[caption id="attachment_25563" align="aligncenter" width="576"] The Addition Elle #ihavegreatgenes finalists with the judges.[/caption] I was fortunate to spend the day with the five finalists in the Additional Elle #ihavegreatgenes Model Contest, held recently in New York. It was such an inspiring day, and I came away in awe of these young women’s compassion, tolerance and resilience. They have all experienced immense personal challenges, yet they have chosen to forge on with optimism and admirable persistence. It was truly an honour to spend a little time with them—and a real difficult task for me, and my fellow judges, to select only one winner. Here are some of the highlights from my “five-minute” chats with the women at the photo shoot. (For behind-the-scenes video, click here.) To find out who won, read on... First up… the winner, Cassandra Castillo [caption id="attachment_25565" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Cassandra Castillo won the Addition ELLE #ihavegreatgenes contest.[/caption] This 22-year-old New Yorker from East Elmhurst has a gentle manner but an inner strength that is formidable. She’s studying science at university and hopes to become a pediatrician. When I asked her what kind of role model she wants to be, her answer was understated but, as you’ll learn in a moment, powerful. “I want people to know that even if they encounter a bump in the road, they can get through it. Everyone has a story, and that story can inspire others.” The “bump” that Cassandra is referring to happened when she was just 14: She lost her sister and, two years later, her mother. “My sister was 24 when she died,” she says. “She wasn’t around good people, and she took an overdose. My mom suffered from depression after that. She never got over the loss of my sister. Depression definitely runs in my family; I’ve been through it, and that’s why I know I have to be confident and strong. I don’t have time to fall into that trap of feeling that I have to lose weight to fit in.” Cassandra says that participating in the Addition Elle model contest has been a turning point for her. “I’ve always been full size, but entering this contest changed how I view myself,” she says. “I thought I’d just give it a shot. I was amazed when I was picked for the final five. I’m so appreciative of this experience. I accept that I have curves. I know that if I’m not confident, I won’t be able to show the beauty that is inside of me.” I then asked her what her dream model moment would be: “I would like to be shot in Italy or Paris; I’d be wearing shoes with red bottoms—and something from Lanvin. I saw this dress on Madison Avenue that had butterflies on it. I’m drawn to butterflies because, for me, they symbolize faith and hope. They’re often in twos when I see them, which makes me think of my sister and my mother. I feel like they’re with me.” Cassandra also won a $1,000 shopping spree at Addition Elle and a photo shoot for the Addition Elle Summer 2014 Lookbook, plus a chance to win a modelling contract with the JAG agency in NYC. Check out my "Five-minute" chats with the other amazing finalists tomorrow! Read more Five minutes with... Plus-size fashion blogger, Gabi Gregg Can using different types of models benefit brands? What's it really like to be a plus-size model?