Tyra Banks has announced who’s “on top” for the final time.
Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen the cycle 22 finale of America’s Next Top Model, the results will be revealed ahead. For those who have seen the episode, read on for PEOPLE’s exclusive first interview with the winner.
History had already been made when Nyle DiMarco was selected as ANTM‘s first Deaf contestant. Now the 26-year-old has done it again by becoming the modeling competition’s first Deaf winner – and its final Top Model ever.
DiMarco tells PEOPLE: “Being a Deaf person on a television show alone is pretty groundbreaking, so it felt incredible just to be on the show – but to win it was amazing!”
With his piercing blue eyes and sculpted abs, DiMarco performed consistently well throughout the photo shoots, which had him posing with live animals, as a doll and in the dark.
“My proudest moment would be the picture of me with the husky,” he says. “It was basically the first time I was clothed for a shoot, and I won the best photo. That photo proved that there is more to me than just my body – there’s my ability to blend into clothes, my modeling skills and my ad-worthiness.”
An outdoor photo shoot in pitch-black darkness proved to be extra difficult for DiMarco.
“I’m Deaf, but shooting in the dark also made me blind!” he says. “I’ve never been so frustrated in my life because I knew that I could do it.”
While DiMarco usually excelled in front of the camera, he found the times when he was not modeling to be the most challenging.
“The competition, and especially living with the models in the house, was undoubtedly a lot of fun, but it was also pretty tough,” he says. “The inability to use my language, American Sign Language, and the lack of communication, information access and the general connection to the world was difficult.”
“It truly did take a toll on me mentally,” he continues. “I even cringe now when I watch myself on ANTM being all alone.”
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Despite the isolation he often had to deal with, DiMarco wanted to remain on the show to represent Deaf people in a positive light.
“I wanted to take advantage of the platform, not only to prove that I’m the best but also to educate and prove to the world what Deaf people are capable of,” he says. “So I kept a smile on my face and had positive thoughts.”
That positivity led him all the way to the final runway show to face off against the top girl model, Mamé Adjei.
“I remember at the beginning of ANTM, I immediately identified Mamé as my biggest competition,” he says. “It’s funny how my first instinct was right after all.”
DiMarco hopes his success on the show can be an inspiration to other people in the Deaf community.
“I hope that my win inspires the Deaf community to start pursuing their desired careers,” he says. “There are so many talented Deaf people that the world needs and can benefit from.”
DiMarco – who was named one of PEOPLE’s Sexiest Men on Instagram – plans to continue to pursue modeling and act in commercials and movies.
“I want to continue to show my skills in the modeling world and entertainment industry,” he says.