Jack Zeman/Lifetime Television; Warner Bros/Everett
January 17, 2015 07:40 PM

Whitney Houston is one of the most recognizable singers in the history of music, so Yaya DaCosta did not take it lightly when she was cast to portray the icon in the Lifetime movie Whitney.

“I initially wanted to become her exactly. I was just set to do everything in my power to make the audience almost forget that they weren’t really watching Whitney,” the former America’s Next Top Model contestant, 32, tells PEOPLE. “But then I realized that I only had a few days to prepare. It was more important to try and capture her essence than to go crazy because that could have come across as a mockery.”

So just how did DaCosta capture Houston’s essence?

1. She pulled from her own modeling history.
“Whitney modeled too and that really informs the way you carry yourself,” says DaCosta, who was the runner-up in cycle 3 of the Tyra Banks-hosted reality competition and was the face of a Tom Ford campaign in 2014. “Even when she wasn’t modeling, she looked like a model on stage. And she was so elegant in her music videos.”

2. She worked on her voice – but not in the way you would think!
Though DaCosta lip-synced to recordings of Houston’s songs sung by Deborah Cox, the actress still wanted to make sure she sounded like the “I Will Always Love You” singer.

“I went to my voice coach,” she says. “I didn’t want to imitate her but I kind of tried to swallow her rhythm. I tend to speak slowly. She spoke quickly.”

3. She practiced her smile.
“Not just how much Whitney smiled, but the way she smiled – it was with her whole being,” says DaCosta. “It’s not like I don’t love to smile but you don’t always see all my teeth.”

4. She perfected her poses.
“When she was singing, there were specific things where she would pat her hips and hold the mic a certain way,” DaCosta says of Houston. “Her fingers had a lot of life in them. They would kind of flicker. She was like a hummingbird.”

5. She found similarities in their backgrounds.
“We’re both from the east coast. We both grew up slender girls in the African-American community, that can affect your psyche,” says DaCosta. “She was also spiritual and strong on the outside but vulnerable on the inside. These were things that I saw in her that I completely understood.”

Whitney premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime.

Whitney Houston: A Musical Timeline

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