By Elaine Aradillas
March 23, 2009 12:00 PM

Sure, the temperature in Phoenix can top 110°, but for most of her youth Tahlia Brookins refused to go outside without her body covered in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. “I spent many years hiding myself,” she says. At 8 months old, Brookins accidentally pulled a coffee pot off a kitchen counter; the scalding hot liquid left second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body, earning her the cruel nickname “Burnt Waffle” from classmates. “Kids thought I had diseases. They avoided me,” she recalls. But in high school, her volleyball coach’s insistence on shorts got her over “being ashamed,” Brookins says—and helped her say yes when her father suggested she try out for America’s Next Top Model. “Her beauty,” says the show’s host, Tyra Banks, “is matched by her inner strength.” And even if a modeling career isn’t in her future, Brookins, 18—who has endured 14 surgeries to treat her wounds—says learning to embrace her body is her real triumph. “As much as I hated my scars for so long,” she says, “now I love them.”