Top Model's Autistic Beauty

updated 12/17/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the restaurant of an L.A. hotel, two days after being eliminated from America's Next Top Model, Heather Kuzmich lets her gaze slip off into space. After a long moment, she refocuses. "I'm sorry. My eyes wander. I've been working really hard [to keep eye contact] for a while," says Kuzmich, 21, who has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that hinders social interaction and emotional development. "It's tough love for myself, forcing myself to look people right in the eye. I get nervous, but I have to calm myself down."

The fifth-place contestant says she's thrilled to have been a beacon of "Aspie pride." Growing up, "I was at the bottom of the totem pole," says Kuzmich, who's heading back to school at the Illinois Institute of Art—Chicago (where she has a serious boyfriend) and hopes to continue modeling. "I wanted to be a role model for girls who aren't the most popular and are picked on." One ex-schoolmate posted an online apology for having bullied her. He must have a crush on her now, she jokes: "So that's why you were teasing me!"

Despite some on-air strife, she says she and her fellow models "got along really well." The hardest part was staying poised: "I worked my butt off. It's really hard for it not to seem hard!"

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