Tyra Banks, America's Next Top Model Tyra Banks, America's Next Top Model

Tyra Banks has kept the Top Model momentum going, with last week's ratings up 11 percent over those of the previous season premiere. And according to the show's host, the 12th cycle is as — you guessed it — fierce as they come.

TVGuide.com: How does this season differ from past seasons?
Tyra Banks: Well, we are back in NYC for Cycle 12, and this season is fiercer than ever — seriously! The girls are actually put up in an apartment on the Upper East Side — which is so Gossip Girl! We have a really strong and unique mix of girls. There's also some very special celeb appearances — Clay Aiken, a close friend of mine, will actually pose as a designer, and Ciara will be making a cameo as well. And the final runway is beyond exciting — let's just say it was the most slippery walk-off yet.

TVGuide.com: What goes into picking your finalists?
Banks: We're always looking for odd, different, and interesting looks to expand beyond the cookie-cutter versions of what's considered beautiful. Aside from visual appearances, it's important to choose characters who are personally engaging. Aside from the entertainment value, I want to disprove the stereotype that all models are just pretty and kind of boring. The key is to find girls that viewers can connect with, and relate to in some way, but still find engaging, and fascinating.

TVGuide.com: What can we expect in this week's episode?
Banks: This upcoming episode is the highly anticipated makeover episode — the girls get made over at the John Barrett salon in the iconic Bergdorf Goodman's in NYC, and there are a ton of tears. Later, the girls are in for a treat when they get to shoot with Nigel Barker, and they also experience a Top Model first — they each learn how to light themselves in their photo shoots.

TVGuide.com: How true to life are the show's challenges compared to what professional models go through?
Banks: The modeling industry is harsh, and brutally honest. Our job is to prepare these girls for the real world of modeling. The girls really experience what life is like as a model behind the glitz and glamour. They have to live together like real models do, they have early call times and they're expected to participate in photo shoots even if they are feeling under the weather. At the judging panel, we don't hold back — they receive harsh criticism just like they would at an agency or on a job. Each girl who is eliminated comes face-to-face with rejection, and those who possess the persistence and drive to keep working at it are the ones who have what it takes to really make it.

TVGuide.com: We just heard you're looking for models under the standard 5'7 for an upcoming cycle. Why?
Banks: I constantly want to redefine, and expand the definition of beauty. This is really exciting for me — I've wanted to do a shorter season, and I really had to push hard for it.

TVGuide.com: After so many cycles, what has been the most memorable moment?
Banks: Throughout all 12 cycles, my favorite moments are always in casting when I get to meet the girls for the very first time. I see thousands of girls in photos and on video, so it's so exciting to see them face-to-face. I actually feel the same excitement and energy they do imagining that one of these girls will be America's Next Top Model.

TVGuide.com: Did you have any idea Top Model would be so successful?
Banks: When I came up with the idea for Top Model I was in my kitchen making tea. I truly believed there was an audience for it, and I hoped it would translate successfully to TV, but I couldn't have imagined that it would be what it is today. It's hard to believe we're in our 12th cycle. I'm so excited that Top Model has developed into such a recognizable brand, and I'm thankful to all the fans who continue to tune-in.

TVGuide.com: What's new on the talk-show front?
Banks: We're well into its fourth season, and we continue to tackle issues, and discuss topics with my primary mission at the core — empowering girls and young women. This week Dr. Drew will be on to help parents and their teens talk about sex, and on Thursday, we'll be discussing the very serious subject of violence in teen dating. And next week, we use special effects makeup to show three vain women who drink, smoke, or tan too much, what their faces will look like ten years from now.