Graham became the first-ever size-16 model to grace the swimsuit issue’s cover in February — 20 years after Tyra Banks became the first-ever African American woman to nab the coveted cover.
PEOPLE caught up with Graham, 28, ahead of the Monday premiere of the hit modeling competition series’ cycle 23 revival, and the supermodel revealed it was her SI cover that initially sparked the relationship between her and Banks, ANTM‘s former host and original creator.
“Tyra reached out to me at the beginning of the year when my SI cover came out [to congratulate me],” said Graham. “It was amazing!”
“I think what’s so great is that Tyra has realized that times have changed in the modeling industry,” she continued. “It’s really about being a boss, a brand and a businesswoman — hence why it’s a whole new crew, a whole new cast and a whole new vibe. It’s like the same concept, but on another level! If you were obsessed with ANTM back in the day, you’re going to be even more obsessed now.”
Banks, who will continue executive-producing the series, is being replaced by Rita Ora as host of the competition — and according to Graham, the British pop star brought a whole new vibe to set.
“Rita did a really great job,” said Graham. “She created a new voice and something that is very Rita-esque.”
And while Ora quipped to PEOPLE that Graham is the “tough” judge, the supermodel explained that the feedback she provided the girls with was always aimed towards helping them improve.
“I’ve been given a ton of criticism over the course of 16, 17 years and some of it’s been really hurtful and some of it’s been very helpful,” she said. “Any criticism I’ve given the girls it’s been to help and to encourage them to get to a bigger and better place. I think if I would have just heard ‘Yes’ my whole life, then I wouldn’t be as strong-willed and as courageous as I am today, so that’s what I instilled in these girls who really felt like my little sisters.”
“I really enjoyed one-on-one time with the girls,” she continued. “In one episode, I go into their house and I had the best time eating and chatting and talking through different scenarios with every single one of the girls. I almost wanted to move in with them!”
And according to Graham, the women are pushed to their limit and put through some pretty intense challenges this season, all in an attempt to best prepare them for their future.
“We put them into these scenarios because at the end of the day, you might be thrown into this on the set of Italian Vogue with Steven Meisel one day,” she explained. “You have to be ready for anything.”
At the end of the day, Graham wants the contestants to continue working in the modeling industry even after the show is over — and even if they don’t win.
“Just because you didn’t win ANTM doesn’t mean you can’t be a supermodel outside of the show,” she said. “I think that we’ve given these girls valuable lessons that they’ll be able to apply in any scenario of the fashion world.”
In fact, she “100 percent” believes that some of the contestants will continue modeling afterwards — after all, this is “one of the best groups of girls that ANTM has ever had.”
And Graham is hopeful that curvy girls will get to compete alongside straight-size models on the show at some point in the not-so-distant future, too.
“I think that mixing in curvy and straight size is the way to go,” she said. “Because that’s only going to accelerate being curvy and being bigger in the industry as more of a norm.”
As for Graham herself? She’s got her eyes set on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
“I think that I’m proving that curves on the runway are a desire and are necessary just by having my own lingerie show the last two years,” she said. “It’s been wildly successful and I think that not only do people want to see ultra-curvy women on the runway, but it’s encouraging to know what you look like in the mirror and see that in real life on the runway.”
When the famous annual fashion show will be ready for her, however, remains up in the air.
“You know, I don’t know when anybody is going to do anything,” she said. “But I do think that now is the time. You can’t expect anybody to just jump on the bandwagon of body positivity because there are so many people talking about it — but your hope and desire is that everybody does.”
The new season of ANTM premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET on VH1.