Now, for the first time in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Banks, 33, is publicly discussing her much-buzzed-about weight gain. "I get so much mail from young girls who say, 'I look up to you, you're not as skinny as everyone else, I think you're beautiful,' " she says. "So when they say that my body is 'ugly' and 'disgusting,' what does that make those girls feel like?"
As for how Banks feels about her own 5'10" body – which she says is at 161 lbs. these days, about 30 lbs. heavier than when she landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue in 1997 – she says: "I still feel hot, but every day is different. It's when I put on the jeans that used to fit a year ago and don't fit now and give me the muffin top, that's when I say, 'Damn!' "
In other words, yes: She has put on weight, though not nearly as much as those recent tabloid stories suggested. (Banks believes the pix were snapped at an unflattering angle.) "She has a very womanly, gorgeous body that goes up and down," says her good friend Heidi Klum.
In fact, Banks says that since she retired from modeling in 2005, the number on the scale has fluctuated from 148 lbs. to 162 lbs., depending on how well she is taking care of herself. "I feel more comfortable when I'm lighter – I sleep better, I snore less, I have more endurance when I work out, my arms look better," she admits.
Still, she isn't freaking out about wearing size 32-waist jeans or about "the fat roll" she claims to have on her back. (Her biggest source of figure angst is her size-DD breasts, which she says make it hard to find clothes that fit: "I would love for them to be a size and a half smaller.")
But, she adds, "I've made millions of dollars with the body I have, so where's the pain in that? If I was in pain, I would have dieted. The pain is not there – the pain is someone printing a picture of me and saying those (horrible) things."
In fact, it appears that by adding a little padding, Banks the businesswoman has earned a bit of credibility: Her talk show is now entering its second season, and the most recent season of Top Model delivered its strongest ratings ever. "(TV execs) think it's better when I'm at 155 lbs. – at 145, they feel I'm not as relatable," she explains.
Besides, Banks is having a lot more fun these days eating the pancakes off a friend's plate at IHOP than trying to fit into designer sample sizes. Of course, if someone would come up with a miracle cure for cellulite, she's not above admitting she'd be first in line. "I think every woman," she says, "would want to do something about their cellulite!"www.people.com