Jennifer Armstrong
January 16, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is swarming with military uniforms — Navy dress whites, Marine dress blues, some Army greens. Men and women armed with headsets and walkie-talkies guard the starboard staircase. Inside the canvas tent on the bow, where a dozen new recruits prepare for their first battle, it’s dead silent — save for the incessant hiss of hairspray cans. One woman with alabaster skin and shockingly green eyes (read: contacts) is securing her helmet of black hair with bobby pins; another coffee-skinned stunner slips into stiletto boots. Pacing among them is a giant man in a black velour warm-up suit and black cap — J. Alexander, a.k.a. the Runway Diva. He swings a stopwatch, admonishing ”Ticktock, ticktock.”

The time has come for these hotties to prove themselves — and for ”America’s Next Top Model,” which premieres Jan. 13 at 9 p.m., to do the same. Supermodel Tyra Banks’ cattiness-on-the-catwalk reality series struck a surprising hit pose for struggling UPN last summer. Now it’s gearing up for a midseason attack, starting with a surprise fashion show for military, police, and firefighters on the U.S.S. ”Intrepid,” a carrier-turned-museum in Manhattan.

Judging by the mix of viewer-hooking fatales, the season appears to be off to a good start. There’s Florida Fortune 500 account exec and NYU grad April Wilkner, 23, who says, ”I’ve never done any professional photo shoots. I have no clue what I’m doing here.” And Anna Bradfield, 24, a married Georgia mom with seriously sculpted eyebrows, a resume full of catalog work, and an honest assessment of herself: ”I can be a drama queen.” And Bethany Harrison, 22, a Texas waitress who loves first-season winner Adrianne Curry for her laid-back attitude. ”I’m very sarcastic,” she says, ”and I just hope these girls can take a joke.”

We’re hoping they can’t — as is Banks, who promises a repeat of last season’s personality clashes. ”I was getting stopped everywhere I went, not to get my autograph but to say, ‘Ooh, girl, what’s gonna happen?”’ says Banks. You can also expect the same skin-baring fashion, albeit with a touch more haute in the couture. ”The first season I was nervous about making it too edgy in terms of the photo shoots,” Banks says. ”This season we’re going to do high fashion, the kind of fashion people are going to love or hate or not understand.”

As the runway battle heats up, some recruits already have a clear advantage. Blond Minnesotan Catie Anderson, 18, is among the first to be ready for the fashion show, with plenty of time to calmly address the camera: ”It’s really an honor to put on a show for New York’s Finest and to be here with the Runway Diva,” she says. The admiration is mutual: When the Diva himself scans the crowd of frantically primping hopefuls he’s initially nonplussed. ”No one stands out for me right now,” he says, before spotting Anderson and quickly changing his mind: ”I found one.”

Jenascia Chakos, on the other hand — who arrived a day earlier wearing a Wonder Woman wristband — is feeling a little less super today. ”I’m nervous,” the 21-year-old admits before hitting the runway. ”I dressed myself. That’s a good start.”

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