It didn't take long for the contestants in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search to realize what they were up against. In the opening episode of the NBC reality show--in which undiscovered models competed for a spread in this year's Swimsuit Issue and a $1 million modeling contract--the 12 contestants were enjoying a giggly dinner in their posh living quarters, an opulent Malibu estate, when a man entered bearing a packet of instructions for the group. Immediately springing across the dining table, like a vulture descending on roadkill, was 19-year-old Alicia Hall, who snatched the packet from the man's hands. "We were all thinking, Whoa, this girl really wants this," says runner-up Shannon Hughes. "From the moment I met her, I could see the determination in her eyes to win."
Snob, pain in the ass, a diva: These were some of the unflattering things said about Hall by the judges and her fellow contestants. "People think I'm rude and stuck up, but they don't know where I'm coming from," says Hall, who bossed around extras during a photo shoot and told the other competitors that she wasn't interested in forming friendships. "I've lived a pretty hard life, and I'm determined to succeed."
Hall's first memory of her childhood is set on a Nevada lakeshore. "I was three years old, and all of us--my mom, my sisters, my brother and I--lived in a station wagon that was parked near the water," she says. By the time she was four, state social services had taken her from her mother, and since then Hall has been shuttling from her foster parents to friends and relatives in North Carolina, Oklahoma and Las Vegas, where she's been working as a freelance website designer while modeling in local fashion shows.
Hall, who hasn't been in a schoolroom since the eighth grade, remembers wanting to be a model at an early age. Her older sister, Tracey, pursued modeling until she became pregnant and had a child when she was 16. "I want to carry on her dream," says Hall.
Last summer Hall heard about SI's model-search contest. She was one of 3,000 women who entered, submitting a video about herself to representatives from SI and NEXT Model Management. Hall made that cut and was one of 30 who were flown out to Los Angeles in August for face-to-face meetings with judges; a month later she heard that she'd been picked for the six-episode reality show. Each week judges cut contestants from the show.
In September the final three were flown to Bora Bora for their own full-scale photo shoot with SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr. There, the field was narrowed to two finalists--Hall and Hughes, a secretary and part-time model from Dallas--and they squared off in a national poll that decided the winner. On Feb. 4 in Hollywood, Hall learned that she was America's choice. "To go from nothing to this in so little time," she says, "it's amazing." --Albert Chen