get up and get your own soda. Don't ask someone to get it for you." and "Be grateful for what you have. Count your blessings." and "You put your pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else." But if you surround yourself with a lot of "yes men," then you have a perception of yourself and the world. So for the first time, these kids — I call them kids, but they're my age [Laughs] — who've never left their hometowns of, like, Idaho, are out in L.A. and we're giving them a reality check. I think some of them are like, "Gosh, I'm not all that I thought I was." But some of them are just like, "Whatever. I'll just go home and be all that and a bag of chips!" But definitely the experiences you get in life and the people you surround yourself with make a difference, so I just hope they learned from it.

TVGuide.com: Describe the challenges.
Minnillo:
Every week [there] is a covert and an overt challenge. We have a challenge that they know about that is aesthetically based and in that challenge, we have hidden challenges. So if we send them out into the world to do a challenge based on just physical beauty, we're actually looking at their insides and we test them on honesty, kindness, graciousness, humility as well as whatever the physical challenge is.

TVGuide.com: And none of them ever caught on?
Minnillo:
Near the end, maybe. But I don't think anyone knew what it is. Even then, they still were the same way, which blew my mind!

TVGuide.com: Did you ever feel bad about deceiving them?
Minnillo:
Yes and no. It wasn't deceiving in the sense that [we're] doing something that's unkind or malicious. I hope you see in the end what you did and learn from it. That's why I tell them when they get voted off that you can't change the past, but you can move on, and you can learn and realize how you were talking to people or how selfish you were being. You have this power of knowledge that not everybody gets. Not everybody gets to see themselves from a third point of view and they were really grateful to hear. I'm sure some of them felt a little upset initially, but there's a camera and you're exposing yourself on TV. You signed up for reality TV!

TVGuide.com: What kind of judge would you say you are?
Minnillo:
We all collectively have the best mastermind. The three of us individually were our own little personalities. Nole knows fashion and beauty. Cheryl is phenomenal and is 60 or 61, I believe, but looks like she's 29. She's been in this business for a long time, probably longer than 90 percent of people in this business, and is still getting work and is still beautiful on the inside and out. So she's been there, done that. She's the experience of it. I was more so the newness of it in the sense that I've come into this industry and this is what I've learned in this generation, and I'm also dealing with the media and being misread. So I think we all came up with the goods.

TVGuide.com: You were Miss Teen USA 10 years ago, correct?
Minnillo:
Ha! 1998! I can't believe [it's been 10 years], but thank you for reminding me! [Laughs] No, but it sounds so crazy to think it was 10 years ago!

TVGuide.com: You're not that old! What did you learn from your beauty pageant days?
Minnillo:
Immediately, I knew it wasn't just about outer beauty because I'll be the first one to tell you I wasn't the most beautiful girl there. When I talked to the judges, they were very kind and said, "You're 17 and you acted like you were 17. You were gracious and quirky like a 17-year-old would be." So it really got me going, like, "Wow. It's not just about who has the best dress, who has the best body and who has the best answers. They just saw me being me." Even if I didn't win, one thing I was determined to do was to do the pageant my way — answer the way I would've answered from my heart, wear what I've worn and to be the person I would've been proud of being and telling my dad that I was. ...But I was blessed to win the pageant and the Miss Congeniality award, which the girls voted on, so overall, it was the best experience and completely launched me in my own mind and in my own dreams, faith and belief.

TVGuide.com: If you come back for another season, how will you keep up the guise? People will know what the show is about.
Minnillo:
Oh, that's the million-dollar question! But talking with everybody, I've never seen a more talented group of people, so the creative department has their work cut out for them. But you see a show on TV and people come back for more when they know what they're getting into, and they still fall in the same trap! It's just like you hope people are up for the challenge. It's a good a thing too because if they fall for the same trap, it's like, "Listen, you saw this going on the first time around! Why did you do that?" And maybe it'll have a different twist, like helping people instead of deceiving them and finding true beauty.