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Still That Bitch

Friends say Angelea is an inspiration for young people from urban communities. A native of the East Side, she said in an interview on Top Model, "I know it feels to struggle." (photos by Christina Shaw)

Buffalo’s Angelea Preston is back on Top Model for the third time, but there’s still a lot to her that viewers haven’t seen

“I know how to conduct myself. Bitch, I worked at a bank. I worked at a bank. You think I would talk like this at a bank?”

That was Buffalo native Angelea Preston’s pointed explanation of why she did not bring more attitude to a one-on-one conversation with celebrity interviewer Mario Lopez earlier this year.

A contestant on the CW Network’s America’s Next Top Model, Preston was bristling at a critique by judge Nigel Barker, who had assailed her performance as lackluster. Furious, she informed her fellow models that she had intentionally acted “very, very professional” with Lopez.

“I’m not gonna get on there and be all, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, okay, ’cause you want me to be this ’hood ghetto bitch that’s what I’m gonna be,’” Preston said, perched at the edge of her seat in a limousine. “No.”

Preston’s red-hot personality is what makes her memorable. It’s the reason she’s back on Tyra Banks’s reality show for the third time in three years, this season as part of an all-star cast that brings together past Top Model stand-outs.

On camera, she has told off her competitors and demonstrated what she calls her “bitch, please” look .

But here’s what Preston, a graduate of Hutchinson Central Technical High School, wants you to know: She’s more than the caricature you see on television. She’s smart. She’s not just some loud-mouthed jerk. She admits she is outspoken, but in life, she’s not just the character Top Model painted her to be.

There’s a lot about Preston that viewers might not know—like the fact that she spoils her four-year-old niece, Nysharra. Or the fact that she had a baby daughter of her own, Giavonna Anchell, who died after living for 23 days.

These are the things that make her human.

Preston, 25, grew up on Buffalo’s East Side, off Broadway and Genesee Street. Her old neighborhoods are a moonscape of poverty, pockmarked by boarded homes and scarred by crime. Today, the gutters are dirty with trash. Vacant lots proliferate.

For the people who have known Preston the longest—the ones who walked with her down these gray, dreary roads—it would have been difficult not long ago to imagine her life today.

In the past three years, she has posed in photographs with Canadian model Coco Rocha, darling of fashion. She has poured a cognac for André Leon Talley, longtime contributing editor for Vogue magazine. She has traveled to Greece for work, as well as to New Zealand, where she donned a black, Lloyd Klein dress for a shoot against a backdrop of rolling hills.

She’ll never forget that landscape: mile after mile of green beneath a huge, blue sky. She was halfway across the world. It was beautiful.

But hers is not a Cinderella story.

She has moved to New York to chase a dream that she may never fully realize. On a daily basis, she struggles to make money. Auditions have landed her some modeling jobs, but also led to many rejections. Some designers won’t book her because of her TV appearances, she said.

But Preston is persistent. Like the city she comes from, she’s tough. She has seen enough to believe that life can be different—that if she just keeps trying, she’ll get her break.

At Hutch Tech, Angelea (pronounced “Angelee”) was the tall girl with the too-short jeans.

As she said in the October 19 episode of Top Model, “When you grow up in the ’hood, being tall and skinny and awkward-looking is not beautiful.”

At school, the boys would tell Angelea, “If you weren’t so skinny, I would date you.” They made fun of her height. Even strangers commented her physique, stopping her at the mall to ask, “You’re so skinny. Do you eat?”

Sade Preston, Angelea’s older sister, remembers that Angelea used to cry some afternoons because of the put-downs. Angelea loved fast food, Greek food, and chicken—anything but salad, Sade said.

Angelea had a great metabolism; she couldn’t help the way she looked.

With family, Angelea could escape into a more comfortable world. At home and around friends, she was lovable—fun and ridiculous, with a knack for making crazy faces and dropping hilarious remarks into a conversation at just the right time.

Even at a young age, she had an exuberance.

The mocking she endured from classmates made her self-conscious: She wore flat shoes and didn’t go to prom. But the insults couldn’t squelch her ambition of becoming a model.

She had been picturing herself on the runway since she was a kid. She wanted to be beautiful.

“I was nine or eight. I remember seeing a commercial for Wilhelmina [Models], and I saw this tall, Caucasian girl walking down this runway,” Angelea remembers. “She looked so glamorous. They were scouting for models in Buffalo. She had long, brunette hair. The cameras were flashing. It just looked fabulous to me.”

Angelea decided, “This I what I want to do. I want to model.”

A dream, of course, is only a dream.

After high school graduation in 2004, Angelea did not become a model. She sent head shots to Wilhelmina and other agencies, but no one responded. To create a decent portfolio, she needed money. She didn’t have any.

So she went to work, instead, for a procession of employers including New York & Company, McDonald’s, Sears, Baker Victory Services, and M&T Bank.

She had spunk and charm, and when she got bored of one job, she would find another. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she dropped in and out of Erie Community College, studying human services first, then switching to business administration.

Then, in 2007, the ultimate heartbreak struck, forcing Angelea to quit school.

On November 3 that year, Angelea gave birth to a baby girl, Giavonna Anchell. The infant was premature by more than three months, and little Gia’s brain never developed properly. The child’s chances of surviving were minimal.

“Where her brain was supposed to be, there was water,” Angelea remembers.

“I didn’t believe it at first, because she was so normal,” Angelea said. “She cried. She responded to you. When she heard voices, she would turn in the direction of your voice. She would smile. She was so normal. She had hair, she had toes. Her hands, everything was so normal. She looked like a normal baby, and I found it so impossible to believe.”

Giavonna died on November 26, a few weeks later.

“I was crying every day. I prayed every day,” Angelea said. “I begged God to take my life—just spare my daughter. Just let her live, because that’s how badly I wanted her to be here. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I went through that.”

During her pregnancy, as the baby was growing inside her, Angelea had embraced her role as a mother with purpose and enthusiasm. Her daughter was going to be fabulous. Angelea was going to be the best mom. She would return to school and get a better job. Gia would grow up in a world full of opportunity.

Losing Gia crushed Angelea.

But it also reminded her that life was precious and reinvigorated her desire to pursue her own dream, said Todd Stannard, a University at Buffalo student who has been a close friend of Angelea since high school.

After her daughter’s death, Angelea applied to be on America’s Next Top Model. The show called her back. After answering a battery of questions, she was invited to audition in person.

Angelea’s first appearance on Top Model was brief. Along with 33 other semi-finalists, she made it into the first episode of season 12, which aired in 2009.

During the filming, Angelea began arguing with another model after they exchanged nasty looks. The camera crew captured Angelea screaming at her fellow contestant, refusing to back down even as the other woman tried to walk away.

“I gotta learn,” Angelea said after the spat. “I gotta pick and choose my battles…It’s not professional to be doing that in front of the photographer.”

Angelea was eliminated during judging.

Later, when she viewed the broadcast, Angelea felt the show had depicted her unfairly, showing only her churlish side.

The one-dimensional portrayal taught her “what the game was,” she said. When she re-auditioned two seasons later, “I kind of knew coming back, Cycle 14, how I would be portrayed—as the villain, the bitch,” she said.

She returned for season 14 anyway. With no money and no industry connections, she believed Top Model could help her launch a modeling career. She made it into the top four, and is now back on the show as a member of season 17’s paid, all-star cast.

Recent episodes have caught an outburst or two, notably her eruption following the Mario Lopez interview. But they’ve also shown the hilarious, fun-loving Angelea that her friends know. In one close-up shot, she explained to the audience that she was having trouble posing for a photo in stilts because “I have no muscle.”

“I’m a strong bitch, but I’m a weak bitch,” she said, with the glimmer of a smile in her eyes.

On camera, Angelea looks comfortable. Friends say Top Model has made her tougher, more confident. She has learned to accept criticism. She has become more polished. She still speaks her mind, but tries to avoid fights or saying anything too profane in public.

That, ironically, is why she exploded when the judge criticized her performance with Lopez. She has worked hard to transform herself into a professional.

She’s proud of her fiery character, but she also doesn’t want people to stereotype her as that “loud, ghetto girl.”

“Reality TV is very one-sided, and you have to play characters,” Angelea said, speaking calmly, in the relaxed voice she employs in normal conversation. “There’s a story line, so even though they say it’s reality, it’s not really reality. It’s a fantasy-land.”

“We’re all human, so we all have different emotions,” she added. “But the one the thing about reality is they play on one emotion…There’s so much that people don’t see.”

“It’s my life and it’s my story, and I know there are girls like me who have given up on [their] dream,” Angelea said last month in an interview at Spot Coffee on Elmwood Avenue.

Lips painted hot pink, she was wearing a fitted blazer, forest green skirt, copper tights, and a pair of killer heels. She looked nothing like the self-conscious girl from Hutch Tech who worried so much about what classmates thought of her.

What would they think of her now?

From the East Side, she has made it to New York City.

“The environment that I grew up in, I had so many people telling me, ‘You can’t do this, because you grew up here. You grew up in the ghetto. You don’t have money.’ All these negative things. And when you grow up in an environment like that, your friends are in jail or dead, or you have friends that have three kids [at a young age].”

She owes her life today to her family and friends, the people who have supported her. She is thankful for her mother, a nurse and the family breadwinner, who emphasized education above all else.

In New York City, she has surrounded herself with friends from home. She employs Tim Baldon, 22, an East High School graduate, as her stylist. Michael D’mitri, 24, a Sweet Home High School graduate who grew up on the East Side, acts as her agent.

She misses Buffalo. When she comes home, she likes to grab a cheesesteak at Jim’s Steakout or sit down with a plate of pastitsio at Towne Restaurant on Allen Street.

Like many other expats, Angelea likes to evangelize about her hometown. She can rattle off Western New York trivia. Did you know, she queries, that the area was one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad? Or that President Millard Fillmore resided here? Or that the city hosted the Pan-American Exposition, the World’s Fair?

“I don’t let people dis my city,” she said. “I protect my city…Buffalo made me who I am. My attitude is Buffalo, all day. Goodness. I’m a Buffalo girl. I’m always going to have that Buffalo mentality, that 716 mentality.”

Since her first appearance on America’s Next Top Model, Angelea has returned to Buffalo to participate in community activities. She walked the runway at the 2010 Mercedes-Benz of Buffalo Fashion Week, and spent a day playing and coloring with children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Last month, she flew home to deliver a load of birthday presents—Barbie dolls, play jewelry, a cake—to her niece, who had just turned four.

D’mitri and Baldon say that’s the side of Angelea they want more people to see—Angelea, the role model.

“She has character,” Baldon said. “But the challenge she faces is that she’s on the show, and (designers) look at her as the girl from Top Model, and not Angelea Preston, the model. It really frustrates her because she wants people to look past that.”

As a professional, Angelea has walked in New York Fashion Week; starred in a commercial for Keratin Earth, a haircare product; and acted in Breathe, a film featured at the American Black Film Festival.

Friends say Angelea would rather spend a night indoors playing Mortal Kombat than go out to a party. But to advance her career, she has attended red-carpet events in New York and hosted “Fantasy Wednesdays” at a Miami Beach nightclub.

Angelea isn’t finding steady work yet in modeling or entertainment. But her accomplishments so far are proof that where you come from need not limit who you become.

“I always tell Angie that she’s one of my inspirations,” said D’mitri.

“A lot of people that are coming from inner city communities, they see her and they’re inspired because she’s not someone who got notoriety and then abandoned where they came from…She’s not denying anything of her past, so that’s very motivating,” he said. “I’m proud of her.”

To people like D’mitri and Stannard, both of whom hope to pursue careers outside of Buffalo, Angelea’s successes have made leaving home less intimidating.

In her, they see themselves. She is, after all, the same person she always was.

She carries with her some heavy stories. She has lived in subsidized housing and purchased groceries with food stamps. A few years ago, she was robbed at gunpoint steps from her house. Before her first Top Model shoot, she slept in a Port Authority bus terminal because she couldn’t afford to book a hotel.

At Spot Coffee last month, Angelea reflected on how far she has come.

“I’m the underdog, and there’s a city full of us here,” she said. “So I represent the girls that didn’t think they could win. Success!”

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