Kiara Belen brings to her career as an aspiring model something most aspiring models don't: a competitive instinct forged as a star high school and college basketball player.
And if you don't quite grasp how athletic competition has anything to do with modeling, you're obviously unfamiliar with "America's Next Top Model," supermodel Tyra Banks' runway reality competition that kicks off its 19th edition Friday on the CW.
This latest edition of the popular show - seen locally at 8 p.m. on KVCW-TV, Channel 33, or Channel 6 on Cox Cable - features finalists who all are college students. Included on the roster is Belen, 22, who grew up in Las Vegas and who this summer is completing her studies toward a sociology degree at the University of California, Irvine.
Belen said during a phone interview last week that she was born in Red Bank, N.J., but moved to Las Vegas with her family when she was 12. "I consider Vegas my home," she says.
Belen is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and played on the girls basketball team there when, she says - Gael pride still evident in her voice - "we won state three years in a row."
After graduating, Belen accepted a full athletic scholarship to UC Irvine and a few weeks ago was finishing up her "last chunk of summer school because I left early to be on the show."
That basketball and "America's Next Top Model" somehow would intersect in Belen's life isn't terribly surprising. For one thing, "I've always been a girly girl off the court," Belen explains with a laugh. "On the court I was competitive, but off the court it was different. I like to dress up and I like to do my nails and things like that."
For another thing, Belen displayed an inclination toward modeling even as a kid. She'd pretend to walk the runway and, in family photos, "I'm posing and I'm walking with my hand on my hips," she says.
Belen even had toyed with the notion of pursuing a career in modeling. But, she says, "I knew my education was really important, and I wanted to get my degree. So getting my full scholarship, I thought, 'I've got to take advantage of this opportunity.' "
Then, Belen's grandmother - who, Belen notes, "loves Tyra Banks" - noticed that "America's Next Top Model" was taking applications from college students for its next edition.
"She said: 'You'd be great on the show. You should do it.' And I'd love to do it. That's been my dream. I used to watch that show even when I was little," Belen says.
"I was concentrating more on finishing school because I was about to get my degree. But I said 'OK' and did the application."
Still, she didn't expect much.
"I knew there were thousands of other girls doing this, so what are the chances?" Belen says. "Then, all of a sudden, I got an email: 'Hey, we're interested.'
"The next thing I know, I got a call to go to the first audition. It was crazy and nerve-racking, and I didn't know what to expect. I'd never modeled before."
Nonetheless, Belen was chosen as a finalist and interrupted the home stretch of her academic career to compete on the show against this season's 12 other finalists.
Belen discovered that modeling was "a totally different ballgame" from basketball. But, at the same time, she went in "knowing I'm pretty confident.
"I'm not used to modeling, but I'm used to competing, and knowing this is a competition, I figured I'd go in there and use my athleticism and any kind of control I have for my body from what I've learned in basketball and apply that."
Belen figured that the competition also requires learning from the critiques of judges, and that "I've been coached my whole life, so it's the same thing. So I brought a lot of things I learned from basketball to this whole experience."
Belen says her biggest challenge during the competition probably was "just not knowing what was going to happen."
"I'm usually in control of everything that happens in my life. I know how to plan and put everything in motion. I'm very strategic in that way," Belen explains. "With this, I didn't have control over what was going to happen, so I was just going to give it my best and, hopefully, it would all work out."
Belen also knew that the competition would expose her to interaction with "a whole new group of girls" who didn't necessarily share her own competitive athletic experiences or mindset.
"Women athletes are sometimes a little different than nonathletes in a sense," she says. "We can be a little more aggressive."
Belen adds that she has "a pretty big personality," so she knew from the start that "that was definitely going to be an adjustment."
The competition "definitely was a little tougher than I expected," Belen says. "But I had an amazing experience."
With the end of her undergraduate days near, Belen says she's hoping to continue her modeling career.
"Depending on how that goes, that's the direction I'd like to take," she says. "But there's also a chance of me being a teacher and a coach. I love children and I love basketball and I love teaching, so if I did go that route, I'd get my master's (degree) and probably continue in Vegas."
In the meantime, Belen says her "America's Next Top Model: College Edition" experience "gave me a new outlook and a new perspective, not just (for) modeling and not just my career and my future, but life.
"Nothing comes easy - I've known that my entire life - and I learned a lot about myself and what I can do. So it was just amazing just to be accepted, to be chosen for this."
"I was blessed to have an experience like this," Belen says, "because not many people do."
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.