By Mary Margaret
Updated September 15, 2014 10:05 PM
Credit: Greg Gayne/FOX

Since May, this season’s crop of MasterChef hopefuls have been thrown a lot of curveballs.

Making a dozen immaculate donuts, elevating canned food, baking three pies in two hours and sculpting a croquembouche – basically a tower of cream puffs bound by caramel – in ninety minutes were just a handful of the heart-racing challenges.

On Monday night, a new winner of the hit Fox reality competition rose up from the sweat and tears in the kitchen: Courtney Lapresi, 25.

Sassy from the start, Lapresi, in her trademark, sky-high heels, proved you can be fashionable – and fierce – in the kitchen.

She talks to PEOPLE about why she’s not ashamed of the past and what her win means for her future.

What was it like hearing Chef Gordon Ramsay proclaim you the winner?
I basically exploded with emotion and pride. I was absolutely surprised and in shock.

You were always a frontrunner, but had some bumps along the way. Was the competition getting to you?
The two places I struggled – the donut challenge and the restaurant challenge – was me focusing so much on what winning meant to me that I had this fear that got in the way. But I gave myself a pep talk: “This is how you win. This is how to change your life.” So I made a comeback each time.

You were very open about having worked at a gentleman’s club prior to being on the show. Was that hard for you to divulge on national television?
At that point in my life, it wasn’t just about paying for school. I needed to survive, pay my rent and pay [for] my food. I had gotten to the point where I was cutting mold off of bread just to have something to eat. I was well aware of the consequences and I’m proud of myself. I don’t think I have done anything I would regret. I’m a strong, resilient person and people come to MasterChef to change their lives.

Besides winning, what was your proudest moment on the show?
I gotta say, I couldn’t wait for my mom to see the croquembouche challenge. You have no idea! My whole life, my mom talked about a croquembouche and how to make the spun sugar. It was like the holy grail. I was waiting for that my whole life.

We have to talk about your heels. How do you cook in those!?
We usually sneak a pair of flats in our drawers. My flats were always there, but I somehow made it through without changing my shoes. They were a part of me. I actually did feel more comfortable in them. They made me move with more direction because you can’t mess up and you can’t fall. And they made me stand out!

You are working on your new cookbook. But if you could write your happy ending, what else would you want to accomplish?
I have this perfect world fantasy where I have a small bakery that I live above. And I become successful enough that I create a business I can pass down to my family. They’ve really done so much for me. I want to take all of my food goals and dreams and turn it into something I can give back to them. I’m ready to do incredible things. The sky is the limit.

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