Q+A: Kiara Belen
The former UC-Irvine player talks hoops and modeling.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
Kiara Belen was dubbed “Renaissance Woman” during her stint at the University of California, Irvine, and for good reason. The young woman can do it all, and after a four-year career on the hardwood playing for the Anteaters, Belen has made a seamless transition from hoops to the runway.
With basketball in her hindsight, Belen has her sights set on a successful modeling career, which has gotten off to a great start thanks to her casting on the newest season of America’s Top Model.
SLAMonline recently caught up with Kiara to discuss her new career direction and the similarities between basketball and modeling.
SLAM: How did you make the transition from hoops to modeling?
Kiara Belen: Well, it wasn’t easy. Basically I knew that modeling was something that I always wanted to do. I’ve always been that “girly-girl” off the court, but on the court, if anyone has seen me play, I’m a defensive specialist and I like to play rough. People always call me “beast” on the court and I play like a guy, but I was always able to distinguish between those two things. I like being a girl, but I also love basketball and the game, I don’t play like a girl. After the season was over, I realized this is it for me. I’m done playing basketball, I’m about to graduate and it was time to move on to different things.
My grandmother actually saw that Tyra [Banks] was taking applications online for America’s Next Top Model. She said, “You should do it, you’d be great and blah blah blah.” I didn’t think much of it because I wanted to finish up school before I tried anything. I figured I’d just do the online application so I did one and it was really quick and nothing crazy. They got back to me via e-mail and said they wanted to see more pictures. At first I thought it was a joke but I sent the pictures anyway and then I got a phone call. They invited me to the first audition and I made the first cut and from then on, they were interested and then I was a semi-finalist and I made it to the first show where there were 30 semi-finalists where we competed to get one of the 13 spots in the house and I ended up getting a spot in the house.
I was still fresh off basketball season so I was pretty big and buff so they told me to lean out and don’t do any push-ups or anything and have your workout regimen focused on jogging. I went on a diet and I lost most of my muscle mass—nothing unhealthy—I have a small frame anyway so once I lost that muscle mass, I was more model-esque. But I do still miss basketball and I do still play pickup all the time and run with my girls or guys either way because I miss the sport, but modeling is the direction I want to go in and follow any other opportunity that comes from this show.
SLAM: So did you have any prior experience in modeling?
KB: I had no prior experience in modeling but it was something that I always wanted to do. If I showed you baby pictures, I was always posing and I’ve always walked like a model. My mom kind of walks the same way, so I guess I picked it up from her. Everyone would always make fun of me, asking, “Why do you walk like that on the basketball court?” And I would respond, Look that’s the way I walk, I’m not going to change it, that’s the way I walk, that’s me.
So I get on the show and it worked in my favor, the judges were surprised that I didn’t have any experience. You can tell in the beginning when people watch the show the lack of experience I had but as it continued, people were commenting on the pictures and saying that she’s improving and I think my athleticism and being on a basketball team helped with my competitive nature and being coachable. It was definitely an experience that I’ll never forget and now I can say that I have experience and that I learned from some of the best and I was shot by some of the best photographers and met some of the best people in the industry. It was definitely a blessing.
SLAM: You said you were very coachable, were there any similarities or parallels between the game of basketball and modeling?
KB: Absolutely. For one, this was a competition so even though I may not have had a lot of modeling experience, a competition is a competition. The game of basketball itself and the life lessons you learn like dedication and hard work and perseverance carry over to everything you do in life. For me, you just had to tell me something once and I’ll get it, and that comes from playing basketball. I’ve been playing basketball my whole life, so you gotta be quick and understand what you’re being told.
I think I had a lot of body control because I’m an athlete, if you tell me to do something with a certain part of my body, I’ll be able to nail it. I think that gave me a little bit of edge, just having that athleticism and athletic ability and the strength and composure to get through some of these photo shoots and really the whole competition. I can’t talk about how far I went, but I can say being an athlete definitely helped me and I was the “athlete” of the house and they had never had that before and I thought that was pretty cool.
SLAM: Tell me why you were called a renaissance woman during college?
KB: I was called a renaissance woman because I also sing. I sang the National Anthem before one of our basketball games and from that point on everyone said, “Wow, you are very talented.” I’ve always wanted to do something in the entertainment industry, but I knew that my degree was very important and school was very important to me and I wanted to graduate college. I promised my grandparents and my brothers and sisters and once I got a scholarship, I wanted to do that, but college came first. In the meantime, I was still doing a little performances for my friends, nothing I got paid for as a professional performer.
I love to sing and I love performing, that’s just who I am. Basketball games are a lot like performance. Practice is like your rehearsal and once the game is on and people are watching, that’s your time to shine. I kind of took that drive and love for performing and put it on the basketball court until I could do something different and that’s exactly what I’m doing now. They called me that because I like to sing and I like to act, so putting all that together and being a part of the basketball team was why the school gave me the name “Renaissance Woman.”
SLAM: What can we expect this year’s edition of America’s Next Top Model?
KB: You can expect something entirely different. They called this the “Remodeled Edition” because it’s the college edition and they have never had one of these before. Everything is bigger and better than any of the previous seasons. This is season 19, so they wanted to do something to spice it up. We got a whole new group of judges, Tyra’s still there obviously. The prize package is bigger than it’s ever been. You can definitely expect a very exciting season and something people will look forward to watching every week.