When you're a gay man watching "America's Next Top Model" while growing up and coming out, the chance to meet Tyra Banks face-to-face is earth shattering. Especially for a guy from small town Texas.
"Meeting Tyra Banks was amazing," says Will Jardell. "To see her on TV for so many years and to be standing in front of her, I was shaking like an earthquake. It was surreal and inspiring to see and learn from her."
Jardell, 24, is among the 14 finalists for Cycle 21 of "America's Next Top Model," which debuts Aug. 18 on CW. It's just the second time in the show's history that it offers up men and women. Oh, those men.
For the Nederland native and Texas A&M grad, the show provided a chance to experience firsthand something he's been watching since it stated in 2003. And as a competitor, it snatched him out of Texas and dropped him into Los Angeles and living with 13 others.
"I was just really excited. I was nervous and looking forward to meeting everyone. I really enjoyed every second of it because I was a huge fan of the show. I was super excited to be there and worked really hard to prove myself and stay in the competition," Jardell says.
Growing up gay in small town Texas wasn't easy, but it did prepare Jardell for dealing with the likes of Adam Smith, a former student at Emory in Atlanta who's a bit of a homophobic frat bro and bully. Jardell says he and Romeo Tostado – the show's other openly gay contestant – had no idea of Smith's background before the show started taping.
"None of us really know the stuff that happened with Adam. But I honestly love Adam and we got really close in the process," Jardell says.
But being one of just two gay men in the "Top Model" cast wasn't an issue, he says. In fact, it was nurturing, which isn't quite what you'd expect from reality TV.
"Being from Texas and from a small town, there is a weird mindset about being gay and the lifestyle. I wasn't 100 percent comfortable with everything in my life before the show. Getting there, everyone was so supportive with everything and that was great for me because it helped me become more confident and grow into my own skin and to be happy with myself," Jardell says.
Jardell says he and Tostado also bonded during their time with the show.
"In the beginning, we kind of hit it off and bonded over the fact that we were a lot different than the other guys in the house. A lot of the guys are big and brawny and we are kind of skinny," Jardell says.
He's also a dancer among a cast of aspiring models and has spent his time since returning from L.A. to build his portfolio.
"I didn't have any modeling experience. The one photo shoot I did was for a friend. I was fresh and had no experience and no idea what I was doing. I was able to grow and have been doing all kinds of photo shoots and do as much as I can and use the skills I've learned on 'Top Model,'" he says.
Jardell also had the chance to work the runway for J. Alexander, the sassy runway coach who returns for Cycle 21.
"The crazy thing is that when Miss J. walked out for the first time, I was probably the only guy in the line freaking out because I knew exactly who that was. Me and Miss J. struck up a cool relationship, talking behind the scenes and getting to know each other," he says.
Since the show wrapped – or at least Jardell's portion of, since he can't say what happened or how far he made it – he's been traveling to New York City and L.A. to boost his modeling. And soon, he'll be moving to L.A. to chase dancing and modeling opportunities.
"There's now a lot of opportunities in College Station for modeling, so it makes the most sense for me to move on from my college years. L.A. is my best option to pursue modeling and dancing," he says.
But Jardell does so with a newfound confidence thanks to the show, whether in Texas or elsewhere.
"It's been like a complete 180. I've done my own thing and have not been trying to fit a stereotype. I've worn high heels out to a club in College Station. It helps me so much that when I came back, I was like I don't care what anyone says and if you don't like it, I don't care," Jardell says.